One day a baby bird falls from its nest into an oily scrapyard in Bermondsey, south London and seems unlikely to survive. As the writer Charlie Gilmour and his set-designer fiancée Janina (Yana) find themselves scrutinised by the tiny creature’s ‘gemstone eyes’ they become caught up in an unexpected urge to save the fledgling’s life. As part of the unglamorous, much maligned, even feared Corvid species, Charlie’s foundling magpie, with its sinister ‘undertaker tails’ is not an obvious pet. And yet Charlie has ‘never felt so seen by an animal’. Growing out of this strange first encounter is a magical book of exhilarating complexity, the story of blood, bird shit, tears and hope.
They name the bird Benzene, after the iridescent blue and gold coat that is reminiscent of the petrochemicals into which it had originally tumbled. And when its instinct to nest-build asserts itself, Charlie and Yana realise that the magpie is female. Nursed to health by her two rescuers, she secures her hold on the couple’s heart and home, hesitating on the rim of a shallow dish of water like an apprehensive child, hiding scraps of food in the fold of a sock and in the curl of Charlie’s hair, sharing Charlie’s bath, alternating between savagery and affection. As Benzene settles into her life, the tenderness both given and received between man and bird is transformative. Within days of their meeting Charlie senses that Benzene is ‘waiting to show him how to be’.
Running concurrent with the magpie story is the author’s own struggle to take flight. When Charlie was two, his father, Heathcote Williams, poet, magician, alcoholic, maverick and charmer, upped and left Charlie’s mother Polly in the middle of the night. Finding a semi-permanent sanctuary in a Cornish stately (whose aristocratic owner has ‘a face like a carelessly carved joint of beef’), Williams does not see his son for more than a decade.
The interlacing of the lives between humans and birds, and the contrasting elements of earth and air in which each exist, has often been explored, as Charlie acknowledges, both in verse and prose, including by Ted Hughes in Crow, Helen Macdonald with her hawk and in a 1960s poem by Charlie’s own father, inspired by a jackdaw.
When Polly remarries, Charlie spends his childhood with his mother and step-father, David Gilmour, and several newly acquired siblings on an idyllic farm in Sussex. Yet he cannot stop himself from ‘probing the hairline fracture running through this perfect picture’. Over the next couple of decades his pursuit of a relationship with a father whom he only knows as an ‘animated scarecrow’, put together from ‘secondhand stories and snatched encounters’, leads to extreme behaviour and shattering consequences.
This is a story in which imprisonment, both literal and metaphorical, takes the form of an aviary, of a London gaol and of the entrapment of the mind when the only escape route seems to be through drink or drugs. The 2011 image of Charlie swinging from the side of the Cenotaph hits every newspaper’s front page and invites judgment and shame and a controversially disproportionate custodial sentence. His horrified but supportive family include much valued siblings, a rockstar stepfather of unflinching loyalty, an outrageously cool grandmother and a mother who never fails to validate unconditional love.
Gradually the awareness that setting Benzene free would also risk the bird’s untested ability to survive in the wild brings with it the prospect of unbearable loss. Where does the line between letting go and abandonment lie, the distinction between the process of escape and the experience of liberty? When Benzene returns to rub her head against Charlie’s knuckles following an experimental venture into independence I confess my relief was huge.
Featherhood is a book that swoops and soars with a luminosity of language worn with the lightness of a gossamer wing, a book filled with scenes of semi-hallucinogenic beauty in which an arrival in a forest carpeted with ‘sweetly scented chamomile’ causes footsteps to ‘bruise aroma from the leaves’ and where a magician’s ‘near-invisible spider-silk thread charms notes from thin air’. Written with heart-stopping honesty, this is a book of unspooling secrets which shock, challenge and make you laugh aloud; one in which a bird’s bluebottle-and-beetle birthday cake is at once ‘strangely beautiful and stomach churningly foul’, and where even the gory, moving immediacy of death demonstrates the omnipresent fight for survival.
‘I lose my sense of loss in the blackness of her eyes’, Charlie writes of Benzene, as he re-affirms the possibility that destructive patterns of past generations can be ruptured and replaced with a future of indestructible value. Featherhood challenges our perception of creatures of the wild, celebrates the certainties of romantic commitment and prompts a profound reconsidering of the nature of patriarchal love.