Radio 4’s ‘Debating Animals’ was the companion of choice in the gentle roll down the N11. Growing up with the stories of Henry Williamson, the passage read at the opening of the programme on otter and mink was recognizable.
The eldest and biggest of the litter was a dog cub, and when he drew his first breath he was less than five inches long from his nose to where his tail joined his back-bone. His fur was soft and grey as the buds of the willow before they open up at Eastertide.
They would hardly be allowed to have a quote from Williamson without some reference to his lunatic political sympathies, would they? Of course not, it came in the very next sentence. The presenter commented,
Ah yes, that would be the birth of Tarka the Otter, a pure blooded British mammal most usually depicted standing on its hind legs with a fishy in its little paws apparently laughing. Henry Williamson wrote “Tarka the Otter” and he adored the creatures, in his spare time, he also adored Adolf Hitler and Oswald Mosley, but of course, it’s not just Nazi sympathisers that adore otters, we all do.
Would the BBC run a programme with material from George Bernard Shaw and remind listeners that, “Shaw was an enthusiastic admirer of Josef Stalin to the point of saying that Stalin’s Russia was what would happen if Christ lived now”? It would be hard to imagine them doing so. The telephone lines would be hot with complaints from indignant admirers of Shaw, who was one of four Irish winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Stalin was responsible for tens of millions of deaths; even in Shaw’s time there were labour camps, yet he would not see the evil of Soviet Communism.
Examples of mistaken, naive, or just plain silly, political loyalties amongst the great are commonplace. Shaw was not alone in his support of Soviet Russia, there were plenty in the ranks of the prominent who thought that the Revolution had given birth to some new civilisation, even if they were somewhat reluctant to experience that civilisation for themselves.
But does it matter? Do the personal political loyalties matter to the appreciation of their work? Do the racial opinions of Richard Wagner affect listening to his music? Does the fact that Picasso said he was a Communist change the way we see his paintings?
Were Williamson a writer whose work touched on social or political issues, then it would be relevant to say he had extreme Right-wing sympathies, but he was an animal writer. His support for the mad and the bad was hardly important to telling tales of river life. No-one today would preface a report from the Daily Mail by saying it once, misguidedly, ran a headline declaring ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts”, why continue to tag readings about Tarka with comments about politics?