But through adversity his imagination has been soaring and he is delighted his new book of bird poems, his first published poetry collection, is now fully fledged.
Flights of the Mind contains 68 poems in a beautiful anthology of his musings about the natural world but mainly about birds: their characteristics, lives and mythology.
Richard, 86, who received a serious illness diagnosis just before the first lockdown, has been increasingly confined to his old gamekeeper’s cottage in the midst of a hazel coppice wood in West Dean.
But his poems have transported him to the atmospheric skies, nests and landscapes of his beloved birds.
From the skylark, snow bunting and song thrush to the buzzard, bittern and black-headed gulls, each bird gets its own lyrical treatment, whether dark and ominous or light and playful.
“As soon as I got the cancer diagnosis I knew I could see the post in the distance and it wasn’t the winning post,” says Richard, who has been writing his weekly column in the Observer for 56 years without a single break.
“I knew I had to work hard and quickly because it was coming up fast. The poems have been popping out triggered by the realization that time is finite. Better late than never! It is known in the literary world as a late flowering.”
He says many of the poems ‘just poured out’, some on waking, out of dreams, but the book is borne out of a bringing together of a lifetime’s writing from close observations of birds – what they can say about the human condition and how all life on earth is interconnected.
“The poems relate to birds but the whole point is making the mythical link between birds and humans, the psychological and philosophical connection to our lives.
“What people are looking for I think is a revelation about themselves, and the feelings and intuitions we have, I have tried to give that through the natural world. I would like people to make that jump,” he explains.
“I lie in bed and I have written a poem by the time I get up. I remember every detail. It just appears in my mind like a picture.”
There are literary references aplenty too with his Black Redstart a homage to Adlestrop by Edward Thomas and The Peregrine inspired by Tennyson’s Eagle. The Bronte sisters feature in his Ring Ouzel.
Former Observer colleague and friend Sue Gilson says: “In our often troubled times when more and more people are turning to both poetry and the natural world for solace, calm and timeless truths, Richard’s poems will be no doubt relished by those familiar with his writing and a new audience. They have a real depth, beauty and poignancy.”
Reviewer Pam Waugh, writing for the Henry Williamson Society, dedicated to Richard’s father, enthuses: “Richard’s powers of observation are without equal. As a lifelong naturalist his knowledge and experience of birds has developed from early childhood. He knows how birds live and die, how they react, their fears and their joys.
“He will transport you into an atmospheric world of different landscapes, full of the colors of night and day, dawn and dusk; sometimes a corner, quiet and peaceful, sometimes a vast
and wildspace. Often you will hear music.”
The 72-page paperback is designed and edited by Richard’s wife Anne, and illustrated with lovely linocuts by John Davis, a long-time collaborator. It is published by Yew Tree Publishing and is £3.
Flights of the Mind can be bought from Kim’s Bookshop in Chichester and Arundel, Bookends of Emsworth, and from the Henry Williamson Society (with £2 p&p) at www.henrywilliamson.co.uk. Or a £5 note or check (made out to The Henry Williamson Society) can be sent to John Gregory, 14 Nether Grove, Langstanton, Cambridge, CB24 3EL.
More stockists to follow in coming weeks.