February 17, 2015


by Helen Macdonald
300 pages, Jonathan Cape

Review by Pat Black

Aside from a couple of displays at wildlife centres, I’ve only come into contact with the world of falconry once. I was out for a stroll in Lancashire, not too far away from a large urban centre. On my way through a narrow path in between some birch trees, I passed by a chap who appeared to be have a pterodactyl perched on his hand.  

Kes, this was not. I dared not look into its eyes. The thing looked as if it was weighing me up to see if it could carry me, or perhaps just a limb or two at a time. I wasn’t sure whether I was saying “hello” to man or beast.

I’m not sure what breed this bird was. Helen Macdonald is the type of person who would. In H is for Hawk, her blockbusting memoir, she describes how she tames and trains Mabel, a formidable goshawk. When she takes delivery of the creature, her falconry friends think she’s gone bird-brained. Goshawks – “similar to sparrowhawks in the same way leopards resemble housecats” - are notoriously tough to tame, preferring to hunt in the deep forest. They are the “dark grail” of birdwatching, she says, and no-one recommends owning one. But Macdonald is determined.

So it’s a natural history book. But it’s also a book about grief, as the author embarks on her quest in the wake of her father’s death. Curiously, it’s also a biography, taking for its subject TH White, author of the Arthurian novels The Once and Future King and The Sword in the Stone (Disney based its animated movie on the latter).  

White also wrote The Goshawk, part-memoir, part notorious how-not-to-train-your-hawk guide. This book fascinated Macdonald as a child. I’ve encountered this fixation with White, a complex, troubled man who fled society as the Second World War brewed, in another cracking book, Philip Hoare’s The Sea Inside.

Judged on any scale, White was an oddball – a closeted individual, brutalised by his own upbringing as well as his private schooling. He finally became a schoolteacher at an exclusive college, but he was desperate to get away from that cloistered world of ritualised sadism, and by extension what he saw as the formalised cruelties of modern living. He seems to have been a dreadful falconer, taking wrong turns at every stage, but his book endures both as a natural history document and as a curious portrait of a very strange man.

Macdonald imbibed his appreciation of the arcana of falconry, but there’s a more socially exclusive element of White’s make-up which both Macdonald and Hoare identify with: his drive for solitude and communion with the natural world.

On White’s private life, Macdonald is the more unflinching of the two authors. Although there’s no evidence that he followed through on his fantasies, erotic writings that he left behind point towards White as a sexual sadist with a predilection for beating young boys. This doesn’t exactly make me want to fly for his books on the shelves. However, it’s The Goshawk that Macdonald is drawn to; she feels as if she is haunted by White’s shade as she trains Mabel. Sometimes White is present in the book in the third person, persevering with his goshawk beyond all reason, drinking alone at night while the wind buffets his remote cottage, and finally, during one disastrous outing, losing his prize forever after it escapes.

Macdonald’s Rocky-style training montage has a different outcome. She rears Mabel using frozen baby bird corpses, encouraging the creature firstly to trust her, and finally to hunt, building up to the moment where the great bird can fly free – and hopefully return to her gloved fist upon command.

The bird leads Macdonald on a merry chase at times. More than once she is left dazed and bloodied after having grated herself raw through thickets and thorns to help retrieve the recalcitrant bird. A few times, Macdonald finds herself an unwitting poacher after Mabel battens upon pheasants on shooting moors and private enclosures. At times the book is an avian episode of The Benny Hill Show.

Grief keeps us tied down. After Macdonald loses her father, a renowned press photographer, she decides she wants a goshawk. Macdonald is never quite sure if she does this out of some desire to actually become a hawk. By her own admission, she seems to have gotten a little bit lost in the woods once or twice.

Perhaps Mabel is a representation of flying dreams, a means of abandoning her depression the same way White’s goshawk represented freedom from a system that had done nothing but frighten, abuse and pervert him. Coming across her father’s old notebooks, Macdonald sees a correlation between his obsession with plane-spotting as a boy and her own ornithological pursuits from girlhood. Perhaps training the hawk is a way of keeping close contact, no matter how abstract, with the memory of her father.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross is the doyenne of despair. You can hardly move these days for books and articles listing her famous five stages of grief. While there are parts of this sequence that we will all recognise, there are plenty that we don’t. People spew out this “five stages” construct as if it was unimpeachable fact, which bothers me. As with all psychological studies, we should learn to treat theories, hypotheses and models with a healthy scepticism.

In despair, Macdonald takes an untypical flight path by going to ground. She shuns human society, becoming ever more shy and anxious in people’s company, preferring to exercise herself in taming Mabel rather than reaching out to people. Finally, Macdonald understands she is depressed, and seeks medical help. It’s hard to say whether Macdonald comes out of this book as a more complete person, if she has fully accepted her father’s death or – silly phrase, I know – gotten over it. There is one lovely reconnection at Christmas when she takes her mother to the United States to spend the holiday period with some of her falconry acquaintances, and has a nice time. This is good, she realises; here is healing. But by and large the grief period is still open when this book ends. Perhaps it always will be.

That’s a difficult thing to explain to someone who has yet to experience the misfortune of a “big death”. You never really get over losing someone in your immediate family. The wound scars over, and the day dawns when it might not hurt any more, but it’s always there. On some dismal days it might even sting a little.

Perhaps grief is more like phantom limb syndrome after an amputation. You’re aware of an absence. Some days your brain even imagines it’s still there. But you’re always confronted with the crude fact that it’s not.

Macdonald revels in strange words, and I’m not ashamed to say my vocabulary got a wee workout thanks to her. A misty winter morning is brumous; a scrubby field is bosky; the clouds anneal in the sky. Once, she either commits a tautology or is checking to see if we’re still awake, describing some clayey soil as argillaceous. The clayey soil was clayey?

Another cracker was accipitrine, meaning hawk-like in aspect. If we were to perch a capital P in the middle, the very word itself conjures the image of what it means.

Best of all was yarak, meaning fit and ready to hunt. Close to “bloodlust”, I suspect, that primal state where we hunt, and revel in the chase. It’s an ancient, full-bore word, like berserk. When was the last time you were in yarak? Don’t you miss those days?

As your grouchy Hemingway-loving English teacher probably told you, if you can’t say something in a clear and simple fashion, maybe you shouldn’t say it at all. There is a feeling that writers who delight in using obscure words which have their readers scrambling for their dictionaries are being… (looks up synonym for “pretentious”…)

Conversely, there’s the Will Self school of thought: an open love of big words, a delight in unfamiliar conjunctions of syllables, a need to dive into them and roll around in them like a lunatic in a ball pool. This is more my bag. I was especially glad that I read this book on Kindle. With a dictionary uploaded, I’ve no excuse for not finding out what the big words mean.

When I’ll get to use them in a sentence is quite another matter. I should probably do more crosswords.

H is for Hawk, and K is for Killing. A lot of Mabel’s forest friends don’t make it through this book. Indeed, a lot of them meet their end in awful ways. Some of them, in the moments before Mabel unspools their guts or skewers their still-beating hearts with her beak, might well end up wishing a cat had got them first. Macdonald examines our mixed feelings on this question of blood, placing humans and hawks in their proper slots on the food chain, while acknowledging that we might have some misgivings over this revelry in death.

It’s somewhat perverse that we should so admire the great predators. Eagle; shark; tiger; crocodile: all streamlined, lean, muscular, even beautiful to look at, though we know they would feast on us if they could. I’m not sure anything in nature can match the perfect symmetry of the face of a snow leopard, an extraordinarily beautiful creature that makes you ponder the big questions about life and the universe even as it sizes you up for dinner.  

I fostered my own fascination for the natural world through watching documentaries about big cats, sharks and other dangerous animals with my dad. As father-son bonding experiences go, watching a lion rip a zebra apart perhaps isn’t the healthiest, but it’ll have to do. My old man would never have read H is for Hawk, or any other book, had he lived a million years. He’d have loved a documentary on the subject, though, and I’m sure he would have felt a keen affinity for the author’s strange, melancholy journey with her ferocious friend.

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