It begins: “Forty-five minutes north-east of Cambridge is a landscape I’ve come to love very much indeed. It’s where wet fen gives way to parched sand. It’s a land of twisted pine trees…”
That land is the Breckland, that border region of Norfolk and Suffolk which isn’t quite like anywhere else. The very heart of East Anglia, and almost unknown to the rest of the world.
Except to Helen Macdonald, whose book “H is for Hawk” opens with that evocative description.
The book isn’t quite like any other, either.
For a start, it’s rather hard to categorise. It’s a personal memoir, of how Helen struggled to cope with the grief of her father’s death, and of how she managed the difficulties and joys of training a young goshawk. Intercut with that is the story of an earlier writer, TH White, whose 1951 book “The Goshawk” told of his own inept attempts at hawk-training. And it’s the story too of Helen’s own lifelong relationship with that book, from fascination to anger and back.
The advice to booksellers on the back cover is to place “H is for Hawk” on both the Biography and Nature-Writing shelves. It is much more personally revealing, and more painfully honest, than most works you’ll find in either section.
Its runaway success – bestseller status, a book of the month at Waterstones, the Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction – surprised its author as much as anyone.
Having read it in August, just after it first came out, I was a little surprised too at just how well it’s done since. Not because it doesn’t deserve every bit of acclaim – it does – but because, frankly, the glittering prizes so seldom go to the works that do deserve them.
I have no hesitation whatever in joining the Times Literary Supplement and a list of other publications and people who have named it as the book of 2014.
In doing so, I ought to declare a kind of interest. Helen Macdonald is an old friend, at least of the Facebook kind. We did meet once in person, though there’s no reason she should remember that. But my place in her friends list seems enough for me to feel a kind of reflected pride in her glory.
She has written a book that will become a classic. Now follow that, Helen.
And what am I looking forward to reading in 2015 – apart from the tempting stack of books Santa just left by my elbow?
Another friend of mine, journalist Jackie Copleton, has her first novel coming out in July. Titled “A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding”, it’s set partly in the present and partly in pre-bomb Hiroshima and it sounds terrific.
Monty Python was great the first time round. Even the second. By the time half the people you knew were able to quote whole rambling sketches verbatim, however – and far too often did just that – the novelty value, and the humour, were wearing thin. That was some time in the 1970s.
So you had to nod in agreement when someone said in 2014: “Who wants to see that again, really? A bunch of wrinkly old men trying to relive their youth and make a load of money.”
So true. And who said it? One Mick Jagger, at 71 still the lead singer of a popular beat combo that spent much of the year playing sell-out concerts in stadiums around the world, a mere half century after they were acclaimed as “England’s Newest Hit-Makers”.
Sir Mick is no fool, so one must assume he spoke with that famous tongue planted firmly in cheek. A pot aware of his relationship with the kettle.
The same is presumably true of that other knight of the realm Elton John, 67, who described Jagger’s co-Rolling Stone Keith Richard as “a monkey with arthritis trying to go on stage and look young”.
Ooh, scratch yer eyes out, as the Pythons once sang.
There was no humour, malice or irony, however, in the finest, most uplifting quote of 2014.
The 85-year-old science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin gave a speech at the American National Book Awards ceremony last month that was a masterpiece of brevity, wisdom and clear thinking.
“Right now,” she said, “we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art.”
Hear, hear. And not only writers, I might add.
She went on: “We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings.”
If there was one thing said, in this depressing year, to lift the spirits and rekindle a little hope, that was it. Thank you, Ursula, for a thought worth cherishing.
I don’t expect 2015 to bring the fall of capitalism, or the ending of the terrifying power now wielded by multi-national corporations. But it will bring their end another year closer.