The Borrowers by Mary Norton First published in 1952
I cherished Mary Norton’s book The Borrowers when I was little. The notion of tiny people living under the floorboards, making use of all the bits and pieces humans discarded or lost, grabbed my imagination. So much so, that I used to pray – actually pray – to God for a family of Borrowers to move into my doll’s house. I promised I’d look after them and not let them come to any harm. As part of the bargain I kept the doll’s house in pristine condition, ready for the new tenants to move into, which is more than can be said for my actual bedroom.
My prayers got me nowhere, people, nowhere – God being distracted by more urgent matters. It meant Borrowers never did take me up on my offer and the house was sub-let to various spiders and bits of Lego until I swapped it for a Sindy and her flashy accessories.
Anyhow, over sixty years after J Dent published The Borrowers, it is still in print and still capturing children’s imaginations. Recently, it has also captured the imagination of scientists who, according to today’s Daily Telegraph, have published an article in the Journal of Interdisciplinary Science Topics, claiming that The Borrowers would be ‘scientifically impossible’ and would ‘…be born blind, deaf and perilously cold.’ Oh no! You mean to say that tiny, tiny people couldn’t really exist? That they don’t actually live under floorboards? I took to Twitter to share my alarm at this earth-shattering news. ‘What next?’ I asked. ‘ Mr Toad couldn’t have driven a car because he had no hands?’
Malorie Blackman replied first. ‘And there is no known tree whose wood, when turned into a wardrobe, allows for other world visitation.’ To which poet Brian Moses responded with a link to one of his wonderful blogs about using the imagination.
Unfortunately the Telegraph link is only to the Journal’s website and not the actual study, so I can’t put the findings into a context or credit the researchers. I’m sure it was a fun and absorbing and thoroughly proper scientific project to undertake but alongside all the variables and physics and statistics and probability the scientists forgot one main ingredient: magic. That’s what writers like Norton add to their writing; you can’t buy it or bottle it or quantify it – you just have to have the will and wit to believe in it.
Imagine if Norton’s publisher had decided her manuscript wasn’t based on enough ‘science.’
Scene: J Dent’s offices, London 1949/50
Publisher: Well, Mary, we’ve got some good news and some bad news.
Publisher: The good news is we all adore your story. The characters, the adventures, the concept… it’s wonderful. The Clock family – Pod, Homily, Arrietty… well – they just took our breath away.
Mary (blushing) Thank you…
Publisher: Where did you get the idea from? Of tiny people?
Mary: Well, I was quite short-sighted as a child and always squinting to see things properly. While my brothers were pointing out huge buzzards in the sky I’d be on my knees in the grass, trying to focus on the tiniest creatures. I think the idea came from that, wondering how small creatures might survive in a world of huge, nasty enemies such as buzzards and, well, humans.
Publisher: Fascinating, Mary, fascinating. There’s just one, small – if you pardon the pun – problem.
Publisher: It couldn’t happen.
Mary: What do you mean?
Publisher: Well, my science editor says it’s all down to metabolic rates. The Clocks couldn’t possibly exist, you see. Their body mass…
Mary: Body mass?
Publisher: Yes, or something like that. To be honest I wasn’t sure what he meant – something about shrinking ratios and the whole notion of a Borrower’s existence being physically and biologically impossible. Anyway, long story short, we’ve decided not to publish.
Mary: Not to publish? But why?
Publisher: It’s just not realistic.
Mary: But you said you loved it…
Publisher: We do, we do, but we don’t want to deceive people. What if children were inspired by it and their imaginations ran wild? We don’t want that kind of thing in England, do we? Not so soon after a world war. What would their parents say? Or their teachers? Or future Ministers of Education?
Mary: But I wrote Bedknobs and Broomsticks and that proved very popular.
Publisher: What can I say? I’m sorry, Mary, but it’s a no. If you can come up with anything a bit more realistic, we’d be more than happy to consider it…
End of Nightmare Scenario