Sir William Beach Thomas
By J. B. ATKINS IT is pleasant for an old and admiring reader of the work of Sir William Beach Thomas to have the opportunity to say something about him, and now, as I hear, his long series of notes on Country Life in the Spectator is coming to an end. It is impossible to comment on any particular member of the unbroken sequence of writers on natural history in the Spectator without referring to them all: This is, how- ever, worth doing because the Spectator set an example which has been followed everywhere.
The first contributor in this sort was C. J. Cornish, a classical master at St. Paul's School, who began his articles, so far as I remember, in the 'nineties. He was a very close observer of all phenomena, and a particularly circumstantial narrator of • what he saw. Sir William Beach Thomas said of him in The Story of the Spectator that he "made natural history read like news." You were taken off for an imaginary walk with him in the countryside, and he pointed out if you were an ordin- arily unobservant person—things that you could never have seen but through his eyes. This fact is significant, for the Spectator naturalists have all conformed to a tradition.
Like all the Spectator naturalists Sir William has never had any use for the pretty-pretty writing which produces what may be, and often is, a work of art but does nothing to appease a reader's hunger for the solids of information. That he can write exquisitely phrased and sustained descriptions of things seen is proved in the three great volumes entitled The English Year, which he wrote in collaboration with that finely equipped naturalist, the late A. K. Collett.
I shall say something more about The English Year, but my immediate object is to point out that Cornish and his succes- sors had the same method, and a very good one, of interesting and teaching their readers. Further, they handsomely saved the Spectator from any damage which threatened from the reactions of readers to a certain long and recurrent corres- pondence-on the "intelligence of animals." Hutton, Towns- end and St. Loe Strachey were all interested in this subject, and were rather rashly indulgent to the kind of sentimental letters which confused reason with instinct, or at least with associative memories, and attributed in general to beasts and birds the mental mechanism of mankind.
Such letters were a much too tempting bait for the parodists and practical jokers. I enter here on an apocryphal period in which invention, or legend, and fact cannot be distinguished. It became, so it was said, a fashion among some clever -young men to send to the Spectator letters which preposterously out- ran credulity but which aimed at the delicious prize of publi- cation. The funniest invention which I can remember to have heard of was that of a professing ornithologist who stated in a letter that he had come upon the body of a Bombay duck on the coast of Norfolk, and that he could account for this un- precedented occurrence only by the violence and persistence of the recent south-easterly gales.
It was no less than an honour to be one of the Spectator naturalists. Cornish gave way to Mr. Eric Parker in the early years of this century, and Mr. Parker, too, wrote circumstan- tially in the full knowledge that educated readers wanted meat as well as grace. He was a King's Scholar of Eton and a scholar of Merton College, Oxford, and later he became editor of the Field. He is now the acknowledged historian of Surrey. Like Cornish, and like Sir William, he is of a type that has always appealed to me—the sportsman-naturalist. I have noticed, without surprise, that this combination of pur- poses sometimes leads to a man becoming more a naturalist than a sportsman. This has been so with Mr. Parker. Not that humane tendencies necessarily condemn the taking of life, for no carnivore can logically condemn the taking of animal life for the pot ; it is rather that a man who thus changes prefers watching wild life to taking it. Mr. Parker ended his articles for the Spectator when he called himself up for the First World War. Next came Sir William Beach Thomas, who was educated at Shrewsbury and Christ Church, Oxford. For some time he was a schoolmaster, I think at Radley or Bradfield ; but writing was obviously his proper occupation, for he had a style, imagination and an intense capacity not only for seeing things but also for trans- lating all he saw into classically lucid descriptions. In the First World War he was war correspondent in France for the Daily Mail. He had a daring habit of getting himself taken up in a captive balloon to viratch the greatest possible circum- ference of battle. He was evidently for the bird's-eye view. But one wonders how his perch, an attractive target for the enemy, could have been favourable to concentrated obser- vation. He was appointed K.B.E. for his services.
He was a familiar figure to me long before he joined the Spectator. As a running Blue for Oxford he was the quarter- miler of his day. With his stately height and gigantic stride, he was magnificent in action ; his final effort, always, trium- phant, when he saw the goal of all, the tape, waiting for him, was a sight never to be forgotten—though I had a strong reason for regretting it at the time.
No mistake was made when this President of the O.U.A.C. was chosen to write the volume on athletics in the Isthmian Library. But his eminence on the track was only an item in his range of performance. He is a fine shot, a learned gar- dener, a practical farmer, a lover of all animals, a Virgilian bee-keeper and a book-man besides. I do not connect his name with fly-fishing, but perhaps I ought to, and anyway he knows enough about fish and fishing, even if he does not prac- tise the art. Among all 'the books he has written I should give . the first place to the three volumes entitled The English Year, already mentioned. They are well known, but not so well as they deserve. The manner of the collaboration between the joint authors does not allow the reader to know who wrote what. One would like to know, for there are many noble passages of prose which would be an ornament to any antho- logy of the seasons, the land, the skies and the weather, the woods, the fields and their crops, the waters, and all the beasts, birds, insects and fishes.
It is difficult to decide what to quote as proof of the quality of this work, which joins scientific precision to beauty, and therefore makes any selection invidious ; but I venture on a passage about the lightening of the night skies when summer days are shortening : "The summer twilight of England is one of the hap- piest features of its geographical position. The soft veil of the June night is a more exquisite gift' of Nature than the positive daylight prolonged by the midnight sun. Sheer daylight prevails in the June nights even in Eng- land; we can watch the cool grey stain contending with the stars of the north. In July, as the nights grow a little longer, this white light is often replaced in fine summers by deeper glows still joining the sunset and dawn. Night becomes stiller and more solemn than at midsummer, but hardly darker, and is oftener fuller of colour. A glow of rich orange, or living cornfield gold, illuminates the north- ern sky and defies the darkness ; night is filled with the essence of sunshine poured in the July day."
Any watcher of the skies will recognise the truth of that, but the harmony of it is the gift of a writer to his read,ers.
Two themes which govern this remarkable work are the poetry of Nature and consideration for animals. I can almost hear " B.T." saying to anyone who objects that Nature itself is cruel, "Anyway, kindness is good for the man." As for the poetry, the book finds many of the best naturalists among the poets—particularly Coventry Patmore, George Meredith, Lord de Tably and Lowell. -Poetry is magic, and a man may reach poetry because he is first a naturalist, nervously alive to the magic of the earth..