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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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage