Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Henry Williamson: A Dreaming Youth in the Crucible of War


by John Roberts 
(ESA No 53, July/August 2014)

John Roberts is a long-standing member of the Henry Williamson Society
This is his contribution to the centenary of the outbreak of war in August 1914

‘Henry Williamson: Nazi sympathiser’. As recently as the 1990s, a Times Review referred to the great English writer as such. An indication of how brain-washed and fundamentally narrow-minded the British literary establishment and their cohorts can be.

Henry Williamson
Somehow, this made me into a Henry Williamson sympathiser; I instinctively divined that here was a misunderstood man, there was an immediate empathy. Williamson was an outsider. I’ve always felt something of an outsider myself; maybe one of the reasons Robert Edwards has me on his staff as one of the writers for European Socialist Action! I’ve never been an unreasonable individual but somehow that doesn’t count. They know we are different, so they take against us. So we look elsewhere. In my case, ESA.

Henry Williamson had a good devoted family, good friends and, most of all, good wives (although maybe he did not treat them as he knew he should). Yet he remained an outsider to the Establishment.

I became a member of the Henry Williamson Society in 2005. The society has a few hundred members world-wide and produces two excellent publications each year; a newsletter in the spring and a literary journal in the summer. In 2006, I joined a tour of the battlefields of Northern France. The Lochnagar Crater, Thiepval Memorial, Delville Wood, Beaumont Hamel, Cambrai, Orival Wood Cemetery, the Sambre Canal, Serre Road 11 cemetery and the Arras Memorial. We paid tribute to other poets and writers, often buried in small walled cemeteries in the middle of fields. There was evidence of the ‘Iron Harvest’, shells at the roadsides awaiting disposal. Every year, hundreds surface on fields being ploughed by farmers. Sometimes there are deaths and injuries through these devices, even though they are nearly one hundred years old.

Half a century ago (could it be so long?) the BBC broadcast a landmark documentary series whereby soldiers and civilians who had survived the First World War shared their personal experiences. Clearly someone at the BBC recognised that this would be the last real opportunity to hear a substantial number of experiences from these gentlemen.

Thousands of soldiers responded to appeals to take part in the original series. In total, seventy hours of interviews were filmed, of which 55 hours survive, having been kept in the Imperial War Museum. Julia Cave, the researcher who conducted the original interviews at Ealing Studios, said, “It has always been said that they didn’t talk about the war but there were a lot who did want to do so”.

As over a million feet of film were made, inevitably for logistical reasons a process of editing had to take place, condensing the footage to a manageable though substantial 26 one hour episodes.

The men, in their late sixties at that time, but still spry and looking dapper by today’s standards, dispassionately describe the fear, filth and noise of death. Their detachment makes it all the more affecting. Henry Williamson was among these men.

In March this year, a programme was shown on BBC2, I Was There: The Great War Interviews. 85 per cent of those shown in this had never been seen. This cache of previously unseen testimonies were deemed too emotional for broadcast in the 1960s with the Second World War relatively fresh in the public’s mind. The programme makers of the time preferred to concentrate on the more traditional history of the conflict.

Late 1982: I was 25. An 18 month relationship with a girl four years younger had broken up. I embarked on a relationship with Lucy, a divorcee woman in her late thirties (she lived at Moseley in Birmingham, somewhat ironically); we both knew that this was just a fling and was not meant to last. I was working on British Rail as a trainee engine driver. The irregular hours were starting to wear me down. I was also getting fed up with the canteen politics.

Some years previous, I had read short stories and essays by D H Lawrence. Lawrence had an outsider status with which I could indentify, although he was still vilified by the mainstream literary establishment. One day, browned off with the mess-room politics, I took a stroll into the concourse of Leeds City railway station. I dropped in on John Menzies’ newsagent shop and something caught my eye. A paperback of Dandelion Days by Henry Williamson. A new reprint with a detail of ‘A Cottar’s Garden’ by Edward Kingston Brice; roses in the foreground, a brick farmhouse barn in the middle distance and fields stretching beyond to blue remembered hills in an azure summer afternoon haze. Here was a find.

‘Second in THE FLAX OF DREAM sequence’, it stated below the title. Now, this was something fresh and intriguing. I had heard of Tarka the Otter, although I had never read it. I had seen the film; it was the only film that actually made my younger brother, Mark, cry. I never forget that. The film was actually made at the time of Henry’s death in 1977.

As time went on, I saw the odd article on Henry Williamson. I still have a pair of clippings from the 1990s; one a review from The Times about a BBC Radio 3 programme called The Trials of Henry Williamson.

Although basically favourable, the reviewer can not resist the title, “Was he an otter fool?”. Under HW’s photograph it says, ‘Henry Williamson: a lifelong conservationist and popular author with Nazi sympathies’.

The review goes on: “Known to most of us only as the creator of Tarka the Otter, Williamson was a life-long conservationist, alert to the need for husbanding of the earth’s resources as far back as the 1920s. Conservation was also a theme of the Nazis, a connection to Williamson which is more than coincidental”.

It then goes on to say how HW died in obscurity in 1977 and how his ‘lack of recognition in this country owed something to his support for Hitler’. Williamson refused to moderate his views. You could say HW comes with form or baggage.

Later, through my membership of the HW Society (founded in 1980; an excellent website), I obtained a blue cloth-bound copy of The Flax of Dream one-volume sequence. As this was a pre-war edition, it still had these words in the foreword: “I salute the great man across the Rhine whose life symbol is the happy child”. Words which would seal his fate and make him a hostage to fortune as far as his reputation went. Yet The Flax of Dream is dedicated to “All who fought for freedom in the Second World War and are still fighting”.

Of course, hindsight is wonderful and Williamson was far from alone in believing it. Yes, it did seem that Germany was rising from the ashes, hopefully, firmly and in full employment, whereas in England the heroes of the First World War lived in slums and some men had never worked since the war.

HW’s pre-war friendship with Sir Oswald Mosley has not been forgotten nor forgiven. Henry once painted the BUF flash symbol on the wall of his Norfolk farm at Stiffkey where he farmed despite the agricultural depression of the time.

He later referred to Hitler as a Luciferic figure; a Fallen Angel. In spite of this, his reputation became clouded. He called World War II ‘The Hitlerian War’.

I ignored these attempts to besmirch this man and proceeded to investigate both man and writings.

Indians of the sub-continent (both participating and otherwise) name The Great War the European Civil War. There you have it, in one.

Henry Williamson died unhonoured in his eighties. With the exception of Tarka the Otter (found today, if you are lucky, in the junior section of most libraries) he is only read now by a faithful few.

He could not come to terms with the deadly phenomenon of incited patriotic fervour, with its power to drive men into a hell of other men’s devising .... Like many others who survived the test to destruction, he could not adjust to peace.

In 1928, having found some peace in the countryside of Devon, he reported the Cenotaph ceremony for the Daily Mirror: “For us the wreaths are a symbol for all poor men of The Great War. The dead are of no nation”.

Henry won the Hawthornden Prize for Tarka in 1928. Henry was hunted by the fame of the book, as Ted Hughes said. As if he had never written anything else.

Hughes explained there was another Henry, hounded by the memory of war.

“In Patriots Progress we see that spirit of Tarka - a wild super-sensitive creature - hurled into the dreadful world of modern history .... It is one of the best records of trench warfare and it describes one of the key experiences of Henry’s life”.

The Henry Williamson Society hold a study day early each spring at the Swedenborg Hall in Holborn, London. This year featured a talk by Peter Bunton entitled “Tarka as an analogy of World War One”.

A Daily Telegraph review referred to “the intolerable genius of Henry Williamson”.

A Chronicle of .... resurrects the past with extraordinary intensity. HW had an unsurpassed sense of social history. A Chronicle .... has a breadth, a scope which makes it truly the history of a period rather than merely personal.

Ted Hughes spoke of the ‘radiance’ of HW’s writing. Someone unfamiliar with HW saw him speak on the March BBC documentary on The Great War: “Mesmerising” was the word used.

HW was a man of prodigious creative and spiritual energy. He knew Brocard Sewell of Aylesford Priory, a man in sympathy with Henry in all aspects. Personally, I feel Henry would  have made a very good Roman Catholic. He wrote articles for the Aylesford Review, a literary and theological quarterly publish by the Carmelite Order. 
He always refused payment.

Ted Hughes, in his address at St Martin-in-the-Fields on December 1st 1977, said of Henry: “He was untamed and he was free. A full, clear flame, as D H Lawrence would have said. He was always different, emotional, outrageous, amusing. It was Tarka - still wild, alert, open to everything, ready for anything. It was what pulsed through the best of his writing. It was genuinely him and it was beautiful”.

Henry Williamson was an extraordinarily sensitive child, nervous and highly strung. Always frightened of doing the wrong thing and getting into trouble. He was “born unhappy”. Early photographs show a small boy with vast luminously anxious eyes. He was frightened of his father, William Leopold Williamson - a typically stern and withdrawn Victorian man, also described as a remote, irritable and “neurotically fastidious” figure.

Williamson had two sisters who enjoyed the softer approach afforded to young girls. He was irritated by his ‘fey’ mother who was “always fearful; and that feeling upset others”. She did not “click or fit” with her husband and, in his adolescence, HW did not feel she stood up to his hectoring father.

Henry Williamson’s daughter-in-law remarked that his ‘fascism’ is part of his Romanticism. “Early fascism with its belief in national renewal through sun-bronzed youth had its utopian aspects”. Discuss? We might well!

Williamson is sometimes excused his ‘naïve’ flirtation with fascism. His so-called ‘failure to recant’ is not. HW remained faithful to the ideas of Oswald Mosley all his life. What is not recognised is that fascism as a political idea was all but dead by 1945. Oswald Mosley had moved on; HW appears in a photograph at his home (Ox’s Cross) in the 1950s reading The European.

Williamson wrote The Flax of Dream, a quartet brilliantly evoking the peace of England between the great wars and the unspoiled innocence of the Devon countryside. But, as we know, in the 1930s the shadows lengthened. Williamson was deeply troubled by international trends. He saw it all happening again .... another brothers’ war, no less.

In the early 1920s, HW moved to Devon, renting a thatched Cob cottage at Ox’s Cross, Georgeham, on the coast near Appledore.

Henry Williamson gave, in the Patriots Progress and his Chronicle .... novels, the most accurate account of the 1914 Christmastide truce in the trenches of Belgium. The chief character in the Patriots Progress is an ordinary ‘Everyman’ named John Bullock. The book title and ‘John Bullock’ are a nod to John Bunyan’s A Pilgrims Progress. Not a hero - an ordinary English bloke.

Here is what he wrote in a pencilled letter home dated December 26th 1914. A small Union Jack was pinned to the top of the page:

Dear Mother,

    I am writing from the trenches. It is 11 o’clock in the morning. Beside me is a coke fire, opposite a ‘dug-out’ (wet) with straw in it. The ground is sloppy in the actual trench but frozen elsewhere. In my mouth is a pipe presented by Princess Mary. In the pipe is tobacco .... in the pipe is German tobacco. Ha Ha, you say, from a prisoner or from a captured trench.

    Oh dear, no! From a German soldier. Yes, a live German soldier from his own trench. Yesterday the British and Germans met and shook hands .... and exchanged souvenirs. Yes, all day Christmas Day .... Marvellous, isn’t it? This is only for about a mile or two on either side of us (so far as we know). On Xmas eve both armies sang carols and cheered and there was very little firing. The Germans (in some places 80 yards away) called to our men to come and fetch a cigar and our men told them to come to us. This went on for some time, neither fully trusting the other .... a bold Tommy crept out and stood between the trenches and immediately a Saxon came to meet him. They shook hands and laughed and then 16 Germans came out. Thus the ice was broken.

    Our men are speaking to them now. They are Landsturmers or Landwehr, I think, and Saxons and Bavarians (no Prussians). Many are gentle looking men in goatee beards and spectacles, and some are very big and arrogant-looking. I have some cigarettes which I shall keep and a cigar I have smoked. We had a burial service in the afternoon, over the dead Germans who perished in the last attack that was repulsed against us. The Germans put “For Fatherland and Freedom” on the cross. They obviously think their cause is a just one. Many of the Germans here, are or were, waiters. Thank Efford for his chocolate, Auntie Belle for the cigarettes .... my toes are frostbitten now .... working all night at digging .... sleeping in wet and mud. Where we are billeted (8 of us in a cottage in a town which is shelled now and again) we have a good time ....”

Unknown to Henry, his father arranged to have this letter printed in the Daily Express, the first known published example of HW’s work. I was a little surprised that the letter got through the Field Censor but it obviously did.

From this experience came his life-long and passionate belief that wars were created through misunderstanding.

The foreword to the one-volume edition of A Flax of Dream goes thus: On Christmas Day 1914, the author of this history had a conversation with a young soldier of the 133rd Saxon Regiment in no-man’s land, in front of the  Bois de Ploegsteert. Although he did not realise it at the time, that experience altered his entire conception of the world.

Yes, football matches did occur but these were played behind German lines, “I said to a German, how can you be fighting for freedom? You started the war and we are fighting for freedom. The German replied, “Do not let us quarrel on Christmas Day”.

“Come on over, Tommy, come over”, someone said. Very soon we were exchanging gifts. Williamson recalled: “The whole of no-man’s land was grey and khaki. There they were smoking and talking, shaking hands, exchanging addresses to write to one another”.

The truce lasted four days before an order came round that fraternisation had to stop.

The Germans sent over a note saying senior officers were visiting that night and that they would have to fire their guns but would do so high.

“We crept out, trying to avoid our boots ringing on the frozen ground and expecting any moment to fall flat with the machine guns opening up. And nothing happened. And within two hours we were walking about, laughing and talking”.

In 1964, HW went with Kerstin Hegarty and a press photographer to France. It was the fiftieth anniversary of World War I. Henry had been commissioned to write a series of articles for The London Evening Standard.

Hegarty writes, “This was a strangely moving experience - one that is difficult to convey in words. The atmosphere of that sombre, sad part of France and Flanders, although so orderly and peaceful now was still blood-soaked. The articles were called ‘Return to Hell’ .... we first went to Vimy Ridge and in the final paragraph of the first article he wrote, “Now, after nearly fifty years, I find myself upon these ancient battlefields to report on - what? In me there lives the ghost of my young self, compassionate, estranged, accepting all things with clarity”.

“We went to the German graveyard, ‘The Labyrinth’ .... acres and acres of black crosses: a very different place from the beautifully kept British and French cemeteries.

Plugstreet Wood: in the middle of what seems a haven for nature lies a small British cemetery: gentle, very rural and not too immaculate. Tender, young and wild. Sadly, so much youth has perished there.

How quiet it is. A nightingale is singing. “Summer, summer, summer, the soundless football in the grass”. Gossamers drift. Faraway in the depths of the wood a dove is moaning .... dappled shadows fall on these quiet headstones within the mason’d walls. These oaks must be eighty years old at least. How did they survive that frightful bombardment in April 1918, during the Germans’ last drive for the Channel ports?

Look at this one, please.

R. Barnett
The Rifle Brigade
19th December 1914, Age 15

Below, carved the Star of David. He was of Stoke Newington in London.
The eyes drop their tribute salt.

The Arras memorial includes Driver Frith of the Machine Gun Corps. Driver Willis-Frith died in June 1917 aged 20. Driver Frith was a member of Henry’s platoon, listed as the cold shoer for the company’s mules.

In April 2006, John Gregory, who writes publications for the HWS, including re-issues of Henry’s magazine and newspaper articles, read a poignant passage from one of Henry’s books, documenting the tragic ending of Driver Frith and his gallant and ever-loyal mule.

A highly emotional few minutes. Henry’s words by the Arras memorial.

My regard for the HW Society is immense but if I am being honest I do have a small quibble with them. They make the disclaimer that the society is ‘non-political’. Why is it really necessary to say that? They are often at pains to point out that HW was ‘never a fascist’. One would never say  that the Jane Austen, Bronte or Oscar Wilde literary societies are ‘non-political’, would you? Methinks they ‘protesteth too much’, to quote a well-used phrase of Jane Austen.

In 1973, his documentary BBC The Vanishing Hedgerows introduced him to many more; it will take a series based on The Flax of Dream or The Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight to purge the contempt and re-establish his reputation. Anthony Powell’s ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’ (a huge Proustian series tracking the early and mid-20th century) was made into a television drama; so why not HW’s masterpieces?

Ted Hughes, a good friend of Henry and reader of a tribute at his funeral, could call a deserved truce:

“If one ignores the superficial errors of judgement he might have made in trying to adjust his ideas to the practical world of politics and instead look into the heart of his books .... one sees a consistency. He was blessed with an intense vision of the world and a genius for expressing it .... He added some  masterpieces to the literature of this country”.

I attended a HWS study day a few years ago; on display was a fascinating collection of memorabilia relating to Henry. Including his BUF membership card. Politics was of importance to him. It seems disingenuous to suggest otherwise.

Disingenuous and one sided. How many writers, artists and indeed, ‘mainstream’ politicians have had a dalliance with communism, a creed which produced monsters who make Adolf Hitler look like an angel in comparison. Yet their reputations are intact; just a wee risqué. Flirtation, that’s all it was. Not so for Henry Williamson.

Anthony Burgess, the novelist, was a fan but, again, he writes, “In the later volumes (by HW) a pro-fascist tone prevails, an almost manic bitterness, far from acceptable”.

I felt I had to cut through thickets of prejudice to discover the man himself. The semi-biographical saga A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight, the 15 books of which received scant attention, give a marvellously detailed picture of suburban life on the outer rim of London over the turn of the 20th century; the encroachment of town on country; the decay of the old order. Not for nothing has he been named ‘The English Proust’.

Personally, what I divined about Williamson was a gravitas; one I had previously felt with Lawrence.

This was no English sentimentalist; this man was truthful, sincere and he was not playing games. He was, to use boxing parlance, a heavyweight and he had a seriousness of intention.

If you are looking for the lightweight, the frivolous, then do not look at HW. There are dozens of other writers in the canon of English literature you can go to.

For years, if you said the words Henry Williamson, people would reply ‘Tarka the Otter’, then some would mutter ‘fascist’ or ‘pro-fascist’, friend of Mosley, very possibly.

The Radio 3 documentary ‘The Trials of HW’ was sensitive. Tim Pigott-Smith played HW as a young man and Michael Gough the old man. Henry was devastated when his 80th birthday passed by without a Queen’s Honour. Dishonoured.

Henry Williamson was a romantic but not a sentimentalist. Becoming a farmer in Norfolk during a severe agricultural slump “when only fools bought land”, he was well aware of what farmers were pitted against. He was practical man as well as a dreamer.

Henry Williamson joined the London Rifle Brigade (5th City of London Regiment) as Private 9689. He trained at Crowborough camp in Sussex. In May 1915, he obtained a commission as an officer, becoming 2nd lieut. 10th Service Battalion in the Bedfordshire Regiment. He had periods of medical discharge (notably for dysentery) but on 23rd October 1916, for example he was passed fit for Home Service and training re-commenced. On the 1st November he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant with the Machine Gun Corps and also became a transport officer in the Albert/Arras area, working with horses and mules (Spring of 1917).

Henry was demobilised from the army in September 1919. He felt lost; the army had been his whole adult life. He was 24 at this time. Civvy life had been a “shadowy and diminished sphere steadily dissolving since 1914”. He roamed the streets of Sydenham (his birthplace) wondering what to do.

At last, he went to London to visit some of his wartime haunts. “But I might have been a ghost, I drank beer alone, yet with imaginary comrades”.

He was paid his army gratuity and a disability pension; he started writing at night and loafed around during the day but spiritually and emotionally the war never left him. It was to be a number of years before he could psychologically deal with opening up his wartime experiences through his writing.

Henry has been called the English Proust, for his writings recall in vivid detail time now lost.

The Great War was the backbone on which all his subsequent writing hung. His experiences were a crucible that marked everything he did, felt and wrote during the rest of his life. “The shy, almost diffident man Henry always remained had a hidden strength within him which gave him rare courage”, Diana Mosley later wrote in a tribute.

The titles of the individual components of HW’s magnum opus A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight have a mesmerising, almost supernatural or mystical quality, yet they relate directly to the subject in the books. A Test to Destruction (the latter days of The Great War), The Golden Virgin, The Gale of the World, How Dear is Life, A Fox under my Cloak, The Phasian Bird, The Innocent Moon, The Power of the Dead, Love and the Loveless and Lucifer Before Sunrise. The Flax of Dream, the title of his tetralogy, has an almost mystical sensory power.

The First World War has encompassed five volumes of Henry’s masterpiece A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight, acclaimed by many critics as the finest writings on the war, as well as the earlier books The Wet Flanders Plain and The Patriots Progress. Having endured four years of a catastrophic, suicidal war, HW’s main objective was crystallised in his resolve to do his utmost to show the futility of war, the stupidity of its causes and to try to educate the world through the medium of writing and ensure such a war would never happen again.

For us readers of ESA, it is pertinent to sum up Henry’s political views here. Henry Williamson endured. He fought for his country. He was a patriot, above all.

This is epitomised in a letter Henry Williamson wrote to Captain Sir Basil Liddell Hart written from his Norfolk farm on July 9th 1939, immediately before the outbreak of the Second World War.

Williamson, referring to their mutual friendship with T E Lawrence, wrote to invite Liddell Hart to a BUF meeting to take place on the evening of Sunday July 16th at the Earls Court Exhibition Hall. This letter contains the clearest statement in existence that Williamson’s belief and only intent was purely and solely to maintain peace and to prevent another war: 

.... It may be that I suffer from illusions but every experience in The Great War, every thought and feeling I have had since, every word I have struggled to write, finds its meaning and aspiration in the ideas and hopes (still in the pioneer stage) of British Union; and I can not  help believing that in the course of time it will be the means of bringing the truth to our land and people and Empire.
At present it is like Cairo to TEL in 1916 and can not be proved. An idea. 
Please forgive this intrusion if you are busy or disinclined but the way to a peaceful Europe is so different from the usual conception, which seems to be leading direct to war.

Yours faithfully,

Henry Williamson

T E Lawrence would have come to this way of seeing things, I believe, had he lived.

copyright©John Roberts 2014

1 comment:

Robert Edwards said...

Possibly one of John Robert's most important articles. It needs to be read by as many people as possible.
Henry Williamson remains as controversial as ever. Acknowledged as a genius, even by his detractors.

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