Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Off topic

Regular readers know this blog is primarily about music. Well, music and film. And, sometimes, politics. Oh, and budgerigars. But I'm taking a diversion today into treacherously deep waters: the novels of Henry Williamson.

Who, you might ask? Well, you can look him up on Wikipedia or visit the Henry Williamson society, but in short, he was a twentieth-century writer who wrote popular tracts on nature and the English countryside. He's probably best remembered today for his story Tarka the Otter, a book that has remained in print since its first publication in 1927.

This being Pickled Bologna, of course, we're more interested in the books Williamson wrote that have long been out of print. The man was prodigious in his output, completing over 50 books in his lifetime (A relative piker in comparison to his fellow south Londoner, Edgar Wallace, I admit. Incidentally, both he and Wallace lived within walking distance of the gorgeous Hilly Fields in Lewisham--if you've never visited, go! And don't forget to tell Nick Nicely the news!), but the crown jewels of his career were the fifteen volumes constituting a series entitled A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight.

I went through a World War I history phase a year or two back, and at some point stumbled across a reference to the Chronicle. Intrigued and impressed with the weightiness of it all (fifteen full length novels! Now that's entertainment!), I determined to dip my toe into the waters. I tracked down a copy of The Power of the Dead, the 11th volume of the Chronicle, read it, and was instantly hooked--even though I read it out of sequence, which is something I'm generally loath to do.

With an able assist from my parents, I've since managed to acquire an additional seven volumes, have read the first three, and am currently deep into the fourth, How Dear Is Life. The novels are autobiographical, and are renowned for their depictions of the horrors of World War I, but offer rewards far afield from gritty depictions of the battlefield (which don't become a factor until volume 4 anyway). Set in the southernmost suburbs of London, at a time when they were still rural and quite distinct from the Big Smoke itself, the novels relate the story of the Maddison family, with the focus on Philip Maddison, a young man who comes of age during the nineteen-teens. Maddison is, of course, Williamson himself, and the author adeptly recreates the wonders of his childhood and the discomforts of his adolescence and young adulthood, whilst suffusing the books with vivid details of the physical world in which his characters exist.

Imagine, if you will, Thomas Hardy co-writing a book with Charles Dickens, with Hardy toning down Dickens penchant for caricature, whilst still allowing for the richness of character detail we associate with the former boot-blacker. Replace the dark city-scapes and threatening remotes of Copperfield and Twist with the verdant countryside of Return of the Native, squint, and you've almost got A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight.

Though Williamson was a member of the British Union of Fascists in the late 1930s, the Chronicle--written in the 1950s and '60s--actually reflect his pre-Mosleyite socialist roots. Williamson was clearly at odds with his family's old-fashioned Tory politics, and the books display his apparent sympathy for the working-classes and the women's suffrage movement. To read these books now is to relive the final passing of the Victorian era. The Chronicle remains a vital document detailing the arrival of a more hopeful and progressive time, though I'm sure as the series progresses further into its heart of darkness--the trenches of the Western Front--that the brightness and promise of Philip Maddison's life will be dimmed by the harsh taint of reality.

Unfortunately, none of these books are currently in print--but if you have the wherewithal and patience to search for them in used bookstores or at a non-Amazon online site such as Abebooks, you will be richly rewarded. A blurb on the back of How Dear Is Life (my copy cost five shillings when published in paperback by Panther Books in 1963) says the Chronicle is 'one of the few truly great achievements in twentieth-century fiction', and considerations of advertising hyperbole aside, I have to agree.

One final aside: these books would adapt easily to television. There's a hell of a mini-series in here if the BBC were willing to make the investment.

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I am a semi-aquatic marine mammal who enjoys eating fish and krill, as well as taking long underwater swims