One of the books I read in April – Waterlog by Roger Deakin – mentioned Tarka the Otter in glowing terms. This is a book, which has remained mostly unread on my bookshelf since my youth. I always felt disappointed that I had not been able to get into it. Other people said it was a wonderful book.
I decided that the time had come to have another go at reading it. There were two things going on in my mind while I read it. The first was following the story. The second was recognising why I had been unable to read it as a young teen or pre-teen.
Although the book was published by Puffin (the children’s books from Penguin) in 1949 and reprinted several times through the 50s and 60s, it had originally been published in 1927. According to Wikipedia it has never been out of print. The author had fought in WW1. Having returned to Britain, he preferred to study the countryside and write about it than to mix with people.
By the time I first tried to read it, the language was already a little old-fashioned. I grew up in the London suburbs. Apart from visits to friends and relatives in the countryside and walks on commons, I had little experience of nature. (Nature study had been one of my favourite subjects at primary school, but my bird-watching was confined to looking out of the window at the garden birds. We did not have a television for me to watch documentaries about Nature.)
Henry Williamson used many dialect words to describe living creatures. The standard names for them were introduced several sentences later. It is quite hard work to follow this style of writing. Also the word for the footprint (seal) of an otter is the same as for a marine animal, so it really is necessary to concentrate on the context.
After all these years I found that I had the relevant experience to be able to visualise the creatures and some of the places described in the book. For example, I have seen a tree-creeper. I have visited Croyde Bay, Baggy Point and Woolacombe, which appear on the map in the book. (At the time I visited these I did not realise that they were Tarka country.)
So what is my opinion of the book?
I am glad I have finally read it; it no longer sits reproachfully on a shelf. It is not one of my favourite books. I have enjoyed the other books in this genre, which I have read this year, more than I enjoyed Tarka. However I would encourage other people to read it as it is an iconic book. In my opinion it is not really a children’s book.
Incidentally there is a strap line, which does not appear on the cover. The title page of my copy reads, “TARKA THE OTTER HIS JOYFUL WATER-LIFE AND DEATH IN THE TWO RIVERS”.