Goshawks are enjoying something of a renaissance in the UK. They are one of those species that defies the standard wild/domesticated dichotomy. Once fairly extinct in this country, now they are definitely not, largely thanks to escaped falconry birds. They are one of the only species able to thrive in farmed monoculture forestry plantations, which means that there is plenty of habitat for them up and down the country. Current estimates put their UK population at about 500 pairs and increasing.
Helen Macdonald brought the species to a far larger audience with her 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize winning H is for Hawk, which now available in paperback. It is a very good book: a tattered prize wrested from Macdonald’s herculean struggle with three great adversaries: her own goshawk, the death of her father, and another book, a curious relic from the past. T. H. White’s The Goshawk is the memoir of a slightly obscure and slightly crazy author who, bored with life and those who populated it, decided to take up falconry and write about how he got on.
For book lovers it is that rarest and greatest of prizes: a lost classic. My own copy is a tattered 1970s paperback reprint that I found by chance in a rickety second hand bookshop in York. Its pages are folded and creased from too much use and too little care. Fortunately, New York Review Books have recently printed a smart new paperback version, so now is the perfect time to re-examine this once-lost, slightly musty treasure.
White is one of those authors whose own life is far more interesting than any of the lives of the characters that he invented. He is most famous for writing The Sword in the Stone before Disney got their grubby little mitts on it. He was a man who did not really get on with the world, so left it. But unfortunately he didn’t really get on all that well with himself either. He tells us that he is a ‘second rate philosopher … tired of most humans in any case’. He was a man, in short, in need of a hobby (I’m being flippant; he was a deeply troubled man in many ways. For a fairly comprehensive psychological profile of the man read H is for Hawk).
And so we find him, on the eve of the Second World War, immersing himself in a battle of wills with an enormous hawk.
There are two main ways of identifying goshawks in the wild. The main one is their size. They are huge. The second is that they always look furious. In fact, they always are, pure and simple, furious. If you were foolish enough to have a staring contest with one, not only would it win, but it would also gouge your eyes out afterwards to teach you not to be so impertinent in future.
Goshawks are animals that lend themselves to anthropomorphisms, I guess because we have spent the last few thousand years weaving them into our cultures and making them catch rabbits for us. Gos, White’s imaginatively named hawk, is therefore described as ‘a crazy arch-duke of Bavaria’, ‘Hamlet’, ‘Byron’ and ‘Caligula’ rolled into one.
Not just any hobby, then, but one deliberately, wilfully made as difficult as possible. It is something of an axiom among falconers that goshawks are among the hardest birds to train. From the outset White lets us know that this is tumultuous, as he vividly describes the bird being taken from the nest, ‘still madly and nobly defiant.’ We are solemnly told that ‘it would have eaten anybody alive.’
Battle commences. It is one of attack and repulse, triumph, despair and sheer bloody mindedness. It is beautiful prose, and I won’t ruin it by trying to describe it, which would be as pointless and irritating as explaining a joke.
In Gos White finds purpose and direction, a not-so-abstract abstraction of the perpetual battle for mastery between man and nature. For White becomes feral as Gos becomes tame. ‘I was absolutely free,’ he says. ‘Even if I only had a hundred pounds, I had no master, no property, no fetters. I was as free as a hawk.’ In the face of this eternal battle, White finds the tumultuous world events unfurling around him an irrelevance: ‘what did it matter, then? That one dictator for his own megalomania should destroy a culture?’ Gos was far more amusing, it seems, and far more vital.
We could leave it there; a battle with nature, with an ambivalent ending and no victors (I won’t spoil the end for you by saying any more than that), and cheap aphorisms about nature teaching us about ourselves.
But. Why Gos? Why a goshawk? ‘Free as a hawk’ is one thing, but as free as a hawk in jesses? It’s an ambivalent to say the least.
There are hobbies and there are hobbies, I suppose, and there are animals and there are animals. White could, after all, have just as easily taken up flower arranging, or kept goldfish. These can both be as unsocial activities as keeping an insane hawk if you really want them to be. But he didn’t. White’s battle with Gos is not a glorious battle after all, rather a tactical withdrawal towards solitude. ‘To divest oneself of unnecessary possessions, and mainly of other people: that was the business of life.’ It is a funny thing, solitude, and something that we seem to have lost the knack of. It takes cunning and guile to not talk to people. Solitude brings boredom and loneliness, but also patience and self awareness and appreciation for other people.
The world that White comes to inhabit is on the borderlands of man and beast. We find a curious sideshow, about a third of the way into the book, in which he describes a fox hunt which no one enjoys – sociability for the sake of appearance. He pays a visit to an abandoned house, populated only by sheep. His human acquaintances are similarly borderline individuals – poachers, mostly. But it is no accident that these are stock characters, sideshows compared to Gos, the most human of all the characters in this funny tale.
White’s link with humanity is always tenuous, but it is always there – even if it is rarely populated by actual people. In the face of self-imposed solitude White falls back on the company of the disembodied voice of the radio and Shakespeare, whom he quotes unendingly.
Who, and what, are these disembodied voices? Nothing more than Gos himself – a totem of civilisation – a vestige of all that is great and mighty and worthy about humanity. No surprise, then, that Gos should be described as Hamlet. For White, they are one and the same: an acceptance, after all, that no man is an island, no matter how much he may sometimes wish it were otherwise.
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