Book Club Spy: H is for Hawk
One of our more sensitive members misheard somebody talking about Helen Macdonald’s book and thought it was called “H is for Whore.” The latter somebody, as a pretty dyslexic person, was delighted to have the opportunity to tell the unfortunate mishearer that that is NOT how you spell it. Sadly/luckily, he left the room before she could even try.
H is for Hawk is predominantly about Macdonald’s grief upon the death of her father, T.H. White, and her decision to train a goshawk as a result, as she has been obsessed with hawking most of her life. However it is also partly a biographical account of T.H. White, as she interweaves his earlier, abortive attempts to do the same, only he was not grieving, but in retreat from life in general.
His first biography is described by Macdonald as almost like having his recently interred corpse on full display, with the detritus of his life (such as fishing reels) too much on show. Her version is more self-consciously delivered, and to be honest, none of us were ever going to read a book just about him anyway, no matter how big a fan of The Once and Future King one is. However, her extracts on White were some of the most enjoyable parts. The idea of a man living in a cottage in the grounds of a school almost pretending to be a hermit in the wild, fighting certain aspects of his nature and trying to apply hawking principles lifted from medieval texts is desperate. He was pretty much making it up as he went, or applying wildly outdated knowledge (he overfeeds his gos as he mistakenly thinks she is hungry when she is merely miserable), whereas Macdonald has had years of experience. She knows what she is doing, although of course there are plenty of panicked moments when she feels her gos does not like her. The wildness and alien aspects of the gos appeal to her, so she starves her and keeps her at flying weight to a carefully calculated level. Yet this beautiful, wild animal (the passages describing these elements of the animal’s nature are gripping) is kept inside, hooded, for large swathes of the book.
So it is certainly more than a beautiful and poignant account of Macdonald’s grief. There is no tragedy or mawkish sentiment. She clearly adored her father and had a strong relationship with him. It must have been hard to write about this. There are sections of the book which are slightly overwritten, and she asks far too many rhetorical questions. Phrases such as “I can tell a hawk from a handsaw” made us all collectively cringe, but she settles into it after a pretty poor opening line, and we were all spellbound until the final quarter. Apparently editors tend not to be too strict with academics, believing they can write already so why waste resources. This is unfortunate.
As well as a biography of White, and of grief, it is also a story about a woman with blood streaming down her face from a laceration to her scalp on a hillside in the Cambridgeshire countryside. The only thing that stops it from going fully Robert “Wildman” Macfarlane is the fact that it is located just there: in the mostly rather dull and flat Fenlands, rather than somewhere less urbanized.
There is something, too, about the fact that this is also a story about a slightly bonkers woman in her sitting room – the floors covered in birdshit – of a house she does not appear to need to work to keep. Of course she is not required to disclose any aspect of her life, least the financials, but a year to ride out grief alone in your own house with a companion over whom you are able to obsess is the province of the relatively few.
She may be bonkers, but someone unaffected by that level of grief may be deficient in some regard. Her honesty is uplifting despite some of the dark matter. And of course, we all obviously loved it when she chose the small, old, mad gos, not the large meek bird on that quayside.
The title does raise the question of whether the author is merely referencing her childhood in a semi-autobiographical work – learning the alphabet for some was done through beautiful illustrations such as
Or is the H that used to stand for her first name now for Hawk as her sense of self becomes so entangled with this animal during the course of their relationship that she has become obscure.
It is unclear which of these several titles and many stories this book contains, and of course therein lies much of its appeal.