Sunday, 26 April 2015

The Hawk Woman of Cambridge

The closest most of us get to birds of prey is to read about them in books, where they are often known by shortened names – Kes, in Barry Hines’ novel Kes (originally A Kestrel for a Knave) and Gos in The Goshawk, by T.H. White. But in H is for Hawk Helen Macdonald calls her goshawk Mabel, in reaction against the names given to other hawks she has heard – Macbeth, Baal, Odin, Death etc. ‘My hawk needed a name as far away from that awful litany, as far from Death as it could get.’ So she chooses Mabel, ‘From amabilis, meaning loveable, or dear. An old, slightly silly name,’ she admits. She’s right: Mabel as a name sounded oddly quaint even in my childhood.

In the past fortnight I have read and now re-read H is for Hawk. As much as it’s about a hawk, about the loss of a father and about the writer T.H. White – though it’s about all these - in this remarkable book H is definitely also for Helen. Hence hereafter, ‘Helen’ when I’m talking about the woman who trains a hawk; ‘Macdonald’ when I talk about the author who writes about herself trying to come to terms with the loss of her job, her house and her father by training a goshawk she buys for £800 on a Scottish quayside.

There is much travelling in this book. Macdonald is strong on landscape and a sense of place; economical too. She locates the Forest of Dean, for instance, ‘at the edge of England before it tips into Wales; a land of red earth, coal-workings, wet forest and wild goshawks.’ If you’ve ever driven from Cinderford to Coleford, then on down the long hill across the River Wye into Monmouth, you’ll agree her twenty-one word description leaves nothing unsaid. But given the number of places where Macdonald makes us follow Helen during her training of Mabel, it comes as a shock to realize that the book is actually rooted in one location: Cambridge.

Back in 2011, before she had even started to write H is for Hawk, Macdonald had made some trenchant comments about the city in her blog:

My university town is an eccentric place. But its eccentricity isn’t kindly. It has its own rules. You can wear holey tweed and shoes with flapping soles; you can sit in cafés discussing Latin syntax and be so absent-minded you forget your name, but if your eccentricity isn’t of this particular strain, goodbye. Cambridge is a cold place. If you smile at someone in the street their expression will register one part alarm, one part suspicion, one part embarrassment. And then they’ll walk on by.             (Fretmarks 17 April 2011)

To shut yourself in your home, filling your fridge with bits of rabbit, disconnecting the phone and keeping visitors at bay while you get to know your goshawk might count as eccentricity anywhere; but when Helen takes Mabel out into the streets and open spaces of Cambridge, she finds it has become an unnerving place where hawk and human are constantly under threat from cyclists and joggers: ‘They come towards us like tumbling rocks in a video game, threatening destruction with the merest glancing blow.’

Macdonald calls the chapter at the mid-point of her book, ‘The Line’. This refers both to the creance, the ultra-long leash on which Mabel is kept while being trained always to return to Helen’s gloved fist, and to the line she crosses from being inside to outside the closed world of her Cambridge College  – what she had called ‘the Cantabridgean glamour’. As she starts to analyse the way people react to seeing her and Mabel (‘A woman stalking the park with a bloody great hawk on her fist and a baleful stare on her face’) she decides they are both outlaws, living outside ‘the laws of God and man and …College’. She likens herself to Alice, falling down the rabbit hole into a world more nightmare than wonderland. When a College porter strides comically across the cricket pitch to tell her she can’t fly Mabel there, she has to remind herself, ‘I’m a bona fide College Fellow, and what I am doing is not against the rules’; but when the Master’s wife invites her to bring Mabel to show guests at a garden party, her confidence in her university identity deserts her – “I used to be a Research Fellow, a proper academic. Now I am in motley. I am not Helen any more. I am the hawk woman”. – She thinks of Hamlet, who knew he was going mad, but only some of the time: when the wind was southerly he knew a hawk from a handsaw.  Cambridge has a Hawks Club, but it’s strictly for elite sportsmen: no place there for a woman mucking about with a hawk on the playing fields of Jesus College.

As the summer passes, Helen feels ‘hollow and unhoused’. She becomes ill, it rains incessantly outside, and flying Mabel is almost impossible. Inside, meanwhile, she is surrounded by boxes and trying to pack up her belongings, ready to move though without anywhere to move to. Eventually she crawls into an empty cardboard wardrobe box, hiding where ‘No one can see me. No one knows where I am. It is safe here.’

That is her worst moment. Part Two of the book begins with a chapter entitled ‘Flying free’. From here on, Macdonald charts Helen’s recovery, as she accepts that she now has a life defined by a hawk, not by Cambridge; and as Mabel flies further and further on the creance, and eventually off it, so Helen’s ties with the city and the university loosen too, and all but disappear.

A friend emails me that she became obsessive about reading H is for Hawk.  I have felt the same. I am very glad to have read it, though I know no other book that describes so chillingly the cold regard cast by Cambridge on those it decides don’t really belong there.

Adrian Barlow

Postscript: another friend, having read my thoughts on ‘Helen' and ‘Macdonald’ above, has sent me the following:

"I took a rather different slant on the book.  Helen Macdonald relates to Freud and I think acts out his theories, even down driving her father’s car - this in relation to Anna Freud who wore her fathers clothes and was pushed around in his wheelchair. I think her obsession with her father confirms her belief in Freud - and his death theories - she never considers her mother or brother’s reaction to her fathers death, she is just so involved with herself.  We all have to bury our parents, no matter how wonderful!!  I found her obsession with her father frankly worrying.  She talks about Cambridge as this cold place that her parents would not understand as she went to the local comp and on to a red brick uni.  This of course is completely ridiculous as it transpires that her father was a highly regarded well known Fleet Street photographer, who knew all the great and the good - indeed Alistair Campbell gave a speech at her father’s memorial service.  Again, I felt she was writing to make a point rather than anything that was real!!  Again and again she referred to anger, death, resentment (of who - her mother/everyone!!)  isolation and invisibility - all very Freudian!!"

[illustrations: (i) H is for Hawk (jacket illustration © Chris Wormell) superimposed over the engraving of Jesus College by David Loggan, in Cantabrigia Illustrata (1690), Plate XXIV.
(ii) Topiary in Jesus College, described by Helen Macdonald in H is for Hawk: ‘Beyond my office building are a host of yew trees clipped into absurd wind-blown boulders” (p.123).

All quotations, except where otherwise stated, are from Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk (London: Jonathan Cape, 2014)

Text and illustrations © Adrian Barlow


  1. Adrian, As you know, I tried to read H is for Hawk, but when I came across the veritable thicket of hyperbole and purple prose on p35, I had had enough!

    On opening the box containing the hawk she has bought on a Scottish quay: “Another hinge untied. Concentration. Infinite caution. Daylight irrigating the box ... The air turned syrupy, flecked with dust.” Further down the page, Macdonald’s heart “jumps sideways.” An interesting physiological phenomenon!
    I should say that I was immediately put off on the first page: “Nnngh. Must get out, I thought, throwing back the covers. Out.” There’s something juvenile about that “Nnngh.” And, “It was only when my frozen Volkswagen and I were halfway down the A14 that I worked out where I was going, and why.” I simply don’t believe that she didn’t know where she was going, and why. It seems to me to be deliberate dramatisation. And can a Volkswagen be frozen? Well, we can be frozen in any kind of vehicle, but does not Macdonald anthropomorphise her yellow Volkswagen? And then on p26 we learn that, “Ketchup dripped down my arm like a wound.” This is hardly the stuff of great literature, yet has the book been lauded to the skies. Is this not hoodwinking of the highest order?

    Macdonald was badly in need of an editor. Such shall we say as would have plucked out all the nonsense (and probably have made the book unreadable in a world that must be fed with excitement the whole time – as with Facebook and Twitter). I don’t know; but I love your friend’s Freudian interpretation of the book, and would read the book to follow his observations. But it’s no good, because I simply cannot stand the writing!

    1. Peter, these are trenchant criticisms that deserve to be taken seriously. You are not alone (by any means) in not having enjoyed H is for Hawk. You should read Eileen Battersby’s review, ‘Bird Tale that Fails to Fly’ in the Irish Times, and an excellent article by Richard Smyth in this week’s TLS , ‘The Limits of Nature Writing’. Both articles can be accessed on the internet.

  2. I haven't read the book, but I'm enjoying this debate - thank you for hosting it so disinterestedly!

  3. I’ve removed my gratuitous remarks about Robert Macfarlane.

    Adrian, I have read Eileen Battersby’s review of H is for Hawk, and Richard Smyth’s The limits of nature writing. I note that Battersby picked up on purple passages, and Smyth notes “Ketchup dripped down my arm like a wound”. However, he then goes on to say “Personal taste – an intolerance of sustained high emotional intensity, a sensitive cringe-reflex – shouldn’t detract from the many strengths of H Is for Hawk: Macdonald is hugely knowledgeable, sometimes very funny, and has a viscerally brilliant command of descriptive writing in the Baker vein.” I suppose a problem was that nothing in Macdonald’s book really interested me: her extravagant grief for her (ghost–like) father, her criticism of T H White, or indeed her hawk.

    I was very interested in the quote at the end of Smyth’s essay: “Richard Jefferies’s arch essay ‘Nature and Books’ (1887) explained at length the futility of writing on nature; no book or monograph, he says, can tell him the true colour of a dandelion seen in reality. In numerical comparison with the facts of nature, there are ‘no books; the books are yet to be written’. “Man’s mind is the most important fact with which we are yet acquainted”, he concludes.”

    I’m no nature writer, but I’ve often thought just how impossible it is to describe the natural world. There is vibrant nature, and there is black text on a white page. And by the way, I find Jefferies books completely unreadable. His writing rolls on and on: little ecstasies with no breath between them, and scarcely the remotest idea of where you are!

  4. Nature writing is a broad church. ‘H is for Hawk’ is in the personal memoir wing like William Fiennes’s 2002 work ‘The Snow Geese’. In this you will find little about the snow goose as a species but much about nostalgia, the author’s illness and the people he meets. This memoir based nature writing is evidently not to everyone’s taste.

    In another wing is the more scientific, but highly lyrical, ‘Four Fields’, by Tim Dee, which is one of my favourite books. Incidentally, this starts at Swaffham Prior, just up the road from Helen Macdonald’s Cambridge.

    It is interesting that Smyth takes Macfarlane and others to task for their extensive use of plant names [cranesbill, stitchwort, selfheal, heath bedstraw], and calls it jargon. Here I detect the long shadow of Edward Thomas in ‘The South Country’. This took me a long time to read as I was constantly referring to my Collins ‘British Wild Flowers’! Thomas somehow manages to weave these plant names comfortably into his prose, whereas it seems a little more forced in Macfarlane’s work.

    Apologies, Adrian, for not addressing your central point about alienation in Cambridge. But is this not more about the author’s state of mind at the time, rather than “the cold regard cast by Cambridge”?