Category Archives: Memoirs

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

I really wanted to love H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, which  won the 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction, as well as the 2014 Costa Book of the Year but I found it difficult to read and draining, despite some richly descriptive narrative.  It’s really three  books in one – one about herself, her childhood and her intense grief at the sudden death of her father, one about training a goshawk and another about T H White and his book, The Goshawk in which he describes his own struggle to train a hawk.

When her father died she bought Mabel, a ten week old goshawk and became obsessed with training her. It is the training that made this book so difficult for me to read. I am not comfortable with keeping wild creatures in captivity and in my naivete I hadn’t realised just what training a hawk entailed. Even though Helen Macdonald tells her friend’s husband that it had not been a battle training Mabel because ‘she’s a freakishly calm hawk‘, it came across to me that it had been a battle of wills, as she kept Mabel indoors in a darkened room, in a hood, on a perch or restrained on a leash for much of the time. It was a physical battle too that evoked rage, violence and frustration.

I found it difficult too because it is so personal as she exposed just how bereft she was, how she suffered the loss of her father and became depressed almost to the state of madness:

It was about this time that a kind of madness drifted in. Looking back, I think I was never truly mad. More mad north-north-west. I could tell a hawk from a handsaw always but sometimes it was striking to me how similar they were. I knew I wasn’t mad mad because I’d seen people in the grip of psychosis before, and that was madness as obvious as the taste of blood in the mouth. The kind of madness I had was different. It was quiet, and very, very dangerous. It was a madness designed to keep me sane. My mind struggled to build across the gap, make a new and inhabitable world. (location 219)

This a book unlike any other that I’ve read, about wildness, grief and mourning, and obsession, which made it heavy reading for me.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 1875 KB
  • Print Length: 322 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0802123414
  • Publisher: Vintage Digital (31 July 2014)
  • Source: I bought it

Books Read in May 2015

I’m pleased that I’ve read 8 books in May as my reading and blogging was interrupted by gardening. The grass is now growing at a rate of knots and the weeds, especially the ground elder, are rampant, threatening to take over the borders. So I’ve spent a lot of time this month mowing, weeding and strimming.

But I’ve also read these books and written about all of them, except H is for Hawk – post to follow some time soon (I hope). Three of the books are non fiction, one is a book from Lovereading for review and six are library books – no TBR books (books acquired before 1 January 2015) this month! I must get back to reading from those books I’ve had for years very soon!

These are the books I read:

Bks May 2015

Gray Mountain by John Grisham (Library book) – this book is just as much a campaign against injustice and the misuse of power, about the good little guys against the big bad guys as his earlier books are. In this case it’s the big coal companies that come under the microscope, companies that are  ruining the environment by strip-mining in the Appalachian mountains. I liked the view of the small town community, the mountain scenery, the legal cases large and small and the tension created by the danger of opposing the big coal companies.

The Lost Garden by Katharine Swartz (Review book) – an emotionally intense novel of love, loss and grief, set in both the past and the present day, in a small village on the Cumbrian coast, a gentle story, well told and an enjoyable read. In 1919 Eleanor, the daughter of the vicar of Goswell, is struggling to adjust to the loss of her brother, Walter who died just before the Armistice was declared and in the present day half-sisters Marin and Rebecca are coming to terms with the death of their father and his wife.

Gently North West by Alan Hunter (Library book) – set in the fictitious village of Strathtudlem in Scotland in 1967 where Gently is on holiday with his friend, Barbara Merryn and his sister, Bridget and her husband. Gently gets involved in the investigations into the murder of Donnie Dunglass,  found, stabbed in the back, face down on the heather. I thought it was an enjoyable book although I thought the murder mystery was rather far-fetched.

Nothing To Be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes (Library book, Non Fiction) – a collection of thoughts centred around Barnes’s fear of death and so inevitably he considers the question of religion and especially God. Interwoven with his thoughts about his agnosticism and death are anecdotes about his family and himself, thoughts on literature (particularly French literature) and it’s relationship to life. I found it all fascinating.

Dry Bones That Dream by Peter Robinson (Library book) – Banks investigates the murder of Keith Rothwell, an accountant, a  mild-mannered, dull sort of person it seems. But is that all there is to Rothwell? Banks unearths the secrets the characters have kept hidden from their family and friends. There’s also money-laundering and international and political shenanigans involved. Maybe not the best Banks book I’ve read.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (KindleNon Fiction) – no post yet. In some ways a difficult book to read – about training a goshawk and the author’s struggle with grief, mourning the death of her father.

Harbour Street by Ann Cleeves (Library book) This is the fifth Vera book and I loved it. It’s so good I read it twice because I watched the TV version after I finished reading the book – and it confused me as it’s different from the book! So I went back and re-read it. It is so much better than the TV adaptation, which I think suffered from being condensed into just one hour and a half length programme.

Poirot and Me by David Suchet (Library book, Non Fiction) – this consists largely of Suchet’s summaries of the stories and how he went about analysing Poirot’s character and how he played the part. This is a fascinating account of both the Poirot series and of David Suchet’s career.

I have no difficulty this month with naming my favourite book of the month. All the time I was reading it I was thoroughly absorbed and intrigued by Harbour Street by Ann Cleeves.

Nothing To Be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes

I read Nothing To be Frightened Of over several weeks, reading short sections at a time. This book is described on the back cover by Penelope Lively as:

A maverick form of family memoir that is mainly an extended reflection on the fear of death and on that great consolation, religious belief … it is entertaining, intriguing, absorbing … an inventive and invigorating slant on what is nowadays called “life writing”.

It is a collection of thoughts centred around Barnes’s fear of death and so inevitably he considers the question of religion and especially God – in fact he begins his book with this statement: I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.

Later, he writes, Missing God is rather like Being English, a feeling aroused mainly by attack. When my country is abused, a dormant, if not to say narcoleptic, patriotism stirs. And when it comes to God, I find myself more provoked by atheistic absolutism than by, say, the often bland, tentative hopefulness of the Church of England. (page 77)

His agnosticism doesn’t help him with his fear of dying, but then, again, he thinks that faith does not necessarily remove the fear of death anyway – there are those who fear death among those who have faith as well as among the irreligious.

But this is more than a book about dying because interwoven with his thoughts about his agnosticism and death are anecdotes about his family and himself, thoughts on literature (particularly French literature) and it’s relationship to life. I found it all fascinating,  but it’s his autobiographical passages that I found the most interesting, sharing details about his family’s beliefs and the deaths of his parents and grandparents, of the rivalry between him and his brother, his mother’s solipsism and manipulative behaviour, his father’s seemingly passive approach to life and the difficulties of really knowing a person.

He states that it is easier with fiction than with life – fictional characters are easier to see, whereas in real life ‘the better you know someone , the less well often you see them. … They may be so close as to be out of focus … Often when we talk about someone very familiar, we are referring back to the time when we first properly saw them, when they were held in the most useful -and flattering light – light at the correct focal distance.’ (page 157)

He and his brother have different memories of their parents and grandparents and of their own early relationship, which shows how unreliable memory can be. I suppose I agree more with his brother, the philosopher Jonathan Barnes, who thinks that memories are often false and not to be trusted without external support, rather than Julian, who says he is more trusting, or self deluding, so shall continue as all my memories are true.

This is by no means a gloomy, pessimistic book.  It’s written in an informal tone, almost as though he is talking to the reader, and not being divided into chapters adds to that sense of being involved in a conversation. But is far from being a simple read – there is an awful lot packed into this book, an intensely personal book that reflects the complexity of our views of life and death. It gave me much to think about and even made me chuckle in parts.

And finally thinking about being remembered/forgotten after his death, Barnes considers who will be his last reader because with that reader he will finally be forgotten – and then he reflects that your last reader is, by definition, someone who didn’t recommend your books to anyone else. You bastard! Not good enough, eh? (page 226)

I think it extremely unlikely that I’ll be his last reader!

Reading Challenge: Non Fiction Reading Challenge 2015. This is only the 5th non fiction book I’ve read so far this year!

Corvus: A Life With Birds by Esther Woolfson

Corvus by Esther Woolfson is a remarkable book about the birds she has has had living with her; birds that were found out of the nest that would not have survived if she had not taken them in.

‘Corvus’ is a genus of birds including jackdaws, ravens, crows, magpies and rooks. The specific birds Esther Woolfson has looked after are a rook, called Chicken (short for Madame Chickieboumskaya), a young crow, a cockatiel, a magpie, two small parrots and two canaries. But it all started with doves, which live in an outhouse, converted from a coal store into a dove-house, or as they live in Aberdeen in Scotland, a doo’cot.

Although the book is mainly about the rook, Chicken, Esther Woolfson also writes in detail about natural history, the desirability or otherwise of keeping birds, and a plethora of facts about birds, their physiology, mechanics of flight, bird song and so on. As with all good non-fiction Corvus has an extensive index, which gives a good idea of the scope of the book. Here are just a few entries for example under ‘birds’ the entries include – aggression in, evolution of, navigation, in poetry, speeds of, vision, wildness of, wings’

It’s part memoir and part nature study and for me it works best when Esther Woolfson is writing about Chicken and the other birds living in her house, how she fed them, cleared up after them, and tried to understand them. Although at times I had that feeling I get when I visit a zoo – these are wild birds kept captivity and I’m not very comfortable with that, I am reassured by Esther Woolfson’s clarification that reintroducing these birds to the wild was unlikely to be successful and indeed they lived longer than they would have done in the wild. Though Chicken and Spike (and the other birds) live domesticated lives they are still wild birds:

I realise that if ‘wild’ was once the word for Chicken, it still is, for nothing in her or about her contains any of the suggestions hinted at by the word ‘tame’. Chicken, Spike, Max, all the birds I have known over the years, live or lived their lives as they did by necessity or otherwise, but were and are not ‘tame’. They are afraid of the things they always were, of which their fellow corvids are, judiciously, sensibly; of some people, of hands and perceived danger, of cats and hawks, of things they do not know and things of which I too am afraid. ‘Not tamed or diminished’. (pages 115-6)

At times, where Esther Woolfson goes into intricate detail, for example in the chapter on ‘Of Flight and Feathers‘ I soon became completely out of my depth, lost in the infinity of specialised wing shapes and the complexities of the structure of feathers. But that is a minor criticism, far out weighed by her acute observations of the birds, her joy in their lives and her grief at their deaths – her description of Spike’s unexpected death and her reaction is so moving:

I wept the night he died. Sitting in bed, filled with the utter loss of his person, I felt diminished, bereft. I talked about him, but not very much, in the main to members of the family, who felt the same, but to few others.

It’s the only way, this compact and measured grief, for those of us who are aware that there has to be proportion in loss and mourning; we laugh at ourselves for our grief, trying to deal with this feeling that is different in quality, incomparable with the loss of a human being.

We felt – we knew – that something immeasurable had gone. (page 209)

Anyone who has lived through the death of a loved animal can recognise that sense of loss.

Corvus is a beautiful book and I have learned so much by reading it. I must also mention the beautiful black and white illustrations by Helen Macdonald – I think this is the Helen Macdonald who was awarded the 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction for H is For Hawk.

Esther Woolfson was brought up in Glasgow and studied Chinese at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Edinburgh University. Her acclaimed short stories have appeared in many anthologies and have been read on Radio 4. She has won prizes for both her stories and her nature writing and has been the recipient of a Scottish Arts Council Travel Grant and a Writer’s Bursary. Her latest book, Field Notes from a Hidden City (Granta Books), was shortlisted for the 2014 Thwaites Wainwright Prize for Nature and Travel Writing. She lives in Aberdeen. For more information see her website.

I Murdered My Library by Linda Grant

Following on from yesterday’s post on books I’ve read recently and not reviewed, I have three more I have not written about and here is one of them:

I Murdered My Library by Linda Grant. This is an essay of just 28 pages in which Linda Grant tells about moving house and downsizing her considerable book collection to fit into a small flat. She had had books everywhere:

Books multiplied, books swarmed; they were a papery population explosion. When they had exhausted the shelves, they started to take over the stairs. You cannot have a taste for minimalist decor if you seriously read books.

Well, I know all about that and all about trying to find more space for books or to reduce my book collection, so I really liked this little e-book. Linda Grant can read my mind – and those of many other book-lovers, I’m sure – as she went through her books deciding which ones could go. It could be me saying this too:

I am kidding myself if I think that I am going to reread a fraction of the books I have brought with me or a fraction of those I have never got round to reading.

In my youth, I imagined old age and retirement as the time when one sat back, relaxed and read. There would be all the time in the world for reading. Sixty was so far away, and 80 stretching out into a future not imaginable, that you might as well be talking about living forever. Now time gobbles up my life.

I have tried, but I’ve never managed to be as ruthless as she was, never seen empty bookshelves and I doubt I ever will, because there have been so many books I’ve given away only to realise later that I want to re-read/read them, or to look up a reference. So it’s made me think twice, or even ten times before I actually part with a book. And indeed as Linda Grant looks at her shelves of the books she has kept she mourns the ones she killed off!

Leaving Alexandria by Richard Holloway

I was browsing the biography section in the local library when I came across Leaving Alexandria: a Memoir of Faith and Doubt by Richard Holloway. I vaguely remembered that he had been an outspoken bishop who had resigned some years ago and I thought it would be interesting to read what had led up to his resignation. The blurbs on the back encouraged me to borrow the book:

This poignant memoir, written with integrity, intelligence and wit, lays bare the ludicrous and entirely unnecessary mess we have made of religion. (Karen Armstrong)


So compelling and so intense. Nobody, whether interested in religion or not, could fail to be intensely moved … What a deeply lovable man; and what a wonderful book. (Mary Warnock, Observer)

In the past I have read many books on religion, mainly on Christianity, but I am not currently a church goer and I know little about the Anglican Church and next to nothing about the Scottish Episcopal Church – Richard Holloway was the Primus of the latter. Reading Richard Holloway’s own account of his beliefs and doubts was without doubt an eye-opener.

Leaving Alexandria is fascinating. Richard Holloway grew up in Alexandria, a town in the Vale of Leven, north of Glasgow. At the age of fourteen he left home to train for the priesthood at Kelham Hall in Nottinghamshire, the mother house of  the Anglo-Catholic Society of the Sacred Mission, an order that trained uneducated boys for the priesthood in a monastic setting. Subsequently, he worked in Africa, the Gorbals in Glasgow, Boston, and Old Saint Paul’s in Edinburgh before becoming the Bishop of Edinburgh. His resignation in 2000 as the Bishop of Edinburgh came when he was 66.

He had a controversial career, dubbed the ‘Barmy Bishop’. He was an outspoken champion of progressive causes, but he had many crises of faith and at times was plagued with doubt, experiencing God as an absence. To me that sounds as though he wasn’t sure about the existence of God. He ponders whether religion is a lie and states that it is a ‘mistake’:

I was less sure whether God was also just a human invention, but I was quite sure religion was. It was a work of human imagination, a work of art – an opera – and could be appreciated as such.  The real issue was whether it should be given more authority over us than any other work of art, especially if it is the kind of authority that over rides our own better judgements. (page 343)

In the Epilogue he explained that he came to believe that

Religion is human, and like humanity it is both a glory and a scandal. It is full of pity and full of cruelty. Just like us. So is the Bible.

He went on that he had discovered his real dilemma:

I wanted to keep religion around, purged of cruelty, because it gives us a space to wonder and listen within. Purged of the explanations that don’t explain, the science that does not prove, the morality that does not improve; purged in fact, of its prose, religion’s poetry could still touch us, make us weep, make us tender, and take us out of ourselves into the possibility of a courageous pity. (page 345)

He resigned at odds with many strongly held Episcopal Church doctrines and beliefs, and precipitated by the publication of his book Godless Morality. It was because of the Church’s insistence on rules, its attitudes towards women and homosexuals, and its inability to understand the nature of myth. But he had struggled all the way through, feeling himself a disappointment, often knowing that he was a ‘double-minded man’ and ‘unstable, if not in all my ways, then certainly in many of my attitudes and opinions. Janus-like, I seemed able to look two ways at once, be in two minds about things.’  My question is not why he resigned, but why it took him so long, and how had he become a bishop at all?

There are many things about Richard Holloway that I like, but overarching them all is his compassion and his honesty. There are so many passages I could quote, including this one describing the opponents of women’s ordination:

‘Oh the miserable buggers, the mean-minded wee sods.’ (page 309)

I am sure that I have not really done justice to this book and refer to this review of Leaving Alexandria by Mary Warnock in The Guardian/The Observer 19 February 2012 and to an interview with Richard Holloway at the Gladstone’s Library 26 February 2012.

Searching for The Secret River by Kate Grenville

Searching for the Secret River is Kate Grenville’s account of how she came to write The Secret River. Her interest began with her great-great-great grandfather, Solomon Wiseman,who was the original ferryman at Wiseman’s Ferry. Her mother had told her stories about him, but she wanted to know more about what he was like and what he might have done when he first encountered Aboriginal people.

It is a fascinating book detailing how she went about her research into family history and how she imagined his life from facts gleaned from the records and the places he had lived.

She writes about reading. As a short-sighted child reading was her whole life:

I read in the bath, I read on the toilet, I read under the desk at school, I read up in my tree house, feeling the branches of the jacaranda swell and subside under me.

I can identify so well with this. I was a short-sighted child and read everywhere too, walking round the house, in bed under the covers with a torch when I should have been asleep, all the places Kate Grenville read, although not in a tree house – I would have loved a tree house!

She writes about writing. As a writer she couldn’t help examining how other writers went about their writing – seeing how books had been made. One book that helped her with writing The Secret River is Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje, a novel based on historical events in which some of the characters are apparently versions of real people. She had come to the point in her book where she had written lots of notes, forty-seven folders of notes!! So she made lists to try to organise her writing and then began just writing scenes and descriptions of various aspects – about London and Sydney, the convict system, and what she called ‘elements of memoir.’ But she thought that lots of her writing was dry and dead.

Reading Anil’s Ghost, however she realised that she had to take herself out of the book and find a character to carry out the search for the story of Wiseman and his dealings with the Aboriginal people. To do this she had to see the scenes before she could write them:

The hard part of the writing wasn’t finding the words – they seemed to come reasonably easily. If they started to come reluctantly, I stopped writing and began with something else. The hard part was finding the picture. Once I could see and hear the moment, I could write it.

In her first draft some parts were in the first person, some in the third person, but always from Wiseman’s point of view. The first-person point of view seemed right but then she decided that that didn’t match Wiseman’s character and there were things she wanted the book to say that Wiseman couldn’t say – about the Aboriginal culture for one thing. So, it had to be in the third person, but the ‘third person subjective’ – ‘from Wiseman’s point of view but only partly in his voice.’

There is so much in this book – the research, the notes, the descriptive passage, the numerous drafts, finding the right voices, the characters, identifying the central drama of the novel, the right eighteenth century names, developing Wiseman into a character, renaming him William Thornhill and building a picture of the Thornhill family. Then the dialogue had to be right, to be convincing. She listened to a recording of Robert Browning, went through transcripts of Old Bailey trials, looked at how Dickens, Defoe and other writers put words into their characters’ mouths.She remembered her mother’s and grandfather’s sayings, phrases and idioms. In the end she decided that she wouldn’t try

to reconstruct the authentic sound of nineteenth century vernacular. My job was to produce something that sounded authentic. … I read all the dialogue aloud. If anything hit a false note, it was obvious straight away. This was a bad one for example: ‘That bit of land, he said. Remember, I told you. We’ll lose it if we don’t move soon.’

This sounded terribly drawing-room. I muddied it up: ‘that bit of land, he said. Remember he telled you. We’ll miss out if we don’t grab it.’

She deleted large sections of dialogue.

The whole book is compelling reading, not just because it’s about how she wrote the book and the enormous amount of work she put into research, but also because in itself it paints a picture of life in London in the late eighteenth century and Australia in the early years of settlement in the early nineteenth century. I was captivated from start to finish.

Searching for The Secret River: a Book Beginnings Post

Book Beginnings ButtonGilion at Rose City Reader hosts Book Beginnings on Friday in which you share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

I’m currently reading Searching for The Secret River by Kate Grenville. It begins:

In the puritan Australia of my childhood, you could only get a drink on a Sunday if you were a ‘bona fide traveller’. That meant you had to have travelled fifty miles or more. Around Sydney a ring of townships at exactly the fifty-mile mark filled with cheerful people every Sunday. One of them was a little place called Wiseman’s Ferry.

I loved Kate Grenville’s book The Secret River, so when I discovered that she had written a book about how she came to write it I just had to get a copy. Her interest began with her great-great-great grandfather, Solomon Wiseman,the original ferryman at Wiseman’s Ferry. Her mother had told her stories about him, but she wanted to know more about, what he was like and what he might have done when he first encountered Aboriginal people … she needed to know.

I haven’t finished the book yet, but it is fascinating – seeing how she went about her research into family history and how she imagined his life from facts gleaned from the records and the places he had lived.

A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor

I read A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor a few weeks ago and have been mulling it over ever since. It began so well and I thought it was one of those books I was going to love. And then there are later passages which are so tedious and hard work to read, so full of dry facts and arcane words that I began to wonder why I was reading any further. But I did and then the writing swept me away and I became engrossed in the book again.

My reaction, I think, is to the two sides of this book, in which Patrick Leigh Fermor describes his travels on foot in 1933 from the Hook of Holland through Germany, to Austria, Slovakia and Hungary, on his way to Constantinople. (He continued his journey in Between the Woods and the Water, which describes his experiences up to the Iron Gates border between Rumania and Bulgaria.) The two sides are because he wrote this book in later life so his direct experiences and reactions are intermingled with the results of his later research and with the benefit of hindsight. I prefer the immediacy of his earlier writings taken from the diaries he kept along the way, bringing the countryside to life and recounting his encounters with the local people.

There are passages like the one below where he linked his journey to painting:

When no buildings were in sight, I was back in the Dark Ages. But the moment a farmhouse, or a village impinged, I was in the world of Peter Brueghel. The white flakes falling beside the Waal – or the Rhine or the Neckar or the Danube – and the zigzag gables and the muffled roofs, were all his. The icicles, too, and the trampled snow, the logs piled on the sledges and the peasants stooped double under loads of faggots. … When the wintry light crept dimly from slits close to the horizon or an orange sun was setting through the branches of a frozen osier-bed, the identity was complete.

In the end I scan read page after page of detailed descriptions of churches, of sociological, political or historical people and places.  I was too impatient to read all those details and I was reading the book too quickly. It’s a book to take your time with, to read a section, put the book down and come back to it later – and I didn’t do that, I swallowed it down with the result that parts were indigestible.

In a way his journey was a gilded experience as he had introductions to people in different places – people who gave him a bed for the night, or longer stays. There were also people who didn’t know him who welcomed him into their homes as a guest – as the title says it was a time of gifts. It was the period when Hitler came to power in Germany:

Appalling things had happened since Hitler had come into power ten months earlier: but the range of horror was not yet fully unfolded. In the country the prevailing mood was a bewildered acquiescence. Occasionally it rose to fanaticism.

But whereas not everyone liked the English there were some who did:

I answered many earnest questions about England: how lucky and enviable I was, they said, to belong to that fortunate kingdom where all was so just and sensible. The allied occupation of the Rhineland had come to an end less than ten years before, and the British, she said, had left an excellent impression.

Overall, I did enjoy this book. There are many passages so vividly described that I can remember them now weeks later – the vision of this young man, nearly nineteen years old striding through the German countryside reciting Shakespeare, in a loud voice and accompanied with gestures, sword thrusts, a staggering gait and with his arms upflung, looking as though he was drunk, or a lunatic. Then there was the time in Vienna when the money he was expecting hadn’t arrived and Konrad, a Don Quixote type character, took him round to a block of flats and encouraged him to knock on doors asking if the occupants wanted to pay him for a sketch of themselves.

In fact even with the dull passages, I liked this book well enough to buy the second book by Fermor Leigh, Between the Woods and the Water and I see that a third book is to be published later this year – The Broken Road, completing the account of his journey to Constantinople.

Following his walk across Europe, Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011) lived and travelled in the Balkans and Greek Archipelago. He joined the Irish Guards and during the occupation of Crete led the party that captured the German commander. He was awarded the DSO and OBE.

Books for Cat Lovers

I loved both these books by Denis O’Connor:

Paw Tracks in the Moonlight and Paw Tracks at Owl Cottage.

Denis O’Connor trained as a psychologist and teacher. Throughout his career he taught in schools and lectured in colleges and universities. He holds a doctorate in education and psychology and is now retired, living with his wife Catherine and his two Maine Coon cats in a remote country cottage in Northumberland.

Paw Tracks in the Moonlight tells the story of how he rescued a kitten during a snowstorm and how kitten survived, despite the vet’s prediction that he wouldn’t. O’Connor lived at Owl Cottage and as he was out at work all day he put the kitten in a jug to keep him safe and named him Toby Jug. This memoir covers the first year of Toby Jug’s life and it’s a remarkable story because this is no ordinary cat (if such a creature exists, that is). He is a Maine Coon cross. He learns to walk on a lead and even goes on a camping trip on horseback during the summer in the Cheviot Hills with O’Connor.

Paw Tracks at Owl Cottage chronicles O’Connor’s experiences with four more cats, all Maine Coons. He had moved from Owl Cottage, unable to face living there after Toby Jug died in 1978, but years later, when he took early retirement, Owl Cottage came up for sale – and he and his wife bought it. it’s a wonderful place for cats and they acquired four – Pablo, Carlos, Luis and Max. The book is divided into sections describing each cat and there are also reminisces of Toby Jug, with more stories of their lives together.

Both contain beautiful descriptions of the Northumberland countryside, most of which I’m familiar with, which made the books even more special for me. Inevitably the death of Toby Jug filled me with sadness, but both books are full of the cats’ personalities and the joy they brought to O’Connor and his wife. They demonstrate the close bonds that are possible between people and cats:

I tell them [his friends who are astonished at the close bonds]  I believe that any animal, be it a horse, dog, cat, parrot or budgerigar, will always respond to kindly attention and caring affection, and that I know this because I’ve made good friendships with them all.

But to return to how I am with our cats, I can honestly state that quite apart from loving them deeply and being loved in return, I know them inside their minds and they know me; we are linked on a mental plane of mutual affection and understanding. (page 222 of Paw Tracks at Owl Cottage)

Definitely books for cat lovers!

Denis O’Connor has written a third book (which I haven’t read) – Paw Tracks: a Childhood Memoir, described on Amazon as ‘a searingly honest account of how the power of nature can lift the human spirit and overcome the most unloving of childhoods.’