The Goshawk by T.H. White, a once and future classic?

After reading ‘H is for hawk’ by Helen MacDonald I felt compelled to read T.H. White’s ‘The Goshawk’ as he is the reference point for much of MacDonald’s narrative. My greatest familiarity with White’s work is through his Arthurian stories, ‘The Once and Future King’, the first of which, ‘The Sword in the Stone’ was made into a cartoon by Disney. His influence as a writer in the post war era is through the adaptation of these stories into the musical  ‘Camelot’, a favourite of JFK and a subsequent nickname for the period of his Presidency. Though perhaps not so popular today, White’s stories were my introduction to the world of Arthur and I loved the passages where the young Arthur is transformed into different animals, including a hawk. The shape of these passages can be seen in White’s real life in ‘The Goshawk’.

Leaving his post as a school master, White goes to live in a cottage, returning to a simpler life, and reading old hand books about falconry. He becomes obsessed with the idea of training a hawk, linking himself with the feral state of a wild bird. The book opens with a description of the goshawk when it is delivered to White’s house and it soon becomes clear he is mesmerised with the idea of wildness, rather like someone who is in love with the idea of being a lover.

He was born to fly, sloping sideways, free among the verdure of that Teutonic upland, to murder with his fierce feet and to consume with that curved Persian beak, who now hopped up and down in the clothes basket with a kind of imperious precocity.

White records his efforts to train his goshawk, Gos, in a day book. Unbeknown to him, the handbook he is following has been superseded  by more effective methods, but White clings to the connection training the hawk offers him to a medieval past.

Old things lost their grip and dropped away; not always because they were bad things, but sometimes because the new things were more bad, and stronger.

White adores his hawk but fails to train him. His book reveals his petulance when things go wrong, his joy when Gos flys to his fist and the struggle for self control that is taking place in the man through his relationship with the hawk. It is a story of his adoration of the hawk, his comedic errors in training Gos and his struggle for self mastery. Ultimately recognising that through the eyes of animals we see ourselves and the world differently, cue an idea for a book about the future King Arthur.

White is a wonderful writer and I believe his story of attempting to train a Goshawk in 1930s England will be read for years to come.


Alice by Christina Henry. Wonderland goes dark!

This YA novel is unlike any other version of Wonderland. Alice is an inmate in an asylum with no memories of how she got there, just dreams of a sinister rabbit and a tea party. She speaks through a hole in the wall to a grey eyed fellow inmate, a murderer called Hatcher, who hears the voice of the Jabberwocky calling from deep beneath the asylum. One night the asylum catches fire, Alice escapes with Hatcher into the Old City and, as Alice looks back at her prison she sees a monstrous shadow in the sky and wonders if there is more to her dreams than madness.

The Old City contains the names of some of Lewis Carroll’s characters but they bear no resemblance to the original story. Here, the Walrus and the Carpenter are vicious gangland bosses fighting turf wars. Alice must disguise herself as a boy and follow Hatcher into this violent world if she is to understand her past. 

This is an enjoyable story, if a little predictable at times. It involves quite a lot of violence, sometimes sexual. Alice sees herself as someone to free the enslaved girls and does want to liberate the Old City from its oppressive masters. It is not really a dystopian version of Wonderland, other than the names, it does not revisit Carroll’s creations in any detail. It is an imaginative and entertaining read in its own right and worth falling down the rabbit hole for a few hours entertainment.

August book club:Man at the Helm

This is the first, strongly autobiographical novel by the author of ‘Love, Nina.’ It’s a darkly comic novel about a newly divorced 31 year old mother, her three children and their Labrador thrown into life in a quiet Leicestershire village. Alone, rejected by her husband and the villagers, the children’s mother turns to drink, prescription medication and playwriting.  The two daughters decide that the reason for their mother’s decline is because in their family there is no longer a man at the helm. It becomes imperative that they find one and they make a list of the possible suitors in the village and write letters as though from there mother inviting them on a pretext of needing their help. The girls hope that this ‘help’ will lead to sex and possibly marriage, thus returning a man to the helm, making their family socially acceptable and saving the children from becoming wards of court.

Comedy, in novels, is always a matter of taste. This one was not to mine, though I understand why it is described as a winner by the Guardian newspaper. The children’s family falls apart as their father has an affair with another man and they leave a life of affluence, with a nanny and maid of all work, to live in a substantive house in a village, with a paddock and ponies. As this story is told from the point of view of the children, there is little reflection on how the villagers feel about affluent outsiders, instead, the locals are reduced to short comic turns. Mainly as the wives of husbands with whom their mother has had a brief affair. The comedy is dark. Their mother is ‘temporarily unsuited’ to housework and the girls attempt to take on the washing and ironing, with mildly disastrous results. Though this is funny, it is also tragic. The children are not fed, the youngest boy develops a stammer, the girls are sent to London on the train to illegally procure pills for their mother and there is no one to support them. Stibbe moves across these events with a lightness of touch though I felt at times it was too light, for example, when her mother has an abortion. For this to be really comic, it needed to just reveal enough of the darkness, to know this is not all a jolly jape but real things happening to real people. The only time Stibbe comes close to this is around an accident that befalls the dog but perhaps that is just a very British sentiment!

I suspect this book will be a hit as it is an easy read for a summer evening. Ultimately, things do come together for the family in a strange way and they find a measure of happiness in life without a man at the helm. For me, it would be a 3/5, but I know others in my book club will find it hilarious. 

Something wicked this way comes by Ray Bradbury

By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes. Macbeth

Halloween is approaching in Green Town, one of those small towns in the mid west, where boys turning into men feel all the frustrations of the confinement of their childhood homes. Jim Nightshade and Will Halloway are adolescents looking for adventure when Cooger and Dark’s Pandeminium Shadow Show comes to town with its strange attractions and mysterious merry go round, playing tunes full of lost youth and recaptured dreams. Jim and Will know there is something strange about the fair when they spy and watch the merry go round perform its magic. Jim is attracted by the power and the potential adult future Mr. Dark, the show master, offers to him. Will feels left behind whilst knowing that there is something evil at the heart of the show.

This story is Ray Bradbury at his finest. Set in Autumn, it has the tone of things fading and changing which suits the coming of age theme of the novel. It also echoes the desire of Will’s father, Charles, to return to his youth as he feels he is too old to be a good father to Will. Yet it is Charles who researches in his job at the local library to find out much more about the Autumn people and understands what is needed to defeat the evil thy have brought to town. The story blends real horror and suspense in parts, where the witch is sniffing out the boy’s location or when the lightening rod salesman is reduced. It it’s also full of magic and fantasy that is almost in reach but only if , like Macbeth, you are prepared to sacrifice your self to the darkness. 

In book shops this story is often placed with YA fiction. I think it’s a fantastic read at any age, it still gave me the heebeegeebees. Though perhaps this is not a summer read, maybe save it for a dark autumnal night when Halloween is just around the corner. I also suspect it is a story that has had many influences, particularly Neil Gaiman’s ‘Amercian Gods’ which features a merry go round which is not all it seems. 

The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson

I was drawn to this book because it is authored by Jeanette Winterson, writer of ‘Oranges are not the only fruit.’ The story of the Lancashire witches is famous beyond its county of origin because of the legal precedent set when the witches were convicted based on the testimony of a child, Jennet Device, the daughter of one of the accused. Many conspiracy theories have grown around the story, in part, because among the rural poor charged with the crime of witchcraft, was a woman called Alice Nutter, also named as a witch. Alice Nutter is the central character in Winterson’s story. Historically, Alice Nutter was a member of the local gentrified farming community. In Winterson’s story, she is involved in alchemy and trysts with the ‘dark gentlemen’ as well as having a castrated Jesuit priest as a lover.
And that is only the beginning.

It is a very confused and messy story. It plays fast and loose with history, which always irritates me in a historical novel, and seems unsure of whether it is a young adult book or an adult novel. At times, it does show the casual violence and sexual brutality that poor women faced and that terms such as witchcraft were deployed to remove the dispossessed and unnecessary. However, in Winterson’s story, the women are witches who do rob graves to perform their magic. Alice Nutter is not part of their coven, though drawn to it by a previous love affair with one of the women who sold her soul to the devil. (Though ends up rotting in a hovel in Lancashire farm, not a great deal!)

There is little to say about this story that recommends it as a worthwhile read. There are much better novels about the Lancashire witches, ‘Mist over Pendle’ by Robert Neill being one. Or there are actual factual books that are more entertaining than this story and do not require a guest appearance by William Shakespeare to pad out a fundamentally silly story.
Apologies to the author, I know no one intentionally writes a bad book, but this is one.

​Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

I read Neverwhere for the first time more years ago than I care to mention. This new edition, illustrated by Chris Riddell, caught my eye, and I decided it was time to revisit an old favourite.

First, a word about the pictures. I like Chris Riddell’s pictures and think they particularly suit the quirky, grimy characters one encounters in this story. I liked the many pages that appear ‘doodled’ upon, as though he has jotted down the pictures in his head while reading. Riddell’s designs are cartoons that capture the essence of a character or a moment.

The story is probably my favourite book about London. Gaiman seems to capture the grit of Dickens with the magic of Mary Poppins. (In the P.L. Travers stories rather than the Disney version.) Richard, the central character, moves from Scotland to an office job in the City of London. His life follows a predictable pattern of work and romance until he encounters a bleeding girl called Door on the pavement and he picks her up and takes her to his flat. Door is part of a different London, London Below where the people live who have fallen through the cracks. London Below is a dark world full of filth and at the same time strangely magical. Gaiman invents places such as the Floating Market which moves from place to place and has fantastical stalls selling nightmares as well as prosaic choices between curry or sausages for dinner. London Below is not safe for Richard, or for anyone else. Richard joins with Door as she searches to find the person or creature behind the murder of her family as he tries to find his way back to London Above. Door’s companions are Hunter and the Marquis de Carabas. The Marquis has to be one of Gaiman’s most entertaining characters, witty, charming, dangerous and the wearer of the finest coat.

The story is a quest as the companions face different obstacles and an actual ordeal to reach their goal. Gaiman plays with the place names of London, recalling their original meaning with the Blackfriars and imagining their literal truth with Down Street. Anyone who reads this will never hear ‘Mind the gap’ on the Tube in quite the same way again. In the tradition of the best writers about London, Gaiman conveys a sense of excitement and mystery about the Capital, a place you never really know and just enough magic to make you question if there is another London beneath the cracks.

Reading ‘Neverwhere’ this time made me a little reminiscent of London in the past. London now is much cleaner and neater than it was at the end of the twentieth century, though I’m sure the people who fall through the cracks meet a harsh fate in the real world. Then I realised that this is part of the story’s gift, and indeed all good London stories, they make the reader desire the London of their imagination, the one that is just out of reach, perhaps where gold does pave the streets.