Wombles Against Pollution: The Wombles at Work

‘But, old friend, we Wombles must do what we can. I agree with you entirely that Human Beings are quite ridiculous. They seem to be determined to choke themselves to death, but it’s up to us Wombles — as it always has been — to try and stop them. Doomsday is coming, Tobermory, unless WE do something.’

– Great Uncle Bulgaria, in The Wombles at Work (1973)

The Wombles are now facing their most dire threat yet: human pollution. This may seem counterintuitive—after all, the Wombles have always survived by picking up and reusing human trash. But their diet also consists of wild plants, and the vanishing parklands and wilderness areas have raised real concerns about their continued ability to eat. The real issue, however, is the ever increasing trash and pollution, which is making trash collection not just a misery, but actively dangerous.

Orinico gets struck with a bad case of diesel oil poisoning. (It’s so bad, the Womble doesn’t even want food, which if you’ve been following Orinico so far, says something.) A later passage emphasizes just how painful toffee papers can be for Wombles—they stick to Womble fur, and are painful to remove. It’s not just Wombles, either. Their creator Elizabeth Beresford describes dead and dying birds, the negative effects of lead paint on plants, and fish and swans choking on human trash.

This culminates in a scene of horror when the Wombles have to clean up the mess left after a week-long concert, removing an estimated 40 tons of garbage that is already killing birds. Even the little Wombles of the Womblegarten have to chip in. The one silver lining: the hellish clean-up project cures young Bungo of any desire to be a hippie. It also reminds us that, environmentalism aside, Beresford was probably fairly conservative, as if the deeply respectful mentions of the Royal Family had not provided enough of a clue.

Also, Tomsk slips beneath the frozen Serpentine and ALMOST DIES.

Surprisingly it’s a rather cheerful book, if lacking the charm of its predecessors. Mostly, this is because the Wombles do—spoilers—create solutions to their problems. If Tobermory is not entirely sure the Wombles can do much more than they are already doing, Great Uncle Bulgaria insists that it is their duty to Save Britain. To provide a bit of incentive, he starts a competition: the Womble that does the most to stop pollution will get a gold medal. (Orinico hopes it’s the sort of gold medal filled with chocolate.)

Inspired, all of the Wombles step up: Bungo collects more trash than ever before; Wellington invents a process that can melt and dissolve plastic waste; Orinico designs an air filter for the Womble stove; Tomsk designs and builds a boat with a net that can clean the Serpentine more efficiently; Tobermory invents a clockwork car that should be an inspiration to steampunk enthusiasts everywhere; and even the little Wombles of the Womblegarten step forward in the Womble Hour of Need.

Beresford interweaves two side-plots into these tales of achievement: a ghost story, and the tale of a mysterious Womble called Omsk. The ghost story is perhaps the weakest part of the narrative, working only because so many of the Wombles firmly believe in ghosts. As Wellington explains:

‘As a scientist I don’t believe in ghosts. But as a Womble I jolly well do.’

But compared to the very real horrors that the Wombles are facing, the thought of a ghost, real or not, is not particularly frightening. More successful is the story of Omsk, who as it turns out, has escaped from the Soviet Embassy by tunneling under their wall. His arrival reveals some stresses in the greater Womble community, since Osmk is afraid that the British Wombles will be distinctly unfriendly. Fortunately, the British Wombles are rather less invested in the Cold War than are their Human counterparts (and Beresford wants to emphasize sharing and friendliness), allowing Osmk to be welcomed into the community. This also allows us to find out more about some of the international Womble communities, who for the most part seem to model their governments on their Human counterparts. The Chinese Wombles, for instance, use the same titles used by the Chinese Communist Party, and use Communist disciplines in their own fervent environmental work.

For all of this, the book has a rather less firm sense of geography, perhaps because of its setting of Hyde Park, London. Which leads to another problem: the Wombles just seem to belong in Wimbledon. In the big city, they seem out of place, perhaps why the environmental issues seem so much more dire. (On the other hand, by the 1970s, environmental awareness had heightened, and Beresford may simply have been responding to news media.) And they seem somehow more fragmented, and less amusing.

Also, Beresford seems to have forgotten parts of her earlier books, or perhaps she felt that she now had to follow the TV show. (I’m not familiar enough with the TV show to be certain.) For instance, Tobermory and Miss Adelaide, who had announced that they would be returning to Wimbledon in the previous book, are with the rest of the Wombles in this one. Alderney, on the other hand, that brave and occasionally foolhardy Womble of the early books, is completely absent here, possibly because she was also absent from the first season of the television show.

That, unfortunately enough, leaves us with only two female Wombles: the kindly and wise Womblegarten teacher Miss Adelaide Womble, and the brilliant cook Madame Cholet Womble. Their very titles separate them from the other Wombles, and apart from a few conversations about ghosts, they play only a very small part in the book.

It’s still fun, but the desperation, combined, for the first time, with harsh political issues and a sense of preachiness, makes this one of the weakest of the Womble books, written more, it seems, during a period of depression by their creator, and to provide a companion book to the now playing TV series. Fortunately enough the Wombles would soon leave London for better books.

Mari Ness very much hopes that no Wombles ever lost fur because of candy wrappers she may just have dropped as a child. She currently lives in central Florida, where she has not spotted any Wombles. Yet.


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