Slightly Foxed Cubs is a series of reissues of classic children’s books which will, we feel, strike a nostalgic chord with many older readers and introduce a younger generation to writers whose marvellous books have, unaccountably, been allowed to slip out of print.
BB’s The Little Grey Men, Down the Bright Stream and Brendon Chase, including their original black-and-white illustrations, are available to order as a set in a new limited (un-numbered) cloth-bound edition of 2,000.
The Little Grey Men
The last gnomes in England – Dodder, Baldmoney, Sneezewort and Cloudberry – are living contentedly in Warwickshire, in a burrow beneath the roots of an aged oak tree on the banks of the Folly Brook. Contentedly, that is, until Cloudberry becomes obsessed with the idea of exploring the world beyond the riverbank and sets off alone, ignoring his brothers’ fears and warnings. Two years later he has not returned and Baldmoney and Sneezewort decide they must look for him. But Dodder at first refuses to go with them, and so with heavy hearts the two gnomes set off upstream in their boat the Dragonfly, leaving him behind.
So begins a heroic quest to find their missing brother. Before the four gnomes are finally reunited they confront shipwreck, starvation and their worst enemy – Man – in the form of the terrifying gamekeeper Giant Grum, with his ‘stick that roars’ and his horrifying gibbet on which hang the corpses of some of their animal friends.
Down the Bright Stream
The last gnomes in England are woken from a long winter sleep in their snug burrow beneath the roots of an ancient oak tree, to find their world collapsing. The Folly Brook, beside which they have lived for five hundred years, and on which they and their animal friends depend, is being diverted to supply water for a new reservoir and is drying up. Man is beginning to destroy the idyllic English countryside.
In The Little Grey Men the gnomes made a heroic journey upstream in search of their lost brother Cloudberry. Now they set out once again on the Folly in search of a new home, sailing downstream towards the big river and the sea. It’s a perilous journey as they move from one temporary base to another, taking refuge in a disused mill and in a friendly badger’s sett. Before their journey is done the Jeanie Deans will have been sunk and one of them will have come to a nasty end. Will the remaining gnomes finally find an unspoilt home?
Faced with the end of the holidays and the prospect of school, who hasn’t dreamt of running away to the woods to live wild as a badger, to hunt and forage like a woodsman, to tread as softly and cautiously as a fox through the undergrowth? In Brendon Chase, this is precisely what three boys do. At the end of the Easter holidays, Robin, John and Harold Hensman escape their aunt’s house and go to live in an eleven-thousand-acre forest. It’s a marvellous idea.
Brendon Chase was first published in 1944 but is set roughly thirty years earlier. There’s a wonderful cast of pre-war English village characters: a fussy maiden aunt, a butterfly-collecting vicar and a rather hapless policeman and his bicycle, among others. None of the grown-ups believe the boys will make it past teatime, or nightfall, or the end of the week. Needless to say, the brothers outwit them all. With remarkable resourcefulness, they last till just after Christmas, living in a hollow oak tree and spending their days hunting for their supper, swimming in the Blind Pool and playing tricks on all who come searching for them.
The book is also full of finely observed detail from the natural world, beautifully captured in BB’s illustrations. We discover which trees the rare Purple Emperor butterfly prefers, and how it is quite impossible to kill a hedgehog, even for a hungry teenage boy: ‘they looked so comical when they ran along and their little eyes were full of intelligence’. BB captures the freedom and simplicity of childhood without idealizing it (the brothers squabble and worry, and they crave the sweet things of Aunt Ellen’s kitchen).
Brendon Chase is one of the great children’s books, a bewitching blend of adventure and natural history, high jinks and skilled bushcraft – just the thing for anyone who has caught themselves eyeing up the nearest patch of woodland and wondering what fun might lie there.
* * *
Denys Watkins-Pitchford (1905–90), who wrote under the pseudonym ‘BB’, was the author of more than sixty books for adults and children. BB was both a writer and illustrator, and his charming original illustrations decorate these books. But above all he was a countryman, whose intimate and unsentimental knowledge of animals, birds and plants, as well as his gifts as a storyteller, make these books unique.
Growing up in a rural Northamptonshire rectory and thought too delicate to go to school, BB roamed the countryside alone. His nostalgic evocation of the unwrecked England of his childhood, inhabited by the last survivors of an ancient and characterful tribe of small people who live in total harmony with their surroundings, is magical.
‘There can be few other combinations of text and illustration that work so harmoniously, revealing such a powerful imagination and such an intimate relationship with the minutiae of the natural world’ Helena Drysdale
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