Friday, 24 March 2017

A book review of "H is for Hawk"(2014) by Dr Helen Macdonald, Published by Jonathan Cape, London. Part #1

I finished reading this book around ten days ago, and I have since, allowed it to begin to sink in and crystallise in my thoughts.

A quick introduction of Dr Helen Macdonald; Dr Macdonald is a historian with the Department of History and philosophy of science at the University of Cambridge. She is also an illustrator and poet, and here her writing has been exemplified through a discourse of the difficulties she faced while going through her personal grief after losing her father. She is also a Falconer, which is what drew my attention to her methods and writing.

Initially, this book was recommended to me by Dr Stella Baraklianou, around a month ago during an informal discussion about my project. And the work I am trying to articulate through drawing, against the literary backbone, which is the book "the Peregrine" by JA Baker (1967, second edition 2015).

Immediately after starting to read the book by Helen Macdonald, I realised, not only elegant way in which she recorded her story, but also the profoundly moving way in which she explained her feelings. In a way, the book is almost an autobiography, however, while the book does provide a detailed insight into some of her personal thoughts, which were generated through very close but bringing and relationship with her father, it is also an utterly engaging story about her relationship with a Hawk. The hawk in question is of a type known as a 'Goshawk'.

Macdonald explains her fascination with falconry started at a very young age and at the time of writing this book, she was already a proficient Falconer and had trained many different breeds of both falcons and hawks. However, early on in the narrative, it was made clear that this particular strain, the goshawk, provides a robust and challenging raptor for a falconer to train. They virtually remain wild and that sense of independence and individualism, of the bird's thoughts, seem to come through very clearly in Macdonald's writings.

As a point of reference for "H is for Hawk", Macdonald chose to use a previous piece of literature written by T.H. White, during the early 1950s. TH White's book was entitled "The Goshawk"(1951), and it describes his relationship as a complete novice, trying to attempt to train a goshawk.  It delineates the seeming constant battle that he has with the hawk, because of his pride and deeply ingrained sensitivities, perhaps amplified, during the time that he was a schoolmaster. It is his belief that 'through kindness, children should be taught', which seems to go against the general fashion of his day. He attempts to apply this idea of 'training through kindness' to the goshawk that he acquires. His frustrations and almost frightening engagement with the bird puts him into a state of total distance from reality. As he is attempting to train this wild creature without having any previous knowledge of falconry, it is made all the harder.

In a similar way to my intentions of using JA Baker's book "the Peregrine" (1967) as a backbone for my work, much of Macdonald's writing keeps the idea of TH White's "The Goshawk" in her rearview mirror. She recognises his vain and ill-conceived ideas about training his goshawk, and yet apparently makes the tribute to the fact that TH White, the learned and scholarly man that he is, is not attempting to undertake his journey alone. That is, without having read a significant amount of practical literature which goes back to the Middle Ages on the rearing and upbringing of hawks. It is probably worth pointing out also, that TH White is more famous for writing the book "the Sword in the Stone" (published in 1938) which is an English favourite, telling the story of the legend of King Arthur. Within that book, the inference of falconry comes through in many places; for example, the wizard known as Merlyn is indeed named after one of Britain's smallest Hawks, the 'Merlin'. Furthermore, there are various references within the book concerning mediaeval hunting and falconry, as at one stage the young Arthur is himself turned into a hawk for a short time.

By the time TH White had received a good degree of fame for his earlier works, and after having sold the rights to "the Sword in the Stone" to the Walt Disney company, he wrote the book "The Goshawk" in 1951. But it reflects the turbulent time of his own life some 15 to 20 years prior.  That was before the Second World War too. Macdonald's choice in using his book as a backbone to her writings comes through clearly. Her battle with her emotions after losing her beloved father, while at the same time attempting to train this wild creature is equally reflected through her grief and in my opinion her suffering of a deep depression. Various sentences within Macdonald's writing draw the viewer towards this conclusion, such as whole chapters entitled for example "Darkness", (p92 -p98), "Hiding," Chapter 20 (p185-194); and a section entitled "Fear" (p195 - p204). I will go into these chapters a little bit further on in this review but to suffice it to say that Macdonald's suffering was made very clear. Putting grief and despair and depression to one side, the book explores how her relationship with falconry, emerges from a childhood fascination which may have originally come from her father's fascination with flight.  And in his case man's flight through aircraft.
 She tells of times she spent with her father, having almost been forced into 'plane spotting' with him, and her attention often drifting across the wide open spaces of airfields and grassland (p10). What she learnt from these excursions with her father was a sense of patience. As a photographer for a newspaper, he had a critical eye and inculcated into his daughter that same searching almost obsessive habit, of learning to wait for the right moment, and capturing it in some recordable way.

And then the shock of receiving the news that her father has passed away is soon to turn her world upside down. Like all people suffering from profound grief, the usual reaction is shocked, then to withdraw from society and take stock of what is important in life. I too have suffered many times in that loss, of not only my parents but also more recently, my eldest brother. And again, more recently, and so the feelings that Macdonald articulates are still quite raw in my mind, even though a long time has elapsed since the death of my parents, but the painful memories are still quite near to the surface, and I expect them to remain so.

Clearly, the subject matter in most hunting and falconry discourses have to engage with the theme of death at some stage. Whether that is the death of the prey animal or indeed other aspects of mortality, those notions are always near to the surface too. The idea that life goes on and things just happen almost in a parallel existence is also articulated in "H is for Hawk". A hint is found of that otherworldliness on page 21 where Macdonald describes some men hunting and quotes
"the disposition of their [the falconers] Hawks was peculiar. But it wasn't unsociable. It was something much stranger. It seemed that the Hawks couldn't see us at all, that they'd slipped out of our world entirely and moved to another, wilder world from which humans had been utterly raised. These men knew they had vanished. Nothing could be done except to wait."
This passage is where Macdonald is talking about her early observations and first encounters with falconry and how the men that kept the Hawks retained this sense of patience.  - Allowing things to happen and unfold in their own ways. It is a deep sense of respect that the falconers have for their charges as they know and understand that the birds have a choice; to be wild completely, or, to acquiesce in some small way, but only when they, and they alone, decide to do so. It is also at this point in the book that Macdonald points out the difference between a hawk and falcon, the latter being a bird of prey and raptor whose name is derived from the Greek word meaning sickle. The very words sickle and Falcon, which somehow infuse a sense of speed, both slicing through the air. Moreover, she explains the general view that "falcons seem to be better than hawks", as the latter have an apparent wildness and, in Macdonald's words "psychopathic" (p22) aspect to the way that they hunt and kill their prey. Indeed she quotes a line by Captain Gilbert Blain (1936) which suggests that "the Peregrine Falcon is the finest bird on earth." "Of all the living creatures she is the most perfect embodiment of power, speed and grace" (Blain, 1936).

At first, it seems that Macdonald is coming to terms with the loss of her father but again, like many experiencing grief, there are good days and bad days, which turn into good weeks and bad weeks, or good months and bad months and so on. The idea of presence and notions of liminal existences comes back again after a few months. "Something else was there, something standing next to me that I couldn't touch or see, the thing a fraction of a millimetre away from my skin, something vastly wrong, making infinite the distance between me and all the familiar objects in my house. I ignored it. I'm fine, I told myself. Fine." (p24), and later, "I dreamed of the hawk slipping through wet air to [something] somewhere else. I wanted to follow it."(p24).
It is clear that Macdonald needs some sort of outlet to the grief that she is experiencing and decides that the time is right for her to acquire one of the hardest hawks of all to befriend and to train. As already explained, the Goshawk.

It is here that she starts to also recall her reading of TH White, and "the Sword in the Stone" (1938). His own intention in writing 'The Goshawk' (1951), the book, he said "it would be about the efforts of a second-rate philosopher, who lived alone in a wood, being tired of most humans in any case, to train a person who is not human, but a bird" (White, T.H. 1952, in an unpublished manuscript found by Macdonald).
Macdonald states on page 38, "when I trained my hawk I was having a quiet conversation, of sorts, with the deeds and works of the long dead man [that is, TH White], who was suspicious, morose, determined to despair. A man whose life disturbed me. But a man, too, who loved nature, who found it surprising, bewitching and endlessly novel." Macdonald goes on to then say "by skilfully training a hunting animal, by closely associating with it, by identifying with it, you might be allowed to experience all your vital, sincere desires, even though most bloodthirsty ones, in total innocence. You could be true to yourself." (p43).

Once she had acquired her new charge, a young female goshawk (that she named Mabel), Macdonald describes her initial meeting with it through a brilliant examination and description and says "she is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. A Gryphon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water". (p53)

It seems fitting to pause here and allow this opening of the book review to sink in further.

References;

Blain, G. (1936), "She is Noble in her Nature"(pp229-230) from "Falconry",(1936), Phillip Alen,       London.
Macdonald, H. (2014) "H is for Hawk" Jonathan Cape Publishers, London.
White, T.H. (1951), "The Goshawk", Jonathan Cape, London.

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