UK's favourite nature book: Defending Tarka the Otter
Tarka the Otter needed defending.
Henry Williamson, the author of this much-loved story about the adventures of a Devon otter had died in 1977. And in an age of social media and online advocacy someone had to step up and promote the book for a new generation when it was shortlisted in the Arts and Humanities Research Council's (AHRC) quest to find the nation's favourite piece of nature writing.
That man was Dr Daniel Allen, academic, animal geographer, author of Otter and The Nature Magpie, and the power behind #teamtarka, the social media campaign that helped the book win the number two spot.
“It's a wonderful book and inspired what I do today,” he told the AHRC. “As a six-year old I was given the chance to pick a VHS tape from my local video store and I chose the film version of Tarka the Otter, assuming it to be some kind of Disney-like story.
“How wrong I was! It was full of blood, death, misery and trauma. It really affected me. It made me think about why I thought hunting was wrong and it began my life-long fascination with otters. In many ways that encounter directed my life. That sense of questioning, of thinking about what was in that story, ultimately led me to get AHRC funding for a masters and then a PhD looking at the cultural and historical geographies of otter hunting in Britain.”
From there Dr Allen went on to work in academia and conservation. But the book has remained just as important to him, and when he saw that Tarka the Otter had been shortlisted, he decided to put his weight behind a campaign to publicise it.
“It's become a lost book,” he says. “The current generation haven't heard of it. When I talk to undergraduates very few of them have read it, or know anything about it. And those that have seem to be getting fewer and fewer every year. And I really want to reverse this.”
Dr Allen thinks that part of the book's appeal lies, not just in the fact that it’s beautifully written. But that it offers a different kind of knowledge of animals – knowledge that was acquired from hunting and that wouldn't be considered “politically correct” today.
In fact, Tarka's nemesis – the pied hound Deadlock – was actually based on a hound in a pack that Williamson hunted with. “Although the real dog was called Dreamy and I'm not sure that name would have worked so well,” says Dr Allen.
Given the fact it is a book from a different era, in some ways Dr Allen is surprised that Tarka the Otter did so well. “But I hope I can share my enthusiasm for the book and encourage a new audience to read it,” he says. “Those that do remember it, I think they voted for the book because it meant so much to them. But those who come to it now, I think they will find it very accessible. A lot of nature writing today is very concerned with the poetry of the writing. It can sometimes be a bit pretentious. But this is a very direct book.
“I also think it has a lot to say about the current debate around hunting and I'm surprised it hasn't been used more as a text.”
But more than anything, perhaps, Tarka the Otter is a vividly-written story that whisks the reader back to another, very different world – the world of the British countryside in the 1920s.
Through the device of fiction it invites the reader's empathy for the character of Tarka and leaves them with greater understanding of both the lives of otters and the casual brutality of both man and nature.
“Nature isn't some fluffy place where animals are nice to each,” says Dr Allen.
“It's tough and violent and Tarka the Otter really shows what that is like.”