About five years ago I passed on to the electronic common room for Open University tutors, the suggestion I’d seen that Helen MacDonald’s writing, as “Pluvialis”, in her Fretmarks blog, was the best writing on the internet – a view I was prepared to endorse.
But as I did, I realised of course just how bold this claim was! But then, I certainly couldn’t think of any better. Of course the Fake Steve Jobs diary was bloody funny, and DaringFireball is the archetype of pleasing prose, through expertise, subtlety and concision. But Pluve’s accounts of bird and moor, or moody hawk on the perch – or not on it when it should be – transmitted an intoxicating wistfulness of unparalleled power. You could tell this wasn’t just someone who could write good, but someone who had to. You could feel her ache.
I don’t think it would have mattered if I hadn’t, but in fact I had myself spent a week over the new year of about 1973 at the bird station at Spurn Head, where I read either The Peregrine or The Goshawk, and a few years later read the other one. Initially peregrines had been my favourites but I noticed they reminded me of flashy cockney villains; I also started to like the idea of hunting anything whether in the air or on the ground, so long ago I decided that my first frivolous expense upon acquiring an immense fortune would be a man and the mews to look after my goshawks. Up at Spurn, we’d wandered the beach at dusk, setting up mist nets, and later rescuing the tiny waders, Dunlin, which looked like they had black stockings and black cigarette holders. Even though I resented the cold and wet I couldn’t deny the wistfulness of it all.
When Pluve told us about losing her father, I’m sure all her fans felt terrible for her. [Check the Telegraph page for good photos.] It was being a Pluve fan that taught me that a fan isn’t about liking – it’s about being a helpless fanatic. I don’t really think anything changed in the quality of her writing though – after all she used to write about her pet Merlin (she hates you to call her birds pets), so Mabel the Goshawk she now started with wasn’t that different. I wasn’t at all surprised when her material started to appear on Radio 3 and even Radio 4. Her account of prisoners of war was good. Still with the wistfulness of course!
Now her quality has been recognised by the Samuel Johnson prize, and I’m pleased I was right, and I’m pleased she has got it. (Of course I think my 2012 book deserved the prize too, but while quality is easy to appreciate, novelty isn’t!) Also, I couldn’t help think that being as interested in birds, and also in philosophy of science as MacDonald is, would have tempted her to engage with my book. After all, I had commented on her blog a few times so she knew who I was. But she isn’t a scientist, she’s an artist.
And you really are much better off not meeting your heroes, or even conversing with them.
Wow! To think some of you will have fifty more years of her stuff to enjoy! Ghod knows how it will be seen then. Though brilliant, she’s not exactly modern now. Just the peerlessly classic Mistress Of Wistfulness.
I don’t think she’s 100% pleased with this photo taken while she had norovirus, alongside Mabel, maybe by her friend Xtin, and posted here without permission :-S. [Click image for origianl Fretmarks posting.]:
[Update April 2015: Won the Costa prize too! Ultimate accolade – cartoon in Private Eye from a few months back:
It isn’t terribly funny, but it’s a cartoon from a series with some theme of other. Perhaps that enhances it!]