H is for Hawk – Helen Macdonald
Today is the first anniversary of my father’s death. For some reason, though, I didn’t feel the need to rush out and buy a goshawk as part of the grieving process. This is what Helen Macdonald did when her father died and this book is (in part) an account of what happened.
I say in part because there are three strands running through the work, sometimes juxtaposing themselves rather awkwardly. At one level it is an account of the training of her goshawk called Mabel , an Anglicisation of the Latin adjective amabilis and, I would venture, a most inapposite handle , at another an account of the grieving process following a loss of a beloved member of the family and in part a biography of the author and erstwhile Stowe schoolmaster, T H White.
From an early age Macdonald was obsessed by raptors and devoured voraciously all the literature there was on the subject. One of the books that made a lasting impression on her was T H White’s account of his attempt, ultimately doomed, to harness the primal killing instincts of his goshawk, Gos, in the eponymous Goshawk. Macdonald is an experienced falconer and so the decision to acquire a goshawk, obtained at a port in Scotland from a Northern Irish dealer, is not quite so off the wall as might seem at first.
Much of the book is a compare and contrast of her experiences with those of White. Ultimately, she is successful whereas White failed but then she vaguely knew what she was doing and had a support system to assist whereas White, deliberately, was on his own and learned and failed by experience.
The process of training a goshawk is long-winded and requires the trainer to devote themselves to their creature – an ideal occupation for someone who is keen to escape the realities of everyday life. Macdonald saw the process as an antidote to her sense of loss and her overpowering grief. White, however, was a much more complex character. He was a repressed homosexual with sadistic tendencies – ideally suited you would have thought to a career as a schoolmaster in an English public school. White, however, was so aghast at his id that he gave up teaching and devoted himself to the solitary occupations of writing and training hawks, although, interestingly, he still lived in the grounds of the school.
There is a discernible trend currently of authors trying to resuscitate old words which lapsed from modern usage – I am thinking of, for example, Robert Macfarlane and the vocabulary of the countryside – and Macdonald is right on trend here. We are immersed in more of the vocabulary of falconry than we might care to be exposed to – the training of her bird is manning, Mabel is forever bating, we are introduced to the world of an austringer (a trainer of falcons) and learn why male falcons are called tiercels (they are a third smaller than the females) and so on. Macdonald’s love of language shines through every page – after all she is a poet.
Whilst I wasn’t as overwhelmed by the book as I expected to be, I didn’t dislike it – after all, it is a clever piece of work. It has, though, put me off wanting to own and train a hawk, if I ever had those inklings. I am happier to admire them in the wild. As a fan of White’s Once and Future King it has confirmed that you are better off admiring an author’s work than delving into their psyche. And grief is something you have to work through in your own way.