My father gave me The Goshawk by TH White for my 16th birthday. The book comes to mind every time I see a circle of pigeon’s feathers in the woods as I wonder if these could indicate the presence of such a rare bird here in Sussex.
A pair have recently been proved to have bred in the county, with young successfully reared, and there have been other sightings.
Father thought White’s description of his famous battle to tame a goshawk to the fist was badly written. In my copy he wrote: “This book is mannered; the style in places jejeune, or faked, or pretentious. Not a first-class writer.”
This may have been sour grapes, as hitherto father’s Tarka the Otter had more or less kept pole position in the animal saga genre. But White’s book was recommended by the Book Society for 1951; no mean accolade. I found it thrilling, the descriptions of this violent bird right on the bone and sharp as quick sight an attendant pen could achieve.
The story is harrowing, like a murder mystery, but you have to know what happens. The hawk is a devil, it seems, continually sulking, known as bating, and never co-operating with its faintly mad handler. Of course the writing is not so polished – that is, metered and rhythmical – as is for example chapter nine of Tarka. But it is a first-hand and immediate account in brilliant diary form of the demented battle man and bird had with each other. It brings alive the frightening aspect this huge hawk, as big as most European eagles (not the golden), has in the forests for other birds.
We have seen it on TV, with its quicksilver sliding on folding wings through the mesh of twigs and branches that get in its way as it hurtles down upon its target. The goshawk hunts by twilight both dawn and dusk. By day, it hides in black forests of old pines, tight to the trunk, watching and waiting once more for half light. What a thing to see in Sussex again.
“His talons, like scimitars, clutched the leather glove on which he stood with a convulsive grip. For an instant he stared upon me with a mad, marigold, or dandelion eye, all his plumage flat to the body and his head crouched like a snake’s in fear or hatred; then bated wildly from the fist.” White confronted this haughty being 50 times a night.
Pride fuelled the desire of both for supremacy. Today raptor psychology is better understood. Actually they are lazy birds it has to be said, and like lions, spend a lot of time doing nothing. Usually they quickly pick up the idea that bits of beef ready cut up on a fist are easier to find than elusive animals running for their lives.
If humans are daft enough to give me free food every day, I’ll settle down to a welfare state existence, they seem to say.
White’s bird seems to have always been manic, perhaps he just picked a psychopath. Or was it his handler?