Jan 07

those norton twins vs your DIRRTY BRANE

FT + The Brown Wedge4 comments • 762 views

bedknobi. in andre n’s general conception of our far future, there is a galactic federation coming to pieces, with a severe class system — the proper mode of address for the pampered aristo class (male) = “gentle homo
ii. in bedknob-zah and broomstick-zah — in the big-hit wake of half a sixpence, my fair lady, chitty chitty bb, and mary poppins, the weird real-disney-fake-cockney er “reimagining” of mary n’s not really-a-classic-at-all bedknob and broomstick, the following exchange occurs:
angela lansbury: “and with this bed you can wish yourself to london!”
fake cockney child: “what’s that got to do with me knob?
iii. i didn’t reread mary n’s the borrowers until now bcz of major fear-of-twee — yes yes it is abt v.small people who subsist on the stuff we big humans leave lying around, like pins and thimbles uh oh etc — and bcz in the one i remember BEST (borrowers aloft) they settle in a model village (which i admittedly found very satisfying aged 10 but latterly struck me as somehow a bit pat and smug). Anyway on rereading the first two (the borrowers and the borrowers afield) you quickly grasp that mn’s most effective technique is the amount of story-edge she leaves mysterious and untold (like what happened, or didn’t, to Arrietty’s grim-warning-of-a-dreamy-cousin Eggletina, eaten by the cat for not taking the Rules seriously).

Also that the abiding atmosphere — which i doubt i noticed back in the day — is a sense of melancholy. Loss of a way of life, in fact an entire system: Arrietty’s father, Pod, is an artisan — a tailor-shoemaker — but the social economy that kept him employed (a busy and orderly human household, complete with servants, which could sustain a substantial micro-ecology of Borrower families) has dwindled. Now it’s just one tipsy old lady, her housekeeper and gardener — otherwise the big house is deserted, which great for NOT BEING SEEN but not so great for there behing stuff to borrow. Pod and his wife Homily soldier stubbornly on, but Arrietty, 14 and never been kissed — as well as being clever, literate and emo diary-writing — is LONELY. And it’s weirdly evident — give or take that this is 1950s kidlit, so sex doesn’t officially exist — that Pod and Homily’s real terror is Arrietty will meet and SECRETLY DATE a human bean, which is of course what happens.

Which makes the underlying energy the tension between Arrietty’s utter love for her parents — who in turn adore and admire her — and her impatience with their timidity and social conservatism. By contrast, Eggletina’s parents — rather marvellously named Hendreary and Lupy — seem somehow more raffish and bohemian… and thus come to a BAD END (or do they….?) Projecting present-day obsessions onto older work for a cheap laugh — haha FRODO AND SAM = teh ghey — is often v.lame, and I wz a bit (hen)leery of pursuing this thought, but it’s germane to mn’s own project I think. Through a scrim of generational layers of retelling-the-tale (which nicely establish the element of “so are borrowers made-up?”), there’s a 50s (ie modern) examination of subtle and small aspects of class friction and semi-rural cross-class encounter from the 1890s to the 20s; more nostalgic than denunciatory, but very much saying goodbye and letting go: she’s time-travelling quietly, and commenting on what’s changed (and what hasn’t), and — given that these pristine late-50s hardback copies are of course my mum’s — I’ve a mind to also.


  1. 1
    Pete on 8 Jan 2007 #

    Surely the Borrower’s is all about a kind of class friction, in as much as the Borrowers are quite literally an underclass who are (pre-Arrietty) not only happy with their lot, but actively pretend to enjoy living on what is charity (borrowing is theft after all). As such we are able to tolerate Pod’s view of life because he knows his place, but his lace is an invisible parasite on society (and whose invisibility is tolerated because the alternative: acknowledging a responsibility for this most vunerable of groups* is one the human beans do not do). Lupy on the other hand seems to represent something more akin to a fifties view of travellers, who though equally live on the margins of society, are more active in their “borrowing” and flagrent in breaking the rules = middle-class fear of gypsies.

    *Vunerable in being four inches high, not as an underclass. But Borrowers are just little people and therefore surely there is a a duty of care from “big people”.

  2. 2

    i’m not sure that they WERE happy with their lot pre-Arrietty, though — they seem very twitchily unhappy, and homily’s descriptions of the OTHER behaviour of the OTHER borrower families (the overmantels etc) is both envious and contemptuous…

    er I think yr confusing Lupy with Spiller re gypsies (Spiller is the boy they first meet): and the middle-class fear is again admixed with fascination and envy for the unfettered outdoor lifestyle — the point where tom goodenough takes spiller out of his pocket (and not a ferret) is very charged, because it means the Wild Rover Boy (ie spiller) is a human PET. Albeit a “good” human…

    It’s this intensity of complexity that I like so much though, the way extreme vulnerabnility is married to uncertainty abt the good of any given situation — their “borrower traditions” weren’t much help when push came to shove, proved to when P,H&A join H,L&E it’s a VERY guarded “happy ending”: they’ve traded lonely pseudo-autonomy (a borrower’s home is his castle) for company, and (effectively) being kept and cared for…

    i must (get a scanner and) scan the end-papers of the first one — diana stanley’s illustration of “the boy” taking up the floorboard and the borrowers staring up at him is TREMENDOUSLY TERRIFYING

  3. 3
    Pete on 8 Jan 2007 #

    Oh yeah, Spiller. Has been a long time since I read ’em. What is nice about them is, as you say, this omnipresent vunerability which feeds directly into the kiddie branes own sense of vunerability. But of course the reader is also given the real sense of power over the Borrowers because their biggest threat in some ways are the bad human beans, which often reads bullying kids. So the struggle between Borrower independence and dependence on a system they fear is always at play.

    What is also interesting is Norton creating such a mundane set of “little people”. They are clearly people, not elves or fairies, they have no supernatural powers and in particular no mythology or customs which might be particularly attractive to the reader: ther are no Borrower Kings, with magical wands. Instead theirs is a second hand culture (and only I assume has particualr resonance(!) with a post-war rationing Britain).

  4. 4

    speaking of the war, one of the strange — and intriguing — things abt the children in the bedknob/broomstick books is that they are very clearly evacuees, but the war is NEVER ONCE mentioned (charles watches a squadron of spiitfires fly over one point — and THAT’S IT)

    the film makes a much bigger deal of this — hence cockney shenanigans ect ect

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