by Patricia Lightfoot
I liked those photos that used to circulate on social media of the older, red British phone boxes transformed into lending libraries. They inspired me to fill a couple of small shelves in the entrance to our house with children’s books and travel books, respectively. Intended just to be visually pleasing, this installation did cause a couple of friends to borrow travel books, which, I’m glad to say, were returned. It is the small scale and the unexpected location of objects that can be so appealing, as in the little free library that my friend and neighbour Marnie Wellar has constructed in her front yard and has described here.
A recent article in the Guardian highlights the extraordinary work of Spanish artist Mar Cerda, who makes miniature worlds out of, as she puts it, “cut paper and watercolor.” She has made a series of dioramas inspired by locations in Wes Anderson movies, such as the small compartments for letters behind the desk of super-concierge M. Gustave in the Grand Budapest Hotel. The pieces in her “Portugal in a can” series look like sardine cans filled with beautiful painted-paper images of a typical front door to a house or a gateway to a garden that can be opened to reveal an interior. Alas, they all appear to have been sold.
One miniature world in literature that I loved as a child is that of Arrietty Clock, her mother, Homily, and her father, Pod, who are “borrowers,” tiny people who live under the kitchen in a large house in England, when India was still part of the Empire. Everything they have is “borrowed” by Pod:
the [sitting room] walls had been papered with scraps of old letters out of waste-paper baskets, and Homily had arranged the handwriting sideways in vertical stripes that ran from floor to ceiling. On the walls, repeated in various colours, hung several portraits of Queen Victoria as a girl; these were the postage stamps, borrowed by Pod some years ago from the stamp box on the desk in the morning room. There was a lacquer trinket box, padded inside and with the lid open, which they used as a settle, and that useful standby – a chest of drawers made of match boxes.
Author Mary Norton describes how Arrietty’s interactions with “human beans” lead the little family to have to abandon their home and seek shelter out in the world in a series of adventures, starting with the eponymous The Borrowers (published by Dent in 1952). On rereading the books, the borrowers’ perceptions of the human world are still charming, as are the miniature homes they inhabit, but what I am now most struck by is their courage and resourcefulness, as they repeatedly flee danger, establish a new way of living in an unfamiliar and not-always-friendly environment, and then are prepared to leave it all behind and start again as needed.