Buxton Festival Review – H is for Hawk, Shepherds Life

Monday 13th July was a special day.  No work and two literary talks to go to. The Buxton Literary festival had been clever enough to get Helen MacDonald of ‘H is for Hawk’ fame and James Rebanks the author of ‘A Shepherds Life’, the runaway success story of the literary world and scheduled them both for the same day.

I had read both books last year so ideally I could have done with rereading them before the talks, but no matter they are now on the reading pile by the side of my bed, as they are both well worth returning to.


The Pavilion Arts Studio was packed for both events. I always like to get to my seat a little early to people watch. It seems that each year the average age of the audience gets older and this year was not different. Where are all the young people? Do they not read? Unfair? Perhaps the reason is that they are at work. Weekday events attract the retired and those like me who can grab some time off.

Helen MacDonald is a lovely lady. Genuinely surprised by her success, though she shouldn’t be, and delighted that so many people want to hear her talk about her book and her love of hawks. The backdrop to the narrative is the grief she feels for her father who died suddenly. She had a close bond with him that stands out in her writing and also in her talk. Several times I had to wipe a tear away as she recounted the pain of his loss. Her solution was to throw herself into training a Goshawk. This is a brave, perhaps given her state of mind unwise thing to do.  The Goshawk is the Everest of the hawking world. Single minded, ruthless, often untrainable, they are exquisite killing machines, rarely glimpsed in the wild and when seen on the fist a magnificent animal.

MacDonald describes how for a time it seemed that she had become a Goshawk, thinking like one, living like one, cutting herself off from her human world. Mabel, for that is the innocent name given to her Goshawk, seemed to thrive with her. Though painstaking and exhausting her training was successful, if not entirely painless. She contrasts her success and empathy with her Gos, with that of TH White, a broken, tragic man. His Gos led a misunderstood tortured existence. No gain without pain seemed to be White’s philosophy and it did not end well for the hawk.

Both MacDonald and White were in pain, but MacDonald was able to reach into herself and go some way to healing herself. She said about grief that you never get over it you grow round it. White in contrast sank into a sea of pain, failure, and a spiral of despair, that was to lead ultimately to his death. If I was to be critical, I don’t think the passages that reflect White and his struggle quite work, but you can if you wish skip them with no loss of enjoyment.

There is much more to this book. She briefly explores the changes in the countryside and touches on the deeply ingrained prejudice in our society. It would be fascinating to read more of her views on these and other subjects.

I had been alerted to the fate of Mable before I read the book, so as the end approached I was genuinely fearful of reaching the end. But Helen ends the story leaving Mabel at an aviary so that she can moult and renew herself. Helen walks away part healed knowing that her story and journey with Mabel will continue.

I wrote a blog a few weeks ago critical of James Rebanks desire to preserve his way of life. (On reflection perhaps I was too harsh.) Rebanks is a genuine, honest hill farmer, slightly in awe of the fact that his twitter followers are in the tens of thousands and the American publication ‘The Atlantic’ phoned him up wanting an article on Cumbrian life.  Like MacDonald his book also goes someway to heal the pain he feels of the loss of his dad. It is in part a tribute to his father’s and his grandfather’s way of life. A memorial to them and their achievements.


My criticism of the book was based on a neglect of the environmental, for much of the Lake District is a sheep wrecked desert. Rebanks did touch upon environmental issues in his talk. He was slightly disparaging of the efforts of ecologists to try and increase the biodiversity of the landscape. He mocked them for not understanding that sheep would stray onto the land they were working on. But perhaps it falls upon the Shepherd to manage his sheep more effectively to try and give the plants a chance.

The book is an attempt to explain the landscape and the way of life of the people that live there, rather than the land of poets and romantics, which is often how the rest of us see it. He succeeds in spades. So much so that I envied him his connection with the land that spans generations of hill farmers. Unlike so many of us he and his family belong to a place and so have  a stake in its continuity.

There has to be a place for a rewilded Lake District but we need also to preserve the way of life that Rebanks describes. Perhaps as hill farming incomes decline still further more farms will be sold off, for nothing lasts forever and people leave the hillsides and mountains to seek work elsewhere. Perhaps the farms will be bought and without the pressure of sheep on the land allowed to regenerate.

I would like to see rewilding projects in the Lake District. Less sheep more trees but, I hope there is a place for hill farmers like Rebanks in a hundred years from now, successfully farming the land that he loves and his book will go along way to ensuring that his legacy lasts.

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