Radio: THE TRIALS OF HENRY WILLIAMSON Radio 3

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The Independent Culture
What exactly is the point of drama-documentary? There are lots of possible answers, but a good general one is: to lend some emotional power to what would otherwise be a rather dry collection of facts.

That doesn't go very far towards explaining The Trials of Henry Williamson (Radio 3, Sunday), though. Here we had the bizarre phenomenon of a rather well-made documentary peppered with dramatised sections apparently designed to get over a dry collection of facts with as little emotional impact as possible. Right at the beginning, for instance, the listener was confronted with this slab of dialogue: "Now, sister. Room 204, Mr Williamson. Some sort of writer, isn't he?" "Yes, doctor. He wrote Tarka the Otter." "Tarka the Otter. Ha, yes, of course. I remember reading it as a child."

For information value, I'd rate that fairly high, but it's hard to point to what it conveys that the narrator couldn't have told you in half as many words. Sadly, it set the pace for what was to come.

All this made The Trials of Henry Williamson deeply frustrating to listen to - the more so because it was clearly such a damn good subject. Even if he had written nothing but Tarka, Williamson would be an interesting figure. It isn't a likeable or even a particularly good book, but it is an extraordinary attempt to portray nature in its own terms, without anthropomorphising. These days, it's treated as a children's classic, though it's far too violent to give to any sensitive child; but when it was first published it was taken seriously by the critical establishment, and its influence has been huge. The traditional sequence in every wildlife film in which some harmless, furry herbivore is ripped apart by merciless predators owes a lot to Williamson's animals - always, commented one contributor, red in tooth and claw.

Never red in politics, though: the other notable thing about Williamson was that he was an enthusiastic fascist, even a Nazi - he dedicated one of his books to "The Great Man across the Rhine" and painted a swastika on the wall of his cottage. This provided the cue for a particularly painful bit of dialogue, in which we were shown the connection between Williamson's politics and his love of nature: "The land is decaying," he cries, "the mother of our race is losing fertility." "Yes, dear," his wife replies, "tell me about it later."

That aside, this section of the programme was fascinating, not least because of the contributions of Ronald Creasey, an associate of Williamson's in the Thirties and still a miraculously unrepentant Mosleyite: "Anyone who thought, anyone with any intellectual capacity, was with us. And the nobility of that circle has not been completely broken."

But for all that the programme gripped, it was hard to agree with the thrust of its argument, that Williamson's critical reputation has suffered unfairly because of his politics. This may be true (although you suspect that it has more to do with the fact that his major work, the 14-volume A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight, sounds as though it has something to do with elves and goblins), but it's hardly an injustice: deeply obnoxious and naive views strike me as pretty good grounds for dismissing a writer. All things considered, Williamson's not done too badly out of posterity. If he has anything to complain about, it might be that a thoughtful and sympathetic portrait of his life went out of its way to make itself unlistenable to ; there's a real injustice.

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