Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: The debt I owe to Dodder, Baldmoney and Sneezewort

 

A A A

Our initial encounters with real stories, with fully formed characters and narrative, can shape us for many years to come, and recently I was put in mind of the first story, the first proper book, with which I completely engaged.

It was an epic, in the old-fashioned, precise sense of the term: a long account of heroic adventures. But it was not large-scale, in the way that The Iliad and The Odyssey are large-scale epics, mainly because its heroes were gnomes.

It was called The Little Grey Men, and its author signed himself merely by initials: "BB". (I discovered many years later that BB's real name was Denys Watkins-Pitchford.) I opened it when I was seven years old, and was from the first page lost in the world of its principal characters, Dodder, Baldmoney and Sneezewort (all, by the way, named after rather uncommon English wildflowers).

They were very small people, about a foot or 18 inches tall, with long flowing beards; Dodder, the oldest, had a wooden leg. But they were different from the sort of gnomes you might expect to come across in the genre of High Fantasy which has so obsessed us for the past decade, in Harry Potter and The Lord of The Rings and their imitators. They had no magical powers. They were grounded not in fantasy, but in realism.

Although they were able to converse with the wild creatures around them – the author's one concession to the idea of gnomic difference – they lived, and struggled to live, in the world just as we do, concerned about finding enough food, and keeping warm. But there was more: they were a dying race. They were the last gnomes left in England.

I remember the shiver I experienced when I first read those words. I think it was an inchoate sense, even in a boy of seven, of the transfixing nature of the end of things. It was clear that they could not survive the creeping urbanisation, and the modernisation of agriculture which even then – the book was written in 1942 – were spreading across the countryside. They were anachronisms. The world had moved on from them. Like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, their time was done.

So much the braver, then, their decision to undertake a great adventure, to make an expedition to find their long-lost brother Cloudberry – ah, Cloudberry! So sad! – who had never returned after setting out one day to discover the source of the small Warwickshire river, the Folly Brook, on the banks of which they lived, in the capacious roots of an oak tree.

I was wholly captivated by their quest, and by its unexpected dénouement; just as I was captivated by Down the Bright Stream, the sequel, which I asked for and was given for Christmas the following year, when I was eight. In the second book, the gnomes' existential crisis reaches its climax; they address it in a most original way, ultimately successfully.

Ever since, I have carried something of their saga with me, but it's not simply the story. It has been something I internalised, in my Merseyside suburban home, at the very first reading: the milieu in which the adventures take place. It is the very opposite of the milieu of The Lord of The Rings, with its Dark Lords and wizards, its fortresses and mountains, its vast clashing armies; it is merely Warwickshire, leafy Warwickshire, Shakespeare's county. There's no Mount Doom with its volcanic fires, merely the Folly Brook, with its kingfishers and otters and minnows, an unsentimental view of a small and intimate and charming countryside, with its small and intimate and charming creatures. And there it is, there is how I have been shaped, since the age of seven: it is a vision of England, and I have loved it all my life.

m.mccarthy@independent.co.uk; twitter.com/@mjpmccarthy

Voices
Lucerne’s Hotel Château Gütsch, one of the lots in our Homeless Veterans appeal charity auction
charity appeal
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) after his son Olly disappeared on a family holiday in France
tv
News
people

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Nabil Bentaleb (centre) celebrates putting Tottenham ahead
footballTottenham 4 Newcastle 0: Spurs fans dreaming of Wembley final after dominant win
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice candidates Roisin Hogan, Solomon Akhtar, Mark Wright, Bianca Miller, Daniel Lassman
tvReview: But which contestants got the boot?
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
News
i100
Travel
Tourists bask in the sun beneath the skyscrapers of Dubai
travelBritish embassy uses social media campaign to issue travel advice for festive holiday-makers in UAE
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established media firm based in Surrey is ...

Ashdown Group: Java Developer - Hertfordshire - £47,000 + bonus + benefits

£40000 - £470000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: Java Developer / J2EE Devel...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - Nationwide - OTE £65,000

£30000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small technology business ...

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum
France's Front National and the fear of a ‘gay lobby’ around Marine Le Pen

Front National fear of ‘gay lobby’

Marine Le Pen appoints Sébastien Chenu as cultural adviser
'Enhanced interrogation techniques?' When language is distorted to hide state crimes

Robert Fisk on the CIA 'torture report'

Once again language is distorted in order to hide US state wrongdoing
Radio 1’s new chart host must placate the Swifties and Azaleans

Radio 1 to mediate between the Swifties and Azaleans

New chart host Clara Amfo must placate pop's fan armies
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'It's life, and not the Forces, that gets you'

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'It's life, and not the Forces, that gets you'

The head of Veterans Aid on how his charity is changing perceptions of ex-servicemen and women in need