Scribbling Lark

 

 

SCRIBBLING LARK

 

 

lark front    
Faber & Faber, 1949  

The background

 

The book

 

Critical reception

 

Book cover

 

 

First published Faber & Faber, November 1949 (7s 6d)

 

Matthews (Henry Williamson: A Bibliography, 2004) states there were 5000 copies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the surface this story tells us of a hilarious tongue-in-cheek romp. Set in the mid-1930s, Zig and Zag are two monkeys who escape from the confines of a zoo (identifiable as Regent's Park Zoo) – a virtual prison camp – together with an old and condemned cart-horse amid a great hue and cry from officialdom. The trio meet up with a cockney character who aids and abets them, and takes them to his 'farm' where he looks after them along with his other animal friends. And in due course our crafty cockney has the brilliant idea of entering the trio for the Derby. To avoid recognition the fugitives, with many complicated manoeuvres, are disguised: the old grey cart-horse with indelible scribbles as on the egg of a yellowhammer (once known in the country as a 'scribbling lark'). The two monkeys become one single jockey. By hook and by crook, against all odds and with a great deal of mayhem, the trio do indeed win the Derby.

 

 

lark yellowhammer actual

Yellowhammer eggs,

actual size (20mm

long) . . .

 

 

lark yellowhammer large

. . . and enlarged (from Richard Williamson's boyhood

collection; a time long before egg-collecting became

illegal under the Protection of Birds Act 1954)

 

 

Beware dismissal of this book as a mere childish scribble and imaginative lark, however. There is a hidden meaning in the scribbling, an allegory of Orwellian proportions – but where Orwell's oppressed become in time the new oppressors, HW's characters achieve a happier state. This book deserves study of its underlying message in order to come to an understanding of HW's vision of life as it should be: a Utopian world where there is equality for the underdog and ultimate success for the outsider: a racing term, but a word of double entendre here. For is not the condemned nag comparable to HW himself – an outsider, and 'over-scribbled' indeed?

 

It is also a very moral tale from every turn and twist of the story line.

 

Although on the surface a funny book to read, this volume (in many ways echoing the earlier The Star-born) actually reveals HW's deeper philosophy, and should be read as such.

 

 

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Dramatis personae:

 

To clarify the story-line here is a list of the main characters who appear in the plot.

 

Zig and Zag: two monkeys – of the Simian tribe from (or of) Simia ('Simia' being the Latin word for the ape genus which includes chimpanzees – an African ape resembling man). Being intelligent and imaginative they have learned several human traits including a vocabulary of English words. Zig is cleverer and dominant; Zag is submissive and artistic.

 

Prince: an old cart-horse from the stable adjoining the zoo, used to taking produce to Covent Garden market, and about to be condemned, sold to the 'knackers yard' and killed for meat trade. As the story develops Prince is given various camouflage treatments, and his name is changed accordingly to 'Electric Wonder Boy', 'Charcoal King', and finally the 'Scribbling Lark' of the title.

 

Tommy Topp: a crafty cockney, retired and ex-alcoholic jockey, and very kindly man, who now drinks only 'cocoa' – a drink so stimulating for both Tommy and his menagerie that it seems rather suspect! (One is reminded of the 'cocoa-drinking' Coneybeare, who threads in and out of various volumes in A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight.) Tommy Topp has a farm of sorts hidden away in the forest near Epsom, where the Derby is held. One feels there is a distinct element of 'Bert Close', of the so recent Norfolk Farm era, in Tommy.

 

Constable Copp: a stereotype of the bumbling copper.

 

Charles James: 'Charley-boy', a vegetarian fox who refuses to touch fur or feather on sporting grounds, as fox-hunting has been stopped in his area. He is not hunted, so in turn he does not hunt.

 

Oocuck: a cuckoo who, ashamed of the parasitism of his species, sings his name, and flies, backwards. To atone for the sin of his species, he has also built a large communal nest in which all the small song-birds might lay their eggs and raise their young in safety.

 

Little bantam hen: a very fussy and lonely little bantam hen without a mate, inclined to hysteria, who thinks she is laying fertile eggs which will turn out to be wonderful chick offspring of which she will be so proud; but is very disillusioned by what she actually gets. (There are distinct shades here of the famous 'Little Red Hen'!)

 

There are many other subsidiary characters who all add to the overall amusement and pathos/bathos of this rumbustious tale.

 

 

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The background:

 

In the archive is a small pocket diary for the year 1948, the pages of which are completely empty apart from two, in which HW has made notes for a book called here 'Old Horse':

 

 

lark diary

 

 

Then HW's diary over the New Year in 1949 notes:

 

I went to Yorkshire to see Christine Duffield with whom I had lived happily as my wife since October 1948. We were to be married soon. At York Station I realised the marriage might not take place.

 

HW had met Christine (who was then teaching in Bideford) that summer, when she and her brother called at his Field when on a walking tour of North Devon. At this point she had returned home to her mother for Christmas to break the news of her imminent marriage. Her mother was very possessive, and hysterically proclaimed this would kill her; and so Christine broke things off. HW fled to the Sutcliffes at nearby Wakefield. (The Sutcliffes, husband and wife plus a brother – Yorkshire industrialists – had rescued HW in the summer of 1945 when he had tried to commit suicide in the sea off Putsborough Sands. They had become firm friends.) At Wakefield:

 

I occupied my wasted hours in forcing myself to write Scribbling Lark, a child's story of an old horse.

 

He next went to Botesdale in Suffolk, where his first wife and family were living, noting he was 'distraught' – and where he continued to write this quite extraordinary book. There is nothing to suggest what the catalyst was for beginning the book at that particular time. (It should be stated that after a short while the situation between HW and Christine – and her mother! – was resolved, and the marriage did go ahead on 13 April 1949.)

 

I would comment here that although HW himself calls it a 'child's story' (as above), and although it superficially appears so to be, that is not really the category it comes under, as should become clear. HW often tended to do himself down, to his own detriment – especially if he had hoped for understanding of his actual purpose.

 

There is no clue as to why he wrote the book at that particular time; BUT, there is clear evidence in his archive that the genesis of the book was much earlier than 1949, and that its catalyst lay in a very serious subject, for in his archive there is a 4-page quarto (old paper sizing) printed pamphlet, published by the International League against the Export of Horses for Butchery, which consists of:

 

a) An article 'Reprinted from The Field, March 17, 1934’, headed:

 

Old Horses for Butchery or Slavery

The Urgency of the Exportation of Horses Bill

 

This is a plea for the Exportation of Horses Bill to be implemented, which would prevent horses being exported for slaughter.

 

b) 'Old Horses for Butchery or Slavery', a letter supporting the above from Brig. Gen. Sir George Cockerill, C.B., from The Field, 14 April 1934.

 

c) A copy of 'A Bill to Amend the law with respect to the exportation of horses and for purposes connected therewith'.

 

 

lark butchery

 

 

Although this is concerned with old horses being sent abroad alive, under the most appalling conditions, the underlying thesis is of 'old horses being sent for slaughter for monetary gain' – which was to be the fate of Prince as Scribbling Lark opens. The Exportation of Horses Act was finally passed in 1937.

 

There is also a cutting from The Times, dated 4 March (unfortunately the year has been cut off but presumably around the same time), containing three letters in support of this Bill, headed by one from A. J. Munnings, R.A., Arts Club, London, W.I. This is the famous painter of horses, later Sir Alfred Munnings – a friend of HW. Another is signed 'DORCHESTER' (i.e. Lord or Earl), while the third is from the Director of the National Equine Defence League. HW has written at the top of this cutting: 'The Old Horse'.

 

 

lark times

 

 

The subject has obviously caught his sympathy and imagination, and we can sense his intention: this is reinforced by another small and VERY pertinent cutting pasted on to the first page of the four-page pamphlet:

 

 

lark monkey

 

 

So there, in 1934, is the basis of the plot for Scribbling Lark. Two further points must surely have some bearing here. In A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight we read that Phillip, during his years of service in the First World War, had a horse called Black Prince, of whom he was very proud and fond. It is more than likely that the 'Prince' in this story is a homage to that horse. Secondly, there is a considerable amount of farming practice subtly interwoven into this story that arises from HW's late experiences on the Norfolk Farm.

 

Confirmation of the above, if that is needed, comes in a copy of Scribbling Lark that HW gave to Eric Harvey, managing director of Macdonald (publishers of A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight), probably at some point in the late 1950s or early 1960s, when the traffic in old horses was again in the news. HW hoped, in vain, to persuade Harvey that Macdonald should publish a reprint. HW has amended both title page and half-title as follows:

 

 

lark harvey1           lark harvey2

 

 

And he also pasted into the book the following note:

 

 

lark harvey3
(Images provided courtesy of Ted Wood)

 

 

The London Zoo, where the opening scene of this book takes place, was created in 1826 by Sir Stamford Raffles to promote worldwide conservation of animals and their habitats, and was situated in Regent's Park. In the 1930s it was (by today's standards) a rather cramped and dismal place for its captive animals (HW first studied otters at that zoo in the early 1920s). Scribbling Lark ends with a brief reference to Whipsnade Zoo, where the animals are to live happily ever after. In 1926 to mark the centenary of the London Zoo, Sir Peter Chalmers Mitchell, ZSL Secretary 1903-1935, decided to create a more natural extension to the zoo, and for that purpose bought the derelict Hall Farm on the Downs at Dunstable (Bedfordshire), at the cost of £480 12s 10d (an extraordinarily precise sum!). Work commenced on roads and fences for enclosures. In 1928 a few exotic pheasants arrived, along with such animals as muntjac deer, llama, wombat and skunk. In 1932 the collection of animals was boosted by the purchase of a collection from a defunct travelling menagerie: some of the larger animals were walked to the zoo from Dunstable railway station! HW does not use this amazing detail. Whipsnade was officially opened on Sunday, 23 May 1931, with 38,000 visitors on the first day; the main attraction was a brown bear enclosure.

 

There is one further point: it is evident that HW has quite detailed knowledge of the Epsom area. Although there is no actual evidence that this actually happened, we read in Donkey Boy (Vol. 2, A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight) – and this must surely be an episode from real life – that young Phillip, when his mother has scarlet fever, goes to stay with his Aunt Viccy (Victoria, née Maddison) and Uncle George Lemon who live at Epsom. While he is there the Derby takes place, and we read of the adults going off in all their finery. Phillip goes off on his own, gets lost in the woods, finally reaches a gypsy camp, and then on to the racecourse itself where he watches the Derby. This is an episode that would have made a great impression on HW, who would be able to recall every detail of the event and the terrain. HW's topographical details in Scribbling Lark are all very accurate.

 

There are two further known HW connections with Epsom. First, he records a visit there on Sunday, 25 May 1913: 'Sun 100 in shade. Went to Epsom. Saw Uncle Harry [Henry Joseph] and Aunt Mary [Mary Leopoldina] & Mrs. Williamson & her daughter' [his mother and sister? Otherwise unknown!]. Also in 1913, he applied for a permit to visit Holwood Park (one of his 'Preserves'), the said permit being written out and signed by the Dowager Countess of Derby.

 

It is interesting, therefore, to realise that this story had actually been in HW's mind since the early/mid 1930s. What brought it to fruition at this particular point in his life has to remain unknown. It seems an unlikely task for him to commence, when the promise of a new and happy life-plan has suddenly been demolished!

 

In recent time Scribbling Lark has not been given much notice within HW's total opus. As already noted, HW recorded in his diary that he had begun 'a child's story of an old horse'. Dan Farson (Henry, 1982) quotes from a letter HW wrote to him in 1950, in which he describes the book as 'my cigarette-card storyette', while Farson himself refers to it as 'a minor whimsical exercise'. I would translate 'storyette' as meaning 'short story', as in 'novelette'. Right at the beginning of this story the monkeys find a cigarette-card of a jockey on a horse and ponder over it. HW probably had such a cigarette card from a series on jockeys and horses – perhaps even Derby winners. He did collect these cards, and there still remains a selection of First World War cards, although many others will have disappeared into the pockets of the various children! Hugoe Matthews in his definitive Henry Williamson: A Bibliography (2004) dismisses the book as 'mostly just daft'.

 

Even on a superficial level, such dismissal is a gross misjudgement from any and every aspect. It is no more a children's book than Tarka the Otter ever was (interestingly the very similar Salar the Salmon was never so labelled!). Certainly the book can be read as an amusing and rollicking tale – a spree, an escapade of hilarious proportion with HW's imagination run riot. But most of the humour is very subtly hidden within the narrative (which needs reading in full to appreciate it all), and is way above the level of children. Over and above that aspect, the book has a considerably serious context.

 

This becomes obvious if one compares Scribbling Lark with the very similar George Orwell's Animal Farm (1945) and (although more serious) Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949): books that are given the highest critical praise as satirical allegories.

 

Animal Farm, subtitled 'A Fairy Tale' is a fable of animals who, in a revolt against their human masters, take over the Manor Farm owned by Mr Jones, led by the pigs planning to run things on egalitarian principles (i.e. communism); in due course the pigs get corrupted by power and under their leader Napoleon (representing Stalin) a new tyranny is established. The book is taken seriously as an indictment against Stalin's Russia. (Interestingly the book was originally offered to Faber but was rejected by T. S. Eliot, a director of the firm, who was quite happy to accept HW's book.)

 

Nineteen Eighty-Four follows basically the same theme, but portrayed rather more seriously, with humans carrying the story message line. Both are considered to be satirical allegories. A satirist tends to assume some moral norm by means of a tale of wickedness or folly. Dr Johnson's definition of satire was: 'a poem [literature] in which wickedness or folly is censured'; in other words, the use of ridicule or irony in order to expose vice or folly.

 

Using that criterion one can further differentiate Animal Farm as comic satire and Nineteen Eighty-Four as horrific satire. Into the latter category one can also place Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932) – the modern forerunner of this particular type of satiric attack – although that accolade really belongs to Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726).

 

Scribbling Lark is surely akin to this overall aspect of Animal Farm. However, unlike the latter's pessimistic end, HW's tale is one of optimism: the underdog, the outsider, can achieve success over the actions of the moneyed folly and the attitude of social norms (then much more rigid than now of course), and as the last chapter tells us: 'All Ends Better than Well'. HW highlights the iniquities of animal captivity (the Regent's Park Zoo was a dismal prison in those days – and remained so until well after the Second World War) and he lampoons the folly of the racing world. It also incorporates HW's basic tenet – the search for and possibility of a perfect world; a Utopia – his thinking for a better world for mankind in general, which lies at the heart of the Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight series of novels which he was at this point now beginning to write.

 

And the thought occurs to me: is Scribbling Lark in some way a prequel for that series?

 

 

*************************

 

 

The book:

 

The scene opens in the monkey cage of the Zoological Gardens (Regent's Park Zoo). The cage is occupied by two monkeys, Zig and Zag.

 

The monkeys had wild hairy bodies, and their black faces held glittering angry eyes, while their black noses looked as though they had not grown much except for the nostrils.

 

Zig and Zag are not happy at their confinement. They are angry and hurt by the noisy grinning crowds of onlookers – the 'everlasting street-faces'. Significantly, we read how these monkeys could, and did, think but such thoughts are only disturbing.

 

They ran and pranced and swung about their cage in order to find relief from their thoughts.

 

(HW here describing his own psyche?)

 

Being intelligent they, particularly Zig, for Zag is the slower of the two, have picked up some English which they can understand very well, but only speak a few words. We learn these are mainly swear words. (HW taught all his children swear words – to the despair of his wife Loetitia – convinced that it would put them off swearing!) Their aim is to escape, and so they keep themselves fit and strong by constant exercise.

 

Next to their cage, behind its rear wall, was a stable and yard, into which the monkeys could just see from the bare top branch of a tree. In it was an old horse, head hanging down, fixed into the shafts of a 'long-tailed cart'. Zig overhears two men say that the old horse, who has given 'twenty faithful years of service' (and indeed saw service in the First World War) is about to be sold to the slaughter house. The carter, who has looked after Prince every day, feeding, watering and grooming him, feels that the horse is a part of him, and is understandably upset.

 

Meantime Zag has found a cigarette card, which he chews, but Zig rescues it and looks with great interest at its illustration of a jockey in cap, blouse and boots. While he ponders, the day ends:

 

Mournful howlings and groan-like noises were now coming from the various caged beasts and birds of the Zoological Gardens. Another useless day was nearly gone, another useless night was beginning.

 

First thing the next morning – 'another dull London day', and not knowing it would be the day they had been longing for – Zig gives Zag an English lesson, repeating something he has learned from a rude little boy peering through their cage bars.

 

First he pointed to one ear, then the other ear, then in succession to an eye, to his nose, and finally at Zag, while he said slowly as he pointed to each feature, Ear – ear – eye – nose – you.’

 

Zag repeats this erudite aphorism, learning it by rote!

 

During that morning a film crew arrive. The intention is to manipulate the film and make the animals look as if they were talking. They decide Zig and Zag are perfect for their purpose and persuade the Keeper to let them out of their cage. The two monkeys cooperate fully and all is (in fine film crew terms) 'Okay, Fine, Wizard, Terrific.' The two Simians most obediently put themselves back into their cage, going immediately into their tree house night quarters and keep very quiet. Lulled by all the distractions and the quiescent monkeys, the Keeper goes off with the film men without locking the door.

 

The monkeys take the opportunity to escape and get into the next-door stable, but a whistle blast tells them the escape has been discovered. They hide in the chimney of an ancient copper. At the end of the day Prince is brought back, unharnessed, given drink and food, and shut in for the night. The pair clamber down and Zig sits on Zag's back, as is his habit, to think. To Zag's discomfiture he is heavy and falls asleep. But after a while Zig comes up with an idea: Zag can be the saddle while he, Zig, can wear the torn jacket hanging on a peg with the old broken clay pipe in its pocket in his mouth and wearing the hat, he will look like a human.

 

Just as they are ready to leave a policeman (Constable Copp) appears – but he finds nothing amiss and continues on his round. But then he hears the stable door open and sees the horse and

 

what seemed to be a small man with very thin legs, clad in a flapping ragged coat … pushing the horse down the lane.

 

The policeman blows his whistle:

 

Zig and Zag, crouching together on Prince, heard the sound, and their hairy feet banged into Prince's sides, to make him go faster. But Prince ambled on as before, for he was old and was not used to going any faster.

 

They come to and cross the main busy road and gain a 'shadowy park' and after a bit down a path under trees 'they disappeared into the darkness, where they were safe for the time being.'

 

 

lark regent
The Regents Park/Covent Garden area of London

 

 

Very early the next morning the horse, hearing noises, moves off of its own accord. At the locked gate, a keeper, thinking it is a rider (albeit an odd-looking one) on a horse, unlocks the gate and lets them through. Prince knows the way to Covent Garden Market – where all is bustle and noise.

 

This must be the jungle,’ whispered Zig.

 

Feeling hungry they decide to steal some nuts – but a voice warns them not to. The voice belongs to Tommy Topp, ex-alcoholic, ex-jockey. Tommy Topp befriends them and leads them to a stable for safety, and makes them comfortable.

 

And with that, the little bow-legged man in check cap, check coat, yellow waistcoat and stock-tie, natty buckskin breeches and thin canvas leggings fastened with pearl buttons, and thin brown boots, went out, closing the door behind him.

 

He returns later having borrowed a long-tailed cart in which the two monkeys are to lie hidden, while he drives the cart pulled by Prince down to his farm in the country. He tells them they are 'Simians' from Simia – part of the British Empire:

 

‘The British Empire's under the flag, and all's free where the old flag waves, so you are by rights free citizens of the empire.’

 

In the evening they set off, 'over a bridge crossing the Thames' and down the 'Old Surrey Road'. (So – over Waterloo Bridge and down the A24.)

 

Meeting up (rather fortuitously!) with Constable Copp, who was immediately transferred after the publicity and is as unobservant as ever, Tommy Topp bluffs him, but in his effort to bamboozle the policeman he calls the horse 'Sparkler' – to which Prince refuses respond, it not being his name. Zig calls out the name ‘Prince’, nearly giving the game away, Prince then moves off and they escape.

 

Soon after midnight they came to open country beyond ragged hawthorn hedges looming darkly in the mist that lay over silent fields.

 

Turning down a lane which wandered about … [they] continued down a rutted track between trees which led to the forest, and his little farm [Old Kennels Farm] in a clearing, where only owls called under the stars shining in the sky.

 

(Presumably this is Ashtead Forest, 2 miles north of Leatherhead and 2 miles north-west of Epsom Downs.)

 

So began a happy period for the four friends.

 

 

lark epsom
The area round Epsom

 

 

We now move into 'farm mode' – HW's so recent occupation! Tommy Topp has an old plough and contrives some harness, setting the Zoo trio to work to plough the field for carrots and beans. The resultant erratic ploughing is like someone writing their name, says Tommy Topp: Zig thinks this the greatest compliment he could be paid! And in due course the carrots have to be weeded – a task at which the monkeys excel (unlike all the weeding that took place on the Norfolk Farm!).

 

Excellent bread is baked by the mother of the local charcoal burners. (Again, there are several references to very nourishing 'wheaten bread scones' in the Norfolk Farm books.) Tommy Topp's diet is:

 

Stone-ground wheaten bread, with farmhouse butter, cheese, onions, apples, figs, dates, bananas, nuts, and cocoa.

 

The bread is delivered by Charles James (Charley-boy the fox) 'brought up as a cub with fox-hound puppies at the old kennels which is now my farm premises'. As fox-hunting has been disbanded in the district, Charles James has, out of honour, given up fur and feather and has become vegetarian. He is well-camouflaged in the red-brown bracken under the silver birches, where the monkeys cannot see him: very nervous and suspicious he does not come forward until sure all is well. He remains uncertain until Zig and Zag search for fleas in his coat, which he loves.

 

In April a strange bird arrives, calling: 'Oocuck! Oocuck! Oocuck!' Oocuck the cuckoo is a reformed character too. Ashamed of the habits of his species, and so as to deny his origin, he calls his name backwards and also flies backwards 'away from the memories of the past' (a phrase loaded with significant psychological undertones for HW himself).

 

We are told of other less pleasant birds of the Corvidae family:

 

Black Matt, the common crow

Pickall, the magpie

Jarrvoice, the jay

Pincher, the daw

Wottafice, the rook – including an amusing reason for the white patch on his face!

 

All attack the nests of songbirds (as they do). To counteract this act of barbarity, Oocuck has built a huge communal nest where all the small songbirds can nest in safety – although he has problems accommodating all the varying types of nests, and materials of the individual species. He is helped (hindered) in his task by the lone neurotic little bantam hen, who scratches and scatters Oocuck's work. Tommy builds the bantam her own nest in his old piano, safely out of harm’s way, where she happily lays sterile eggs and dreams of the wonderful chicks that will hatch out.

 

The mystery of the disappearance of the zoo trio continues to dominate the 'newspapers and the news bulletins of the British Broadcasting Corporation'. One paper offers a reward – first £500, quickly raised to £1,000 (a fortune in the mid-1930s!). Constable Copp is the subject of great interest to all and sundry, and he now determines to claim this vast reward. He gets his two boys to go out on their bicycles and start looking for:

 

any queer, tumbledown-looking old farm building or small-holding in the country at the end of the Old Surrey Road.

 

Meanwhile:

 

A great idea was born at Old Kennels Farm [causing great excitement among its various inhabitants] . . . the idea was to lead Prince to the race-course beyond the Forest and to enter him for a race and win some money.

 

This quickly develops into entering Prince for the great Derby itself.Tommy Topp proceeds to think the scheme out:

 

‘A werry bold scheme indeed and fraught with difficulties for the trainer, if you see my meaning.’

 

The main such difficulty of course is that Prince is old, slow, and a cart-horse! However Tommy Topp persuades himself that, despite odds 'longer than ten thousand to one' Prince would be 'the first outsider' to romp home. But he muses that what he really needs is an event to distract the other 'hosses' during the race, like when:

 

‘one Derby Day a woman jumps out from under the rails and grabs a bridle at Tattenham Corner' [an allusion of course to Emily Davidson, the suffragette, who in 1913 was killed doing this].

 

Foxy Charles James gets an idea, but being so nervous he can only stutter it out inarticulately; after a while kind, patient Tommy Topp cottons on to his daring plan: to get a pack of 'foxdogs' (Charles James’s old foxhound kennel mates) to chase Charley-boy across the track; all the highly expensive thoroughbred three-year-olds would respond to this wondrous sight and race after them, leaving just one 'hoss, steadily forgin' ahead to the winnin'-post.'

 

So the plan progressed, madcap idea succeeding madcap idea, until all is finalised. Prince was to be made over to another colour in case he was recognised. 'Intensive training of Prince was begun the next morning.' He is fed on carrots and the cocoa he has come to love. This makes him very lively! Tommy Topp decides to call him 'Cocoa King'.

 

Racing colours for the jockey-to-be Zig are to be 'carrot with cocoa hoops', made from material found in Tommy Topp's old 'treasure chest' tin trunk. But Tommy realises Zig on his own will be too small and that he must ride on Zag's shoulders: the 'breeches and shirt must be fitted to cover the two on'm.'

 

The problem of disguising Prince is more complicated. Oocuck flies off to the nearby school and returns with two indelible copying ink pencils which they take apart and proceed to scribble all over the front part of Prince, but then they run out of the purple lead.

 

Prince was an odd sight, the forepart of him looking, as Oocuck said, like a scribbling lark's egg, which was grey with thin purple lines all over it, a pattern which cuckoos which specialised in laying in scribbling larks' nests found hard to copy.

 

But that is not going to be good enough: the Derby was a smart race:

 

The King and Queen with the Princesses would sure to be looking on from the Royal Box.

 

Tommy Topp thinks charcoal will do the trick, and goes to see the charcoal burners in the forest. The master-burner says the dye from young (green) walnuts would make a better dye, and tells Tommy he is welcome to pick a sackful from the tree next to his cottage. This is a job for Zig and Zag; but so they are not seen it has to be undertaken at night. Tommy cautions them to be careful not to be seen (and so recognised – with the large reward claimed!) and to keep in the tree tops. To make sure they are safe Charles James decides to follow them.

 

The pair begin to pick the green walnuts, but are so exhilarated by being free in a tree that they excitedly start to play tag, waking up the birds who make loud protest noises, which in turn makes the dog bark. The master-burner is alerted and appears at his door, dressed, with gun and horn of powder in hand. (This is very reminiscent of a similar scene in Tarka the Otter, when the otter is after ducks on the marsh farm in the Great Winter.)

 

Charles Fox now allows himself be seen. The master-burner thinks the fox is after his hens (as far as he is concerned, a fox does not change its nature), and so sets the dogs after him. But he hears the sound of a hunting horn, ghostly in the night air, blowing the 'Gone Away' call. This terrifies the master-burner who rushes back to hide under his bedclothes muttering fearfully: 'The ghostly huntsman has come agen.'

 

The monkeys go on playing, and by the time they go back they have forgotten all about the walnuts. On their return they find many dogs in the cottage drinking cocoa. Tommy Topp has a hunting horn and he has been training the dogs ready 'for the Great Day'. Hence the sound heard by the master charcoal burner! Worrying about Charles James, Tommy Topp is unconcerned.

 

'There is a hollow tree he knows of to climb up into if things go wrong!'

 

(Again this is an incident that occurs in one of HW's very earliest stories.)

 

A comment about counting one's chickens before they are hatched upsets the little bantam hen, and to cause a diversion should she have hysterics Tommy Topp suggests that someone should play the piano.

 

We learn now that Zag has secretly always wanted to be a concert pianist. Monkeys from the zoo had once been taken to a concert at the Albert Hall where Sir Thomas Beecham had conducted a performance of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto. This had been for a scientific experiment to record the reaction of the monkeys and their seats had been wired up to a machine. Most of the monkeys had fooled about but:

 

Zag had registered wave after wave of consistent feeling of high emotional value.

 

Zag was indeed highly musical. But he was also very shy and nervous. The two monkeys start to play: Zig fooling – Zag serious. And we find now a most moving phrase (emphasised in bold below) summing up what music means to the soul:

 

Zag touched a note with a paw, then another note, a third note; his second paw went forward, and struck notes in time with the first. They were the simplest harmonies, and discovered by chance … and he played on roaring up and down the scale . . . His music was a simian rune of melancholy for the forest he had never seen but only felt in his bones and in his blood.

 

All then join in: 'It was a wonderful party', only ended by the little bantam hen asking for less noise as it was disturbing her (non-existent) chicks.

 

Feeling very sorry for the bantam, Oocuck steals some eggs from the nest of Pickall the Magpie that are on the point of hatching, exchanging them for the bantam's sterile addled eggs. So the little bantam hen hatches out five magpie chicks. The bantam boasts that, with their 'handsome black and white feathers', all take after their father who had won a prize at Crufts Show the previous year. But Charles James knows a magpie when he sees one! (Later the young magpies behave like the thieving magpies they are, and the little bantam hen washes her feathers of them – and joins a gipsy band!)

 

Prince is duly covered with the charcoal and so becomes black – and is given a new name: 'Electric Wonder Boy', because, as Tommy Topp explains, the bookies will be 'electrified by the sight of him!'.

 

The day of the Derby is nearly upon them. But at this point Constable Copp's two lads look through the cottage window and see the two monkeys, and so rush off back to London to report, with the £1,000 reward in sight!

 

However, Tommy Topp spotted them and secretly (so as not to alarm the rest) decides to bring forward his plan of action. They are to leave immediately, and all is hastily loaded up into the long-tailed cart, including the bird menagerie together with fussy – and now bossy – little bantam hen and her five magpie chicks.

 

Tommy Topp goes on ahead, dressed:

 

in his best suit, with smart Newmarket leggings, buckskin breeches, waisted coat with slanting pockets and full skirt, stock tie, and natty cap pulled to the side of his head.

 

They are to rendezvous at the charcoal burner's cottage. Oocuck follows Tommy and is shocked to overhear him telling the charcoal burner to go and phone the newspaper men and tell them where to find the missing monkeys. They are to meet him at The Horseshoe Inn.

 

The cart and its many occupants arrive and all proceed to The Horseshoe Inn. Tommy now covers Prince with cocoa, and so he becomes a dark chestnut. Everyone else has been hidden under sacks. The press van arrives and two men with cameras alight. They are the same men who had filmed the monkeys at the zoo before they escaped. Tommy Topp announces himself, but the men want proof. Tommy says they must go somewhere quiet. Zig and Zag are horrified to hear this apparent betrayal, but Tommy whispers to them to keep quiet and all will be well. To prove the monkeys are genuine Tommy gets them to repeat the previous fun they had with the camera at the zoo.

 

The men hand over a cheque for £1,000 and want to rush off to get the story into print. Before they leave, however, Tommy Topp has a long secret conversation with them, which ends with them roaring with laughter. When they have gone Tommy moves everyone back into the forest where they will not be seen and explains why he had acted as he had.

 

They make camp – and Zig and Zag get into their garb and with difficulty practice as the (single) jockey.

 

They looked a strange sight, for the tops of the riding boots were drawn up to the top of Zag's thighs, while his feet ended half-way down their leather lengths. The boots were too big altogether. The breeches were tucked well down into the boots; even so, they had to be fastened at the waist of them round the middle of Zig sitting on Zag's shoulders, which meant that Zag's head and face were covered when they were buttoned up.

 

In order to see, Zag made three small holes in the front flap of the breeches, two for his eyes and one for his nose. . . . but if Zig on top suddenly stretched himself, it pulled the holes [out of place]. Zig would have to keep very still . . .

 

Tommy Topp, worried about the horse getting undo attention because of its name, changes Prince's name yet again – this time to Charcoal King. He suddenly remembers that he meant to shave Zig and Zag – but there is no soap! After much thought aloud he solves the problem by getting them to plaster on their faces chalk from the ground (like a lady using powder) mixed with a jar of honey to make it stick.

 

‘Plaster it thick on your mugs, boys, and then lay on the chalk and who would know you from any other son o' Adam? Yippee!’

 

They proceed forward at lunch time, Tommy knowing that the 'great multitude' would be busy eating and getting ready for the big race – the Derby. But Prince is already hot, and the charcoal is beginning to run – and a scout bee smells the honey on Zig's face and flies off to alert the hive.

 

Constable Copp's two lads also spot them but luckily don't recognise them, just finding the jockey a curious sight. Tommy Topp frightens them off by offering them magic mushrooms which will make them look like his 'son' the jockey! They then return with their father, who is fairly easily bamboozled by the crafty Cockney. The hive bees also now find Zig's honeyed face, and he has the appearance of a huge brown beard.

 

Because he is delayed by Constable Copp, the Derby starts before Tommy Topp is ready. All the three-year-old thoroughbreds get off to a great start – leaving 'Charcoal King' to lumber on well behind. Because of the bees Zig cannot see where he is going so Zag, underneath, has to guide him through the eye-slits in the breeches!

 

Tommy Topp is now very anxious about his plan: will Charles James and the ‘foxdogs’ be released at the right moment to lead the race horses completely astray? He has persuaded the two newspapermen to transport them in their van and to let them loose at Tattenham Corner – then they will get 'THE scoop of the century!' The men have immediately seen the possibilities: Walt Disney might even get involved,

 

and so many dollars come to the country that the United States would soon be owing Britain money.

 

(Scribbling Lark seems to be set just pre-Second World War: probably, with its references to the ‘young Princesses, around 1937, when the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret would have been eleven and seven respectively. Britain had borrowed heavily from the US during the First World War in order to finance the war effort, and was deep in its debt still.)

 

But Charles James and the foxdogs have indeed done their work.

 

And when the distant roar suddenly sank away, and a strange silence fell upon all the great crowd of people, Tommy Topp knew that a million-to-one chance might have been pulled off. He sat down on the turf, feeling weak and giddy with the strain. . . .

 

A cloud of dust in the north-western distance and the remote tonguing of hounds was all that was left of the race. Every [expensive thoroughbred] horse had leapt the railings, taking its jockey with it. On the course hubbub broke out everywhere.

 

The bookmakers, who had been preparing to flee the scene (‘ready to put on their running shoes’!) in case the favourite should win and they be out of pocket, now relax.

 

A booming loudspeaker asks the crowd to stay still and keep calm – an unknown horse is still running. Tommy Topp rushes to the Race Stewards and, knowing that the charcoal will have sweated off, tells them the name of the unknown horse is (now!) Scribbling Lark.

 

But Prince is tiring rapidly, slowing down and bumping his jockey about, while the bees are beginning to sting here and there. A woman carries a placard on which is printed:

 

THE WICKED SHALL BE DAMNED.

 

(Again, reminiscent of an early very funny story of HW’s, involving placards with the letters spelling MISSION written on them – which never get round to spelling the word correctly!)

 

Horse and riders lumber on with increasing difficulty, accompanied by some loudspeaker comments interspersed with records – each hurriedly taken off as unsuitable and inflammatory ('Mad dogs and Englishmen'; 'Boiled Beef and Carrots'). French Farce comes to mind!

 

THEN:

 

the rough vulgar voice [of the tannoy] was removed for a voice more familiar to all who took their sport upon the air.

 

      HULLO, LISTENERS, THIS IS BAYMAN BEDRENDING SPORTSCASTING FOR YOU . . .

 

(For those unversed in the sporting commentary of the time, this is actually the very well-known and greatly loved sports broadcaster Raymond Glendenning (1907-1974) – noted for his horn rimmed glasses, handlebar moustache and his fast-paced, excitable, somewhat plummy broadcasting style. Some years after Scribbling Lark was published he was the narrator in the famous 1952 film Derby Day, starring Anna Neagle, Michael Wilding, Googie Withers and John McCallum.)

 

 

lark broadcast1

 

 

Horse and jockey are tiring rapidly, although Zig and Zag continue to push Prince forward in erratic manner, vividly described:

 

 

lark broadcast2

 

While all the 'society crooks' hurriedly get rid of their ill-gotten pick-pocketed and lucrative gains!

 

However, as Scribbling Lark is pushed past the winning post he collapses. The crowd turns ugly (and the 'society crooks' take the opportunity to retrieve their stolen loot), and the police form a cordon, while the Chief Constable calls for the owner or the trainer. Tommy Topp comes forward and kneels by the collapsed Prince, with woebegone Zig and Zag standing nearby.

 

‘Open your eyes, old horse. You done very well, my beauty. . . . You can be proud o' yourself; you broke a record, Prince.’

 

Tommy Topp accepts full responsibility for everything, asking that the innocent two 'little fellows' should go free. However:

 

A gentleman with thoughtful eyes and handsome face, beautifully dressed in a quiet manner, turned to the Chief Constable and said, ‘I know this man. He used to ride for me once upon a time.’ The speaker was the Senior Steward of the Jockey Club. [This is actually Lord Derby himself.]

 

The honorary veterinary surgeon of the course is sent for to help Prince, who soon recovers and is taken off to rest in a nice stall full of hay. Tommy Topp and the two monkeys go before the Jockey Club Committee to explain. Tommy is totally honest and makes a good impression. But proceedings are interrupted:

 

A footman in livery approached his lordship [Lord Derby, the Senior Steward], bowed slightly, and held out a note on a gold tray. It bore the Royal Coat-Armour.

 

The King wishes to meet them. The audience, including the Queen and the two Princesses, is very cordial (though our trio were all nervously scared). When presented:

 

Zag stepped forward, bowed low, took the King's hand, shook it, and said humbly, 'Ear, ear, I knows you,' bowed again, and stepped back in his place.

 

 

lark extract

 

 

'And so All Ends Better than Well' (the heading for chapter 35, the last).

 

 

lark extract2

 

 

*************************

 

 

Critical reception:

 

The review file is not very big and most of the reviews are short: one assumes critics were a little puzzled by this rather odd tale. There is nothing from the main-stream press: whether reviews did not exist or were just not kept is not known. Only one reviewer comes anywhere near grasping the true content.

 

Socialist Leader (Janet Wilson), 26 November 1949; three books are reviewed, the other two being: Maurice Collis, The Great Peregrination (Faber, 25s), a biography of 16th-century traveller Fernando Mendes Pinto, a book 'for those seeking wisdom and knowledge by which to end the conflicts and sorrows of the centuries'; and Millie Toole, Resurrection Road (Dent, 9s.6d) – very obviously a 'socialist' novel, but the reviewer wishes it had had more depth.

 

 

lark leader

 

 

Liverpool Daily Post ('R.B.'), 12 December 1949:

 

 

lark liverpool

 

 

Daily Record & Mail (Glasgow), ('J.D.L.'), 14 December 1949:

 

 

lark record

 

 

Yorkshire Evening Press, 15 December 1949; is in similar vein to the above.

 

The Scotsman, 15 December 1949; also includes: Frank Swinnerton, The Doctor's Wife Comes to Stay (Hutchinson, 10s. 6d.); Elizabeth Bowen, Encounters (Sidgwick & Jackson, 7s. 6d);Osbert Sitwell, The Death of a God (Macmillan, 8s. 6d.):

 

 

lark scotsman

 

 

Bournemouth Daily Echo ('J.D.H.B.'), 17 December 1949; a retrospective and interesting piece (one wonders what HW's father and critical Aunt Maude thought of it!):

 

 

lark bournemouth

 

 

Liverpool Evening Express, 20 December 1949:

 

 

lark liverpool2

 

 

Horse and Hound, 24 December 1949; note the high moral tone!

 

 

lark horse

 

 

Bridlington Free Press, 31 December 1949; in similar vein to other short reviews.

 

John O'London's Weekly (Sarah Campion), 23 December 1949; in a total column of 10”x 6”, Scribbling Lark gets 6 lines at the end:

 

a slight, determinedly arch tale about two monkeys confusingly called Zig and Zag, who escape and live with a remarkable menagerie, all of whom thrive upon cocoa.

 

The Lady, 12 January 1950:

 

 

lark lady

 

 

Gloucestershire Echo (Lady Margaret Sackville), 18 January 1950; includes: Christopher St John, Edy, Recollections of Edith Craig (Muller, 10/6) (Edy being Ellen Terry's daughter); Frank Swinnerton, The Doctor Comes to Stay (Hutchinson, 10/6); Holbrook Jackson, The Complete Nonsense of Edward Lear (Faber & Faber, 12/6). The latter item ends:

 

Happy are they who can breathe that unpolluted air, where nonsense, true nonsense, makes nonsense of our nonsensical pompous activities.

 

And so leads into –

 

 

lark gloucester

 

 

Sydney Morning Herald (Australia) ('L.V.K.') , 3 June 1950:

 

 

lark sydney

 

 

*************************

 

 

Book cover:

 

 

The designer of the dust wrapper is unattributed.

 

 

lark cover

 

lark backcover

 

 

 

 

Back to 'A Life's Work'

 

 

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