The Wombles (1968) by Elizabeth Beresford

One of Margaret Gordon's original illustrations in The Wombles

The Wombles: Illustrations by Margaret Gordon

“Human Beings like shouting,” said Orinoco through his hat, “Haven’t you noticed that yet? They shout when they play goluff and they shout at their dogs and they shout at their children. They like it.” 

“Very odd,” said Bungo, wrinkling his forehead, for Wombles, though they are great talkers, are quiet creatures by nature. 

Like many people who were born in the mid-80s, I remember watching the Wombles on TV when I was very small. I still remember the theme tune by heart (and have been humming it for the past two days) but I never read the book. In fact, I’m not even sure that I knew it was a book until I moved in with P. He’s quite attached to his battered copy and it seemed only fair to give in to his subtle hints and actually read it, especially as I am constantly badgering him with books I think he should read. It must get very annoying.

I promised I’d be kind about it, partly because (as he pointed out) I did say that children’s books could be just as appealing as adult books (if you distinguish between them at all). I knew that comment would come back and bite me on the bum. Luckily it’s pretty easy to be kind about The Wombles.

The wombles, for the uninitiated, live in a burrow under Wimbledon Common in south London. P’s book has lovely pictures that show them to be small bear-like creatures but I’m sure they were much larger and had pointier faces on the TV show. They spend their time clearing the rubbish left behind on the common by messy humans; this rubbish is either eaten, repaired or recycled in some way by the wombles (‘Making good use of the things that we find/Things that the everyday folks leave behind‘ as they say in the theme tune). The Wombles is the first in the series; we’re introduced to young Bungo (wombles chose their names from an atlas when they come of age) and his friends and see them get into all kinds of scrapes. Tomsk gets stuck up a tree, Orinoco runs away, Great Uncle Bulgaria and Cousin Yellowstone get front row seats at the tennis…. My favourite story was the one with Mr. D. Smith, a lonely old human the wombles invite to their Christmas celebrations. It was surprisingly heart-warming.

For the first few pages I was a bit distracted looking up womble names on Google Maps. I discovered that Bungo is in Japan, Tobermorey is on the Isle of Mull and Madame Cholet is named after a region in France. Once I had all that cleared up I started to get into it a bit more. It’s nice in a very twee, innocent sort of way – the wombles are unfailingly polite, they have bracken and berry pie for tea, play Wombles & Ladders at weekends and do The Times crossword (apart from the female wombles who work in the kitchens – this is the 1960s after all!). I wish I’d read it as a child, I would have loved it.

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