THE nearest neighbours are a mile away on a back road, the nearest village shop three miles. A nuthatch, woodpecker and goldfinch are wing-elbowing at the seed table with up to 20 other species, only yards from the door. This is naturalist Richard Williamson’s daily life, deep in ancient woodland near Chichester, West Sussex. He and his wife, Anne, have quietly revelled in cottage detachment for 50 years, with or without the usual facilities. Being at the heart of Nature is what life is about for these octogenarians, with Beethoven’s 9th Symphony joyfully resounding as a motif.
The key year was 1943, when eight-year-old Richard received a copy of his father Henry’s book, Tarka the Otter—‘a battered copy that thrilled me by its construction and rhythm, plus the drama and detail of things I was already absorbing on our war-time Norfolk farm at Stiffkey’. It might not be unusual for a child to be profoundly affected by their parent, but to share it with the world is less common. ‘That book has changed more than just my life,’ he reflects. ‘Ted Hughes said in his memorial address on Father’s death, in 1977, that Henry was “an essential, precious and crucial part of my life, creating a genuine poetic mythology in the tradition of Tolstoy… an imaginative vision, intensely controlled at every point by imaginative laws, and it does the real work of poetry”.
‘Tarka is a tone poem throughout,’ Richard believes. ‘Read the first sentence and you are at once with Gray’s Elegy. Salar the Salmon, too, is a complete chronicle of poetry, driven by a rare sense of musical rhythm. But these tales are also allegories of his life-and-death Great War experiences. For all the legendary lyricism of poets such as Tennyson, Clare, Edward Thomas and Dylan Thomas, I continue to find Father’s writing has an unequalled visceral quality enveloping one in basic Nature, feeling every shock and sweetness.’
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August 12, 2020