H is for Hawk: Helen Macdonald

H is for Hawk: Helen Macdonald

Event: Helen Macdonald with Jonathan Ruppin

Location: Foyles, Charing Cross Road

As a child, Helen Macdonald used to sleep with her arms behind her back. They were imaginary wings. ‘I knew we’d start with the embarrassing stuff!’ she laughs. She used to dream of birds and decided at a young age that she wanted to be a falconer, despite her parent’s tentative suggestions she might consider a career in law.

Jonathan Ruppin, Web Editor at Foyles and a delightfully gently probing interviewer, wonders what triggered this interest. Helen doesn’t remember a pinnacle moment, but she always had a fascination with nature and would romp around the countryside and bring home ‘damp newts’. Just the other day, she found a picture of herself as a child. ‘I was very gangly. There are 12 plasters on my knees, I’m wearing shorts and I have a Viking shield and a plastic sword… that was me!’ Glorious.

She remembers the first time she encountered a goshawk face-to-face at a bird of prey centre. ‘She had muscles like a pit-bull. She reeked of wildness. She was amazing.’ Now, Helen has a slightly less intimidating feathered companion in the form of a parrot. ‘Friends say this is emotionally better for me than a goshawk but parrots are more vindictive! The one I have picks the keys off my keyboard and hides them around the house!’

Secret language

As a child, she also read a lot about hawks and developed a deep knowledge of abstruse vocabulary. ‘It was quite empowering, knowing something that adults didn’t know. I showed off terribly!’ Her eyes brighten, childlike. ‘Did you know…?’ she asks excitedly, ‘that in the seventeenth century England, hawk toes were called “pretty singles”? Parts of my brain are full of this rubbish. It will never leave!”

Far from ‘popularising’ the pastime, as many falconers had apparently feared, it appears that H is for Hawk has made it sound so difficult that no one has taken it up. But it has encouraged people to seek out this extraordinary creature. ‘Someone who works in a bird observatory said people had been visiting and asking to see the hawk “because of the book”. I saw this on Twitter and burst into tears. That’s what this book was all about.’

She then reads a part of the book to us. It’s the moment she is pacing around at the quay with a can of Red Bull, feeling like a ‘drug-dealer!’ Her voice is beautiful: clear and deep with an emotional husk to it. It quickens as she describes the joy of first seeing the hawk.

Helen Macdonald book signing after the event

Helen Macdonald book signing after the event

Goshawk love

Apparently goshawks are the hardest birds to breed: watch any footage of wild goshawk sex (who hasn’t?) and you will likely find it ‘very noisy, brief and violent’ and often leading to death. For this reason, Helen explains, they are usually placed near each other but with a divide ‘so they can see each other… and hopefully fall in love!’ She gives a detailed description of how the male goshawk ‘gives wonderful, courtly bows and puffs out his tail’. She begins to mimic the movements, bowing and pretending to fluff her feathers.

Mable was ten-and-a-half weeks old when Helen took her and, even then, she was ‘big and very scary’. The creature’s eyes were of particular fascination. ‘They start off blue, then grey, then a couple of weeks they are extraordinarily grey, like a pewter spoon and then…’ she stops herself short. ‘Sorry, this must be boring everyone but I can’t help myself!’ Her enthusiasm is infectious, her modesty, charming and what she is describing, fascinating. She continues: ‘Then they turn yellow, then a deep orange. Her expression changes as her eyes change.’

‘She had muscles like a pit-bull. She reeked of wildness.’

After bringing her home, Helen knew she had to start introducing Mable to other humans, which proved quite challenging in Cambridge. ’You can be eccentric in Cambridge but only a certain type: you can wear tweed and speak Latin but carry a bloody great hawk on your fist…!’ She heard one father say to his child: ‘Don’t go near the Hawk Lady, dear!’ and people would shout ‘Harry Potter!’ ‘It used to make me cross. It’s not an owl, it’s a goshawk!’ The only people who would approach and talk to her were ‘drunks, people travelling from other countries and teenage Goths’. It felt like an alternative world.

Surreal world

Helen’s world became increasingly surreal as time passed. Jonathan refers to an extraordinary moment in the book when Mable escapes and Helen feels ‘she is almost split into two people: the human on the ground and the bird above’. She remembers having ‘strange days’ when she found it very difficult to distinguish herself from the bird.

Jonathan points to another part of the book ‘that leapt out at me’. It is the part where Mable wounds a rabbit and Helen had to put it out of its misery. ‘That was instantly the most human I’d felt in my life – it was uncomfortable, disturbing, important. I wanted to understand what death was. It’s behind walls.’ But,’ Jonathan asks, ‘how do you reconcile your love of animals with the fact the hawk is a killer?’

‘That’s not why I love the hawk,’ she replies, with a hint of defensiveness. ‘Your job is to let it have as many of its needs as possible. The only difference is a wild hawk would go up a tree and digest its food, while mine would sit and watch TV with me. She must be the only goshawk to have watched more Colombo and antiques shows!’

‘It was uncomfortable, disturbing, important. I wanted to understand what death was.’

Perhaps this affinity, this love for birds, finds some of its roots in her father’s past. Helen explains how her father, a photographic journalist, has an obsession with planes and would watch them for hours. ‘Always look up,’ her father would say. It’s touching to see that Helen took this advice, and spent her time looking up at the skies, but for birds rather than planes. She looks reflective. ‘Dad taught me that the world is full of many, many beautiful things.’ She adds: ‘Be kind and try and see as many of them as possible.’

‘We see birds of prey as particularly noble and free and wild. It’s one of the most enlightened animal/human relations. Mable was the most bewitching, inhuman, extraordinary thing. I ran into the wilds to heal myself. I felt a wildness that was incredibly addictive. But I got lost. I realised I needed people. I had an epiphany: this was a partnership between two utterly different beings in two different worlds. That was the joy.’

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