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diary richard smyth

Where Falcons Dare

I find myself telling my children: ‘Daddy’s doing his peregrines.’ It was one of Charles Darwin’s small sons who, on learn- ing that there was no study in his school f riend’s house, asked in puzzlement: ‘Where does your father do his barnacles?’ Darwin spent eight years poring over cirripedes (‘I hate a Barnacle as no man ever did before,’ he wrote bitterly in 1852); my peregrines have only been with us since the spring of 2020 and they impinge on our family life hardly at all. Like the peregrines described by the poet Kathleen Jamie in Findings, these are birds glimpsed only when time allows, through the kitchen window, once the kids’ cereal has been poured out and the dishwasher has been emptied. (‘“Mum, can we have our breakfast?” “Just a minute…” Dammit. I’d glanced away for a moment, and when I looked back the peregrine had quit fidgeting and flown.’)

Still, I was doing my peregrines. Our terraced house is overlooked by the towering chimney of Salts Mill, once – when it was built, in 1853 – the world’s largest industrial property and the rattling, clattering hub of Saltaire, Sir Titus Salt ’s model mill town on the Aire. It ’s the chimney on my doorstep, rather than any ability or knowhow, that saw me recruited this week into an informal network of local peregrine watchers. Between us we’re trying to keep tabs on our BradfordAiredale peregrines, to see whether they ’re likely to breed and figure out if we can do anything to help them.

There’s a pair that likes to come and sit on the chimney top, sixty-eight metres up, to scour the lower sky for prey. So I check the chimney top a few times a day. ‘Can you put Octonauts on, Daddy? Can we play, Daddy?’ ‘Just a sec, pet. I’m on the back step.’ Daddy’s doing his peregrines.

I thought for a long time that there were two schools of writ- ing about peregrines, one represented by J A Baker’s The Peregrine (1967), immersive, impressionistic, masterly, over- wrought, obsessive, and the other by Derek Ratcliffe’s The Peregrine Fa l c o n (1980), authoritative, comprehensive, scien- tific, robustly ornithological. I knew there was a lot of chatter about whether the salt marsh peregrines Baker wrote about were even peregrines, whether Baker could tell a peregrine f rom a kestrel or, for that matter, f rom a hole in the ground. And I knew that Ratcliffe was a proper bird man and that his monograph was a landmark in raptor conser vation, flagging up the terrible impact of unregulated pesticide use on per- egrine populations in the mid to late 20th centur y. But then I learned f rom Hetty Saunders’s 2017 biography of Baker that Ratcliffe and Baker in fact corresponded about peregrines, and that The Peregrine is actually referenced in The Peregrine Fal- con. I checked the bibliography in my copy and yes, there it is, below an obscure citation f rom British Birds, 1928 (‘Peregrine Falcon nesting on the ground in Hampshire’) and above an entr y f rom Bannerman’s 1956 The Birds of the British Isles. It ’s like finding an entr y for ‘Poe, Edgar Allan’, in the endnotes of some scholarly work on the raven. ‘Ratcliffe’, Saunders writes, ‘had seen for himself that what scientists knew about animals by no means accounted for the often-eccentric behaviour of individual creatures, any more than it could for humans.’ So much, then, for the two cultures.

My peregrines aren’t Baker peregrines. Mine are killers, of course, but I don’t consider them terrible in the way Baker considered his terrible. Helen Macdonald has written of recoiling from Baker’s depictions of the raptors in The Peregrine: ‘I saw in it the writer’s awful desire for death and annihilation, a desire disguised as an elegy for birds that flew through poisonous skies … I was f rightened of Baker and what he meant.’ Baker’s falcons, Macdonald says, ‘were made of death’.

The falcons on Titus Salt ’s chimney are not made of death. They are made of feathers and bone and around a kilo and a half of muscle and blood. They call to each other, yuk-yuk-yuk , and I once saw the female fly up to take a gift of prey f rom the male’s talons as they both came yawing eastward over the mill roofs. In summer they sing drawn-out love songs that sound like the rending of sheet metal. One of them, the male I think, likes to do a very funny Groucho Marx strut up and down the chimney edge. They are made, of course, of life.

Rereading Macdonald on Baker recently, I found myself cross- ing my own tracks, so to speak. I’ve written quite a lot about how fascism and natural history interact, and when you do that it ’s hard to go far without running up against Henry Wil- liamson, the enduringly beloved country writer and rural Nazi. Baker’s death hawks made me think of Williamson’s peregrine Chakchek, first seen in a 1922 story. Chakchek meets a banal and brutal death at the hands of a pigeon-fancying landowner (his mate is poisoned, then Chakchek is stunned with a tennis racket, blinded and released to die).

Williamson was in some quite profound ways in love with brutality. You could say that this was something he learned f rom nature. My belief is that you can learn practically anything f rom nature, if you choose to. In researching him, I read Daniel Farson’s apologetic ‘appreciation’, Henry, in which Farson recalls the time Williamson ‘seized a kitten and smashed its brains out on the kitchen floor’ because it had taken some of a fish dinner laid out for a guest. In this, writes Farson, Williamson was ‘in a horrifying way, consistent ’, for this was the morality of an animal, nature’s way. The kitten would’ve done the same thing to him, given half a chance.

I don’t really think about Baker’s falcons or Chakchek when I’m watching my peregrines, the mill chimney peregrines. They seem far away, a very distant and unrelated thing. It ’s not that there isn’t any truth to those birds; it ’s just that I don’t see it while I’m putting the milk bottles out and the male cocks his tail up and does a crap over the chimney side, or they ’re both there, male and female, calling yuk-yuk-yuk.

march 2023 | Literary Review 1

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