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 caf├ęs 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

Sunday, 19 April 2015

In London, with Charles Lamb

I have found myself in London for the past two Saturdays, a rare occurrence. Charles Lamb called London ‘a pantomime and a masquerade’, and he wasn’t wrong. In Covent Garden last Saturday, street performers were everywhere: fire-eaters, conjurors, mime artists who present the disconcerting illusion of actually sitting or walking on thin air. Fewer musicians than I remember: the finest buskers I ever heard were in Covent Garden: two men dressed in tail coats and playing con brio Handel’s Water Music, arranged for Souzaphone and penny whistle. But all human life was there, just as Lamb once described it in a letter to Wordsworth:

'I have passed all my days in London, until I have formed as many and intense local attachments as any of you mountaineers can have done with dead Nature. The lighted shops of the Strand and Fleet Street; the innumerable trades, tradesmen, and customers, coaches, wagons, playhouses; all the bustle and wickedness round about Covent Garden […] the crowds, the very dirt and mud, the sun shining upon houses and pavements, the print shops, the old bookstalls, parsons cheapening books, coffee houses, steams of soups from kitchens, the pantomimes – London itself a pantomime and a masquerade.' (30 January 1801)

And today, a week later, I am in Bloomsbury, here to give a lecture on Charles Lamb. Elia himself
might have thought Queen Square, where I have been walking for a while this morning, a bit too quiet; indeed, I have it almost to myself, which suits me very well. Queen Square lies between Southampton Row and Great Ormond Street, one side of it lined with hospital buildings - neurological, neurosurgical and homeopathic. The Children’s Hospital is just beyond.  At the east end of the square is a building I once knew well. Looking more like an embassy than a hospital (there is an imposing, if somewhat Ruritanian, achievement of arms above the front door) is the Italian Hospital. The nurses are (or were) Italian nuns: my mother was once a patient there for a month. She said the sisters were the kindest nurses she’d ever encountered.

Outside the hospital is a paved area, and here someone has been busy: the flagstones are covered with poetry, chalked by a visitor who must have spent much of the night composing a poem in what W.H. Auden once called ‘a rapture of distress’. He raps of hunger and of meditation, of the kindness of strangers and the coldness of the stones; but he ends with this question: 

Who be the beggar and what the beggar be?
I walk within my own authority
There is no body that stands over me
So who be the beggar and what the beggar be?

Charles Lamb would have delighted to read this. In ‘A Complaint of the Decay of Beggars in the Metropolis’ he lamented attempts by the City authorities to ‘extirpate the last fluttering tatters of the bugbear Mendicity from the metropolis’. Of the old beggars he says, ‘There was a dignity springing from the very depth of their desolation; as to be naked is to be so much nearer to the being a man, than to go in livery’.

Poetry becomes Queen Square: Faber & Faber used to have their headquarters here, and in the gardens – fenced off but open from dawn to dusk – I find a circular basin commemorating the Queen’s Silver Jubilee of 1977. Engraved on the paving stones beneath it, but dust-filled and fading already, I make out this verse:

SHE DID NOT CHANGE                         LARKIN

I like the confident use of the poet’s surname – an echo perhaps from a time when to add ‘Philip’ would have been unnecessary. And walking round the basin I find another verse:

TO KEEP IT WHOLE                  HUGHES

Larkin and Ted Hughes, Faber poets both. And there is more poetry to be found all around the garden: the paths are lined with seats, each one given in memory of someone who had either been a doctor working in one of the hospitals overlooking the Square, or a patient or a resident. Two commemorate victims of the Trident air crash of 1972, another a more recent victim of the London bombings. Several contain quotations: ‘Memory holds a seat’ says one, echoing Hamlet. Another quotes Samuel Beckett:

Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Close by, a bench given in memory of one who died young offers a plaintive comment: “The question ‘Why?’ will always remain unanswered.” Then, further on, a three-month old child who died perhaps in Great Ormond Street: the boy’s name was Elias. I think of Lamb again. Elia was his alias.

I was quite wrong to think Queen Square might not have appealed to him. Lamb loved children, and wrote about them with an affection all the more touching because he had none of his own.  Coram’s Fields and the Foundling Hospital, where mothers queued to hand in for safe keeping the children they could not keep themselves, are only a block away. Charles Lamb and his sister Mary once adopted an orphan girl. He knew about separation and loss – ‘All, all are gone, the old familiar faces’ he wrote in his one still-famous poem   – and in the middle of Queen Square today stands a sculpture of a mother and baby, clinging to each other, the child twisting a tiny finger under the strap of its mother’s dress, resisting all possibility of separation.  In Dream Children: A Reverie Lamb dreams he is indeed a father, surrounded by a loving family. The waking from this dream is as hard for the reader as for Elia himself. The children fade and, fading, seem to whisper to him:

We are nothing; less than nothing, and dreams. We are only what might have been.

It’s time to go and give my lecture.

Adrian Barlow

I have written about Lamb once before, in Charles Lamb and Cambridge, and this was the subject of the lecture I gave.

[illustrations: (i) A mime artist in Covent Garden; (ii) Street sign in Queen Square (iii) Sculpture by Patricia Finch (2008) in the Garden of Queen Square

Text and illustrations © the author

Saturday, 11 April 2015

In the Highlands

Easter in Scotland. We have spent five days exploring the Highlands by rail.

I’m not particularly a railways enthusiast and I don’t have favourite train journeys, but I do have some particular views I always look forward to: Durham Castle and Cathedral, best of all, suddenly revealed when the train emerges from a cutting onto the great viaduct high above the city. In winter, I love crossing the flooded fenland washes between the old and new Bedford Rivers in Cambridgeshire: by moonlight this inland sea, seen from a train window, is an awe-inspiring, disorientating sight.

But these are glimpses, moments only. The long journeys between the east and west of Scotland, from Inverness to the Kyle of Lochalsh, or from Fort William to Mallaig are something else entirely. Here, herons stand beside every stream and on the shores of each successive loch. Then, later, when your route takes you through what is often simply, but spectacularly, wilderness with mountains; when the only living creatures you see are red deer, buzzards or feral goats; when the lichen encrusting trackside trees creates eerie thickets, it’s no surprise to learn this is the route taken by the Hogwarts Express in the Harry Potter films. Stations are few and far between (often, request stops only), and the line ends almost at the sea’s edge: the straits separating mainland from island -  Eig, Rhum, Skye. From the rocks, cormorants fly low-level sorties just above the water, then disappear, then surface again a hundred yards further on.

All this one can see from the (relative) comfort and through the grubby windows of the train carriage. I admit, though, it’s hardly real exploration, and since coming home I have been reading Samuel Johnson’s account of his journey with James Boswell through this same countryside in 1773, heading for the Western Isles. My first thought was to ask why on earth the man who regarded London as his natural habitat wanted to go there in the first place. His answer is almost childishly simple: ‘I had desired to visit the Hebrides, or Western Islands of Scotland, so long, that I scarcely remember how the wish was originally excited.’ After reading this, I can only say that my admiration for the good Doctor has increased no end. His appetite for physical and imaginative experience, his readiness to encounter for himself  ‘one of the great scenes of human existence’, is something I had not expected of him:
Regions mountainous and wild, thinly inhabited, and little cultivated, make a great part of the earth, and he that has never seen them, must live unacquainted with much of the face of nature, and with one of the great scenes of human existence.

From his first-hand experience of this Highland wilderness, Johnson is able to generalise an uncompromising conclusion about how far man is from being the measure of all things:

We were in this place at ease and by choice, and had no evils to suffer or to fear; yet the […] phantoms which haunt a desert are want, and misery, and danger; the evils of dereliction rush upon the thoughts; man is made unwillingly acquainted with his own weakness, and meditation shows him only how little he can sustain, and how little he can perform.

From time to time on this journey, Johnson needed interpreters when encountering local people who spoke only Gaelic. Today, although few people speak Gaelic, you find it everywhere: throughout Scotland, on road signs and at railway stations, place names are written in both Gaelic and English, Gaelic first. Johnson would not have approved: ‘The Earse language,’ he declared, ‘is the rude speech of a barbarous people, who had few thoughts to express, and were content, as they conceived grossly, to be grossly understood.’ Thirty years later, however, another English visitor took a more generous view of this language he could not interpret:

No Nightingale did ever chaunt
More welcome notes to weary bands
Of Travellers in some shady haunt,
Among Arabian sands;
A voice so thrilling n’er was heard
In spring-time from the cuckoo-bird,
Breaking the silence of the seas
Among the farthest Hebrides.

‘Will no one tell me what she sings?’ asks William Wordsworth as he listens to a ‘solitary Highland Lass’ he encounters on a walking holiday in Scotland in 1803. He wonders whether she is singing a traditional heroic ballad or something more humble:

Some natural sorrow, loss, or pain,
That has been, and may be again?

The girl sang, Wordsworth reports, ‘As if her song could have no ending’.  The poem ends, characteristically, with the poet recalling how the song he could not understand nevertheless continued to move him ‘Long after it was heard no more’.

I have always found this poem, ‘The Solitary Reaper’, appealing and included it in The Calling of Kindred,* an anthology I edited over twenty years ago. My title signalled the way readers and poets are engaged in a conversation, across countries, culture and time; in the Introduction I connected Wordsworth’s  ‘Solitary Reaper’ with a poem by the New Zealand poet, Meg Campbell; ‘Loch, Black Rock, Beautiful Boat’. This poem begins with a recollection of the three pet names given to the poet as a child:

‘The loch, the black rock,
the beautiful boat’ – these are
the names my father gave me,
brought from his boyhood
haunts in Old Caledonia.

The poem is an affectionate statement of her present feelings for her elderly father, the poet reflecting that though she ‘lost out, somehow, / in the tussle for his affections’, still

… it matters to me more than ever
That he gave me those names –
Aline, dubh sgeir, fear bata
the loch, the black rock,
the beautiful boat.

This poem, too, (like many poems about children and fathers) moves me very much and I’m glad that my Easter weekend of train travel in Old Caledonia has prompted me to revisit these old friends –  Johnson, Wordsworth and Campbell – once again.

Adrian Barlow

*The Calling of Kindred: Poems from the English Speaking World (Cambridge University Press, 1993)

[illustrations: two views from the window of the Fort William – Mallaig train: (i) Loch Eil; (ii) the Glenfinnan Viaduct.

Text and photographs copyright the author.