I’m pretty sure that the best book I read last year was Helen Macdonald’s H Is For Hawk.
It’s easy to say that now it’s won the Samuel Johnson award, and probably appeared on a pile of end of year lists. Well, good: sometimes popular things are popular for a reason. I am glad it has achieved such recognition.
A few times when I’ve explained the book to people, I enthuse: “It’s this wonderful, big book about grief, in which following the very sudden death of her father, a woman decides to train a goshawk.”
“Wow,” says the other half of the conversation, “that sounds incredible.”
“I mean,” I say, “worth pointing out she’s a very experienced and knowledgeable falconer.”
“Oh,” with a twinge of disappointment.
Disappointment! As if trying to train one of the larger, most unpredictable birds of prey wasn’t remarkable enough. (And, as the book proves in its study of TH White’s The Goshawk, what damage the untrained amateur can do). It turns out that it’s precisely because Macdonald knows her field so well that the book has turned out so well. It turns out there a few things expertise cannot always overcome; one is a living thing with a mind of its own, and the other is ineffable sadness.
I also usually caveat it when I recommend it. It’s a more difficult book than I think it may initially seem.
It’s about nature, red in tooth and claw; a bird of prey needs to be taken hunting, and Macdonald treats that topic with care, and thought, and there’s a lot of different angles to it. But the bird is going to hunt, and once it’s big enough, you can’t avoid that topic.
It’s about TH White, a man I knew little of when I began (other than that he wrote The Sword in the Stone) but gosh, it turns out he was not an easy man, and he did not have an easy life.
But mostly because it’s about grief, which is a tough and horrible topic, and the book is a remarkable treatment of that because of how little it explicitly talks about it. Rather, the grief runs through everything like a vein; it’s the why at the bottom of some sequences, the of course waiting for you at the end of a tough chapter. Macdonald is unflinching in a portrayal of herself several (about seven now) years ago, and if the book doesn’t bring the pain of any of your own grief to the surface again, then it still may bring the pain of compassion for someone you cannot help up. It’s a book written in the past tense, but the present tense within the book is heart-wrenching, and there’s nothing you can do.
It’s not all difficult, though. Macdonald is a marvellous writer – her experience in writing poetry shows through, not just in the beauty of her prose, but also its sparseness. Some of the passages I highlighted were simply for the language. Mabel – the goshawk – is this rich, wonderful character; not even a character, because she’s real, but she comes to life on every page, the changes in her as she grows minutely observable.
It’s a particularly lovely book about what living in Cambridge is like – living around the University, but also living in that cold town on the edge of the Fens that most students don’t see outside of, or see outside termtime.
And it’s a lovely book about the English countryside. Not just because it’s charming – it is, at times, but it’s also raw, and honest, and talks well about the history of land, and the strange magic buried in that writers such Robert Macfarlane also touch upon.
I’ve read it about twice this year – once, in a cottage in France, barely doing anything but turning pages, and then again, in tandem with my Mum as she read the copy I gave her for her birthday. It’s still a treat, and I still dive in, in part to be thrilled by the prose, but then inevitable to find some little inner truth that calms and settles me.
It’s hard to talk about, because it’s a book that’s inevitably hugely personal to the author, and I do not know them at all, but you have to engage with something when you read, and sometimes compassion overwhelms you. So: anything not directly quoted is opinion about people in text, and not people in the world. But regardless:
I can’t recommend it enough. Below, as usual, are the points I underlined in my copy.
I remember a teacher showing us photographs of the cave paintings at Lascaux and explaining that no one knew why prehistoric people drew these animals. I was indignant. I knew exactly why, but at that age was at a loss to put my intuition into words that made sense even to me.
Location 397, on reading the falconry canon as a child:
Being in the company of these authors was like being dropped into an exclusive public school, for they were almost entirely written a long time ago by bluff, aristocratic sportsmen who dressed in tweed, shot Big Game in Africa, and had Strong Opinions.
Location 429, on encountering White’s The Goshawk as a child:
This was a book about falconry by a man who seemed to know nothing about it. He talked about the bird as if it were a monster and he wasn’t training it properly. I was bewildered. Grown-ups were experts. They wrote books to tell you about things you didn’t know; books on how to do things. Why would a grown-up write about not being able to do something?
Location 463 – Macdonald talks to a former U2 pilot, who revealed he read The Once And Future King during the boring parts of getting to altitude and back down again. The cadence of the prose:
…the solitude of the pilot in the spy-plane, seeing everything, touching nothing, reading The Once and Future King fifty thousand feet above the clouds – that makes my heart break, just a little, because of how lonely that is, and because of some things that have happened to me, and because T. H. White was one of the loneliest men alive.
Location 467, in which White describes his early plan for The Goshawk:
It ‘would be about the efforts of a second-rate philosopher’, he explained sadly, ‘who lived alone in a wood, being tired of most humans in any case, to train a person who was not human, but a bird’.
Independence – a state of being self-contained – is the only generosity, I thought, the only charity we can claim of a living creature. We must have nothing to do with another’s bones; that is our only right – to have nothing to do with them. The bone must be the axis of a globe of intrusion-proof glass. One could not say, watching a hawk: ‘I ought perhaps to do this for him.’ Therefore, not only is he safe from me, but I am safe from him.
In the 1950s, in a small research station in Madingley a few miles north of where I lay, a scientist called Thorpe experimented on chaffinches to try to understand how they learned to sing. He reared young finches in total isolation in soundproofed cages, and listened, fascinated, to the rudimentary songs his broken birds produced. There was a short window of time, he found, in which the isolated chicks needed to hear the elaborate trills of adult song, and if that window was missed, they could never quite manage to produce it themselves. He tried exposing his isolated fledglings to looped tapes of the songs of other species: could they be persuaded to sing like tree pipits? It was a groundbreaking piece of research into developmental learning, but it was also a science soaked deep in Cold War anxieties. The questions Thorpe was asking were those of a post-war West obsessed with identity and frightened of brainwashing. How do you learn who you are? Can your allegiances be changed? Can you be trusted? What makes you a chaffinch? Where do you come from?
Nothing was wrong with the hawk. She wasn’t sick. She was a baby. She fell asleep because that’s what babies do. I wasn’t sick either. But I was orphaned and desperately suggestible, and I didn’t know what was happening to me.
Despite the eccentricity of a hawk on his fist, what White was doing was very much of his time. Long walks in the English countryside, often at night, were astonishingly popular in the 1930s. Rambling clubs published calendars of full moons, train companies laid on mystery trains to rural destinations, and when in 1932 the Southern Railway offered an excursion to a moonlit walk along the South Downs, expecting to sell forty or so tickets, one and a half thousand people turned up.
Location 1580, after Helen begins walking Mabel in Cambridge to get her used to people:
I am beginning to see that for some people a hawk on the hand of a stranger urges confession, urges confidences, lets you speak words about hope and home and heart. And I realise, too, that in all my days of walking with Mabel the only people who have come up and spoken to us have been outsiders: children, teenage goths, homeless people, overseas students, travellers, drunks, people on holiday. ‘We are outsiders now, Mabel,’ I say, and the thought is not unpleasant. But I feel ashamed of my nation’s reticence. Its desire to keep walking, to move on, not to comment, not to interrogate, not to take any interest in something peculiar, unusual, in anything that isn’t entirely normal.
Location 1614 – this is a cracking part. Macdonald discovers that lots of the 18th and 19th century literature around goshawks by and large describes them as irritable, difficult women (the female goshawk is larger than the male, and generally preferred for hawking). By now furious, she continues going back in time, and finds that earlier writers were much more sensitive to their hawks (and perhaps also their women):
…reading further back I find that in the seventeenth century goshawks weren’t vile at all. They were ‘sociable and familiar’, though by nature ‘altogether shye and fearfull’ wrote Simon Latham in 1615. They ‘take exception’ at ‘rough and harsh behaviour from the man’, but if treated with kindness and consideration, are ‘as loving and fond of her Keeper as any other Hawke whatsoever’. These hawks, too, were talked about as if they were women. They were things to win, to court, to love. But they were not hysterical monsters. They were real, contradictory, self-willed beings, ‘stately and brave’, but also ‘shye and fearfull’. If they behaved in ways that irritated the falconer it was because he had not treated them well, had not demonstrated ‘continuall loving and curteous behaviour towards them’. The falconer’s role, wrote Edmund Bert, was to provide for all his hawk’s needs so that she might have ‘joye in her selfe’. ‘I am her friend,’ he wrote of his goshawk, ‘and shee my playfellow.’
Location 1639 – Macdonald discovers that Mabel likes playing with her, tossing a ball of newspaper around the living room:
An obscure shame grips me. I had a fixed idea of what a goshawk was, just as those Victorian falconers had, and it was not big enough to hold what goshawks are. No one had ever told me goshawks played. It was not in the books. I had not imagined it was possible. I wondered if it was because no one had ever played with them. The thought made me terribly sad.
My vision blurs. We carry the lives we’ve imagined as we carry the lives we have, and sometimes a reckoning comes of all of the lives we have lost.
Being a novice is safe. When you are learning how to do something, you do not have to worry about whether or not you are good at it. But when you have done something, have learned how to do it, you are not safe any more. Being an expert opens you up to judgement.
It struck me then that perhaps the bareness and wrongness of the world was an illusion; that things might still be real, and right, and beautiful, even if I could not see them – that if I stood in the right place, and was lucky, this might somehow be revealed to me.
There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things. And then comes a day when you realise that is not how it will be at all. You see that life will become a thing made of holes. Absences. Losses. Things that were there and are no longer. And you realise, too, that you have to grow around and between the gaps, though you can put your hand out to where things were and feel that tense, shining dullness of the space where the memories are.
I was furious with myself and my own unconscious certainty that this was the cure I needed. Hands are for other human hands to hold. They should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks. And the wild is not a panacea for the human soul; too much in the air can corrode it to nothing.
Location 3124 – Macdonald goes to the doctor. I remember this train of thought well:
He says it will make things better. Which is ridiculous. How can this grey and mortified world be washed away by little dots and lines? Then I start to worry that the drugs will make me ill. Even more absurdly, I panic that they’ll stop me thinking clearly. That they’ll stop me flying Mabel. That whoever I’ll become under their chemical influence will be so strange and alien she won’t fly to me any more.
The American writer and ecologist Aldo Leopold once wrote that falconry was a balancing act between wild and tame – not just in the hawk, but inside the heart and mind of the falconer. That is why he considered it the perfect hobby. I am starting to see the balance is righting, now, and the distance between Mabel and me increasing. I see, too, that her world and my world are not the same, and some part of me is amazed that I ever thought they were.
From the top I can look down and see the whole of Cambridge. The light today is beguiling. The rooftops and spires seem within a hand’s grasp; a chess-set town glittering among bare trees, as if I could pick up the brute tower of the university library and move it six places north, set it down somewhere else.
Location 3697 – also, from a remarkable section, about the nature of what ‘England’ is. Even our nature – hawks, deer, squirrels – are all imports from other cultures, countries and times. The whole passage was too long to underline, so I just chose this:
Old England is an imaginary place, a landscape built from words, woodcuts, films, paintings, picturesque engravings. It is a place imagined by people, and people do not live very long or look very hard. We are very bad at scale.