The heavy rain that had been falling all day eased off a couple of hours before I was due to take the bus back to Dublin. Happy that I wouldn’t be leaving without at least taking a short walk, I headed down the winding, high-hedged road towards the river. At the point where a steep descent begins, I glanced over the wall and noticed a swirling motion in the water far below – not at all what a mallard or moorhen would produce. Staring more intently, I realised, with great excitement, that the dark shape now breaking the surface was the muzzle of an otter. Keeping to the grassy margin of the road, as quickly and as quietly as I could, I hurried riverwards, slipped through the half-open gate, and moved along the bank until I stood a few yards back from where the animal had been.
Nothing. Not a stir. Then a mass of waterweed to my right started undulating wildly: it could only be the otter swimming underneath. His shape appeared in the water, then his head broke the surface and, after another smooth movement or two, his back. To my amazement, he began to swim in my direction. He rested his muzzle on the bank directly below me: I could see each individual long grey whisker and the movement of his eyes. For a moment, it seemed that he was going to come up onto the bank. I didn’t move or blink: animals have trouble seeing you if you’re not moving. I prayed that the breeze was carrying my scent away. When he turned back into the water I thought he had seen me and would be gone in a moment. Instead, he returned to his diving and swerving, before working his way along the far bank. Twice he surfaced and snapped his grinning jaws before again going under. He came out into mid-river: his sleek dark back would sometimes arch out of the water for a moment before becoming a dark, moving shadow. He looped round on himself with long, sinuous, easeful muscularity, stirring the river into swirls and eddies: he was all lithe grace – and then he was gone.
I was elated, almost skipping with delight. There had been decades of unrequited longing for such a close encounter since my parents had given me a copy of the three-shilling Puffin Books edition of Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter for Christmas. Read and reread, it became my favourite book. I had already developed a great interest in the natural world and had read almost every animal and bird book in the Cork County Library. I did the same in the City Library after the extension of the city boundaries.
Tarka the Otter was not written as a children’s book; it is a prime case of the ‘adoption’ of a book by children. Its adoption must have been encouraged by the book’s appearance as a Puffin, with a gentler cover illustration than in the earlier hardback editions. Many unsuspecting adults must have assumed that the content was as innocent as the cover. The challenge that Tarka presents to a child is easily demonstrated. Williamson does not simply suggest a scene: the precision and range of his vocabulary are so great as to demand either intense concentration or a more relaxed form of reading that allows numerous gaps in understanding amid the precise evocation of the natural world:
Bogs and hummocks of the Great Kneeset were dimmed and occluded; the hill was higher than the clouds. In drifts and hollows the vapour passed, moving with the muffled wind over water plashes colourless in reflection. Sometimes a colder waft brought the sound of slow trickling; here in the fen five rivers began, in peat darker than the otter that had followed the Torridge up to its source.
Broken humps, rounded with grey moss and standing out of a maze of channers, made the southern crest of the hill. In the main channer, below banks of crumbling peat, lay water dark-stained and almost stagnant. The otter walked out and lifted his head, sniffing and looking around him. Drops from his rudder dripped into the water and the stirred fragments of peat drifted slowly as they settled. The river’s life began without sound, in the darkness of peat that was heather grown in ancient sunlight; but on the slope of the hill, among the green rushes, the river ran bright in spirit, finding the granite that made its first song.
Here, in the opening sentences of Chapter Eleven, as elsewhere in the book, readers encounter Latinate terms (occluded), specialised and dialect words (hummocks, plashes, channers), and rapid shifts from panorama (hill) to close-up (drops of water on a rudder) or from close-up to the near-mythic (ancient sunlight, first song). There is little softening of the harshness of nature: the killing of a swan by starving otters and the eventual triumph of a badger in making off with the dead bird is spread over several pages; human beings erupt violently into the animal world; alertness and experience aid in survival but do not guarantee it.
The harshness of existence in Tarka may best be appreciated if the story of the life and death of an otter is translated into near-human terms: birth, play, the learning of caution and fear; the father a potential threat to the young ones; the father hunted and killed; a sibling caught in a trap and killed; the growing Tarka driven away by his mother as she takes on a new partner; Tarka’s first love with Whitetip thwarted by the violent intervention of an older male; the lonely young male comforted (and eventually initiated) by an older female; near-famine after long frost and the death of the first off-spring of this relationship; Tarka’s loss of several toes to a trap, and the killing of his partner as she protects him; another brief encounter with Tarka’s first love, quickly followed by separation and a narrow escape from death; Tarka’s first tussle with his great antagonist, the hound Deadlock; the idyllic period that follows another meeting with Whitetip; the birth of Tarquol; the killing of young Tarquol by hounds; and the long hunt which results in the exhausted and mortally wounded Tarka’s killing Deadlock.
Do we forget much of the content of books that we read in childhood? Is there a kind of forgetting, almost akin to what is reputed to follow the pain of childbirth? How many parents would give Tarka to a child if the blurb provided an accurate summary of the contents? Returning to the book as an adult, and rediscovering the physical (and, by implication, emotional) extremity of the material, I can only imagine that, for the very innocent eleven-year-old that I was, immersion in the book must have provided an indirect means of approaching areas of adult experience that were still only dimly perceived and that could not be articulated either to myself or to my parents and other adults. I can remember my initial unwillingness to believe what was suggested by the closing paragraphs of the book:
Deadlock saw the small brown head, and bayed in triumph as he jumped down the bank. He bit the head and lifted the otter high, flung him about and fell into the water with him. They saw the broken head look up beside Deadlock, heard the cry of Ic-yang! as Tarka bit into his throat, and then the hound was sinking with the otter into the deep water. […]
They pulled the body out of the river and carried it to the bank, laying it on the grass, and looking down at the dead hound in sad wonder. And while they stood there silently, a great bubble rose out of the depths, and broke, and as they watched, another bubble shook the surface, and broke; and there was a third bubble in the sea-going waters, and nothing more.
I tried to deny the finality of ‘nothing more’ and to convince myself that there was a hope of survival for Tarka in those bubbles. Nevertheless, regardless of how I interpreted the conclusion, reading the book several times must have allowed some part of my consciousness to register the potential harshness of life in a way that would have breached the resilient optimism maintained by my mother and my father’s attempt to close out the fears and imaginings that lurked beneath his own ordered existence.
If Tarka allowed for the darkness of the world, it also showed the potential wonder in every tiny detail of existence. As Williamson himself wrote a decade or more later:
I felt that no one would read this matter-of-fact local record, its pages so tightly packed with facts, most of them unexciting, even dull. Yet I knew that it was the real stuff, for it was true. My part as writer seemed a small, entirely impersonal part: it was the English countryside that mattered, the trees, the rivers, the birds, the animals, the people. Indeed, I wanted the book to be without an author’s name on the title-page.
This impersonal but loving evocation was powerful enough to imbue me with an enduring love for a corner of England that, other than through Williamson, I did not know at all:
Again the spirit of the green place was tranquil, with peaceful doves cooing in the noonday’s rest. All the long day the sun swung over the islet until the hilltops were fiery. Shadows lifted from the waters and moved up the trunks of trees. They faded in evelight. The pool darkened. Over the fields flew a white owl, one of hundreds which like great bluntheaded moths were quartering the pastures and tilth of all the lands served by the Two Rivers.
In the next paragraph, the mother otter grabs a moorhen, pulls it underwater and kills it to feed her cubs. It is no surprise that the young Ted Hughes, whose family had moved to Devon from Yorkshire, loved Tarka.
That Williamson and many other of the nature writers I read as a child were English was not something that, to my recollection, I thought about as a child. This points to a key aspect of childhood reading: its indiscriminate seizing of pleasure, its indifference to coherence. The house I grew up in had more books than most, library-going was an ingrained routine and my eldest sister was launching into fat paperbacks of the Russian classics at about the time that I was discovering Tarka. In the sitting-room, behind glass, were a few shelves that especially intrigued me. Along with such books as Radio Replies (an Australian gathering of replies to queries about religion), some studies of Catholic social ideals, The Red Book of the Persecuted Church, The Count of Monte Cristo, Scaramouche and various classics (abridged and unabridged), there was an array of Irish material that reflected the political and cultural world of my parents: such works as Tom Barry’s Guerrilla Days in Ireland (Barry bought his papers in our aunt’s shop on Washington Street), Limerick’s Fighting Story (which briefly mentioned the lucky escape of a grand-uncle from the Black and Tans), Dan Breen’s My Fight for Irish Freedom, a biography of Liam Lynch, a few Wolfe Tone Annuals and Dorothy Macardle’s The Irish Republic, but also anthologies of poetry, individual volumes by Máirtín Ó Direáin and Seán Ó Tuama, Daniel Corkery’s The Hidden Ireland, Proinsias Ó Conluain’s little book on the cinema, a collection of Frank O’Connor stories and Kate O’Brien’s The Land of Spices.
I absorbed a heroic view of the Irish struggle for independence down the centuries, in which of course the main enemy was English. At the same time, I was eagerly working my way through a variety of English worlds. I read every William book I could lay my hands on: the life of the village, with its vicars, cricket and fetes, was like nothing I knew. The Billy Bunter books, too, were a kind of fantasy: not just the boarding-school setting, but the honour code, the class background and characters ranging from the classically English type Harry Wharton to the Indian prince Huree Jamset Ram Singh. This England seemed entirely unconnected with the England of the history books. Even when I moved on to the Biggles books (blatantly imperial in their militarism and attitude to oriental cultures), there was no need to reconcile these with the Irish nationalist narrative to which I continued to adhere.
It was not that I cared only about Irish history. Somehow, the Twins series (The Eskimo Twins, The Dutch Twins, The Chinese Twins and who knows how many others), the Geographical Magazine (to which, for a period, my father subscribed – for some reason, the mountain-dwellers of Kurdistan made an impression) and various missionary publications (Africa, The Far East …), television series like David Attenborough’s The People of Paradise, and the many illustrated volumes of a completely outdated, ideologically questionable but completely absorbing set of Cassell’s Children’s Encyclopedia – all these and other influences combined to make me very curious about distant countries and cultures. Soon enough, I was developing an addiction to the foreign pages of the newspapers and taking sides in conflicts around the world: I backed the underdog or the anti-colonial side in wars, to the extent of secretly supporting the communist Vietcong. Thus, if my own case is in any way indicative, it would seem that, in its uncritical promiscuity, childhood reading is untroubled by the need to establish a coherent perspective. If English soldiers and leaders were the enemies of my Irish heroes, I was happy to lose myself in any number of imaginary Englands. I took my ideological stamp from family and school.
The threads that connect childhood reading with adult experience and curiosity can be seen in the way that my relationship with the author of Tarka evolved. The shift in adolescence towards more critical and ideologically aware reading will also emerge. My fascination with Tarka naturally led me to read other nature stories of Williamson’s, such as Salar the Salmon. A few years later, in my mid-teens, one of the first books that I bought was a paperback of Tales from a Devon Village; the careful notation of the local dialect added to the fondness I already had for the area. Having prematurely exhausted the junior library, I was allowed to join the adult section. A whole shelfful of Williamson quickly caught my attention. These, I discovered, fell into two sequences: one, The Flax of Dreams, about Willie Madison, a motherless child who develops into a spiritually questing young man and dies by drowning; the other, much longer, A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight, about his cousin Phillip, a semi-autobiographical version of Williamson himself. The Chronicle begins with the courtship of Phillip’s parents in Edwardian London, and goes on to trace his childhood and youth, his life as a soldier during WWI, his inability to settle into the postwar world and his search for fulfilment over the following decades. Through Phillip’s wider family and various secondary characters, Williamson is also seeking to depict the changing course of English life – if not the crisis of Western civilisation. It is not necessary here either to go into the detail of Phillip’s story or to assess these novels, though it could be noted that, once again, as in some of the brutal war scenes or the description of Phillip’s fleeting sexual encounters while on leave, Williamson was offering me imaginative participation in areas completely outside my own lived experience.
My steady progress through A Chronicle came to a sudden halt about two-thirds of the way through as it became clear that Phillip’s dissatisfaction with the postwar world and his sense that the war dead have been betrayed lead him towards admiration for a Mosley-like figure in England and, across the sea in Germany, for Hitler’s promise of a new order. This was rather a shock to my political sensibilities – but I might have persevered if I had not already begun to find these later volumes rather a grind. I had lost and found myself in many other writers and poets along the way – Dylan Thomas, Gerald Manley Hopkins, Pasternak, Gide … – so, while remaining true in memory to Tarka and retaining my love of English nature writing, I put Williamson aside for many years.
Some years ago, in Greene’s since-disappeared second-hand bookshop in Dublin, I came across a bedraggled copy of a Williamson book I had never heard of, The Children of Shallowford. It contained unusually characterful photos of the Williamson children, and appeared to be autobiographical and direct in style. It is an indication of my relative indifference to Williamson at this time that I didn’t buy the book immediately. When it was still there a week or two later I decided to give it a chance and quickly recovered some of the innocent pleasure with which I had first discovered Williamson.
The Children begins in the period when Tarka was being written, but the real interest of the book lies elsewhere. The narrative comes across as episodic and almost improvisatory. Abrupt shifts of voice and perspective break up and sometimes threaten the simple account of family life. Here, in the opening pages, an anxious Williamson is coming back to the house, where his wife is in the very last stages of pregnancy:
Down there, where water gleamed in the plains behind the sandhills, lay Wildernesse Manor, the scene of my book about an ex-soldier of the Great War, who tried to alter the thought of England. All my hopes were in that book. I hoped it would change the pattern of the European mind.
Loetetia was doing housework, yet moving slower than usual. She smiled that she was all right. I repeated what the midwife had said. Would I mind only boiled eggs for lunch, she had meant to go up to the shop, but hadn’t been able to. She cooked three eggs, two for me, but could not eat all of her egg, so I finished it.
Williamson depicts his children with unvarnished honesty and curiosity: their frustrations, rages and bafflement at the world and the constraints put on them by adults are as fascinating to Williamson as their individual characters. Tarka has flashes of cosmic poetry but its greatest achievement may lie in persuading readers that they are experiencing the world through the senses and intelligence of an otter. The Children is similar in its attention to the minutest detail of a child’s behaviour:
Later when he was weaned, and bottle-fed, John often fell asleep with the rubber teat of the bottle resting against his lips. He had a queer way of feeding himself from the bottle. Lying on his back in the pram, he would bend his legs back and clasp the bottle with the soles of his feet. Then, turning it around so that the rubber teat was down towards his mouth, he bent his legs lower until he was sucking. His hands clasped his ankles, and thus he would sleep for hours when the bottle was empty.
More surprisingly, Williamson describes periods when he felt alienated from the easier understanding between his wife and children or from the children’s unselfconscious living in the moment; he also describes rages during which he physically chastised the children and the efforts he had to make to regain their trust. One passage shows apprehension on the part of both his wife and his eldest boy: ‘She is afraid of me, I thought; of my ceaseless criticism. That was how my books were rewritten, with a sparrowhawk slash.’
On certain matters, the author of The Children of Shallowford can be convicted of degrees of dissimulation or diplomatic silence, but the book is extraordinary in several regards: it exposes the author’s own fretfulness, impatience and even cruelty, as well as his egotism as a writer; it acknowledges the dark side of fatherhood; and it conveys, in an uncondescending and unsentimental way, the children’s individuality, intensity of feeling and discovery of language. Much more could be said about the book, and indeed about the way in which honesty, rearrangement, self-pity, delusion, myth-making and invention are played out in Henry Williamson’s life and writing.
The discovery of The Children of Shallowford brought an end to my alienation from Williamson. It led me to re-read Tarka, to explore or rediscover various other books of his and to learn something of his life. My dislike of his politics is unchanged; and, if anything, I am more aware than previously of the rebarbative aspects of his character. Why, then, am I willing today to re-engage with his work – even though I realise that a gap in the narrative of The Children of Shallowford represents the period when Williamson went to Germany and listened admiringly to Hitler at Nuremberg? I have, I hope, a more sophisticated grasp of the relationship between writer and text, between the writer’s intention and what the work expresses, and between political values and the complex world in which they must be realised, than I had when I abruptly stopped reading Williamson. In a passage quoted earlier, he wrote of his one-time ambition ‘to change the European mind’. That, despite his personal experience of war, he had almost no understanding of history and politics, that he had almost none of the intellectual equipment needed for the massive task he set himself, is clear enough. There is almost nothing in his work, fiction or non-fiction, that presents an articulate or persuasive case for his beliefs, which are more a confused set of angers and projected dreams than a coherent program of any kind.
Here is another passage from the opening pages of The Children. Williamson has just made a cup of tea for his wife:
We had been married eight and a half months. Not altogether had they been happy months, in part for reasons which probably go back to my childhood; and also for difference in mind or nature. Loetetia was serene, because not quickly imaginative; I was too often agitated because vividly imaginative. She got things done by patience; I achieved only in nervous flashes, though in my own peculiar way, I was tenacious, even enduring. I was a rebel against things as they were; she asked only to be free from interference, when she would work long and patiently. My mind, new-made with meditations arising from the battlefields, was striving always to dissolve the crystallized thought of the pre-War minds about me. It took a World war to crack the crystals of the European consciousness; but hard, selfish, unimaginative fragments were lacerating to youth, which dreamed of fairer things.
The pattern is inescapable. Again and again, in his novels, his autobiographical writings, his letters and in his everyday existence, Williamson was drawn back to his experience at the front, to the moment during the Christmas 1914 truce when he saw the common humanity of the German soldiers he faced, and to the memory of all his dead comrades. Today it is possible to see that, after four years as a soldier, with all the horrors he witnessed and partook in, Williamson never escaped from the war. In today’s language, he could be seen as having spent most of his adult writing life as a victim of trauma. It is possible to disapprove of most of the conclusions he drew from his experience, but is it possible or legitimate for those of us who have experienced nothing like the hell that he lived through to adopt a position of moral judgement towards him? In his life and in his writing, and very often unsuccessfully, Williamson attempted to work his way out of the confusion and pain with which the war burdened him.
As a writer, Henry Williamson prized an objective hardness of vision, a separation from self, but combined with a loving attention to and acceptance of life in all its detail. This he tended to associate with a particular sunlight – most notably in the ‘ancient sunlight’ mentioned in Tarka, in the closing paragraph of The Sun in the Sands and, of course, in the title of the sequence of novels which he saw as his greatest achievement. Often, the particularities of his own existence and temperament obstructed the realisation of that vision. We can now recognise that Tarka is indeed one more contribution to the great tradition of English nature writing, but that it is also a war book, an attempt to reach an accepting vision of a brutal world:
Hanging from the branch of a tree in this preserve were the corpses of many vairs and fitches, some green, others hairless and dry, some with brown blood clotting broken paws and noses. All showed their teeth in death, as in life.
The equality in death between Tarka and his great antagonist Deadlock speaks to the same theme. That Tarka can also be a children’s book is one more demonstration of how life and literature are always liable to escape the categories by which we attempt to understand them.
This essay has explored childhood and adult reading, and the threads that join them, through an exploration of the role of Tarka and its author in one reader’s life. There is a further aspect to this story. In the years since I first encountered Tarka, I have learnt a lot about Irish history and British history, about their interconnection, and about how they fit into the broader patterns of European and world history. I have also written about, and explored with others, the place of WWI in Irish and English history and literature. The area is a fraught one, requiring (ideally) a balance of critical analysis and imaginative sympathy. For an Irish reader, one aspect of this exploration is the ability to recognise the role played by a certain memory, or vision, or myth, of ‘England’s green and pleasant land’, within the sprawling enterprise that was the British empire. Lifelong familiarity with Williamson’s work, and with English nature writing more broadly, have contributed to this in my own case.
Thus, as I stood by the Clashawley river in Tipperary and was enthralled by the beauty of an otter in motion, I was both a reader and an observer; both a child and an adult; both in Tipperary and in Devon; both in Ireland and in England. It is this doubleness that marks the difference between childhood and adulthood, and it is consciousness of such doubleness and the effort to understand it that constitutes critical reading.
Barra Ó Seaghdha has contributed essays, interviews, reviews and other writings in the fields of cultural and intellectual history, music, politics and poetry to a wide variety of publications. He edited a special feature on contemporary music in Ireland for Enclave Review (ER 16) in 2018. ‘Thomas Davis, the Arts, and Music: A Reassessment’ appeared in Éire/Ireland (Spring/Summer 2019). He supplied the text for Barry Guy’s composition Flyways (for mezzo soprano, piano and string quartet). His most recent publication is the introduction to Benjamin Dwyer’s Music Autopsies: Essays and Interviews (1999–2022), (Wolke Verlag, 2023).