H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Macdonald, Helen - H is for Hawk

One of my best friends at school was Jenny. Jenny was dotty about animals.  Now it’s fair to say I was brought up in an animal-friendly household. We always had pets: mainly cats or, if dad got his way, a dog. For a short time we had goldfish and at one point my sister had pet mice, though that was before I was born.  And if there was a hedgehog in the garden my dad would put out a saucer of water and a plate of cat food. And although I loved having pets, and was mildly curious about the hedgehog, the daily chore of caring for them simply didn’t appeal.

Jenny on the other hand took pleasure in looking after animals.  Our school had an ‘animal room’, a cramped, dim, smelly former-classroom inhabited by gerbils, rats, frogs, and stick insects. (The rodents and frogs would be dissected in the name of ‘A’ level biology; the stick insects, I never did fathom.) I hated the place; Jenny loved it.  She’d spend every free lunchtime relocating the contents of cages, terrariums, and tanks; cleaning receptacles, filling food trays, replenishing leaves, renewing bedding, refreshing water.

Jenny and I stayed friends throughout our university years, but as soon as we started working keeping in touch became more of an effort, especially as by then we were living in different cities. I invited her to stay for the weekend. She arrived carrying a cardboard box containing an injured bat she was nursing back to health.  It hadn’t crossed her mind that I might not want a bat in my house.

Unlike yours truly, I suspect Helen Macdonald would be completely fine about a friend turning up with a bat in a box – after all, she can watch television with a Goshawk perched on her arm.  And I’m guessing if Jenny had handed Helen a tub of mealworms to put in her fridge (to feed to the bat, of course) she wouldn’t have flinched.  What’s a few hundred live mealworm compared to a freezer full of dead, cockerel chicks (for the hawk, obviously)?

H is for Hawk won Helen Macdonald the Costa book of the year award in 2014.  It is an extraordinary book.  Officially classed as a biography, it isn’t, not really: it is memoir, hawk-training diary, elegy for a dead father, history of falconry, celebration of nature, exposition of grief, reflection on the life of the author T H White, and more besides.

We’ve already established how I feel about animals: I like them (the idea of them, at least) but not looking after them and preferably not in my house.  So on my not-to-do list, sharing my living space with a goshawk is up there with bungee jumping and snorkelling with sharks.  When I go for a walk in the countryside I definitely don’t want to do it hunting with a bird of prey. I don’t want to crawl through a bramble hedge to follow said bird into the next field.  Nor do I want to club a rabbit to death to avoid it being eviscerated alive by my predatory pet.

So, yes, I was grossed out by the reality of training a wild animal. Not for me, not for me, screamed the voice in my head. At the same time – I won’t deny it – I was fascinated. Who knew goshawks played?  Or that having one land on your arm is like being hit with a baseball bat?

Actually the book is stuffed with all manner of interesting facts, not just about goshawks.  Fallow deer were brought to Britain by the Romans; partridges by the French. In the 1930s night walks in the countryside were popular, and rambling clubs published calendars of full moons. Reindeer moss can survive “just about anything the world throws at it” because it “goes dormant and waits for things to improve.”

The latter is mentioned in the opening chapter, where we learn Macdonald keeps some next to the phone as a “momento of the time I saw the hawks”, and she “was looking at it when my mother called and told me my father was dead.”  So the humble reindeer moss works on three levels: as a great fact, as a link to the three main themes of the book (nature, hawks, and death – which are all the same thing, if you stop and think), and as a metaphor for Macdonald herself.

There is so much I could say about this book. Macdonald is observant and a skilful writer.  She clearly had a close relationship with her photographer father, who dropped dead of a heart attack in a street at night (“that last photograph…I can never stop seeing it. Blurred, taken from a low angle, far too low.”). But what really marks the book out from your ‘standard’ biography, memoir, whatever, is her imaginative engagement with White.

Even if you don’t immediately recognise his name, you might have read White’s best known novel, The Sword in the Stone – it’s a kind of prequel to the Arthurian legends and we read it around the class at school. More pertinently, White also tried, and failed, to train a goshawk, as set out in his book The Goshawk.

Macdonald had read The Goshawk as a child and writes about him “because he was there.  When I trained my hawk I was having a quiet conversation, of sorts, with…a complicated man, and an unhappy one. But he also knew that world was full of miracles.”

As does Macdonald. “The world is full of signs and wonders that come, and go, and if you are lucky you might be alive to see them.”  Amen to that.

Rating: *** Highly recommended


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