TOM ACTON examines a portrait of a great British writer
IT IS A PARADOX of contemporary British Nationalism that, despite an increasing awareness of the importance of the environment, ruralism and natural heritage, it has consistently ignored the leading British 'Nature' writer of the twentieth century. That omission is even odder when one realises that the writer was persecuted and boycotted for most of his career by the literary and political establishment because of his steadfast adherence to his patriotic political ideas.
That writer was of course Henry Williamson, loved by millions as the author of the wildlife tale Tarka the Otter, hated by others as a Fascist and apologist for Hitler.
Henry Williamson - A Portrait by Daniel Farson offers us a moving insight into the man and his works. It is not, as the author admits, intended as a comprehensive biography, but a portrait of Henry Williamson's character and personality.
Farson's Portrait deserves to be widely read for it helps to explain the apparent dichotomy between the nature writer and the political 'extremist'; indeed it makes it clear that there was no real dichotomy at all ― Williamson's political views arose from his deep love of the land he lived in.
In the early Twenties Henry Williamson lived the classic life of the budding author, working in anonymous near-poverty, motivated by a strong belief in his own abilities, awaiting literary recognition. That recognition came in 1927 when he won the Hawthornden Prize for Tarka the Otter, a success that catapulted him into the literary 'society' of the day, alongside authors such as Thomas Hardy, John Galsworthy and John Masefield. It also led to his becoming acquainted with such notables as T.E.Lawrence, Hilaire Belloc and G.K.Chesterton.
From then on Williamson's fame as an author appeared assured. Nature articles were published in newspapers and magazines, his four-part series of novels based in North Devon The Flax of Dream won critical acclaim; his fame as an author who could write movingly, passionately yet unsentimentally spread. A comfortable, respectable future seemed assured.
And then came his 'infamous' statement on Hitler. In a forward to the 1936 edition of The Flax of Dream he wrote "I salute the great man across the Rhine, whose life symbol is the happy child"*. That declaration of his sympathies, together with his active support for Sir Oswald Mosley, alienated him from many of his readers.
Although Daniel Farson is excellent when writing on Williamson as a man, being warm, compassionate, understanding and ― when the need arises ― forgiving, he is basically out of his depth when discussing Williamson's politics.
It's not so much that he is actually hostile to those political views; rather they seem to be beyond his understanding. Without wanting to be uncharitable to Mr Farson one gets the impression that he has never held an unorthodox political opinion in his life, and cannot fully understand the motives of those who have. Consequently he tries to explain away Henry Williamson's 'extremism'.
An interesting example of Mr Farson's desire to shield his subject arises from his claim that, "though he would have been appalled by the National Front mentality today, he was dazzled by Hitler's show of strength". Although it would be easy to dismiss this comment, by asking how many National Front meetings Mr. Farson has been to, to dismiss us thus, it is worth pondering on his words for a moment.
Why is it that the National Front does not have a latter day Henry Williamson in its ranks? Only in Nationalism is there a natural feeling of patriotism and love of the land. Certainly neither Capitalism or Socialism can claim any affinity with the ideals of 'blood and soil'.
Obviously the NF has made mistakes in the past, so that our public image does not accord with our inner reality ― perhaps Mr Farson's snide comments may unwittingly do us a favour, by showing us how we have lost as result the sympathies of a section of the literary world that ought to be our strongest ally.
The first chapter of A Portrait deals with Henry Williamson's wartime experiences ― an appropriate opening since those experiences affected Williamson's whole life.
The Christmas Truce in 1914, when British and German troops ignored the fratricidal orders of their generals and celebrated Christmas Day together, is well described, and its impact on him is poignantly conveyed. To quote Mr Farson:-
"The friendship (between British and German Troops) grew throughout that Christmas Day, as the enemies played football and swapped photographs, cognac and cigarettes, and spoke in scraps of each other's language: 'After the war we'll come back, comrade'. One German soldier sang 'Heilige Nacht' incessantly, and Henry echoed the words years later in a voice surprisingly high and pure. The fraternisation continued until dusk, when the officers gave the signal for the men to withdraw to their separate lines. A few hours later, shots were fired into the air and the slaughter recommenced. But the moment of mutual sympathy continued, for many British soldiers now realized that, like themselves, the Germans were only doing their duty.
"Did it have a deep affect on you?' I asked Henry.
'Oh yes, oh yes', he replied softly. 'Very deep, and I always felt an admiration for the Germans afterwards for they were very decent fellows.' His voice lowered as if we had just entered a cathedral".
In the trenches of the First World War Henry Williamson first developed his ideals for a new Europe, the ideals that were to sustain him for the rest of his long life. He believed that only those who had gone through the war-experiences of the frontline soldier could realise these ideals, and bring peace with honour to Europe, hence the high hopes he placed on Hitler and the NSDAP ― "The ideology of the NSDAP is not war mentality, but ex-frontline soldiers' mentality"
With the advantages of hindsight we may now condemn Williamson's naïveté in seeing Hitler as the man who could realise his political ideals, but that does not make those ideals any less valid. Williamson was not wrong to want the nations of Europe at peace with one another, nor wrong to abhor the alien exploitation of these nations, nor wrong to support an ideal 'whose life symbol is the happy child'.
If Henry Williamson achieved popular acclaim with his nature books, such as 'Tarka the Otter' it is surely his immense, 15 volume Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight that will give him lasting claim to be considered a great writer. In A Portrait Farson's treatment of this work is excellent, and does full justice to this remarkable series. He clearly brings out Henry Williamson's remarkable gifts as an author, gifts that Williamson used to the full in the Chronicle series.
The following quote from A Portrait is a good example: "At first I was uncertain if I was expected to feel sympathy for the character of Richard Maddison, and particularly his son Philip, until I realised this was never Henry's intention and remembered his letter to me, 'I am sympathetic to all my characters'.
This is Henry's strength, that he treats them all with equal compassion, the hypocrites and humbugs as well as the decent men and women with all their wistful hopes and vanities and fears. Henry makes no judgement. At last I understood what he meant by the declaration, 'I would learn to see all things as the sun saw them, without shadows' - which had always irritated me, since light and shade are the essence of life. Henry's extraordinary achievement in the early volumes lies in standing aside, casting no shadows himself, so the reader can see with absolute clarity and judge the characters and their landscape for himself.
The Chronicles trace the lives of the Maddison family from the late Nineteenth century, through the Wars and Depressions of the Twentieth. It is more than just a series of novels, being substantially autobiographical. It is also excellent as social history ― until reading the early volumes I never fully appreciated what life in pre-Welfare State society was like. Those early volumes have recently been reprinted by Zenith Books, and I strongly recommend them. Whether Zenith will have the nerve to reprint the later, more openly political volumes, is yet to be seen.
In conclusion let this final quote from Mr Farson serve as an epitaph to Henry Williamson, writer and idealist, "If I had to sum (Williamson) up in a single word l would use 'compassionate' - a rare, radiant quality, which shines out from the fifty books which followed The Beautiful Years."