George: A Magpie Memoir.
Profile Books. 2023. 264 pp.
ISBN 978 1 80081 479 0.
"Don't write the grotty stuff," said a friend who was visiting during George's adolescence when I mentioned my desire to record his existence. But why not? Birds crap, and baby birds crap enormous amounts because they eat vast quantities to fuel their prodigious growth rate, in some cases doubling in size every three days.
So, if like Hughes' friend, you are "quietly repelled" by descriptions of the very messy and sometimes gruesome habits of corvids, this book may not be for you.
George, however, is a charming, inquisitive, and intelligent bird, and Hughes' accounts of her relationship with him as he grows up are perceptive and often delightful, even if you do wonder how she can stand having George sit on her shoulder and shit down her back as she works at her writing or her art, stealing food from her plate as she eats. Her accounts of his learning to walk and fly are funny, but they show, perhaps surprisingly, how much practice birds must put into acquiring these skills. And George's earliest tussle with the worms Hughes digs up for him from her garden is, as she says, "cartoonish."
One of the worms hooked a loop of its body over George's beak as he tried to swallow both ends, so the more he swallowed the tighter the loop on his beak became... I unhooked the loop, stretching it over the tip of George's eager beaks so that he could swallow the worm.
Hughes' accompanying sketch shows a fluffy, fat George, a knotted worm around his beak and a startled look on his face. Later sketches chart his growth into a sleek, alert, and active black-and-white bird, even if one does show him spread-eagle on the sofa after he slammed into the wrong (closed) window when returning from a flight and knocked himself out.
George: A Magpie Memoir, is as much a memoir of Hughes' own life during the 20 months in which George lived with her, as it is of his learning and development, his increasing intelligence and independence, and the way he fits into Hughes' family of a husband and three tiny Maltese terriers. "The Ex," as Hughes refers to her then husband, is not enamored of George, but Snickers, Widget, and Mouse are intrigued by him, and Snickers "clearly wanted to adopt him." Although Hughes is nervous one of the dogs might bite George, even accidentally, the dogs and magpie play chasing games with each other and occasionally, when the opportunity offers, join each other in mischievous mayhem.
Keeping a growing magpie is not for the faint hearted or squeamish, and it is a learning experience for bird and human. It is a surprise for Hughes when one morning, at the time when George had barely mastered walking, she finds his closed cage empty and him perched precariously on one of the dogs' feeding bowls.
I placed him back on his T-shirt nest in the cage, but two minutes later all three dogs were barking... I watched impressed, as he waddled to the edge of his makeshift nest on his heels, and fell over the side. Then, unsteady, he raised himself up, stumbled towards the bars like a drunk, turned sideways and slid one wing out of the cage. He squeezed his chest through, which must have hurt because he let out a cry of complaint, then the other wing followed. He was free.
Hughes gives George more and more freedom, eventually coaxing him out of a window so he can fly in the garden. She is scared each time that he will not return, yet he does; but he also begins to visit the neighbors, not all of whom are happy to see him, especially as he has a habit of using human heads as a take-off trampoline. "Every time he came into contact with strangers—and pretty much everyone was a stranger; he jumped on their heads." Bernie, the plumber who is working on the ancient pipes in Hughes' "part-Georgian/part-Victorian" Welsh house, came "to complain that George was attacking him." George, however, having "bounced off Bernie's head," was by then busy sorting out the tools he found in the open boxes in Bernie's pickup: "Everything he could possibly want to steal" was there.
Increasingly, as George reaches adolescence and Hughes begins to "leave him to his own devices," perhaps believing he is "snoozing on his perch," chaos ensues:
When I came in from working in the garden later I found a scene of devastation; it was as if someone had busted a full bag of rubbish all over my kitchen floor. The plethora of magpie crap was expected, but he'd discovered the bowl of used teabags and hadn't just shredded one, but had taken the time to shred all of them. He must have flown around the room with them to tease the excited and happy dogs who didn't want to miss a good party, because there were tea leaves and empty teabags on the chairs, the table, the kitchen-unit surfaces, the floor, the sofa ... and there were shards of wood everywhere, as if a very small log had exploded.
The wood turned out to be bits of red pencils George had found and dropped on the floor, where the dogs had demolished them.
On another occasion, Hughes and "The Ex" return from an evening out to find that the shredded contents of a box of matches and a box of tissues have made the kitchen look as if it has been "hit by a snowstorm."
Hughes is not endlessly patient with George. She often gets angry with him, but she is besotted, so he is forgiven. Unfortunately, other people are not so easily charmed, and his reaction to Hughes' cleaning lady, Mary, is especially bad: he seems to hate her, and on one occasion he attacks her feet, sits on her car door so she can't close it, slides down the windscreen staring at her, runs around her car "as if to stop her," then chases the car down the road. It is clear he needs to be confined, so Hughes plans to build an aviary. She is open in this book about her gardening obsession, so this aviary is going to be an "oasis" and it is going to be huge—21 feet by 28 feet and 12 feet high, with a pond, ivy and clematis climbing up the support pillars, and with "a forest of bushes and little trees for George to play in."
Hughes, who is expert at mixing concrete, laying pavers, and can remove "several tons of earth-riddled brambles and ground elder," has a carpenter to help her, but she has a damaged spine which gives her constant pain and frequently incapacitates her, and she is prone to the return of her chronic fatigue syndrome when she gets exhausted. She is also painting, writing a regular poetry column for The Times, and, at the same time, trying to hold her disintegrating marriage together as The Ex becomes more and more distant and keeps wanting a divorce, then changing his mind. Physical work, she says, helps her back pain, and she also has ADHD, which helps to explain her seemingly constant activity, but unsurprisingly her body eventually rebels at all the stress and she has to seek help for "various puzzling medical problems that appeared to be worsening."
Ultimately, of course, George leaves home, and the book is dedicated to him "and his children," although Hughes never sees him again. Her diary entries continue after his departure and record her own ill health, the end of her marriage, and the beginning of her obsession with motorbikes—something she "had longed for since the age of fifteen." Still, for her, the loss of George is another loss in her life. She tries to fill this "bird-shaped hole" by adopting another corvid, but it is old and sick, and it dies: "The trouble with death," she writes in a poem, "is that it's never one death." She connects this crow's death "To the death of my father / And the desertion of my mother / Who took her own life." However, she now has her "forever home," where she feels happy and settled, and her aviary, which she begins to use for a variety of other birds.
Hughes' passion for George taught her resilience and just how much pleasure and stability a curious magpie could bring to her life. Never could she have guessed, she writes at the end of her book, "how many more owls would arrive to populate my kitchen and my aviary and take over my life, becoming a source of joy and equilibrium when the going got tough—all because of a little magpie called George."
Now, as the blurb at the back of the book tells us, Hughes shares her Welsh home with "fourteen owls, two rescue huskies, an ancient Maltese terrier, five chinchillas, a ferret called Socks, a royal python and her collection of motorbikes."
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