Our local falconer Mr Buncle, can often be seen, with his hawks, outside Tavistock Market, selling Falconry Experience sessions. He actually also took part in that TV programme Wife Swap, and I have vivid memories of the swapped wife, a glamour model from London, chopping up rabbit for the hawks with her rubber gloves on, but I digress.
I wander past the hawks on their perches, or the one on his arm, and can't say I really pay much attention. It's not something I have ever really fancied trying (probably much to Bookhound's relief) and, if I am honest, one bird of prey looks much like another to a falconery klutz like me. But having had a bookish Falconery Experience I might pay more attention the next time I see them... that said I still don't want a Falconery Experience Day for Christmas, just a cart for lugging stuff around the garden (please Bookhound)
My fall off the perch was legendary but the book had been hovering over me ever since...right that's dispensed with all the sad puns about my return to H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, and all after going into a sulky moult over it (oh, not quite done) back in August.
It just wasn't a deckchair in the sunshine book for me. I felt shut in and claustrophobic as I read of the days and days of sitting in a darkened room and feeding day old chicks to a wild bird in order to 'man' it...as in tame it.
And though I have never really been one for falconry, I doubt many others who had read this book may have been either, and it's true, I often don't know I am interested in something until I read up on it. H is for Hawk had been universally praised, loved by several friends whose reading tastes often chime with mine, scored highly with the Happy Campers book group, and then it won the £20,000 Samuel Johnson Prize. I had actually been so disenchanted I had lent my copy to Happy Camper Linda W (I very very rarely lend a book) thinking I could always revert to my Kindle edition if the hawking urge overcame me.
But when it won the Samuel Johnson prize I emailed Linda...
'It's won a prize, I supposed I'd better read it now, can I call in a collect R is for Raptor? '
First time around I had reached a hundred or so pages, but I decided to start again, though wasn't sure if I could bear it. I take notes as I read, and looking back to August I see they are rather stilted, if not clinical observations, not my usual fare these days; detached and... well I think I sound a bit repetitive, if not a little underwhelmed in the imagination department...
It will involve isolation.
Long periods of meditative stillness.
Patience - endless.
Peace and quiet.
Form of solitary confinement.
Compelling and intense.
It's hardly sounding compelling is it. I think I might have been pretending it was because everyone else was saying as much. And I remember I just couldn't focus on anything but the parallel, and rather disturbing story of T.H.White. A teacher at Stowe school, a closet homosexual with sadistic tendencies and a special interest in flagellation. Sylvia Townsend Warner, chosen as White's biographer after his death in 1964, visited his house in Alderney...
'Everything was there, defenceless as a corpse.'
writes Sylvia to William Maxwell.
Somehow I wasn't engaging with Helen Macdonald, or her grief at the loss of her father, or the hawk. The book felt dark and brooding and I was seeing the hawking element, especially T.H.White's Gos, as slightly malevolent, whilst feeling a bit wretched about Mabel (Helen's hawk) too. In fact it was all a bit disturbing, this can't have been the point at all.
Right book. Wrong Moment
Stop reading and save for winter.
I wrote in my notebook.
What an exercise this has been in not dismissing a book as 'no good' or 'bad' just because I can't get on with it first time around. It is why I rarely if ever write about books I haven't enjoyed on here...unless it is that one of course.
So I open H is for Hawk again and I read this on page five...
'Looking for goshawks is like looking for grace: it comes but not often, and you don't get to say when or how.'
How on earth did that sentence not slap me right between the eyes first time around?
The same search for grace could truly be said about Helen Macdonald's book.
And how did I miss the details about T.H.White's cruelly dysfunctional childhood?
I am always one to seek those childhood explanations for adult vulnerabilities, yet somehow I had glossed over all this on page thirty-five.
And so it went on as I read a completely different book and understood how T.H.White was trying desperately to re-write his own childhood; a new and improved script, a better narrative of love and nurture and food, as he recounted his terrible experiences whilst trying to raise his own goshawk.
And how Helen Macdonald, so subsumed by grief at the sudden death of her father, immerses herself in the world of falconry that she has embraced with a passion since childhood, coaxing young goshawk Mabel into a bond and an attachment with her in order to be able to fly her whilst knowing that Mabel will return to her gloved fist.
'History collapses when you hold a hawk,'
..says Helen Macdonald, and finally now I could see it; the man assumed the power and strength of the hawk whilst the hawk assumed the manners of the man. For Helen and Mabel there will be a cross-over point, because as Mabel is tamed so Helen seems to detach from reality, and I was mightily relieved when she finally recognised her depression and took herself off to her GP, and then heaved another sigh when she sat down with a doctor who would listen to and help her.
Life can all go so horribly wrong at this juncture.
Bonding with a hawk seems, in many ways, similar to bonding with a newborn baby (and not in a lot of other ways...don't feed a baby day old chicks and rabbit legs etc and maybe don't expect it to sit on a perch) There are anxieties to be assuaged on both sides; food to be offered; a cycle of sleep to be established; paths of recognition and acceptance to be mapped; responses to cues and moods to be learned, even facial expressions and body language to be interpreted and recognised. To say nothing of the regular weighing, and the caring and the nurturing and the concern.
I was still very relieved when T.H.White's Goshawk escaped, and equally relieved when Mabel flew back to Helen Macdonald's gloved hand for the first time. This is Helen, though not Mabel, but still a very lovely picture...
And the day Mabel flew into the game crop (cover for pheasants on a shooting estate) and set off the pheasants like an 'artillery bombardment' before pinning down her selected prey... well we are surrounded by game crop here, along with 28,000 pheasants, and we have an alpha-male spaniel. I will say no more, but trust me it is heart failure time, and a pheasant caught 'by accident' sheds enough incriminating evidence in the way of feathers to fill what seems like twenty bin liners (don't ask me how we know that) I was completely in tune with Helen Macdonald's stress at this point, and with a Gamekeeper son in the family we know it only too well from both sides.
When Mabel then launches herself into the Gamekeeper's inner sanctum, the sacred territory of the pheasant release pens...well I had to go and have a lie down and breath deeply.
Bookhound and the Kayaker (if he is around) go out and help the Gamekeeper build his new release pens each summer. Off they go in the wagon, his estate is in the neighbouring Parish, about fifteen minutes away, not the one around us here...
...while I just make the cakes to fuel the endeavour...
We walked the bounds at dusk on a few idyllic summer evenings when the poults had arrived to make sure they had all roosted properly. Pheasant pens, sited in woodland, are surprisingly peaceful places when all is well, just the rustle of the birds as they fly up onto the branches, a flurry of sleepy craiks hither and yon. As we gently whispered our way around the edges (often several hundred yards of boundary to walk) ushering those on the wrong side in through the little entrances, it all felt very English; ancient, time-honoured and deeply rooted in tradition and history...not dissimilar to some elements of falconry.
Bring on a disturbance... say a hawk like Mabel swooping through, swiftly followed by a woman in hot pursuit, and all hell really would let loose. Little wonder Helen Macdonald is running free with the expletives and fears the 'Oi' of an 'incredibly angry keeper' at any minute as she watches the 'leafy explosion of buff and cappuccino feathers.'
First time around I was reading some of H is for Hawk on my Kindle too, and I still wonder if a Kindle sometimes encourages emotional detachment, in a way that the printed page can often surmount and turn around. If I'm a bit ambivalent about a book reading it on a Kindle might occasionally not be the best way to test it further. Is it about the feel of the book, the cover (in this case superb) even the paper and the binding (it lies flat without coercion, oh joy) and the layout of the words on the page. Maybe it's the very obvious pauses...or in this case the perch rests, the time to rouse (this is what happy hawks do with their feathers...bit of a fluffing up etc) and to preen, sorry couldn't stop myself.
In the end I was rationing the pages, not wanting the book to end. H is for Hawk has burrowed deep and it will stay there
'How the world is full of signs and wonders that come and go, and if you are lucky enough you might see them,'
says Helen Macdonald as she starts to see the world in a different and more rariefied light through the fog of mourning, 'that the world is for ever, though you are only a blink in its course.'
And how grateful I am to those who conveyed their love for H is for Hawk, encouraging and convincing me to go back to it and try again. In the end I realise it really has been a privilege to read this book, and Helen Macdonald's success so well-deserved, and now of course I am noticing and hearing hawks everywhere, expect more on the subject soon.