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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How Girls made an entire episode out of a single conversation about sexual assault

“American Bitch” is a claustrophobic and clammy exploration of horrible rape debates.

Recently, I was at a party in London that a friend had brought me to. I knew nobody else there, and was happily chatting complete nonsense with a total stranger. Somehow the conversation meandered to a problematic male celebrity accused of domestic violence.

I made an offhand comment about how I couldn’t support him any more. The man I was talking to objected. Should we believe everything we hear? In under five minutes, our conversation had reached a point where he said authoritatively, “Are you really going to confidently throw around statistics like ‘over one in 20 women are raped’? Listen, I know the legal definition of rape.”

The machinery in my brain gave a familiar, dull clunk. Oh, I’m in one of those conversations. One of those conversations where a man tells a woman about what counts as rape and what doesn’t.

It takes a few minutes to realise that the latest episode of Girls, “American Bitch”, is one of those conversations. It opens with Hannah approaching a lovely white pillared apartment block, politely telling the doorman “I’m here to see Chuck Palmer.” She reapplies her lipstick in the elevator. Is she interviewing someone for a magazine? Picking someone up for a date?

Chuck meets Hannah at the door, asks her to take her shoes off, line them up next to the others, without touching his suede boots, and mentions that the “special slippers” are “just for” him. In case we were in any doubt, he says “Yes, I’m that asshole.” We see endless copies of books with his name on the cover, and certificates branding them New York Times Best Sellers on the walls, a Pen Faulkner Award for Fiction, even a photo of him with Toni Morrison. This is a very famous writer.

When Chuck admits it was “good” that Hannah showed up, she replies, “I’m just surprised you found the article that I wrote. You must have an ass-deep Google alert on yourself, this was like a niche feminist website, it’s not the front page of the Times.”

“It’s just I’m hypervigilant these days,” he says. “Look, I’m not trying to get an apology out of you.”

“Ok, good.”

There’s a very specific edge to their conversation – we’re in familiar territory. “I’m obligated to use my voice to talk about things that are meaningful to me,” Hannah goes on. “And I read something about you that troubled me, that troubled me greatly – namely, that you’re using your power and your influence to involve yourself sexually with college students on your book tour, and whether all those sexual encounters were consensual or not –”

“Ok, hold up, because that’s where this line is pretty fucking messy, when words like consensual are thrown around.”

Oh, here we are. One of those conversations.

The scene carries on like this long enough for us to realise that this is probably a bottle episode - with limited characters and sets to keep costs down - like Season Two’s “One Man’s Trash”, featuring Patrick Wilson. That was another episode focusing solely on Hannah hanging out in the big luxurious apartment of a richer, older man. But this one is more of an ethical dialogue about the problems of accountability verses privacy. For the full half hour, Hannah and Chuck debate. Chuck claims his own kind of victimhood. His personal life has been invaded, a kind of groupthink has ended with the presumption of his guilt, and now, he can’t sleep, having nightmares about his daughter discovering the allegations online. “You remember what happened at Salem,” he says gravely. “I’m the witch!” (A few moments later, he compares himself to “some fire and brimstone preacher”, seemingly not noticing the irony.) Meanwhile, Hannah stands up for the girls who claim Chuck assaulted them, adding her own experience as a victim of sexual assault to the discussion to try and help him to understand.

Of course, this isn’t simply an ethical problem explored in dialogue. The texture of their debate is as telling as the basic argument itself. Chuck repeatedly interrupts Hannah, when she’s saying things like “women who have historically been pushed to the side and silenced an–”. He asks sarcastic, aggressive questions like, Did I put a gun to her head? Did I offer her a job?” and, even, “How does one give a non-consensual blowjob?”

At the same time, he also tries to charm Hannah, singling her out as special. “Listen, you’re clearly very bright, I could tell that from the first sentence you wrote,” he says casually, a minute or two into their first conversation. “Why would a smart woman like you write a very long and considered piece of writing on what is ultimately hearsay?” he says soon after. “Cause you’re smart, you write well, you write sharply,” he insists, when she asks why he invited her over instead of a different journalist.

And it works. Chuck is just self-deprecating enough that we see flashes of humanity in him. He asks Hannah questions about where she grew up, giggles with her, and talks about her dreams to be a writer. “Maybe one day you’ll be famous,” he says. “And a lot of people will know some stuff about you – some stuff. I mean, they’ll think they’ll know everything, but they won’t. Like what happened to me. You thought you knew everything, but you didn’t.”

Hannah shakes her head like a schoolgirl in trouble. “No, I didn’t,” she says.

At this point, I felt a squirming in my stomach. Viewers have always been quick to blur the line between fiction and reality when watching Girls, and we know that Lena Dunham has plenty in common with both Hannah and Chuck: yes, she’s a feminist writer who has spoken out about sexual violence, but she’s a famous writer who has faced a degree of public condemnation – and was even accused of sexually assaulting her sibling. “We just wanted to look at it from all sides,” Dunham told Vulture of the episode. Was Girls really telling the story of the poor, misunderstood, sexually aggressive male writer?

The next scene takes place in Chuck’s bedroom, where Hannah is awestruck over a signed copy of Philip Roth’s When She Was Good – Roth’s only novel with a female protagonist, Lucy, who repeatedly attempts to connect with and reform the disappointing men around her. “I know I’m not supposed to like him because he’s a misogynist and he demeans women,” Hannah says, in a comment that could easily refer to Chuck as much as Roth, “but I can’t help it.”

Chuck eventually asks Hannah to lie down on the bed with him – whilst encouraging her to “keep your clothes on to delineate any boundaries that feel right to you” – and when she does so, he unzips his fly, rolls towards Hannah, and flops his dick onto her thigh. Hannah surprises even herself when she touches it, panics, and tries to leave.

It’s a typical Girls moment - ridiculous, blunt, and sudden but still funny, and it reveals Chuck once and for all for the predator he is, whilst simultaneously portraying him as pathetic.

“People don’t talk about this shit for fun,” Hannah tells Chuck, and she’s right, these arguments are not fun. As Dunham told Vulture: “We’re having so many conversations about rape culture and assault and they’re really, really important conversations, but a lot of women walk around with a lot of shame about things that don’t look like rape in the traditional way.” Although there’s a grim humour in the familiarity of these scenes, this bottle episode feels claustrophobic and clammy, with shots of Hannah rubbing her neck or looking away awkwardly. It’s sweaty and stressful.

“Anyway, last year, I’m at this, whatever, warehouse party in Bushwick, and this dude comes up to me,” Hannah says earlier in the episode. The two are old schoolmates, and they talk about a former teacher, who Hannah calls out as a molester. “And you know what this kid said? He looks at me in the middle of this fucking party, like he’s a judge, and says, ‘That’s a very serious accusation, Hannah.’ And he walks away.” Yup. Sounds like one of those conversations.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.