Henry Williamson: Dreamer of Devon

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HENRY WILLIAMSON is mainly known as the author of Tarka the Otter, a book praised by Thomas Hardy, John Galsworthy, Lawrence of Arabia, and many others, and which won for him the prestigious Hawthornden Prize for Literature in 1928. But this controversial and eccentric man actually encompassed an enormously wide range of writing from his life’s experiences:

 — soldier, writer, broadcaster, naturalist, farmer and, above all, visionary writer —

 In fact, he wrote over fifty books, including:

 THE FLAX OF DREAM – his early four-volume tetralogy

TARKA THE OTTERSALAR THE SALMONTHE PATRIOT’S PROGRESS – a stark story of the First World War

A CHRONICLE OF ANCIENT SUNLIGHT – a fifteen-volume, semi-autobiographical saga which details the life of Phillip Maddison and his family from the turn of the century until the 1950s.
Born in south-east London in 1895, Henry Williamson’s love of nature was instilled from an early age. From the then semi-rural London suburb of Brockley he was within easy access of the Kent countryside and roamed there freely. Although his father loved cycling, collecting butterflies and moths and flying kites, his strict unbending Victorian attitudes were the cause of much unhappiness in the home. Father and son could not communicate; beatings were frequent. School was an escape but contained its own horrors. But on his mother’s side there were relations in Bedfordshire to which frequent visits were made, and which provided a more relaxed atmosphere. These early years and the atmosphere of life at the turn of the century are recaptured in the early Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight volumes.

 

Henry Williamson spent a holiday in North Devon just before the outbreak of the First World War, and becoming enthralled with the wild scenery so in keeping with his own sensitive and passionate nature, he vowed to return. He was a soldier in the First World War and there are several books detailing those traumatic years. After the war was over he determined to become a writer. In 1921 he left home and went to live in North Devon. Many early books paint a portrait of a long-vanished country life in the Devon village of Georgeham. The Second World War found him a farmer in Norfolk, determined that sound agriculture was the answer to England’s problems. Again his experiences, hopes and dreams are recorded in several books. After this war was over, he returned to Devon where he lived for the rest of his life, writing A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight.

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Henry Williamson’s temperament was difficult and artistic. His lively mind had the power of total recall. His opinions were emphatic and idiosyncratic. Although a loyal friend he frequently offended people and upset many. Influences on his life included Richard Jefferies, W.H. Hudson, Francis Thompson, Richard Wagner and Delius, while he was proud of his friendship with T.E. Lawrence.

Williamson attended the 1935 Nuremberg Congress and was impressed by the economic and social achievements of Germany whilst the British continued to languish in poverty and unemployment. He saw a racial community based on the values of land and a revived peasantry, freed from banker’s interest, guaranteed from foreclosure, and the pioneering conservation laws and projects. Williamson saw in the faces of the German people expressiveness and confidence that looked as if they were “breathing, extra oxygen” as he put it.

In the Hitler Youth, reminiscent of his days as a Boy Scout, Williamson observed: “the former pallid leer of hopeless slum youth transformed into the suntan, the clear eye, the broad and easy rhythm of the poised young human being”.

“The young in the Third Reich were growing up to have strong and healthy bodies, faith in the future of their country and in themselves and a sense of fellowship and camaraderie that shattered all class and economic and social barriers. I thought of that later, in the May days of 1940, when along the road between Aachen and Brussels one saw the contrasts between the German soldiers, bronzed and clean cut from a youth spent in the sunshine on an adequate diet, and the first British war prisoners, with their hollow chests, round shoulders, pasty complexions and bad teeth – tragic examples of the youth that England had neglected so irresponsibly in the years between the wars.”

To Williamson, National Socialist Germany represented “…a race that moves on poles of mystic, sensual delight. Every gesture is a gesture from the blood, every expression a symbolic utterance. Everything is of the blood, of the senses.”

Opposed to war and believing that wars were caused by Jewish “usurial moneyed interests”, he was attracted to Oswald Mosley‘s British Union of Fascists, and joined it in 1937.

On the day of the British and French declaration of war on Germany Williamson suggested to friends that he might fly to Germany to speak with Hitler in order to persuade him away from war. Following a meeting with Mosley later that day however he was dissuaded from his plan. At the start of World War II Williamson was briefly held under Defence Regulation 18B for his political views, but was released after only a weekend in police custody.Visiting London in January 1944, he observed with satisfaction that the ugliness and immorality represented by its financial and banking sector had been “relieved a little by a catharsis of high explosive” and somewhat “purified by fire”. And, “in The Gale of the World, the last book of his Chronicle, published in 1969, Williamson has his main character Phillip Maddison question the moral and legal validity of the Nuremberg Trials“.

Williamson initially retained a close relationship with Mosley in the immediate aftermath of the war, but when he brought Mosley as his guest to the Savage Club, the former BUF leader was promptly ejected by club staff.Williamson refused Mosley’s request that he join the newly established Union Movement and indeed his suggestion to Mosley that he should instead join him in abandoning politics altogether led to the two men falling out. Nonetheless Williamson did write for Mosley’s theoretical journal The European. He also continued to express admiration for aspects of National Socialist Germany after the war.

 

Above all he was a great writer. His basic belief was in ‘the power of ancient sunlight’ and he sought to see the world as the sun sees it – without shadows. His descriptions and natural history detail and his evocation of the atmospheric moods of nature are part of the great heritage of English natural history writings. His descriptions of life in the trenches at the time of the First World War, based on first hand experience, are considered by many to be the finest of their kind, while the great work of his mature years, A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight, stands as a true statement of the social history of this country in all its varied detail, enveloped in an attractive and compelling story.

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Published in: on November 28, 2016 at 7:44 pm  Leave a Comment  

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