Let us prey: a 1955 image of a hawk catching a rabbit in the snow. Photo: Getty
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Raptor enrapture: the story of a life saved by falconry

The sudden death of a woman’s father propels her into buying and training a goshawk – but then she starts to worry about her own identity. 

H Is for Hawk 
Helen Macdonald
Jonathan Cape, 320pp, £14.99

The natural world seems to have an endless capacity to soak up our grief. We project on it our sins. Birds in particular are invested with this displacement and have acted in that role through much of modern nature writing. Their airy, eldritch shapes – part omen, part dinosaur – speak to the greater disconnection we feel from the wilderness.

Look to J A Baker’s The Peregrine (1967), for instance, an account of the author’s communion with the falcons of an unnamed part of the Essex countryside. In it, Baker, apparently suffering from a terminal condition, compulsively observes and records these birds – themselves threatened by the introduction of the pesticide DDT, which would bring them to near extinction. He writes evocatively of a “pouring-away world”, where the raptor negotiates the landscape “by a succession of remembered symmetries”. Baker places himself within that landscape, earthbound, but we feel his spirit soaring above it with the birds.

In her new book, Helen Macdonald, a Cambridge academic living not far from Baker’s fiefdom, binds herself so closely to a member of the hawk family that she fears she is no longer fit for human society. In her case, the motivation for this highly emotional lurch into an avian world is made devastatingly clear. It is the sudden death, from a heart attack, of her father in late middle age.

His loss becomes the measure of this book, the depth charge of its pain. It leads Macdonald to recall her childhood in fitful, flash-lit scenes that reveal to the reader the profound, lifelong connection she has had with birds of prey and the glamorous link with the historical past that they represent. “You take a hawk on to your fist. You imagine the falconer of the past doing the same. It is hard not to feel it is the same hawk . . . History collapses when you hold a hawk.”

Struggling with grief, she decides to train a goshawk – a notoriously difficult raptor to master – and orders a bird from a man in Northern Ireland. She drives to a Scottish quay to meet him. Her description of the bird as it emerges from a cardboard box is breathlessly in the moment: “The man pulls an enormous, enormous hawk out of the box and . . . everything is brilliance and fury . . . My heart jumps sideways. She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffin from the pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water.”

It is the beginning of an intimate process in which Macdonald must bind the bird – which she names, with purposeful bathos, Mabel – to herself emotionally, just as the leather tresses attach it physically. She brings it back to her college apartment, where it perches in the living room, its wide eyes reacting to her in horror.

Gradually, she makes her presence essential to the bird by being its provider of food. Liaising with other falconers, Macdonald submerges herself – and her pain – in this other life. Her academic career is put on hold. She is forced to leave her accommodation. She can no longer bear to converse or behave in the ordinary world. She stands in a Cambridge park, training her hawk (it might as well be a dragon), the cynosure of passers-by whom she tries to ignore, politely. She is, she suspects, going mad.

Central to this story is another book and its even more pathological narrative: T H White’s The Goshawk, which was written in 1936 but not published until 1951. White had, as a young writer, left his position as a teacher at Stowe School in Buckinghamshire to live in the woods in a cottage. There, he began to train his own goshawk – badly, in Macdonald’s opinion. Even as a girl, already precociously learned on the subject, she complains to her mother that White is being stupid, ignoring all the rules.

Yet in White’s evident discomfort with himself and his sexuality, Macdonald sees a mirror of her discontent. She reads The Goshawk as “a work of suppressed homosexual desire – not for flesh, but for blood, for kinship”. Her own writing about her bird becomes an expression of escape, by force of its subject’s ferocity: “The hawk was a fire that burned my hurts away.”

Her childhood fascination with passive observation has been ramped up into a visceral, talons-on-leather connection. Initially she agrees with the falconer and scientist Tom Cade that falconry is “high-intensity birdwatching”, but then she realises it is much more like a drug: “I had found my addiction . . . as ruinous, in a way, as if I’d taken a needle and shot myself with heroin.”

Throughout the book, Macdonald’s prose lurches into the extreme. It’s as if she is careering headlong, like her hawk, in pursuit of some unnameable prey. Falconry is not a hobby; it is therapy. The reiteration of her grief becomes both unbearably sad and, sometimes, too personal for the reader who looks on, aghast, at the state Macdonald finds herself in. Yet the language, which strains for effect on occasion, is redeemed by the lustrous descriptions of Mabel – especially her eyes, flashing orange and predatory, or half-open in dozy satisfaction. Macdonald is aware that she is living too much through her hawk. She fears that she has become the bird’s accomplice in slaughter, kneeling to snap a rabbit’s neck as an accessory to the kill, stuffing illicitly hunted pheasants into the pockets of her hawking waistcoat.

By the book’s end, she has learned “the danger that comes in mistaking the wildness we give a thing for the wildness that animates it. Goshawks are things of death and blood and gore, but they are not excuses for atrocities. Their inhumanity is to be treasured because they have nothing to do with us at all.” It is a mark of Macdonald’s achievement that so exultant a book can resolve itself in a sense of failure, yet leave the reader as uplifted as a raptor riding on a thermal. 

Philip Hoare’s books include “The Sea Inside” (Fourth Estate, £9.99)

Philip Hoare’s books include Wilde’s Last Stand, England’s Lost Eden, and Spike IslandLeviathan or, The Whale won the Samuel Johnson Prize for 2009, and The Sea Inside was published in 2013. He is professor of creative writing at the University of Southampton, and co-curator of the Moby-Dick Big Read. His website is www.philiphoare.co.uk, and he is on Twitter @philipwhale.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, A century of meddling in the Middle East

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Baby you’re a rich man: the impossible madness of Paul McCartney’s life

“I was on the scrapheap,” the Beatles bassist had thought, aged 27, when the band split up. How wrong he was.

Hard though it is to grasp the full extent of Paul McCartney’s wealth, this book showers you with gentle reminders. He once ordered a pizza to be flown from New York to London by Concorde. He sent a sick puppy on a 280-mile return journey by taxi to a vet in Glasgow, and made the same sort of provision for a duck with a broken leg. “Hundreds” of his cash-filled weekly pay packets were discovered at his house in 1967 but he was already so rich that he hadn’t bothered to open them. He had a yacht turned into a 24-track studio and converted a minesweeper to accommodate the band.

What’s more, he has several Magrittes and a circular bed that used to belong to Groucho Marx. He organised a display involving 25,000 flowers beside the M4 to advertise a Linda McCartney photo exhibition and gave his second wife, Heather Mills, a £360,000 annual allowance (almost £1,000 pocket money a day). If Pete Best, the sacked original Beatles drummer, got “about £8m” for playing on ten tracks on The Beatles Anthology, what sum would the band’s bassist have earned for co-writing most of its output?

But whenever you find yourself envying a life in which you could underwrite a $200,000 heart operation for a friend’s daughter, you remember the grim reality of such fame. McCartney is forced to erect ramparts of privacy to allow him even the ghost of a normal existence. He systematically purchased all of the land around his farm on the Mull of Kintyre, in Scotland, to create a vast, continuous exclusion zone. The wire fences and 65-foot observation tower at his Sussex retreat prompted neighbours to call it “Paulditz”.

His profile is such that he occasionally resorts to riding in vehicles with tinted windows and had to disguise himself in an afro wig to attend a George Harrison concert. Women claiming that he slept with them in the distant past file paternity suits: can you imagine the indignity of being asked to submit blood samples to disprove some pissed event that may or may not have taken place decades ago in a Hamburg Bierkeller?

The repercussions of his celebrity are colourfully examined in this detailed and engaging book, as are the chief figures in his life – his mother and father, his early girlfriends, John Lennon, Brian Epstein and his first two wives – but it is the changing nature of another relationship that makes the most gripping narrative: that of the subject and the author. Tough, fascinated, painstakingly thorough and studiedly unemotional, Philip Norman was always firmly in the Lennon camp, once declaring McCartney’s rival and professional partner to be “three-quarters” of the band. Norman’s bestselling Shout! The Beatles in Their Generation and his superb John Lennon: the Life make this abundantly clear.

But things have changed. The author’s stance has softened. First, McCartney gave his tacit approval for this book – “neither authorising it nor discouraging it” – which allowed Norman access to countless crucial, first-hand accounts. And second, a growing awareness and understanding of McCartney’s predicament both within and beyond the Beatles now allows Norman to excuse various characteristics that he once disliked or considered suspicious.

He accepts that McCartney developed his “double-thumbs-up” demeanour as a valuable public relations shield between the band and the ravenous world: somebody had to “be nice to the endless relays of boring, bombastic local dignitaries, officious police chiefs and dumbstruck, dumb-cluck journalists” and it is entirely to the bassist’s credit that he volunteered.

McCartney’s legendary charm now seems beguiling rather than offensive. It took serious powers of persuasion, Norman points out, to sell millions of copies of the syrupy “Mull of Kintyre” in the teeth of the punk revolution. Who wouldn’t want to be allowed through international borders when you’ve forgotten your passport? Who wouldn’t want to be able to hold the attention of a court of law with just the tiniest modifications of facial expression, after informing a judge that it was your “interest in horticulture” that had led you to possess the marijuana in the first place?

When a Lord of the Rings film project was mooted in 1968, McCartney was tellingly cast as Frodo Baggins, Ringo as Samwise Gamgee, George as Gandalf and Lennon as Gollum. On TV, Paul’s angelic looks made him “seem three-dimensional while the others remained flat”, an irresistible trait that let him conduct love affairs with two other women while officially stepping out with Jane Asher (the reason John and Yoko were initially inseparable, Norman suggests, was that Lennon didn’t dare to leave his new squeeze alone with McCartney, for fear that she might fall under his spell).

There is something attractive, too, about the notion that McCartney ended up being the sole Beatle with a firm grasp on the tiller. While George invited a troop of Hells Angels to hang out at the Apple office (where they harassed the female staff) and John sent spherical packages to meetings with the message “Listen to this balloon”, McCartney had the sixth sense to flag up concerns about employing Allen Klein as their manager, a deal from which they later paid a fortune to escape.

So why alarm bells didn’t ring when he ran into Heather Mills is a mystery that baffles even Philip Norman. At the time, friends advised McCartney (with excruciating irony) that taking up with this doughty campaigner would be like “walking into a minefield”. In selfless support of his new wife, he started to wear T-shirts bearing the slogan “NO LANDMINES!” when they used to scream: “GO VEGGIE!” There is something profoundly sad about the whole episode; it is a tale so unnerving and crammed with agonising incident that Norman devotes 80 pages to it.

Mills convinced the world – and her apparently suggestible new husband – that she was some kind of romantic rebel, who had run away from home as a teenager to work on funfairs, sleep rough in cardboard boxes and steal food from supermarkets. She was soon labelled a “fantasist”, revealed to be a former topless model and accused of pedalling untruths and exaggerations to the extent that Jonathan Ross declared that she was “a f***ing liar” and that he “wouldn’t be surprised if we found out she’s actually got two legs”. With her press profile switching from “Diana” to “Mucca” in a matter of weeks, she sued her exasperated husband for £125m and settled for £16.5m, which speak volumes in itself.

And what of the music? Very little of this book concerns McCartney’s songwriting, which is understandable, as it is the area so comprehensively explored by the great Beatles scholar Mark Lewisohn and by Ian MacDonald’s peerless Revolution in the Head – though when Norman describes Lennon’s and McCartney’s harmonies as “like vinegar and virgin olive oil”, you rather wish there was more of it. Instead, he is aiming to produce the most detailed composite picture imaginable and he succeeds effortlessly.

You’re left with a sense that McCartney’s life in the Beatles was impossible madness and that he has been in recovery ever since. “I was on the scrapheap,” he had thought, aged 27, when the band split up. “It was a barrelling, empty feeling that just rolled across my soul.” You’re so sympathetic that you want to forgive him everything.

Well, almost everything. He paid Wings members £70 a week and once deducted £40 for “hire of amplifier”.

Rock Stars Stole My Life! by Mark Ellen is published by Coronet

Paul McCartney: the Biography by Philip Norman is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (864pp, £25)

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism