Thursday, 29 January 2015

H is for Hawk

Helen Macdonald

Congratulations to Helen Macdonald for the prizes she has won (e.g. Samuel Johnson non-fiction, Costa book of the year) for H is for Hawk. Not to everyone’s taste (it seems from some nit-picking commentators) but the memoir’s success has revived interest in TH White, a writer from my own childhood that I’ve mentioned beforeI am looking forward to reading Macdonald’s book when it is out in paperback but for now I’ve enjoyed the thought of it and reveled in the tangled muddle people get into whilst trying to fathom her use of the biography of TH White.
A Grief Observed
H is for Hawk concerns three strands: the grief Macdonald felt when her father died, her decision to train a goshawk named Mabel and the biography of TH White, the author of The Goshawk. The success of whether or not she succeeds in integrating these three strands is what the reviewers want to analyse. But as a fanboy reader I’m (oddly) looking forward to reading about grief; having retired it seems that bereavement is one of the most significant experiences in life – looking back and looking forward. I’d like to see how Macdonald expresses the earthquake of losing her father. The best account I’ve ever read, thus far, of grief is in CS Lewis’s A Grief Observed, a book I read soon after my Mum died.  I’m open to other suggestions….

Taming the Wild

I imagine that taming Mabel (the goshawk in the memoir) is equated with taming the self, taming the emotions, taming the grief. I might be wrong but taming has a long history in culture and literature from Taming of the Shrew (which I’ve seen and directed) to Barry Hines's Kestrel for a Knave (which I’ve read and taught) to 50 Shades of Grey (only a guess here since I haven’t read it – will I see the film?  Probably not.) In 1486 The Book of St Albans listed a falconry hierarchy so Golden Eagles were for Emperors, Falcons for Princes, Merlins for Milady, Sparrowhawks for a Priest and a Kestrel for a Knave. A Goshawk was for a Yeoman, a word surviving now for the Yeoman of the Guard at the Tower of London, but in medieval times probably meaning an employee of a noble household.
 The Goshawk

Helen Macdonald cites her reading of TH White’s The Goshawk as an event that inspired her in her teenage years. I read a copy borrowed from Wakefield Library in the summer before I was fifteen. Why did I choose it to read? My older brother had been interested in birds of prey and the film of Kes had made a permanent and formative impact. I knew that TH White had written The Sword in the Stone, the book on which the Disney film was based but I hadn’t read that, just enjoyed the cartoon. So it seemed to fit the creed of my charismatic English teacher, Mary Cohen, a book that “called” to me instinctively. Don’t choose books because you feel you should read them, she taught. Choose books that choose you. Don’t read a book you are not enjoying; stop it and choose another. Reading is for pleasure, for escapism, for opening your heart, mind and soul.  

Violence and War

The Goshawk completely floored me. I ought to re-read it since I am only remembering the impressions it left on me. It felt like a book about the sadness and tragedy of the human race, an account of White’s dread of the effects of violence and war. I remember crying in a central section (no spoilers) and at the end feeling a wild sense of optimism. It took me on an imaginary rollercoaster of emotions. It revealed allegory to me in a powerful way.This book that contained diagrams and instructions about hawking also posed questions about man’s inhumanity to man, through the interactions the narrator had with the natural world. I suppose I’m hoping Helen Macdonald’s memoir is going to do something similar for me. Should I be even writing about a book that I haven’t read yet? Sometimes anticipating a book can cause flights of fantasy.... and The Goshawk led directly to the book that changed my life.... 
One thing leads to another....