‘Writing about wild life and the environment has never been better or better informed than this.’
It was like this that Claire Tomalin, celebrated biographer of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Mary Wollstonecraft, announced Helen Macdonald as the 2014 recipient of the Samuel Johnson Prize for H is For Hawk. With a £20,000 prize, the Samuel Johnson is Britain’s most prestigious award for a non-fiction book. While no one is more surprised by the book’s success than Macdonald herself, the win might have seemed obvious to anyone who had watched this singular, literary hybrid by an unknown writer scale the British bestseller charts within its first weeks of release. Clearly, the book had hit upon something significant, even elemental.
At surface, H is for Hawk is Macdonald’s retelling of the year that followed her father’s sudden death in 2007, a year in which she trained a baby goshawk named Mabel as a means of working through – or outrunning – bereavement. It’s also partly an imaginative biography of the British writer TH White, author of the Once and Future King novels, a four-volume retelling of Arthurian legend best known for the series’ first book, The Sword in the Stone. However, it’s a stark, strange non-fiction work from 1951 that informs Macdonald’s intimate, almost séance-like evocation of the author: The Goshawk, White’s own account of his fraught and ill-starred attempt to train a ‘gos’. A closeted gay man and repressed sexual sadomasochist, as well as someone deeply concerned with the question of British identity, it’s no surprise that White should be a figure of such dark gravity to Macdonald, herself a writer committed to chiselling back centuries of accreted British myth and ideology: his book, now considered an outlier classic of nature writing, positively throbs with a tangled network of disturbing, occult currents. He’s a perfect cautionary foil to the Helen of H is for Hawk, a woman forever poised on the brink of cruelty, collapse and ferality.
I meet Macdonald at the 2015 Sydney Writers’ Festival. A few nights later, she will deliver a closing address to rival any other in the festival’s history, having charmed audiences with her pithy, generous event appearances throughout the week. ‘This might be the most beautiful place I’ve ever been interviewed,’ she says, lighting a cigarette and looking out at Sydney Harbour’s Walsh Bay, white sunlight bouncing off its gently undulant surface. As we talk, seagulls swoop onto tables behind us to squabble over scraps of bacon and croissants. More amusingly, a pigeon paces the window of a ground floor meeting room at the Pier One Hotel, head bobbing like an aging rock n roller at an AC/DC tribute gig, trapped. When a man in an expensive charcoal suit steps out for a smoke, the bird makes a dash for the door only to stop at the threshold, cautious. We turn to watch. Then, like it were nothing, Macdonald emits a trilling coo, so perfectly pigeon-like that I take a moment to register that yes, it’s she who’s making the noise. It’s uncanny. Instantly, the bird scurries over to our table, peers quizzically at Macdonald, then, a moment later, flaps away.
KYD: Can you tell me about your two previous books?
HM: The first was a collection of poetry written way, way back when I was a twenty-three-year-old student wearing a black rollneck jumper and smoking a lot of cigarettes. They’re very experimental and quite challenging. They’re Cambridge school poems. I was trying to play with the cadences of the English lyric and stuff it full of scientific terms, terms that aren’t usually found in poetry. I’ve always been very interested in communication, in animals, in the way in which we relate to landscape and the natural world, in signalling, territoriality and defence. These things are in the poems as well. I did a lot of poetry readings in those days. They weren’t at all like the readings I’m doing now: we’re talking about dank backrooms in village pubs. I remember vividly one reading where there was just one other person in the audience: he was the other poet reading, and he fell asleep! I look back on that time with enormous fondness.
Then I worked for a while in the Middle East breeding falcons and in falcon conservation. Later, I came back to university to study History and the Philosophy of Science. It was then that I thought, I’m learning a lot of interesting things here, but nothing that I’m writing is ever going to get outside of the academy. This is the moment when I realised that I wanted to write books for everybody. So, I wrote a cultural history of falcons [Falcon, 2006]. The book is highly illustrated with artworks of medieval kings and great photographs of American falconers from the 1950s looking like James Dean with a falcon on their fist. That was great fun to write, but it in terms of its style, it was a bit of a halfway house. It’s still a bit academic – I read it now and cringe at the jargon.
And then my dad died and this weird year happened with the hawk. Towards the end of that year I thought, There’s a story here that isn’t just about a miserable woman and a bird. It seemed bigger.
KYD: It was five years before you committed to writing the book.
HM: Dad died in March 2007. I got the hawk five months later in August and flew her that year. It took a long time to reach the point where I could sit down as a writer and inhabit the voice that was me, then, this desolate person who now seemed like a stranger. I needed the emotional distance.
It’s a very weird thing to write your past self. Elsewhere I’ve said it was like jumping into cold water every time I had to sit down and be that person again. Of course, I was also writing through the eyes of TH White. Writing those sections of the book was an interesting exercise in putting yourself inside someone else’s head. But I was already doing that to myself.
KYD: And your father, to an extent.
HM: People have asked me, Why is there not more simple family biography in the book? Why isn’t there more discussion about your dad, about how your mother and brother were doing? Well, they’re all private people. And Dad especially was a very private man. The book wasn’t really about him: it was about grief and falling off the world. People say accusingly, ‘I think it’s your English reserve.’ But it’s not!
KYD: What do you call the book, if asked? Memoir, nature writing, literary biography?
HM: To me, deep down – and this is going to sound overblown – it’s a meditation on our relationship with the natural world, on life and death. There was a great interview I had after one of the unexpected awards that the book won with a lovely guy from the BBC called Nick Higham. He said that the book was three things in one: nature writing, grief memoir and literary biography. I burst out laughing on screen and said, ‘It sounds like a washing powder!’
If you look at the book, the first chapter is straightforward nature writing, then there’s a chapter of grief memoir, recounting my dad’s death and the days that followed; next there’s a chapter of fairly straightforward literary biography. I wanted the first three chapters to inhabit those different genres. Then, as the book goes on, the genres start crashing into each other. I sought that complication.
KYD: One book which kept coming to mind while reading H is for Hawk is Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage.
HM: I haven’t read it. He’s an amazing writer.
KYD: Like your book, it’s amalgam of registers and modes. Essentially, it’s a chronicle of his failed attempt to write what he calls ‘a sober, academic study of DH Lawrence’. It’s hilarious. Yet it’s about depression, too. You share his talent for finding humour in unexpected places.
HM: You’re not allowed to make jokes if you’re a nature writer. No jokes, no brand names and no swearing: they’re the three big sins of nature writing. And grief writing, too. But you have to laugh at yourself during dark times. You have to. There’s always a sense of observing yourself doing daft things, behaving in odd ways. I’m interested: how does Dyer approach Lawrence?
KYD: He less approaches Lawrence than skirts about him only to beat a hasty retreat, time and again. The book’s subtitle is ‘Wrestling with DH Lawrence’ but ‘Wrestling with the Prospect of Writing About DH Lawrence’ might have been more accurate. There is critical analysis in there, of course, but it’s highly subjective and not exactly scholarly – literary, but not academic. At one point he speaks of academics as being ‘a group of wankers huddled in a circle, backs turned to the world so that no one could see them pulling each other off.’ He’s quite caustic.
HM: Now that’s pretty harsh. I never witnessed anything like that in my time in academia! I will say, though, that the sense of what you’re working on never leaving the academy – the sense that you’re talking to just twenty other people – can lead to all sorts of insecurities. It’s a hard thing to do. My first degree was in English, so I became aware of a ‘proper’ way in which you were allowed to write about writers. As I was writing the sections about White in this book I constantly found myself thinking, I’m not doing this right, I shouldn’t be doing this. Yet everything about him in the book, as much as possible, is founded on evidence. It became clear to me that I’d internalised the strictures of academic writing more than I’d realised.
KYD: You have a wonderful hook underpinning this book: a grief embodied by a wild creature.
HM: ‘Concretisation’ is the term in the academic vocabulary – yes, it’s still there!
This is something we do consistently with natural objects: we use them to prove our own concepts to ourselves. In the case of my father’s death, I couldn’t feel those forceful emotions myself; I didn’t want to, and on some level, I didn’t permit myself to do so. So I let the bird stand in for them: the desire to be solitary, the ferocity and rage that is often bound up with grief. I wanted everyone to fuck off. I wanted to be like a goshawk – which of course was unfair on the goshawk. Now when I read White’s book, it often feels like there’s no bird in it at all: it’s just him finding himself in a mirror. The actual hawk falls out of the story, which is one of the tragedies of it. I think I rescued myself just in time with Mabel. Towards the end of the book comes the great realisation that she and I had an extraordinary partnership, but Mabel wasn’t anything like me at all. Of course she wasn’t. It becomes a hymn to difference: we should love the natural world precisely because it isn’t us.
In my studies I’ve looked closely at the kind of myths that the natural world supports, particularly those ideas that purport that it’s only by returning to nature that one can regain a state of innocence, of elemental connection with ‘real things’. This point of view is hugely bound up with all sorts of 19th century Romantic standings, a set of particularly Western suppositions. So while it’s important to know these stories – to aim to understand how they’re used to support certain ways of acting and looking at the world – we should also appreciate that what we see when we’re looking at nature is entirely itself.
KYD: Why do you think raptors hold such fascination?
HM: I was talking to an evolutionary psychologist once – and I’m very dubious about a lot of evolutionary psychology – and this guy was saying that the reason we have this awe of raptors is because back in the days when we were evolving we were predated upon by eagles. I raised one eyebrow and went, ‘Well, maybe?’ [laughs]
There is something dimly religious about them. No doubt because there’s such an extraordinarily long history of them representing transcendence, of representing the human soul crossing borders between this world and the next. Right across prehistoric Europe and Asia you find this correlation, in first peoples in North America and in all the Turkic cultures.
But what is it about birds? There’s a great story from the Iris Murdoch book The Sovereignty of Good where she talks about that moment when you’re bound up in your own thoughts and you look out the window and see a kestrel, hovering. And suddenly the world becomes all kestrel. There’s something about birds of prey that seems to encourage identification. If you read A Kestrel for a Knave, the absolutely marvellous book by Barry Hines, you meet this small working class boy, Billy Casper. He’s desperately resisting all the different roles life is throwing at him; he feels forced to adopt a particular kind of masculine identity. He has a horrendous home life. So he trains a kestrel to try to escape all of this. There’s a wonderful scene in the book where he has a conversation with his teacher – someone from a very different world – and the pair of them stand and watch this kestrel flying. I think it’s Billy Casper who says, ‘When they fly, everything goes silent.’
I remember seeing a goshawk once in Central Asia. I looked up and it was sitting in a tree above a river and for one moment I honestly thought there was a man sitting in the tree. Then it opened its wings – it looked like a man putting on a coat – and flew off. That was the moment when I thought, There’s some very odd connection between people and hawks. Maybe it’s not explainable.
KYD: My aunt and uncle have lived for years in a cottage in Gloucestershire, right out front of the Forest of Dean. I’ve watched raptors hover above the adjacent wheat fields. I couldn’t say why I find them so enthralling.
HM: The Forest of Dean is one of my favourite places. It’s very, very wild – it’s kind of legendary, actually. There’s wild boar there now, and apparently a thriving population of wild skunks! No one quite knows where they came from. I could imagine walking through the Forest of Dean and encountering a white hart with glowing antlers and following it on some mysterious adventure.
KYD: My uncle is a sculptor and woodcarver. Some years ago he abandoned a large-scale wood sculpture in what’s now a long overgrown clearing. It’s a druid exhorting the sun.
HM: It’s really interesting to hear that. There’s a lot of talk at the moment about the idea of ‘the English eerie’ and the enchantment of the English countryside.
KYD: A resurgence of old superstitions?
HM: Yes, it’s pretty recent. I have a suspicion it’s connected with economic downturn: historically, during these times we tend to look inward as a culture. We return to British myth as a means of questioning British identity. So while the sense of the countryside being somehow eerie is interesting, it’s also worrying. It ties into all sorts of dark imaginings about identity and place, about who belongs and who doesn’t.
KYD: So it’s a marker of an upturn in parochialism, even nationalism?
HD: That’s certainly occurring in a political sense across all of Britain right now.
KYD: But particularly in rural areas like Gloucestershire?
HD: Not necessarily. Think about migration in Britain: it’s in the countryside where a lot of migrant workers from Europe come over to work on the land. This uptick in nationalism is very distressing to many people in these areas, both migrants and British citizens.
I’m watching this recent obsession with megalithic ruins, with druidism et cetera, with interest. There’s a critic called Jed Esty who has written about how in the 1920s in the post-Great War period there was a contraction of British empire. People began seeking the mysterious not at the far-flung borders of empire but at home. As I say, it’s a troubling relationship. We’ll see what happens.
KYD: When I was last in Gloucestershire the debate about bovine tuberculosis and the proposed badger cull was raging. That seemed like an especially vexed scenario, and one entangled with some of the questions you’ve just touched upon.
HM: It was an extraordinary clash. I’m not necessarily anti wildlife management; in some instances, it works. I think some of the class aspects of that particular clash were very unfortunate, and as an initiative it was ultimately misguided. There is a huge problem of bovine tuberculosis in Britain, but from what I’ve read it seems traffic is the main reason it’s spreading: movement of cattle, rather than the badgers. It left enormous ill will. Badgers hold a privileged position in popular culture. They’re considered little men of the woods. I was in Slad where I walked up a hill with a friend of mine. Some artist had painted badgers on every single fence post all the way up the hill, wearing different outfits: there were badgers playing tennis and policeman badgers and clown badgers. It was a protest against the cull by making badgers into us. That says something quite interesting.
KYD: Some species of raptor have been reintroduced into the British wild in recent years thanks to rebreeding programs.
HM: The raptor situation in Britain is weird. We have strict protection laws now. Because the pesticides that were knocking them over were banned quite a long time ago, there are huge increases in the number of some species, like peregrine falcons. And we have reintroduced red kites, and buzzards as well are spreading all over. Since they’re such visible and charismatic animals, their return masks an invisible impoverishment of our countryside. All the everyday farm birds are disappearing. We now have birds of prey everywhere, but we haven’t got grey partridges and yellowhammers, nor corn buntings. People are blaming birds of prey for the decline of songbirds, but that’s not how it works. It’s habitat degradation and development that’s doing it.
KYD: You light upon the interesting realisation in the book that most of the defining texts of human-animal relations were authored by gay men.
HM: It’s a really poignant history. JR Ackerley wrote the book on the dog [My Dog Tulip, 1956]. There’s Gavin Maxwell [Ring of Bright Water, 1960], Maxwell Knight [A Cuckoo in the House, 1955], and of course TH White – this whole suite of guys who for one reason or another had close relationships with animals in domestic spaces and wrote about these in lieu of any other domestic attachment. But you have to be wary about drawing conclusions. Keeping animals was much more common back then. I remember reading Peter Scott’s autobiography. He was in his room in college and he had all sorts of animals bombing around, most of them shipped in from other countries. It just doesn’t happen anymore. And that’s a good thing. So while it wasn’t unusual to keep animals, I think it was unusual to write about them in that way, in the way these gay men did. The shame and secrecy that prompted these books is hopefully a dying tradition. I hope there will be no more sad books about otters by people who can’t write about their real loves.