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Book club: Featherhood, by Charlie Gilmour

by
07 May 2021

Mark Oakley on Charlie Gilmour’s Featherhood, a memoir about his journey from being an ‘emotional fledgling’ to a ‘learner of love’

SOME creatures, when trapped, have an ability for “reflex bleeding”. As a last defence, they secrete blood to put predators off their lunch. When Charlie Gilmour visits his biological father in hospital, it takes only a few minutes before the haemorrhaging begins. Charlie can’t help but think that his arrival is to blame.

He has come to the deathbed to seek a reunion with a father who has been an absent mystery, a man animated by his own demons and relentless in transferring them to those who might get too close. Charlie has come for answers. Instead, he gets a few clumsy reticent words with a doubted sincerity. His father completes his final, and bloody, vanishing act, and the dark door to understanding slams shut.

The account of this scene is painful and frustrating — and yet it is also a liberating moment. Heathcote Williams unexpectedly left his wife and his son, Charlie, when Charlie was just six months old. Admired by Pinter and Beckett, Heathcote was a “squatter, writer, actor, alcoholic, poet, anarchist, magician, revolutionary, Old Etonian”. Heathcote is a “Now you see me, now you don’t” figure, haunting his son’s life as well as the pages of this book. His death, like some dormant volcano, means that the world is a bit less colourful, but, in some important ways, safer.

Charlie consequently begins his own fatherhood, and it is one that, educated by wounds, is more generously attentive and loving. No one is more surprised at this than he is. When he leaves the hospital, aware of the conflicts of closure, the reader is aware of that emergent selfhood that, as Cecil Day Lewis reminds us, “begins with a walking away”.

This is a book that witnesses to a costly and incomplete redemption. It is a fearless tribute to beauty, resilience, and courage. It has been known since time began that parents, the ones who bring us into life, are the ones who have most power to destroy us, too. When they seriously damage our minds or hearts, we are left wondering whether we will simply repeat their horror if we become parents ourselves.

Charlie is shown what positive parental care is by his mother and his new Pink Floyd guitarist father, who adopts him. It becomes transparently clear that he is more than capable of offering it himself, through the arrival of the sprite of this book, the Ariel in all the tempest, in the form of a magpie.

There is something about a magpie that puts us on guard. Some species of crow have been shown to have the reasoning powers equal to a seven-year-old child, having some of the highest brain-to-body ratios in the animal kingdom. As Charlie says, “Magpies are one of the few animals, other than humans, that have been shown to recognise themselves in mirrors, implying that they are self-aware. They play. Practise deception. Are masters of imitation.”

Perhaps this is why so many myths have built up around them, including the belief that they have a drop of the devil’s blood on their tongues, that they were the only bird not to sing comfort to Jesus on the cross, and that their intimidating cackling came about as they laughed from Noah’s ark at the other animals unable to get on board.

The author, Charlie Gilmour, with his hand-reared magpie chick, Benzene

Benzene, the magpie chick rescued by Yana, Charlie’s future wife, becomes stubbornly attached to Charlie over two years, and yet also has to learn, eventually, to walk away. Before this, Charlie’s relationship with the bird is a riot of awe, disappointments, reverence, havoc, stillness, and frustration. It is, in other words, a relationship of love. As Benzene builds a nest and then lays eggs, so Yana undergoes pregnancy.

Charlie finds himself busy: “I try to be the best husband I can to both. In the mornings, as I make tea to bring up to Yana, the bird yammers at me through the window, demanding to be fed where she sits. The painful truth is that I’m not quite bird enough for one, and still not quite human enough for the other.”

In the end, Benzene makes her way to a new life away from her adopted home. Charlie tries to be happy for her, and wonders whether “Featherhood finishes as fatherhood begins.” Observing himself through fresh eyes, cleansed by this unnatural friendship with the natural, a relationship between two injured adoptees, he can see how “Yana and the baby stop me from flying away, and that is a very good thing indeed.”

We are told that Charlie’s father, instead of going to his son’s wedding, sent him a statue of the Cenotaph. It is a reference (cruel? unthinking? an attempt to be humorous?) to the four months that Charlie, as a student, spent in prison, having swung from the monument’s flags during the tuition-fees protests. He was both high and high up that day. Would his life become one very long descent from there on?

Love from family members, a wife, and a child, and the strange, beguiling demands of this “divine messenger” of a magpie, take Charlie on a journey from being an emotional fledgling, terrified by his own fragility, to a learner of love, as partner and as father. He approaches a place in his life where his loose ends can find a home. We, as readers, are left grateful to him for taking us with him, through this fusion of inner and outer landscape, by way of such beautiful language and such generous honesty about his human and humane heart.


The Revd Mark Oakley is Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge, and Canon Theologian of Wakefield Cathedral.


Featherhood by Charlie Gilmour is published by Orion at £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.09); 978-1-4746-0948-7.


Listen to Mark Oakley talk about
Featherhood on a recent episode of the Church Times Podcast.

 

FEATHERHOOD — SOME QUESTIONS

  1. “A magpie world superimposed on our own”. What does this book reveal to us about the crossover between the “natural” and the “human” worlds? Are the two distinct?

  2. “How to live with wildness like this?” What problems do Charlie and Yana encounter in trying to live with a wild bird?

  3. “My abandoning of Heathcote”: why does Charlie feel like he is at fault for his relationship with his father?

  4. “Naming is a form of claiming.” What does the author mean by this? Do you agree?

  5. “Heathcote, for all his absence, was very present.” Who has the larger impact on Charlie, his absent father or his present family?

  6. How does Charlie’s period of imprisonment affect him?

  7. “I didn’t recognise the person screaming . . . but it was undeniably me.” What leads to the disconnect between Charlie’s actions and his idea of himself?

  8. “An idea of family as faltering and clumsy as my own.” What does the book tell us about the different ways in which “family” can be interpreted?

  9. “My parents seem to see their own end in this new beginning.” In what ways do transitions like the birth of a new child lead us to question our own mortality?

  10. What part does Yana play in the memoir, and in Charlie’s life?

 

IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 4 June, we will print extra information about our next book, The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark. It is published by Penguin Books at £8.99 (£8.09); 978-0-241-96399-9.


THE BOOK

Set in Kensington in 1945, The Girls of Slender Means focuses on the residents of the May of Teck Club, established “for the Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means below the age of Thirty Years, who are obliged to reside apart from their Families in order to follow an Occupation in London”. These include the intelligent Jane, the long-legged Selina, and the elocution teacher Joanna. With Spark’s characteristic wit, the novel balances the women’s daily concerns with boyfriends, rations, and clothes with more serious questions of morality, religion, faith, and death.


THE AUTHOR

Born and raised in Edinburgh, Muriel Spark (1918–2006) wrote novels, plays, poetry, children’s literature, and critical biography. In addition, she worked for British intelligence services in London during the Second World War, and as secretary for the Poetry Society. Spark became a Roman Catholic in 1954: a move that she credited as shaping her as a writer. She spent periods of her life in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), London, and New York, before settling in Tuscany, where she lived for the last 30 years of her life with the artist Penelope Jardin. In 1993, Spark was appointed DBE for services to literature.


BOOKS FOR THE NEXT TWO MONTHS

July: Cuthbert of Farne by Katharine Tiernan

August: Platform 7 by Louise Doughty

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