DAVID ARNOLD - Hungry rooks scoffed at scarecrows

The covers to two of the best-known romantic adventure books by H Rider Haggard: 'King Solomon's Mines' and 'She'. The latter was famously played by Ursula Andress in the 1960's Hammer film of the same name. SUS-150127-150829001 SUS-150127-150829001

The covers to two of the best-known romantic adventure books by H Rider Haggard: 'King Solomon's Mines' and 'She'. The latter was famously played by Ursula Andress in the 1960's Hammer film of the same name. SUS-150127-150829001 SUS-150127-150829001

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Sir Henry Rider Haggard was an English writer of adventure novels set, for the most part, in Africa. Two of his most famous books are “King Solomon’s Mines” and “She”. In Allan Quartermain he created a hero character that was the direct inspiration for Indiana Jones. Quartermain was most recently in the limelight thanks to being the lead character, played by Sean Connery, in the film “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”.

Haggard (1865-1936) was no stranger to Sussex and in 1918 came to live in St Leonards-on-Sea at North Lodge, Maze Hill. This was his home until 1923.

He had a keen interest in agriculture and the ways of the country. In 1898 Haggard made a contribution concerning scarecrows to a book titled “A Farmer’s Year”. He wrote: “Walking round the farm this afternoon, I noticed that the rooks are playing havoc on the three acres of mixed grain which we drilled a few days ago for sheep food. They are congregated there literally by the scores, and if you shoo at them to frighten them away, they satisfy themselves by retiring to some trees near at hand and merely await your departure before renewing their operations.

“The beans attract them most, and their method of reducing these into possession is to walk down the line of the drill until (as I suppose) they smell a bean underneath. Then they bore down with their strong beaks and extract it, leaving a neat hole to show that they have been there. Maize they love even better than beans; indeed it is difficult to keep them off a field sown with that crop.

“Farmer Hood promises to set up some mawkins to frighten them, but the mawkin nowadays is a poor creature compared with what he used to be and it is a wonder that any experienced rook consents to be scared by him. Thirty years or so ago he was really a work of art, with a hat, a coat, a stick, and sometimes a painted face, ferocious enough to frighten a little boy in the twilight, let alone a bird.

“Now a rag or two and a jumble-sale cloth cap are considered sufficient, backed up generally by the argument, which may be more effective, of a dead rook tied up by the leg to a stick.”

As you will have guessed, a “mawkin” was another name for a scarecrow or ragged puppet. The term has fallen out of use, but back in Haggard’s day it had a dual meaning and could just as well be used to describe a “slovenly woman”!

As a postscript I must add that H Rider Haggard was an author well accomplished at building thought-provoking aphorisms into his adventure books. Here are three examples that caught my eye in the course of research. This first one made me think of Tony Blair and the Iraq War: “I have noted that those who desire to do the most good often work the greatest harm.”

“There is much that is noble in all religions, but there is also much that is terrible.”

Finally: “The acorn of ambition often grows into an oak from which men hang.”