goshawk

Goshawk by Leila Jeffreys

At junior school we were split into houses, this is pre-Harry Potter of course, so there were no jokes about Sorting Hats or Slytherin, all I knew is I wanted to be a Hawk. My sister was a Hawk and like any good younger sibling at that age I knew that whatever my sister was doing must be the best; I dreaded that I might be assigned to another house.

The other three houses were Eagles, Falcons and Kestrels. I know now that the designations don’t quite make sense but the division is so ingrained that years later it took no small amount of mind-bending to accept that Kestrels are Falcons. I still associate each word with its house colour: Hawks are red, Eagles are blue, Falcons yellow, and Kestrels green.

The house designations were just groupings of students rather than wings of a castle or anything fancy and inter-house competition was mostly sports-based with the exceptions of General Knowledge, a University Challenge like competition, and Chess. The overall House Cup was awarded on a combination of the inter-house results and overall house points (points awarded for effort and achievement in school work, deducted for bad behaviour).

I became a Hawk (thankfully) and eventually followed my sister in becoming House Captain. While I was no good at sport I helped win the inter-house General Knowledge competition and in my final year we won the House Cup. As with many things that matter so much at the time I’ve barely thought about it since, with the exception of the birds. I think about birds a lot.

My first close encounter with a bird of prey was at a falconry display with my Dad, it was at a nearby castle or stately home, I can’t have been older than 10 and at the end I got to get up close. Very close. The glove was rough and sweaty and far too big, but most of all it was heavy. I was convinced that I wouldn’t be able to feel a thing but when the bird landed the pressure of the talons was incredible. I couldn’t even tell you what bird it was, where we were, what I was wearing, why we were there, but the feeling of those claws through the glove is as vivid as if it was happening now.

But I’m not sure it happened.

We definitely went to a falconry display but whether I really had a falcon on my wrist or whether that’s something I dreamed or imagined I really can’t tell. Which is a little worrying. I have another memory from when I was even younger of walking through a blizzard to reach my grandparent’s house in Ireland that I know didn’t happen. We visited most Christmases when I was young and I’m pretty sure it snowed at least one year but we certainly didn’t walk through a blizzard. But the memory feels at least as real as things I know happened.

I know my sister was House Captain at school but was I? I honestly don’t know. I remember hoping I would be, I no doubt imagined what it would be like but am I remembering what happened or what I imagined? I know in my first year I choked in the inter-house General Knowledge but I redeemed myself by winning it in my final year, didn’t I?

Some years ago at a job interview I was asked about my greatest fear, mine was losing my memory but now I’m a bit worried I’m remembering too much. Being too memorious as Borges might have it. Dreams, wishes, imagined possibilities, maybe some been repeated so many times they’ve more firmly etched in my memory than real events I’ve rarely recalled. In many cases it’s quite embarrassing to ask whether they really happened but this has made me think I should make more of an effort to record my life, if only for myself.

I started H is for Hawk earlier this week which has me thinking about hawks but also about memory and reminiscence. By a stroke of serendipity I found Leila Jeffrey’s photography the morning after, the goshawk at the top is hers and worth sharing I thought; all of her subjects are quite beautiful.

I still like to see falconry and raptors in general; one local charity brings a beautiful selection to Leamington Christmas every year but my favourite has to be the time John and I visited Stoneleigh Village Fête probably a good eight years ago now.

Fête feels like an exaggeration, I think there was a whittler, a jam stall and the birds. There were owls and a Harris hawk plus some small falcons. It was mostly children with their parents gathered round and one boy near the front turned to his mother and asked, “What do they eat?” Without missing a beat (and without a hint of a smile) the falconer said: “Children,” left a pause that was just slightly too long, then turned back to his bird.

As an adult I found it hilarious; as a child I would’ve had nightmares for weeks. I wonder if I would’ve believed they happened?

Also: Previously in bird photography.