April, 2013: After reading Independent People, I wasn't ready to start another novel. As with all good things, I needed some time for it to sink in: "Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested", says Francis Bacon in his essay Of Studies...that's the old Francis Bacon, not the new one (and that's paraphrasing Rambling Jack Elliot,: "That's the old Jimmie Rodgers, not the new one"). So to absorb the full benefit of Independent People, I held off from another novel, instead reading a few of Charles Fenner's lovely, short essays about Australia - limestone cocoons and basalt plains - and began The English Essay (1939), which Andy bought for a dollar at Bathurst Salvos.
In Cowra at my grandfather's old house, I pulled out a book whose spine has always intrigued me - The Little Grey Men by 'BB' (1942). It turned out to be a children's novel about the last four remaining gnomes in England. I've always loved gnomes and all the Little People, so I was very happy to keep reading.
Three gnomes, Dodder, Baldmoney and Sneezewort, journey up their stream, the Folly, in search of their fellow gnome Cloudberry, who was stricken by wanderlust a year or more ago and has not been seen since. The woods, the stream, the seasons, birds, creatures and plants, are minutely observed. It feels like the author's lost landscape, a countryside he sees in memories and dreams; often one needs distance to see something vividly. The date of publication - in the middle of World War II - adds poignancy to these loving portraits of innocent places.
It's a book about the natural world, written at a time when the human world was particularly ugly. In The Little Grey Men, the human world is kept on the peripheries; people are dangerous, and must be avoided, but foxes and huge pikes are more of a threat to the travelling gnomes. I welcome an escape into the non-human world. It is one of those healthy and constructive escapes, as opposed to a head-in-the-sand escape. Books like this encourage readers to revere the natural world, and protect it.