Musty Books: “Grinny” by Nicholas Fisk (1973)

To young children, old people can often appear alien. A scenario strikingly prevalent in the 1970s, when even the most benevolent of grandparents seemed to belong to an entirely different era: their funny sweets, fusty clothes and memories of a pre-technological Britain feeling entirely at odds with the typically garish and futuristic mores of the archetypal 1970s childhood. Grinny takes this concept to logical extremes: the sinister Great Aunt Emma, from whose nickname the book’s title is derived, is actually a malevolent alien. And only the snotty but switched-on kids of the Carpenter household are clever enough to defeat her.

From the off, Fisk cleverly blurs the boundaries between fiction and reality, penning a personal introduction from his central character, 11-year-old Timothy Carpenter, in which the youngster claims the book is the result of his diary being handed over to “Mr Nicholas Fisk, the writer”. And the resulting story is constructed entirely from entries in said diary, “a big bound book in blue Morocco leather”, received as a Christmas present a matter of weeks before the mysterious Great Aunt Emma (abbreviated throughout as “GAE”) arrives unexpectedly at the door. A glacial figure in hat and veil, she becomes a permanent, sinister presence in the Carpenter household, claiming to be the sister of Mrs Carpenter’s mother: a story unquestioningly accepted by both of Timothy’s parents despite them freely admitting to no previous knowledge of GAE’s existence.

With Mr and Mrs Carpenter seemingly entranced in a hypnotic torpor, it is left to Timothy, his younger sister Beth and best friend Mac to investigate GAE’s true purpose. Permanently smiling (hence the nickname bestowed upon her by Beth), she peppers the children with inane questions (“What is a conker?”) that soon fuel their suspicion that she is – in fact – not of this Earth at all, and is gathering information as part of some sinister alien reconnaissance mission. The evidence mounts up, and – at the book’s halfway mark – is surmised in hilarious fashion by Timothy: “She doesn’t smell right” he notes, presumably expecting a vague aroma of wet cabbage and Murray Mints. “She is frightened of electricity” appears on the list too, as he entirely underestimates the profound influence of the era’s Public Information Films. It’s the 1970s, Timothy. Everyone is frightened of electricity. We’ve seen what happens to the curtains when the TV is left switched on overnight.

But irrefutable proof is provided by Beth, who – despite being only seven years old – repeatedly proves herself the most astute member of the family. Witnessing GAE slipping on the ice in the Carpenters’ back garden, she swears that her newly-discovered relative is actually Britain’s first Bionic Pensioner, claiming that GAE’s hideous wrist injury had revealed a mesh of metal bones protruding through fake skin (“like the fat on a mutton chop before it is cooked”), a wound that miraculously healed as she watched.

The book’s most endearing feature is perhaps its downfall, too. Timothy’s diaries, while possibly a little too floridly-written for the average 11-year-old, are the very essence of freewheeling, childhood joie de vivre. Peppered with jokey abbreviations (in addition to “GAE”, Timothy also frequently employs the eye-rollingly male 1970s observation, “WAW” – “Women Always Win”) and liberally applied exclamation marks, the style is authentically juvenile… but it rarely conveys a sense of genuine terror. One exception being the sudden appearance of a UFO above the Carpenter household, an experience that seems to scramble Timothy’s brain with “a sort of mental itch” that is delightfully unsettling.

The Carpenters are also perhaps the only suburban family* in 1970s Britain to own a private, heated swimming pool (“Muscle Beach”), an addition that seems so incongruous that for a time I was unsure as to whether the book was actually set in the USA. It’s a scene that seems to be included purely to provide GAE with the opportunity to take notes on the family’s bodies during their communal, naked weekend swim: a sequence that might raise the occasional 21st century eyebrow, and even Timothy acknowledges that they are living through exceptional times. “Since the Permissive Scene came on,” he muses, “You can’t even brush your teeth without feeling that you’ve got to prove something.” It’s a line that I found difficult to read without imagining it being delivered by a flustered Leonard Rossiter to a languid Frances De La Tour, stretched out on a grubby chaise longue.

*Possible exceptions: Joan Collins and George Best.

Those expecting profundity and genuine darkness may be slightly disappointed: Grinny is essentially a light-hearted story about an elderly lady who transpires to be an alien. But it’s a fun read, with the occasional unsettling moment and a climax that is both disturbing and empowering: Grinny’s unravelling as the children persistently perform their “Eyes Right” game on her (essentially: speak to someone, while keeping your gaze fixed on the middle-distance to the right of their face) is both unnerving and brilliant. And proof positive of what we’ve always known: no power in the universe is sufficient to overcome the ingenuity of snotty, switched-on 1970s kids.

POINT OF ORDER: It seems almost surreal given the small cast of characters and simple, suburban setting, but there has never been a full TV adaptation of Grinny. Which seems a shame, as Irene Handl would have been perfect in the title role. Who wouldn’t want to see a bionic Irene Handl? On 24th September 1988, a short, animated version was broadcast as part of the US Saturday morning morning anthology series CBS Storybreak. It’s cloyingly twee and looks as cheap as conkers, but at least the presence of the swimming pool feels more believable:

MUSTINESS REPORT: 9/10. My original 1973 edition is battered almost beyond usefulness, with its orange pages hanging out by a thread. I read it all with my Eyes Right, just in case any of them decided to make a break for it.

4 thoughts on “Musty Books: “Grinny” by Nicholas Fisk (1973)

  1. Gary Stocker September 9, 2020 / 3:11 pm

    I remember reading that! It was in a box set of sci-fi books which I had one Xmas when I was aged about eleven.

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  2. AMP September 26, 2020 / 4:33 pm

    Thank you. You’ve solved a mystery for me but here’s one in reply.

    There definitely was some sort of live action dramatisation of this because I’ve been haunted by the childhood memory of being scared witless by it.

    I can vividly remember the scene where the old lady slips up (offscreen) and the girl’s narration of what she saw and as I read your post the other details fell into place. I’ve never heard of the book before this.

    The TV appearance would be late 1970s/very early 1980s (I was born in 1973). I’ve a feeling it may have been a short dramatisation within another programme (‘Why don’t you?’ or similar maybe?), the archive telly guides don’t reveal it.

    It was screened at least twice because I remember forcing myself to watch it again knowing what was going to happen. My memory suggests it was wordless apart from the narration between the two children and the scenes playing out behind that…it was the ambiguity of what the girl had seen that’s stuck with me…my childhood mind imagined all sorts of horrors….

    Thanks for putting a name to a very distant creepy memory.

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    • Bob Fischer September 27, 2020 / 10:39 am

      Thanks AMP! You’re far from the only person to have dropped me a line about this. There was definitely no “official” standalone adaptation of Grinny (apart from the short US cartoon), so I think you’re absolutely right that it was dramatised as a section of an another programme. The most likely candidate I’ve had suggested is The Book Tower… but I can’t find any hard evidence of it. Open to other suggestions, as ever!

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  3. AMP September 27, 2020 / 2:07 pm

    Thanks. Book Tower sounds eminently probable..if it was a dramatised sequence it would explain why I was particularly spooked by the ambiguity of it, there may not have been any kind of resolution.

    From your description it sounds like the book is set in Suburbia but the scenes I can picture in my head are taking place in a huge estate, rather like the building in the Book Tower titles?? I can certainly remember a distant shot of the back of a huge house whilst the girl explains what she saw…

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