Days of Wonder

 

 

DAYS OF WONDER

 

 

days of wonder      
First edition, HWS, 1987  
   
days of wonder ebook  
E-book edition, HWS, 2013  

Editor's Note

 

Introduction, by Richard Williamson

 

Richard Richardson's illustrations

 

List of Contents

 

Extract

 

Critical reception

 

Book covers

 

 

Henry Williamson Society, 1987, paperback, iv, 104pp, illus.; 475 copies

Edited by John Gregory

 

Limited edition, 1987; half-bound in calf with marbled paper boards, 25 numbered copies, signed by Richard Williamson

 

E-book edition, 2013

 

 

 

It was the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme that prompted the Daily Express to ask HW to write a series of articles to commemorate the event, and this led to a late flourishing of HW's articles in this newspaper – it had been nearly thirty years since he was last featured regularly in its pages. 'The Somme – just fifty years after' was published over three days between 29 June and 1 July 1966, after much pre-publicity by the Express, the seperate parts being given a prominent place on its features page – as were all HW's subsequent articles.

 

The next article, ‘Oil will hang the black drapes of death . . .’, did not appear until 29 March 1967. This marked the tragedy of the supertanker Torrey Canyon running aground off Land's End, spilling its oil and killing most of the marine life along the whole of the south coast of Britain and the Normandy shores of France, blighting the region for many years thereafter. Huge quantities of chemical dispersants were eventually sprayed on to the oil slicks, but these proved just as lethal to wildlife as the original oil. This article was HW’s heartfelt response to the tragedy.

 

The commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge was marked by HW with a two-part article. (Both this and the three-part article on the Battle of the Somme are available on this website; there are links to them in the List of Contents below.)

 

From 1 June 1968 onwards the Daily Express published an article on a regular basis, usually on the last Saturday of the month, and often illustrated by Richard Richardson's exquisite line drawings, some of which are shown below. A few other illustrations were drawn by Don Roberts, then Art Editor at the Express. The most important of these articles was the three-part series 'Save the Innocents', published to coincide with the Second International Congress of the World Wildlife Fund, held in London in November 1970. HW's last article for the newspaper was published on 27 March 1971.

 

 

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Editor's Note:

 

These essays were originally published in the Daily Express between 1966 and 1971, and are presented here in date order.

 

A number of the articles were illustrated, and where possible the illustrations have been included. Many were specially drawn by Richard Richardson, a talented artist and friend of Henry Williamson.

 

Richardson was born in London in 1922 and by the age of seven had already developed an interest in birds with his earliest surviving sketch of a puffin being dated 1936. After the war he eventually settled at Cley in North Norfolk where he established the Cley Bird Observatory and served as its only warden until it closed in 1963.

 

Although untrained, Richard Richardson became a skilled bird illustrator and his work appeared in over twenty books as well as bird reports. His most successful commission was The Pocket Guide to British Birds (1952) followed two years later by The Pocket Guide to Nests and Eggs.

 

Most active birdwatchers in the 1950s–1970s were familiar with the name of Richard Richardson, who became a legend in his own lifetime as a result of his extraordinary skill as a field ornithologist and bird artist. He died in 1977.

 

John Gregory

 

 

Introduction

 

Richard Williamson

 

 

Henry returned to the Express because of the Somme fiftieth anniversary, and was in his element: he knew his subject. I can remember how, on seeing his name in an Express advertisement across the side of a London bus, he said with gratification that ‘I suppose one has arrived.’

 

In the nature articles he was a little daunted by his lack of recent observation and the advance of scientific knowledge. He was deeply suspicious of scientists not merely because of their knack of opening Pandora’s box, but because they represented an alien circle, apparently at odds with the Arts. But are the country articles mere musings, ramblings? Be warned lest you think so: Henry knew his audience were fairly light readers, skipping through the pages in the office coffee break or on the seven-fifty into work, and his easy images, his persuasive holding of the hand on innocent little wanderings into nowhere, a kind of Water Babies and Alice, let one breathe for five minutes, smile or even chuckle and feel reassured that man could still wander around looking at pebbles or the moon or starlings. Observe, too, the fertility of his imagination as he casually pictures for you, for example, the way in which a nightjar glides, ‘as a boy might if suddenly he discovered his arms were wings’. Probably not more than a hundred Express readers had ever seen a nightjar doing this wobbly flight, but they all saw it through Henry’s words.

 

He had the knack, then, of relating what was happening in nature to how he perceived it, thus making it real to the reader, too. No good telling everyone that a cormorant is dying of oil pollution unless the writer tells us how it feels to be a bird. Besides, not everyone wants the fag of learning facts — that’s the writer’s job, dropping details without you realising.

 

The Williamson reader will recognise much more in this collection than the Express reader had time to. We know that here is ‘the hole in the wall’ closed and shuttered through which the tired and lonely writer at ‘wax taper’ tried desperately to pass again, to meet the spirits on The Chains, to walk on the Burrows, to feel the thrill of being alive after the terror of the Trenches, to lie beneath the stars of midsummer. The joy of the essays is their unselfconsciousness, almost as though he is talking to himself and we overhear his mind, but part of our attention is that we perceive a doomed man, too sensitive for this world, and almost living within the next; his writing, his thoughts are the semi-permeable membrane through which he appears to be able to see, but at which we can only guess.

 

For the country illustrations Henry remembered Richard Richardson the artist, from Stiffkey days, when the young soldier, serving in India, sent wonderful aerogrammes of bird life month by month as a tribute for Tarka’s creator. Henry thought he looked like Lawrence of Arabia. Richard was extremely pleased with the commission.

 

I helped him a great deal with this section, deliberately feeding him facts and thoughts, sometimes correcting or rewriting. As ever, he was in some considerable anguish when doing them, fearing failures, scared he wouldn’t get a story, terrified that they’d be sent back, knowing that the end of writing was the end of life. When each one had been written the wine would flow; well, not too freely; there would be much snapping of fingers, high kicks around the room, throwing of bread in restaurants, tales of how the Express editor called him ‘our tame writer’ and once opened champagne.

 

The series of three articles in November 1970 ‘Save the Innocents’ were rather special, for they were to coincide with a prestigious World Wildlife Congress in London attended by eminent scientists, and, at an evening cabaret at The Talk of the Town, all the crowned heads of Europe, led by the Queen. Henry was excited by the attention that he hoped his articles would cause. On Wednesday 18th the article contained his much cherished phrase, written in 1946 at the dropping of the Hiroshima bomb. ‘This morning the sun was affronted by a malevolent glint over Hiroshima.’ He went out and got twenty copies of the paper for the delegates, placing them ready at coffee break. Hardly any glanced at the article or bought the paper, despite his subdued selling tactics; he thought them all a very dull crowd indeed; scientists. However, fortunately, Sir Peter Scott remembered and saved the day with a word of thanks.

 

At that time he was living alone, his second wife had gone and at the age of seventy-five he was sometimes horrified that he would soon be eighty: ‘A great age,’ he would say in disbelief. There were the odd crumbs of comfort, for such anguish did, it must be admitted, provoke sympathy wherever he went, and though he assured everyone that he ‘had not a single friend left in Devon’ we discovered that he was always going out to tea, or dinner, or to stay, with some family. For many of the articles, he stayed in his club at the National Liberal, a rather dull old place but with warm and cosy bedrooms overlooking the busy street and starling haunted sky. He was happiest when the sun shone from a cloudless sky and he could stretch out in the long grass, perhaps at my nature reserve at Kingley Vale, where he often used to wander about, looking for something to amuse, once taking off his clothes, tying grass round his ankles and his thatch of white hair and running about pretending to be possessed by spirits. Perhaps he didn’t have to pretend.

 

His diaries at this time are unusually full, his main writing life having been concluded. There are many portentious entries, for example, on reading Alec Waugh’s essay on his brother: ‘Evelyn, like me, ran out of steam and died fairly young. I have died, but still have the steam-vapour and little more . . .’; later — ‘Dead tired, as usual. Cannot break the barrier of weariness’, and ‘Depressed, alas … I MUST summon up (depleted) forces to do Income Tax Returns . . .’; while just after the last Express article I read this entry on May 16th, 1971: ‘Dear Reader (I being dead) pray be tolerant. I have had too much to do, alone, for too long. I am now breaking up, my work or therapy being over. Now to continue this unhistoric record, from my “bilge”.’

 

But there was little hint in these Express articles of how things were really going.

 

 

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Richard Richardson's illustrations:

 

 

Four examples of these beautifully drawn illustrations are given below. The first, a striking image in every sense of the word, was chosen for the front cover of the paperback edition.

 

days of wonder1

 

 

 

days of wonder2

 

 

days of wonder3

 

days of wonder4

 

 

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Contents:

 

The Somme – just fifty years after

‘Oil will hang the black drapes of death . . .’

The battle of Vimy Ridge

‘I fancy that if the generation . . .’

Freedom of the house – for a fox

How the hawks lost the war game

The deadly hobby – hunting butterflies

What that lovely little bird told me

Our bonfire revels in the owl’s larder

Just before the turn of the year . . .

Moment of fear amid the forest shadows

Fifty years ago . . .

The noble hunter’s back in town!

Reflections in an ancient sunlight

Country commuters flying in the face of danger

Days of wonder that set the night on fire

Rooked – as anarchy reigns in the House!

Spring rushes back to my valley

Why otters need friends

Mother drops by, and it’s high speed dinner

The glorious days of bully hunting

High on Exmoor – in search of myself

Salute to seal island!

Heartbreak of a bird so very much in love

In the chill of the night, a killer gladiator strikes

The owls that went bump in the night

The deadly differences of the good companions

As my barn owls await their happy event

Miss Starling insists on a home before marriage

When lovebirds came tapping at my window-pane

The visitor who stalks by night!

When thieves fall out, then the feathers really fly!

When a rare beauty comes out of her shell

Wild cry for help on a lonely road

Save the innocents

Silent night – when the guns held their peace

Yes, you can sometimes trust an old fox

After the storm, the dance of the phantoms

 

 

 

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Extract:

 

Days of wonder that set the night on fire

 

 

Through the icy weather of the blizzard, as I wandered aimlessly in the beech plantation, a thought persisted: shall I hear the cuckoo when these icy boughs above me, now being whipped by Atlantic winds, unroll their tight brown buds, each with its silky sheath, and prink themselves once more with the tender green of spring?

 

Sheltered in the valley below this hill the beech retains the brown leaves of autumn until pushed off by rising sap. But 600ft above the torn grey sea they are always whipped off by autumnal gales.

 

The trees in my spinney are 112 years old. It is a wonder they have survived so long.

 

Sea winds every June have ‘burned’ the tender new leaves. Those leaves are the tree’s lungs. Most trees die from the top downwards. My trees die from the lower boughs and, unjustly, after years of torture.

 

The cripples facing the direct blows of the south-west gales went first. Then those formerly sheltered got the full force of the sea winds. And having grown in summer shade, all their life was in remote green sprinkles along the tops where crows had their look-out points.

 

Every year those scanty leaves are burned brown before May is out. In July a secondary growth will be put out – if they have lived so long. This secondary burgeoning will be blasted by the next salt gale roaring among my poor veterans.

 

I begin to wonder who will outlast whom – my beeches or me? I feel kinship with them. I have known them for over half a century.

 

Ever since that early summer day when I climbed one of the trees and saw, across fields of grass, what appeared to be schooners, ketches, and other coastal trading craft hanging in the sky, unmoving, upon a level azure ocean, as they awaited wind and tide to take them up to Bristol.

 

Day after day, under a clear, windless sky, I was up with the lark, striding above a sunken lane to ‘my’ hilltop – a beardless boy sometimes running lest I be late to see the rising of the morning star over Exmoor.

 

Lucifer the Lightbringer! Leading up the sun in all its glory!

 

And when the strato-cirrus lying in tiny flecks miles up in the sky began to turn pink as flamingo feathers, what a chorus from the small birds which lived, in their hundreds, around the spinney.

 

Literally scores of cuckoos began to chase away rivals, uttering scolding cries as they flew about the treetops, then cuckoo-ing lest they miss a female.

 

The sky was pierced by the frail chain-songs of innumerable larks, while about the hedges finches, linnets, yellowhammers, hedge-sparrows (their eggs blue as the midday sky until stolen by creeping field voles), and wrens.

 

Primroses on the hedge-banks had wilted. Red campion was in full glory, and honeysuckle bines prepared to open yellow buds to the slow-burring bumblebee.

 

Had I promised to be home for meals? I was lost, absorbed in the life around me. Never another human being in sight.

 

In my haversack were cheese, apples, and biscuits. How could anyone remain indoors on such a day as this?

 

I climbed the cliffs to the path around the headland, to lie hour after drowsy hour above the sea, until day began to die in a tremendous Spanish-Armada-on-fire sunset over the Atlantic.

 

Never was such wonder at that time. I had walked 20 miles every day . . . to forsaken iron mines in the valley; to the Chains of Exmoor, whence westward a view almost to Southern Ireland; and eastward, the Quantock Hills dissolving in the haze of that golden young summer of 1914.

 

Shall I hear again, during this coming spring of 1969, that solitary cuckoo calling from atop one of my dying beeches in the spinney?

 

Where are those butterflies which used to lay, on nettle leaves, the eggs which hatched and grew into caterpillars, covered by black shiny spines, on which cuckoos used to feed? Red and white admiral butterflies are now uncommon. Farmers’ scientific sprays have done their deadly work.

 

It is a mystery why, of all the cuckoos, only one sub-species lays its eggs in other birds’ nests. When I was young, children were warned not to pick up those black hairy caterpillars – the spines would get into the eyes, and cause pain. And presumably, pain too, if dropped into the open mouths of nestlings, including cuckoos.

 

Now the adult cuckoo used to swallow the caterpillar head-first, as diving birds do fish, to avoid fins sticking in the gullet. But such a caterpillar, limp and broken, and dropped higgledy-piggledy into a small and blindly open beak, would cause the nestling to choke to death.

 

Before cuckoos sought nurses for their young among small-insect eating birds, the cuckoo was in danger of dying out.

 

This is the theory of one of our leading field ornithologists, Dr James Fisher – that Mother Nature drove the European cuckoo to abandon its own disastrous family rearing.

 

I wonder, as I sit under my dying beeches in the spinney: does evolution ever take a hop backwards? Will it drive cuckoos to ‘use’ smaller insects and so to feed their own young in their own nests?

 

It is said that nature never forgives and never forgets. Science now rules Mother Earth. Science has replaced those two simple virtues upon which, Joseph Conrad wrote, the universe exists. He meant the virtues of love and service.

 

 

Saturday, 22 February 1969

 

 

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Critical reception:

 

Henry Williamson Society Journal (John Homan), March 1988:

 

Due to the foresight, hard work and dedication of John Gregory, Henry's writings for the Daily Express were collected together in typescript some years ago, This volume presents those which appeared in the late period 1966–71. Since relatively few will have read all these articles, and fewer still have kept them as they appeared, this selection is clearly most important. All of the articles – 38 in number (although some are in several parts, serialised over a number of weeks [sic – this should read 'days']) – are included.

 

The series starts with 50th Anniversary recollections of the opening of the Somme Battle, and it is quite clear that the  heroism, endurance, and enormous tragedy suffered by the New Armies, had assumed a new clarity, not a dimming, in his mind, over the passage of half a century. Similarly, his eye for the world of nature remained sharp but increasingly took on a different view. No longer the lyric prose recreating what the eye had seen and other senses experienced, but from a 'mort of experience' warning that almost all of our natural world, birds, beasts, fish and growing things are fragile and finite and demand conservation with a growing urgency; from deliberate destruction of the great whales, to ignorant feet destroying the habitat of the Large Blue butterfly in its last British stronghold. This ultimate phase of Henry Williamson's writing, of almost thinking aloud at times it seems, is important; not just for the quality of much he had to say, but how important he considered the work necessary to assure the survival of all the natural world – including ourselves – whose fate lies totally in our hands. Richard Williamson provides an excellent Introduction, both synpathetic and revealing of his father's penultimate years.

 

 

 

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Book covers:

 

 

The choice of a dark red card cover was a mistake, for the cover image lost its impact. Covers of the Society's early collections were all of coloured card, as cost of production and printing was always an important factor.

 

 

days of wonder large

 

 

 

This striking photograph by Tony Evans of sunset over Saunton Sands made it an ideal choice for the e-book cover:

 

 

days of wonder ebook large

 

 

 

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