The book that flew: A hawk used for pigeon control in St Pancras station. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Peregrines over Westminster, my bloody great beehive and the Samuel Johnson Prize

The winner of this year’s Samuel Johnson Prize for her book H is for Hawk chronicles a life-changing week. 

Saturday is a disconcertingly beautiful day. The November air is like hot gin. I’m driving down from Newmarket to Hastings in a glorious mood – until I realise with horror that I’ve still not sent the BBC people a release form for the Samuel Johnson Prize interview they filmed last week. I panic all the way to Hastings, where the employees of a local branch of Waterstones come
to my rescue. They and other high-street booksellers have been fantastic champions of H Is for Hawk – my book about the death of my father, training a goshawk and the life of the novelist T H White – but this is way beyond the call. I email them the form from my phone. They print it out for me. I sign it, photograph it and email it to the BBC, feeling half like a spy, half like a complete idiot. Then they give me directions to my destination – the Beacon, a huge Victorian villa perched on an inland cliff. Carefully I write the directions on a piece of paper and promptly leave it behind.

I’m here for the Black Huts Festival, a bewitchingly eclectic event run by the poet and publisher Nicholas Johnson. He publishes my poetry and invited me to give my first public readings decades ago. Eventually, I find the Beacon and haul my case from the car. Distant police sirens, a waxing moon, a sprawl of end-of-season courgettes over winter garden frames – and above, a migrating woodcock flying in from over the sea, uplit in the sodium dusk. Where has it come from? Finland? Russia? Then inside to greet Nick and hear the folk musician Alasdair Roberts rehearse. Astonishingly beautiful, playing to an empty room.

Explosions in the sky

Sunday is lunch with friends and a ride on the Hastings funicular – seaside architecture is so magical – before a reading with Patrick McGuinness. His Other People’s Countries is one of my books of the year. Then I set off back to Newmarket in darkness. It’s Bonfire Night weekend: all the way, sprays of light blossom and fall across the horizon, turning Essex into a scene from Tron. The best moment was sitting in the car park at Birchanger services munching a cold samosa alongside scores of other drivers, all of us transfixed by a huge local display across the road. It was extra thrilling for being unexpected, for not being meant for us at all.

Peas and progress

I’m at the RSA for a Samuel Johnson Prize event. Six white chairs on a spotlit stage under James Barry’s extravagant 18th-century paintings The Progress of Human Culture. No pressure, I tell myself. I stuff my face with wasabi peas from a bowl in the green room and spend the first few minutes onstage necking glass after glass of water, my throat on fire. The diversity of the shortlist is thrilling. There are many memoirs on it this year. I am fascinated by the reasons you might write yourself into a narrative about wider historical and cultural phenomena. Doing so is a good way to explore how your assumptions colour your understanding of the subject, how your view, like everyone’s, is always subjective and inevitably partial.

Too much adrenalin

Tuesday is lunch at the British Museum with a fellow historian of science. We talk about invasive tamarisk, rescue dogs, British empire shipping maps from the 1930s and the ecologist Charles Elton. I rush off to get my hair done for the Samuel Johnson Prize ceremony. I’ve decided on a bloody great beehive. It is a ridiculous creation and I love it. Back at the hotel, hyperventilating and spaced on hairspray fumes, I drag on a frock, stumble into a taxi and zoom off to the awards at Riba. Rosy light, crowds, pilasters, smiles, the whole thing already surreal.

“Did you manage to eat anything?” I was asked afterwards. Well, yes. Only because the dinner was so lovely I kept forgetting what it was in aid of. Then I’d remember, put down my cutlery, all appetite gone.

One by one, the judges take the podium to deliver acute critical assessments of each book. Then the impossible news from the chair, Claire Tomalin, that H Is for Hawk has won. Shock, disbelief, delight, then waves of dizziness. I manage to hug my dear mother, my editor, Dan Franklin, and my publicist, Ruth Waldram, without falling over but trying to make it up to the stage in high heels is very dicey. I promised myself I wouldn’t cry if I won. But I cry anyway, right the way through my acceptance speech.

Then I’m whisked away for interviews, feeling oddly as if I’m made of helium and hay – buoyant, airy, liable to fall apart. All social ability has vanished. When the BBC’s Nick Higham describes the book to the camera as being “three in one”, I blurt out that I like the comparison because it makes the book sound like washing powder. Oh, God. Too much adrenalin. I can’t sleep a wink that night. I spend most of it playing “match three” games on my phone and when the taxi comes to collect me for the Today programme at 6.40am I resemble an extra from Night of the Living Dead.

How to make books fly

Wednesday’s hero is Ruth, my Jonathan Cape publicist, who accompanies me all day, organising things to perfection. We race between the BBC, Four Colman Getty and newspaper offices; a whirl of podcasts and photo shoots. Cranes, denuded plane trees, burnished silver light. There’s one glorious moment of stillness in stationary traffic: I look out of the window and see a pair of peregrines circling over Westminster, high in a cirrus-hatched sky.

By lunchtime, I’m almost hallucinating with tiredness but a quick stop for fish and chips works wonders. Then to the Random House offices for a celebration. I’m reminded once again that, however lonely the writing of a book might be, it’s other people who make books fly: editors, designers, artists, proofreaders, sales people, booksellers and all the others behind the scenes. The prize belongs to them, too. As I stand there, cup of tea in one hand and a glass of champagne in the other, I try to make a less emotional speech. But seeing how happy everyone looks, I burst into tears all over again. 

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Nigel Farage: The Arsonist

Show Hide image

How "cultural terrorism" became a matter of international law

The destruction of manuscripts in Timbuktu became a landmark case for cultural terrorism.

When Hegel said of Africa in Lectures on the Philosophy of History that it was “no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit”, he was lamenting the perceived lack of a European-style Enlightenment on the continent. Today, we know better. The region south of the Sahara, in particular, is rightly regarded as one of the intellectual centres of the world, with the 13th to the 17th centuries an especially fertile period for the production of its celebrated manuscripts.

In English, we principally know the name “Timbuktu” as a stand-in for the idea of something far away and inaccessible. Since 2012, the name has been said for another reason, because in the spring of that year the Tuareg rebel group Ansar Dine, allied with Islamist militants, set about destroying the city’s ancient mausoleums and manuscripts. Just as the more recent destruction of Syria’s ancient buildings in Palmyra by Isis has captured international attention, the losses at Timbuktu are now irrevocably part of the layers of memory around the old city.

The loss of these unique objects (40,000 manuscripts are thought to have been destroyed, along with 16 mausoleums of Sufi saints and scholars) has raised awareness of what we might call “cultural terrorism”, and has produced an unprecedented circumstance in international law. Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, a Tuareg alleged Islamic militant, has appeared at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, accused of war crimes relating to the destruction of cultural sites. It is the first case of its kind.

At the British Library’s new exhibition about the intellectual heritage of the subregion, “West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song”, the adviser Gus Casely-Hayford tells me that the “war crimes” label is completely accurate. The attitude to ancient manuscripts in places such as Timbuktu is different from that in the west, he explains: they are living documents, meant to be used. An attack on them is an attack on a whole way of life.

“Artefacts like these are the centre of the community, the focus of identity,” he says. “Al-Mahdi wanted it to be known that he is a teacher; a man who understands the significance of destroying these things.”

Marion Wallace, curator of African collections at the British Library, explains that many of the surviving hundreds of thousands of manuscripts – rescued by local “book traffickers” who smuggled them out of harm’s way – are now to be housed in a state-of-the-art research facility. As we examine a loose-leaf “saddlebag” Quran dating from the late 18th or early 19th century, Wallace explains that such manuscripts were never intended to be behind glass, but were designed to be read one page at a time while, say, travelling on a camel.

There is a photograph in the exhibition of an imam sitting on the floor of his sitting room, exhibiting a manuscript for the camera. Around the centuries-old document, you can see a pile of clothes to one side of him, a tray of drinks on the other, the television in the background: the rest of life.

“I can remember being in a library in Timbuktu before 2012,” says Casely-Hayford. “It was poorly lit and there were shafts of light streaming in from the small windows. You could see specks in the light, fragments of manuscript in the very atmosphere.” In this part of the world, erosion is a mark of respect and reverence, rather than regrettable decay.

The exhibition hopes to set this working manuscript culture in the context of West Africa’s intellectual tradition, stressing the continuity from ancient writing through music, storytelling and cloth design. Yet there is tension here, too: although many hundreds of thousands of precious artefacts were saved from destruction, they will likely never be handled in the same way again. Libraries and museums can preserve the past, but they are less good at letting it breathe. 

West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song is at the British Library until 16 February, 2016. See

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror