The worlds of ‘Tarka the Otter’ and Henry Williamson, its author

by Dave Bangs

I have just finished reading Henry Williamson’s book ‘Salar the Salmon’ (1935), soon after re-reading his more famous ‘Tarka the Otter’i (1927). Though I had enjoyed ‘Tarka’ on first youthful reading donkey’s years ago, my pleasure this time round was far, far greater. It is simply superb. Williamson’s field craft, his intimate descriptions of those North Devon rivers, brimming with multifarious life forms, all worthy of sympathetic understanding, filled me with wonder. His description of the deadly winter when all animals starved, Tarka’s companion was killed, and their sole cub blinded and lost, took me days to get the courage to finish reading.

Whilst I was between the two books the Morning Star’s excellent Peter Frost did a pieceii describing Williamson’s fascism and his links with Nazi Germany. It shocked me. It was the first time, to my shame, that I had read anything of that. Michael Morpurgoiii, in his empathetic introduction to ‘Salar the Salmon’iv made no mention of Williamson’s fascism, though this was no passing youthful phase. Williamson was close to the Blackshirt leader Oswald Mosley, and remained his friend till after the war, when Mosley broke from him, not vice versa. He was briefly interned in the war. Williamson was still writing for the fascist Diana Mosley right through the ‘fifties.

The origins of Williamson’s politics are a puzzle. He was profoundly positively affected by living through the experience of the Christmas Truce on the Western Front in 1914v. Yet he was not in a milieu – or from a milieu – that would enable him to reach the anti-war conclusions of Ramsay MacDonald, or the socialist pacifism of George Lansbury, leave alone the kind of internationalist conclusions that powered the Zimmerwald revolutionary socialists. His conclusion was only that never again should there be such a European war, and that Germany – later, especially, Nazi Germany – was Britain’s natural friend, not enemy. In his personality he seems to have been both victim of his father’s petty authoritarianism, and to have internalised that authoritarianism. The artist Tunnicliffe, who illustrated ‘Salar the Salmon’, clearly found him difficult, oafish and bullying. It seems, too, that Williamson may have been specifically targeted for conversion to Nazism as a by-then-famous man who was plainly wandering ideologically in territory which could lead him both to leftist or rightist conclusions.

There are very sparse clues to be found in these two books to Williamson’s ‘big politics’, merely mentions of a kind of nature spiritualism – the “Spirit of the waters”, the “star-stream of heaven”, and “racial purpose”, but he refers to other species, not human races, in his use of that term.

Indeed, the political conflicts within ‘Salar’ about the rights to harvest salmon are plainly described for what they were: class conflicts – the “rod men” and riparian owners and ‘Conservancy Board’ which did their bidding, versus the net men, who are working class and often double up as poachers. The central human character of ‘Salar’, the poacher and gardener Shiner, journeys from the margins of the story to become a sympathetic central character, a kind of guardian for the salmon and the trout against their human enemies…almost a midwife at the end…almost feminine, with his constant “mi dear” to “baillies” (bailiffs), gamekeepers and other poachers alike. They still exist, country people like that, with those resources of intimate local knowledge and craft, subversive, but on the margins of influence and power…but they are getting as rare as salmon in Sussex rivers nowadays.

The central conflict in ‘Tarka’ is, of course, between the otter hunters and their hounds, and the free living otters. It is impossible to read Tarka without being 100% behind the otter and to dread the chapters where the hunt and its boorish followers and baying hounds come to the fore. Williamson himself seems to have been deeply divided between his empathy for the otters and his own enthusiastic joining in the hunts. I know that inner conflict, for in my youth I regularly followed two packs of beagles – hare hounds – and loved the exciting runs, the rimey winter pastures, the squelching across ploughed fields, past gorse thickets, adrenaline pumping and deep belly pleasure at the winding of the horn and the baying of the hounds. But these are sadistic pleasures, no doubt of that, and the course of my life soon enabled me to reject them.

Not so Williamson. It seems that he held the two parts of himself – the harsh authoritarian, and the empathetic nature watcher – quite separate, at least in his books.

…And it is the empathetic nature watcher that I want to celebrate.

Williamson noticed every small thing. He noticed every detail of the currents, the tides, the river spates, the weather, the comings and goings of fishes and birds and insects. He did not just ‘spot’ things. He was no ‘twitcher’. He stood on the banks for hours and days through the years, walked them in all weathers, through dawn and dusk and night. He knew how to be still, how just to watch. He bothered to find out the names and the stories of everything that crossed his vision. He worked out how they lived. He never – and this is the great triumph of these two books – anthropomorphised his subjects. Salar and Tarka are never humans dressed in scales or fur. He knew the nature of the otter, its loves, its behaviours, its passions and its limitations. He thought into the mind of the heron, respected it, followed it.

He never judged. There were no ‘cruel’ species and ‘kind’ species. All had their reasons-to-be, their nature, be they mayfly or stonefly, chaffinch on her nest, or old trout, barren but still driven to the spawning run. In one of the most astonishing chapters of ‘Salar’ (Chapter 5) Williamson describes both hagfish and lamprey in ways that are both skin crawling and sympathetic. I was fixed on google into the early hours after I’d read that. How can you be sympathetic about a hagfish ? (Go on, google it). “Ah, git out, you bissley bigger (beastly beggar), you,” seems a mild reaction from the fisherman.

The world Williamson described is now largely gone. The world he described was brimming with life. During the autumn and spring runs, the pools below the weirs were full of salmon and trout…as full as is nowadays only found in the holding pens of polluting salmon farms. They heaved with fish. They landed in numbers on the bank at Shiner’s feet, after falling askew from failed leaps up the weir, to be flicked back by him into the water. They filled the estuary in the spring runs, to be chased by ‘erring ‘ogs (herring hogs: porpoise) and netted by the sack full. At the redds (the salmon and trout spawning grounds on the shallow riffles over upstream gravels) and the pools below them the great fish mated and died in numbers we see nowadays only on nature films from Alaskan rivers.

I think of myself as a naturalist. I pride myself on the things I have witnessed. Yet I have never seen and never will see a salmon in our Sussex rivers, though the rivers closest to me were salmon runs till modern times. One grilse (young salmon returning from the sea) was found in the Sussex Ouse several years ago. That is it. I have never seen a run of elvers (young eels fresh from the ocean) rising in their thousands up Isfield Weir. Jim the Fish told me that he has not seen that for some thirty years. I have never seen a run of adult eels down the autumn streams to the sea and back to the Sargasso. They are gone. I have never seen an otter and likely never will. They have not returned to our Sussex rivers.

What Williamson shows is two things. The first is the sheer abundance of nature in our countryside less than a century ago – now gone. The second is the measure of our alienation from what survives of nature. His nature writing, and Tunnicliffe’s matching art work, marks a high water mark. Since then it has been difficult for his successor writers to match and surpass his observational and descriptive power. Peoples deepening physical separation from nature is matched by a withering of its descriptive culture.

When Jane and I free-walk the fields and woods and stream banks (I hope just a little bit as observantly as Shiner did) we don’t see a soul. Only around the ‘honey-pot’ sites (with car parks and cafes) do we see folk walking, and, there, they seem mostly to be talking together of their lives (which we all must do) not immersing themselves in nature. At best most of us use nature as wallpaper, a backdrop, a green gym.

That is not enough. We will not get the true measure of nature’s awful crisis unless we re-connect with it. That is a political task, not just an educational one, not just a source of personal pleasure.

What the eye doesn’t see, the heart will not grieve over.

Henry Williamson understood that, at least.

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