24 January 2009

fireside tales:: day 3

Chapter One of my copy of The Borrowers opens with a picture of an old lady (Mrs May) knitting by the fire and a young girl (Kate) sitting opposite her. Mrs May is telling Kate the story of the Borrowers, the little people who lived under the floorboard of her aunt's house.

I first came across the Borrowers in an educational comic called "Treasure" when I was a child and was totally captivated by them. Not, I think, because I particularly fantasised about little people but because I was so impressed at their inventiveness, the way they used everyday objects for purposes they weren't quite intended for. I was particularly taken with the use of cotton reels as chairs for some reason and still am very taken with little chairs of any sort.

The Borrowers was first published in 1952, close enough to the second world war for the ethos of making do and mending to have permeated the psyche of the population. This doll's house was from an exhibition in Whitstable Museum where the whole town has been seized by Make Do and Mend fever. It was made from an old box, covered with that lovely bricks and tiles paper you can get from model shops ( there is an excellent one in the town). I went straight from the museum to find a copy of the book. Of course, in the spirit of thrift, I should have waited to get home and go to the library, but I really wanted to own a copy. Sometimes making do isn't quite good enough.

And then, as often seems to happen when a thought thread unravels, the Borrowers seeped into all sorts of other places. Prick Your Finger asked for pin stories and there was one on page 24. And this picture of Felix and the knitted pencils was so very Arrietty. So when I saw the giant apple core at Tate Modern (don't know how I missed it earlier), I just had to go and try it for myself.

But the story of the Borrowers is also more complex. There is a tension between the comfortable, if somewhat dark, home beneath the floorboards and Arrietty's longing for the outdoors, adventure and emigration, all the things her mother Homily fears most. Yet, strangely, it is her mother's desire for the fine furniture from the doll's house which puts them in the most danger. The Boy is discovered on one of his journeys to bring it to them and so begins the persecution which forces the family to flee.

So, as we sit cosily by the fire sorting out the pencil box, finding bits and bobs which might be very useful for Borrowers, I can't help empathising with Arrietty - and Homily. And thinking about all of those real people whose homes are destroyed through no fault of their own, who have to make do in the most appalling conditions. Puts a lot into perspective.

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Anonymous said...

Enjoyed the post. I also loved The Borrowers.

Anonymous said...

Great post. I loved the Borrowers too. I have some enormous 20mm knitting needles for making chunky scarves that always make me feel like a Borrower myself when I use them!

Jackie said...

This is the only way I can reply to your comment..Carol Shields was in the layer underneath..it was just a snapshot of the contents of my bookcase while they were on the bed. Not my definitive list.As I was putting them back I thought'Oh I should have included this'
I loved the Borrowers too.

Elizabeth said...

What a nice post on one of my all time favorite books as a kid. All these great memories came flooding back. I too loved how the little people used things like match boxes and wooden spools etc.

Unknown said...

I was born in 1949 and my childhood was inextricably mixed up with the Borrowers - I spent so much of the time when I wasn't reading the books recreating their world.

Now, with 5 grandchildren, I am definitely regressing. I persuaded husband to remove several floorboards in my house and underneath I have partitioned off a maze of rooms, wall papered them, furnished them and moved in several families. The magic floorboards (cut shorter) have knobs so that children can lift them easily.

One family has also moved into an old dresser cupboard and another into - yes - a kettle!

Jen Hughes