… in a hollow oak by a woodland river

December 28, 2012

Swinging back to those glorious years for English literature between the two world wars, I come to Tarka the Otter.  I am somewhat conflated in my memories by the fascist leanings of its author.  He gave explicit support to Moseley's Brown Shirts and in the 60s his novels reference Hitler as some form of flawed Christ.  So he is not an author you would necessarily invite to dinner.  However his books were foundational to Ted Hughes, one of the great poets of the modern age.  His detailed observation of nature, and his raw naturalism place him in the pantheon of British eccentrics who can be forgiven much, or at the least their writing does not have to be tainted by their political attitudes.  He is also to be complimented in refusing Disney offers and instead granted rights to wildlife documentary film-maker David Cobham.  The screenplay by Gerald Durrell and Ustinov's narration match the rhythms of the writing itself – something in common here with Dylan Thomas.

One much quoted passage from Tarka illustrates the power of his writing:

By night the great stars flickered as with falcon wings, the watchful and glittering hosts of creation. The moon arose in its orbit, white and cold, awaiting through the ages the swoop of a new sun, the shock of starry talons to shatter the icicle spirit in a rain of fire. In the south strode Orion the Hunter, with Sirius the Dogstar baying green fire at his heels. At midnight Hunter and Hound were rushing bright in a glacial wind, hunting the false star dwarfs of burnt-out suns, who had turned back into Darkness again.

I remember thrilling to the flow of images, the sense of unity in nature and the cycle of life which is the heart of both Tarka and its “sequel” Salar.  I also trembled in my bed with a torch beneath the sheets (why I should I stop reading just because it was past bedtime?) when I read the section in which the Holt provides the only protection from the ferocious otter hounds in particular the terrifying Deadlock and the saga of the interaction between Tarka and his nemesis from the birth of Tarka to his deadlock on Deadlock in the final scene, forms a spine to the story as a whole.

Before the book Otters were considered as pests, but this one book radically changed public perception.  Tarka's first mate Greymuzzle's courage and sacrifice deserves a better death than the farmer's iron bar.  His second mate White-Tip fares little better and looses two litters of cubs.  This has none of the saccharine banalities of Disney and Williamson was right in one thing at least, refusing permission to that destroyer of narrative.

My sister and I named our canoe for the otter and on Llyn Tegid and Porth Colmon recreating the wandering aspect that his name evokes.  All of North Devon is now Tarka country and the Tarka Trail one of the great cycling routes.  There are child care centres, cafes and hotels all of which celebrate the name.

If course one of the strengths of Williamson's writing is his sense of Cynefin, time compressed in nature, needing to be understood or rather lived.  A final quote from the opening chapter will illustrate this:

Below Canal Bridge, on the right bank, grew twelve great trees, with roots awash.  Thirteen had stood there – eleven oaks and two ash trees – the the oak nearest the North Star had never thriven, since first a pale green shoot had pushed out of a swelled black accord left by floods on the bank more than three centuries before.  in its second year a bullock's hoof had crushed the seedling, breaking its two ruddy leaves, and the sapling gee up crooked.  The cleft of its fork held the rain of two hundred years, until frost made a wedge of ice that split the trunk.  And one rainy night, when salmon and peal from the sea were swimming against the brown rushing water, the three had suddenly gowned.  Every toot carried the groans of the moving trunk, and the voles ran in fear from their tunnels.  It rocked until dawn; and when the wind left the land it gave a loud cry, scaring the white owl from its roost, and fell into the river as the run was rising.

The writing is all of that poetic quality, it suck me in as a child both with the power of the narrative, but also the power of the language to invoke a world of which we all remain a part.  And of course it is the oak in which Tarka's life starts, and nearly ends.

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