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

JOHN OGILBY/PRIVATE COLLECTION/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge