Last Days

 

 

HW reading in the Lobster PotWhen A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight was finally finished in 1969, Henry Williamson saw his writing life almost ended. He was very relieved that it was all completed but at the same time he was tired, despondent and a little lost. He had achieved what he had set out to do but his life purpose was over. He lived alone in the tiny cottage in Ilfracombe. Visits to the Field were less frequent.

 

Two large collective volumes of the nature and animal stories, The Henry Williamson Animal Saga and Collected Nature Stories, appeared, and then his last book, The Scandaroon, the story of a racing pigeon which he had planned thirty years previously. He found this last book very difficult to write and it had almost as many revisions as Tarka the Otter, but it reads as fresh as his very first work.

 

For many years previously he had drawn up plans for a family house to be built in the Field at Ox’s Cross and in 1973 he proceeded to achieve this last ambition. It was large, church-like, almost a folly, but it has gradually settled into the landscape. HW never lived in it himself.

 

Having resisted many offers of a film to be made of Tarka the Otter, including one from Walt Disney, HW finally felt that a sympathetic proposal from the director and producer of nature films, David Cobham, would produce a true film. Once the decision was made, Henry engaged himself on the film treatment, but he wrote, in effect, a mammoth unwieldy novel that was semi-autobiographical and was all his novels rolled into one. It could not be used for film-making. It was too late for him now to master the necessary technique. He was not equipped for the short terse style and precise directions that such a task demanded.

 

He reached his eightieth birthday, hoping against hope for some kind of honour from the country that he had served so loyally in two wars, one as a soldier, one as a farmer, and to which he had given over 50 books. His children took him out to lunch in Barnstaple to celebrate the event but there was no public honour, and feeling rejected, he gave up, his health deteriorating rapidly. Soon he was no longer capable of looking after himself, sinking rapidly into the final stages of senile dementia. The family arranged for him to be taken into the care of the Alexian monks in their hospice at Twyford Abbey on the outskirts of London.

 

The filming of Tarka the Otter went ahead unknown to him and he died on 13 August 1977, by the most extraordinary coincidence on the very day that the death scene of Tarka was being filmed in the exact spot that he had placed it over fifty years previously. He was buried in a simple grave in the churchyard at Georgeham, the village to which he had travelled in 1921 just as he was setting out on the writing career that was to make him famous and whose books were to give so much pleasure to thousands of readers.

 

A memorial service was held in St Martin’s in the Field in London on 1 December 1977, the day that would have been his birthday. The address, the text of which is included in the symposium Henry Williamson: The Man, The Writings (1980), was given by the future Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes, who died 1998.

 

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