Jonathan Law on Henry Williamson, Slightly Foxed Issue 35

Tarka the Rotter

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If we’re honest, most of us have at least one friend who we would hesitate to bring into civilized company – someone too strange or socially awkward, full of crazed notions about God or politics, given to boring on or making horrible scenes: unspeakable when drunk. Something similar holds with writers: there are books and authors that we love quite unreasonably but would hesitate to introduce to anyone nice. Often, these are the authors we read and read again, however many times we’ve given them up in despair or disgust, promising ourselves that we won’t soil another moment in their company. As with many a difficult friendship, you can end up wondering who is abusing whom. Some knotty thoughts arise: doesn’t allowing ourselves to feel ashamed of someone, anyone, always make us feel a bit ashamed of ourselves? Doesn’t it imply a priggishness – at worst a kind of treachery?

The bothersome chap who prompts these thoughts is Henry Williamson – author of Tarka the Otter (1927), some lesser-known but exquisitely written animal stories, and twenty or so full-length novels, now largely unread except by a small band of cultists. Williamson seems a man made for mixed feelings: a naturalist of rare gifts, a writer with a unique voice and vision, but unquestionably a bore, a crank and – here it gets critical – an overt, unapologetic Nazi. His friends seem to have found him exasperating but lovable – a strangely feral, childlike creature: others saw something very dark and had the perfect ready-made nickname for him: Tarka the Rotter.

There’s a queasy fascination in seeing how this gifted, rather gentle man ended up where he did, a literary pariah still babbling shamelessly about Hitler as a ‘chaste saint above earthly impulses’ and a ‘flawed Christ killed by the lack of imagination of others’ in his novels of the 1960s; that, however, is a tale for another time. For the moment, I want to stay with the acceptable side of Will

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About the contributor

Jonathan Law is a writer and editor of reference books and a director of Market House Books Ltd. In The Dabbler Jonathan delves even deeper into the strange mind of Henry Williamson in some follow-up articles.

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