"The hawk had filled the house with wildness as a bowl of lilies fills a house with scent. It was about to begin,” writes Helen Macdonald in H Is for Hawk, a book filled with the elemental heft of hawks and the lingering bouquet of death. It opens with the sudden loss of Macdonald’s father, a successful Fleet Street photojournalist, from a heart attack. In the wake of his death, Macdonald buys a goshawk, names it Mabel and begins the slow waltz of its training.
A historian at Cambridge, she has the countryside at her feet and the need to fill her time. Mabel in return needs endless supplies of chick meat and a reason to trust. When the bird emerges blinking and jittery from a box on a Scottish quay, her new owner is instantly bewitched. “Two enormous eyes. My heart jumps sideways. She is a conjuring trick,” writes Macdonald. “A griffin from the pages of an illuminated bestiary.”
Lay readers will soon realise that comparing a hawk with a falcon is akin to comparing the Beatles with the Stones. Goshawks are the bad boys of the sky and Mabel is Mick, Keith, Ronnie and Charlie all rolled into one furious flurry of feathers. Hawks are bigger and more feral than falcons and training one is no mean feat. The taming of Mabel is told in the fruity vocabulary of the falconer, a delightfully arcane lexicon. “Hawks don’t wipe their beaks, they feak. When they defecate they mute,” explains Macdonald. Her days are soon taken up with jesses (leather straps) and sails (wings).
From Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water to Richard Mabey’s Nature Cure, there is a long literary tradition of paying tribute to the curative company of animals. And Macdonald knows only too well in whose wellingtons she walks, referencing the work of Peter Matthiessen and William Fiennes among many writers who have found their way back to happiness by muddy, paw-and-claw marked paths.
One predecessor stands out for her. T H White’s 1951 study, The Goshawk, provided her with a childhood starting point for her obsession with these brooding birds. White – closet homosexual and sadomasochist – used falconry to flee his own character. “My reasons weren’t White’s,” notes Macdonald, “but I was running just the same.” Throughout her tale she refracts White’s experiences into her own. “I have to write about him,” she states, “because he was there.” This delightful book is therefore a memoir of training a goshawk, a diary of grief and a peek inside the troubled mind of T H White.
Bereavement is shown in all its oddity. “It happens to everyone, but you feel it alone.” A picture of her father fixes through her recollections. We learn that he discovered photography as a boy, and spent his adult weekends photographing Thames bridges: “Somewhere in the files of slides back at my mum’s house is a complete photographic record of ways to cross the Thames from source to sea.”
Macdonald is a “state-school kid born to parents who’d never gone to university, to whom Cambridge was the mysterious haunt of toffs and spies”. She fears that by walking the faculty’s grounds wielding a hawk she has become the college novelty. And yet Mabel proves an unlikely social lubricant. Joggers, shoppers and professors are all intrigued.
This book is a soaring triumph. It is a joy to follow Mabel and Macdonald’s flight out of such disconsolate scenes as one settles into a new roost and the other gradually comes to realise that “hands are for other human hands to hold. They should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks.”