Dear Readers, I tore through this book at the proverbial rate of knots, although I am not quite sure what it is. It’s true that one of the central characters is an orphaned magpie called Benzene, named after the film of oil on the puddles by the lockups where the bird is found. She becomes integral to the life of the author, Charlie Gilmour, but there is such a cast of larger-than life characters, including Gilmour himself, that it’s hard to call this a nature book.
Charlie Gilmour is the son of Heathcote Williams. Some of my more mature readers (ahem) might remember him from Whale Nation, an extended prose poem about whales and their exploitation by man. He always seemed like a man who was ahead of his time with his environmental concerns, and he seemed like a sensitive and caring soul. However, if you were one of his children, Williams seemed like a very different kind of man. He left his first partner and two children, wooed Gilmour’s mother (the author Polly Sansom), but then abandoned them when Charlie was a baby, leaving mother and child homeless. Much of the book is about Gilmour’s attempts to make contact with his father and to understand why Williams left so abruptly. He comes to a sort of peace by the end of the book, but in the meantime he suffers mental health issues, drug problems and is imprisoned after swinging from a flag pole on the Cenotaph in a drug-fuelled mania. It is telling that one of the presents that Williams sends him is a tiny model Cenotaph. Gilmour says:
“The last time I went chasing after his shadow, it led me to a breakdown of my own, and these days I have a terror of repetition. Sanity sometimes seems like a very thin membrane, through which it would be all too easy to fall again“.
What about Benzene, though? She is one helluva bird (though Gilmour and his wife Jana only realise that she’s female when she starts constructing a nest and paying special attention to Gilmour’s adopted father (Dave Gilmour from Pink Floyd). As a chick, she quickly asserts her presence:
“It scrabbles energetically against the sides (of the box), insisting that I pick it up and allow it to explore the world of our bedroom with pattering steps and clumsy leaps. it runs top-heavy on its long, thin legs, seemingly in constant danger of over-balancing as it races to investigate alluring plug serpents and serpentine electricity cables. It defecates at will”
Yep, living with a magpie is no one’s idea of fun. Gilmour tries to make contact with his father again because of a strange coincidence – Williams too reared a corvid, a jackdaw in his case. He wrote a poem about it, and Gilmour hopes to make some kind of connection through this shared experience. But Williams is always a performer, talking at Gilmour rather than to him, running through a repertoire of magic tricks, anything to keep a distance. I think we all know someone like this, the life and soul of the party but deeply unhappy underneath, and incapable of having a proper relationship with another human being.
So, I found this a compelling book, but not for the reasons I’d expected. I wanted to see if Gilmour would be able to form a relationship with his father, whilst shaking my head in doubt all the way through. Later, the stakes are raised even further, when Gilmour realises that his wife wants a child (though why people don’t discuss this stuff before they get married or commit to one another I have no idea harrumph). Will he take the leap into fatherhood? Well, the clue is rather in the title, but I shall leave it to you to find out. It’s an interesting book, but it’s much more about humans and their complexities than it is about the natural world.