Copy Book Archive

To-Whit, Tu-Whoo! The mournful owl in her Sussex garden so troubled A. G. Gardiner’s friend that she rarely visited her house in the country.

In two parts

King George V 1910-1936
Music: Ernest Tomlinson

© Mark Kent, Wikimedia Commons. Licence: CC BY-SA 2.0. Source

About this picture …

A tawny owl concealed among tree-branches at Coate Water Country Park, just southeast of Swindon.

To-Whit, Tu-Whoo!

Part 1 of 2

Journalist A. G. Gardiner, better known by the pen-name of ‘Alpha of the Plough’, lived in the countryside, where he enjoyed the companionship of two familiar voices. One was the merry piping of the robin by day; the other was the hopeless sigh of the owl by night. ‘Where are the songs of spring’ the little fellow seemed to say ‘and the leaves of summer?’ But Gardiner refused to be borne along by Wol’s pessimism.

A CHEERLESS fellow. Some people find him an intolerable companion. I was talking at dinner in London a few nights ago to a woman who has a house in Sussex, and I found that she had not been there for some time.

“I used to find the owl endurable,” said she, “but since the war I have found him unbearable. He hoots all night and makes me so depressed that I feel that I shall go mad.”

“And so you come and listen to the owl in London?” I said.

“The owl in London?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said, “the owl that hoots in Carmelite Street and Printing House Square.”

“Ah,” she said, “but he is such an absurd owl. Now the owl down in the country is such a solemn creature.”

“He says a very foolish thing
In such a solemn way,”*

I murmured.

“Yes, but in the silence and the darkness there doesn’t seem any answer to him.”

“Madame,” I said, “if you will look up at the stars you will find a very complete answer.”

Jump to Part 2

* Adapted from ‘To an Insect’ by Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894):

Thou say’st an undisputed thing
In such a solemn way.

Gardiner’s solemn owl is not saying ‘an undisputed thing’, but being foolishly pessimistic.


Columnist ‘Alpha of the Plough’ recalled a dinner conversation in which a lady had admitted that she rarely visited her home in the Sussex countryside because of the depressing call of a certain night-time owl. The journalist observed that even London had owls, but this owl seemed especially to oppress her, so soon after the Great War. (57 / 60 words)

Part Two

© Charles J. Sharp, Wikimedia Commons. Licence: CC BY-SA 4.0 generic. Source

A European robin at Stratfield Brake, Oxfordshire.

About this picture …

A European robin welcomes a bright day in Stratfield Brake, a 45-acre site just south of Kidlington in Oxfordshire.

I CONFESS that I find the owl not only tolerable but stimulating. I like to hear the pessimist really let himself go. It is the nameless and unformed fears of the mind that paralyse, but when my owl comes along and states the position at its blackest I begin to cheer up and feel defiant and combative. Is this the worst that can be said? Then let us see what the best is, and set about accomplishing it.

“The thing is impossible,” said the pessimist to Cobden.* “Indeed,” said that great man. “Then the sooner we set about doing it the better.” Oh, oh, say I to my owl, all is lost, is it? You wait till the dawn comes, and hear what that little chap in the red waistcoat has to say about it. He’s got quite another tale to tell, and it’s a much more likely tale than yours.

Copy Book

* Richard Cobden (1804-1865), a vigorous opponent of slavery and of Britain’s wanton baiting of the Russian bear, and the grand architect of the bruising campaign to repeal the Corn Laws, which was successful at last in 1846. The repeal moved Britain towards being an economy based on free markets rather than protectionism, cronyism and arcane trade deals. It must have seemed impossible indeed to persuade Parliament to divest itself of so much self-interest, but he did it. See his friend John Bright’s account of the campaign in The Repeal of the Corn Laws.


By contrast, ‘Alpha of the Plough’ relished the dark forebodings of his own local owl, for they always stung him into optimism, and made him think that the impossible might be possible after all. He longed to tell his owl about another neighbour, a robin redbreast who rose with the sun and put an entirely different complexion on the matter. (60 / 60 words)


From ‘Tu-Whit, Tu-Whoo!’, in ‘Pebbles on the Shore’, a selection of essays by Alfred George Gardiner (1865-1946), who wrote under the pseudonym ‘Alpha of the Plough.’ The quotation from ‘To an Insect’ by Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894) may be found in ‘The Poems of Oliver Wendell Holmes’ (1878).

Suggested Music

1 2


Ernest Tomlinson (1924-2015)

Performed by the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Murray Khouri.

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Georgian Miniature

Ernest Tomlinson (1924-2015)

Performed by the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Murray Khouri.

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