Speaking of Angels
THE ENGLISH send CARE packages to needy sheep dogs in Scotland, yet lead the world in the ritual demolition of foxes. For their sins and sensitivities, they deserve this odd, sporadically charming book, which blends dotty episodes—suitable for framing on The Avengers—with a moral message about the beastliness of man to beast and man alike.
Convict Jarvis Chuff, a brainy, pacific and proletarian train robber, finds himself mysteriously sprung from the nick. His benefactors turn out to be a wealthy singer turned princess by marriage, a Church of England vicar, an ancient British major with a limp and a svelte, pneumatic upper-class bird named Philomela. Chuff (homonym for Chough, the acquisitive European jackdaw) is given the angelic name of Gabriel and soon put to work with Philomela (namesake of the poor lady who had her tongue cut out and was turned into a nightingale). Clad in dark cat suits, they pull off various nocturnal capers. One night it is letting all the mink escape from a mink farm. Chuff notices how like the cages are to jail cells. Philomela comments: "Then it's Death Row." The next trip, they immolate a slaughterhouse. Destruction of a government installation that uses animals to test germs and nerve gases follows. They even blow up Smithfield Market, London's largest meat-selling establishment.
Each time, the pair leaves a minatory message signed AHIAR deploring mistreatment of animals. Press and public think them some sort of crank offshoot of the IRA, but the initials come straight from William Blake: "A Robin Redbreast in a Cage/ Puts all Heaven in a Rage."
The story is occasionally soppy where Chuff and Philomela are concerned, but it cleverly explores Blake's romantic notion that men and animals are similar victims of a society that, practically from birth, puts them both in a series of cages. As he pursues his life of humanitarian crime, Chuff ponders the plight of men and animals, and very satisfactorily reflects on the loyalties and limitations of the British class system with a clear eye and an absence of rancor and cant that should delight the ghost of George Orwell.
Two years ago, Novelist Duffy (Wounds, The Paradox Players) contributed an essay about the sad post-Darwinian view of animals (as failed, and therefore negligible, members of the tree of life) to a book called Animals, Men and Morals. An ultra-worthy anthology, which goes way beyond anti-blood-sport rhetoric, Animals (Taplinger; $6.50) has been widely unread. Much of its message has been palatably repackaged as a sugar-coated pill in All Heaven in a Rage. Whether the public will lick off the sugar and leave the pill behind is a question.