Article published on April 6, 2015.
In our latest report from the Words by the Water Festival, March 2015, Linda Hepworth gives us an insight into Helen Macdonald, author of H is for Hawk, winner of this year’s Costa Prize.
Following the sudden and unexpected death of her beloved father, Helen Macdonald felt grief-stricken. As a way of coping with her distress she decided to fulfil a long-held ambition to train a goshawk – “a bloody, scary, deadly” bird of prey, the “ruffian” of the hawk world. With a mixture of eloquence, passion, honesty and humour she shared, with an enraptured audience, how she had cut herself off almost completely from the world of humans in order to devote herself to Mabel, the young goshawk she had bought, from a continental breeder, early one morning on a Scottish quayside. (She made us all smile when she explained that, in the hawking world, it is an acknowledged fact that giving a hawk a macho name produces a timid bird, whilst a softer name appears to release the killer-instinct!) She explained that she had been obsessed with birds of prey since she was six years old, much to the bewilderment of her family. There was even a time when she was so keen to know what it felt like to be one that she even tried hard to sleep with her arms folded, like wings, behind her back. Prior to her father’s death she had trained as a falconer but had never trained a hawk.
Helen described how, when training Mabel, she had felt herself entering the bird’s world and seeing the world through her eyes: the hawk was everything Helen wanted to be, solitary, self-possessed, free from the grief and pain of the human world. There was a sense that when she was with her hawk, time stood still and it felt possible to enter into another dimension. Mabel represented life and death, loss and return: she took Helen into the dark and then, ultimately, into the light. For a time Helen’s needs were mirrored in the hawk’s instinctive needs, and she freely admitted that this need to live in another world became powerfully addictive. However, eventually the time came when Helen began to recognise that she had all too effectively cut herself off from all that was humanly warm and loving in life, and that she needed to re-engage with people, even though that felt scary. Once she had acknowledged where the depth of her depression had led her, she sought help from her GP. She gradually started to deal with her personal grief rather than to continue expending energy trying to keep it at bay. She realised that her world and Mabel’s weren’t, couldn’t, and shouldn’t, be the same: that “human hands are for other human hands to hold …. they shouldn’t be used exclusively as perches for hawks”.
Although she spent little time discussing it, a parallel story in Helen’s book is that of T.H.White’s (author of The Once and Future King) autobiographical story Goshawk (1951) which had haunted her since she first read it when she was eight years old. Once she had decided to write her book she was clear that she needed to include references to his story but hadn’t realised that her need to understand this man, someone she felt both repelled by and yet compassionate towards, would mean that this biographical narrative would form such a central part of her story. He was a desperately sad and troubled man whose battle to train a goshawk failed disastrously because he had no idea how to gain its trust. In cutting himself off as he did, it seemed that he was running away from his own demons, as Helen was from hers, so her need to understand him better became very important to her.
Helen started writing her story quite some time after her self-imposed “exile” and although the journal she kept helped with her recollections, the fact is that her year training Mabel remains very vivid and real in her memory. She is absolutely convinced that without her beautiful hawk she would not love living in the world as much as she now does. I certainly felt that by the end of her meditation on loss, grief and, ultimately, love and hope, she was implying that H is not only for hawk, it is also for Helen, heart and home.
Linda Hepworth, Garrigill, Cumbria
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