Event 347

Helen MacDonald

The Samuel Johnson Prize Lecture: H is for Hawk

Virtual venue: Tata Tent

‘In real life, goshawks resemble sparrowhawks the way leopards resemble housecats. Bigger, yes. But bulkier, bloodier, deadlier, scarier, and much, much harder to see. Birds of deep woodland, not gardens, they’re the birdwatchers’ dark grail.’

When her father dies and MacDonald is knocked sideways by grief, she becomes obsessed with the idea of training her own goshawk. She buys Mabel for £800 on a Scottish quayside and takes her home to Cambridge.

‘To train a hawk you must watch it like a hawk, and so gain the ability to predict what it will do next. Eventually you don’t see the hawk’s body language at all. You seem to feel what it feels. The hawk’s apprehension becomes your own. As the days passed and I put myself in the hawk’s wild mind to tame her, my humanity was burning away.’

Destined to be a classic of nature writing, H is for Hawk is a record of a spiritual journey – an unflinchingly honest account of MacDonald’s struggle with grief during the difficult process of the hawk’s taming and her own untaming. At the same time, it’s a kaleidoscopic biography of the brilliant and troubled novelist TH White, best known for The Once and Future King. The author talks about her masterpiece with Stuart Proffitt, chair of the Samuel Johnson Prize.

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