‘Wild things are made from human histories’: Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk – and the Sydney Writers’ Festival 2015

1406742829457Last night I finished reading (reading? devouring!) Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk. It is just 283 pages long, including a brief postscript, and yet it contains multitudes; it is capacious as life: dense and rich like a poem. Macdonald is a writer and poet, an illustrator and historian and affiliate at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge – and all her many faculties are at work in this book. (It’s not actually illustrated but bursts with word pictures and verbal scenes.) Strictly speaking, H is for Hawk is, as its cover calls it, ‘Nature Writing/Biography’ – but for me it’s an extraordinary prose poem about a hawk, about wildness, about a father, his grieving daughter (Macdonald) and a literary hero-villian, TH White. It’s also a poem about a countryside, about England. Here is Macdonald on page 86:

‘To train a hawk you must watch it like a hawk, and so you come to understand its moods. Then you gain the ability to predict what it will do next. This is the sixth sense of the practised animal trainer. Eventually you don’t see the hawk’s body language at all. You seem to feel what it feels. Notice what it notices. The hawk’s apprehension becomes your own. You are exercising what the poet Keats called your chameleon quality, the ability to “tolerate a loss of self and a loss of rationality by trusting in the capacity to recreate oneself in another character or environment”. Such a feat of imaginative recreation has always come easily to me. Too easily. It’s part of being a watcher, forgetting who you are and putting yourself in the thing you are watching. That is why the girl who was me when I was small loved watching birds. She made herself disappear, and then in the birds she watched, took flight.’

H is for Hawk is an exhilarating and beautiful book. It’s been wildly successful in its brief life (it was published last year), becoming a ‘number one bestseller’ and winning the 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction. Most thrillingly for me and any local who loves this book, Macdonald will be a guest at the 2015 Sydney Writers Festival. She’s appearing in four sessions, including giving the closing address.

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Helen Macdonald

This year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival is a bumper festival with a vast range of authors, from international luminaries like Claire Tomalin, David Mitchell, Ben Okri, Douglas Coupland and Macdonald herself to local stars like Richard Flanagan, Kate Grenville and Helen Garner. And many more between, like New York classics maven Daniel Mendelsohn who wrote his PhD on one of my favourite subjects, Euripidean tragedy.

SWF artistic director Jemma Birrell gives a good overview of the festival in her welcome message ‘How to live?‘, which is surely an excellent title for a writers’ festival. I also like the quote which inspired it from Jean-Paul Sartre:

‘Everything has been figured out, except how to live.’

Why we read – and why we write.

(I’m also appearing in two sessions at SWF 2015, talking with economist and journalist Ross Gittins and novelist and former Wall Street investment banker Zia Haider Rahman about Creative Capital in a session mediated by Elizabeth Johnstone, and On Why Accountants Might Save the Planet. Details are also on my events page.)

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