BEL MOONEY reviews a Magpie Memoir 


BOOK OF THE WEEK

George: A Magpie Memoir

by Frieda Hughes (Profile Books £16.99, £272 pp) 

The magpie chick fell into Frieda Hughes’s life and she fell in love with the small, wild creature that would change her whole existence.

The nest had blown apart in high winds and the tiny, furious bird, which had narrowly escaped being killed by Hughes’ spade, was the only one of three chicks to survive longer than a day.

Frieda Hughes (pictured) fell in love with the small, wild creature that would change her whole existence

Frieda Hughes (pictured) fell in love with the small, wild creature that would change her whole existence 

She called him George — and this quirky, tender, funny, beautifully observed memoir tells the story of their (relatively short) life together. George himself hops beadily through the pages in the author’s accomplished sketches of her feathered companion in all his mischief.

When Hughes, well-established as a poet and painter, moved out of London to a large, run-down Victorian ‘hall’ in the Welsh Marches, her aim was to achieve the stability she craved in ‘a home of my own I would never have to move from’, surrounded by plants and pets.

Hughes had a nomadic upbringing — because ‘following the suicide of my mother, Sylvia Plath, on February 11, 1963, my father, Ted Hughes, found it difficult to settle’.

Keeping a pet for any length of time was impossible, even though ‘animals and birds were my passion . . . I had a belief that they could hear me thinking and that they identified with me as I identified with them’. To create a permanent home and garden for herself, her husband and (initially) three dogs was Hughes’s dream.

In many ways, after the move to Wales in 2004, that dream was to become more testing than she could ever have dreamed. Along the way she was to learn many unexpected lessons about the sad limits of human love, the miraculous reciprocity of caring for broken wild things — and the punishing labour that goes into creating the garden of your dreams.

The little girl who yearned ‘to put down roots’ became a woman obsessed with the roots of plants and trees, the churning of concrete and the setting of heavy rocks and pavers, all symbolic of permanence.

In 2007, the ‘tiny, feathered scrap’ she called George hopped into her life, requiring much patience and a diet of fresh, fat, juicy worms, donating in return vast quantities of poo. There is nothing remotely romantic about taking on a wild bird, as Hughes makes clear.

She called the magpie George and she tells the story of their (relatively short) life together in a quirky, tender, funny, beautifully observed memoir

She called the magpie George and she tells the story of their (relatively short) life together in a quirky, tender, funny, beautifully observed memoir

George himself hops beadily through the pages in the author’s accomplished sketches of her feathered companion in all his mischief

George himself hops beadily through the pages in the author’s accomplished sketches of her feathered companion in all his mischief

Told that Hughes is keeping a diary about George, a friend begs, ‘Don’t write the grotty stuff.’ But why? ‘My friend . . . was quietly repelled by the proximity to a real, live bird and its effluent, whereas all I saw was the most miraculous little creature doing what every creature does.’

Hughes needs a strong stomach to dig worms and dangle them over George’s gullet, watching in astonishment as they ‘fight like hell’ to escape their doom.

She observes the velocity of ‘projectile pooing’, sees George generously relieve himself on the hapless head of one of her little dogs, gets busy every day with gloves and disinfectant spray, clears up the terrible mess made when a little beak shreds teabags all over the kitchen floor and witnesses what happens when that very same beak squishes a very fat spider . . . It’s not for the fainthearted.

Meanwhile, the large house is still a building site, the garden is a mammoth task, Hughes struggles to carve out time for her newspaper poetry column — and the husband Hughes calls ‘the Ex’ from the beginning of the book (no spoiler there!) grows increasingly discontented with their life. He really doesn’t like George at all. Especially when the black and white mini-tyrant steals the food from his plate.

In 2007, the ‘tiny, feathered scrap’ Hughes called George hopped into her life, requiring much patience and a diet of fresh, fat, juicy worms, donating in return vast quantities of poo

In 2007, the ‘tiny, feathered scrap’ Hughes called George hopped into her life, requiring much patience and a diet of fresh, fat, juicy worms, donating in return vast quantities of poo

George comes to carefully choose red objects to pick out and hide. One day, he brings a delighted Hughes the gift of a red berry

George comes to carefully choose red objects to pick out and hide. One day, he brings a delighted Hughes the gift of a red berry

While George eventually left, Hughes lives with ‘14 owls, two rescue huskies, an ancient Maltese terrier, five chinchillas, a ferret called Socks and a royal python'

While George eventually left, Hughes lives with ’14 owls, two rescue huskies, an ancient Maltese terrier, five chinchillas, a ferret called Socks and a royal python’

Magpies are corvids — cousins to crows, ravens, jays, jackdaws and rooks. They’re fierce and intelligent, as Hughes finds out. When very young, George seems to be trying to copy her patterns of speech. He carefully chooses red objects to pick out and hide. One day, he brings a delighted Hughes the gift of a red berry. He steals light-bulbs. He snatches food and hides it (this is called a ‘cache’) in obscure places, which he remembers. He lets the dogs lick his head. It’s all as astonishing to the reader as it was to the devoted Magpie mistress. Her poems (an added bonus) convey her wonder.

The Ex tells Hughes what she already knows: that George must be let out into the wild. She is afraid for him, because humans hate magpies, but opens the window . . . and George goes, but then comes back, again and again. Hughes weeps at the loss of her bird and delights in his return: ‘he was so much more than ‘just a bird’ to me; everything he did was linked to my thinking brain because I was conscious of his very existence even when he was out of sight.’ And, of course, in the end, George leaves for good.

In a sense this book offers two parallel stories of courage. There is the powerful will to stay alive of the small wild creature who, for a while, makes use of a friendly human — and by doing so bestows on her his own energy.

And then there is the indomitable bravery of the author herself who, we gradually learn, suffers permanent back pain due to an horrific car accident in Australia, and is regularly poleaxed by severe bouts of ME (chronic fatigue), which leave her unable to move. Yet she never stops working.

Then comes the ‘catastrophe’ of losing her cherished poetry column, leading to a devastating confession that she had always hated being seen and introduced as ‘daughter-of-Ted-Hughes-and-Sylvia-Plath’, as if she had no identity of her own.

Now, with George and the column both gone, and the Ex on the point of doing the same, ‘I was rootless all over again, without either a job or a marriage that made me feel safe and supported.’

But Hughes’s glorious life with birds had only just begun. She gets a rescue duck, takes care of a ‘poor dud crow’, and builds an aviary in her back garden. The ‘bird-shaped hole’ inside her must be filled.

So it is that today the poet and painter lives with ’14 owls, two rescue huskies, an ancient Maltese terrier, five chinchillas, a ferret called Socks and a royal python’. Oh, and a menagerie of motorbikes as well — to prove that she, too, will always be something of a wild one at heart.



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