As moving as Kes … the story of how troubled Charlie Gilmour was healed by a thieving magpie


Charlie Gilmour

W&N £ 16.99


Like many children, Charlie Gilmour never had much success with goldfish, hamsters, and mice. "No matter what you do, it seems like they always end up in the same place: a shoebox at the bottom of a shallow grave."

Charlie with his favorite magpie, benzene. Benzol's bad habits were legion. The better he was treated, the worse he behaved

Charlie with his favorite magpie, benzene. Benzol's bad habits were legion. The better he was treated, the worse he behaved

But then, in his 20s, his girlfriend Yana brought back a young magpie that her sister had found in a gutter in south London. The little bird had been abandoned and was about to die from drying up or being run over.

Gilmour was careful at first, but his girlfriend was made of stronger things. "Yana is unable to come across a broken object without trying to pick it up and improve it."

Together they fed the magpie maggots, worms, and tiny lamb meatballs, but then Yana had to go away for a week, leaving Gilmour to deal with it alone. “I'm staring down at the bird. The bird stares at me steadily … I've never felt like this from an animal. "

One thing led to another, and soon the magpie ran the house. As Gilmour points out, magpies have a bad reputation. In the past, they have been blamed for everything from stealing to eating other birds' eggs to assisting with witchcraft and, among wildlife alone, refusing to mourn the death of Jesus Christ.

Gilmour's Magpie, now called Benzene, may not have been guilty of all of these crimes, but he (or it turns out, she) certainly was no stranger to bad habits. Only the dottest reader could break away from this book and imagine that a magpie is the perfect pet.

Benzol's bad habits were legion. The better he was treated, the worse he behaved. Magpies and other corvids are notorious hoarders who stow stray leftover food everywhere. Accordingly, benzene stuck cups of raw meat all over the house. "Every gap is enough: the USB port on my laptop, the eyelets on Yana's work boots, the folds of a thrown sock …"

At any moment, benzene pounced on Charlie and Yana and used them as limousine chairs to drive through the house. Whenever they ate, it would squeak to be fed. In return, Charlie would find his hair filled with partially consumed treats that would later be ready to nibble on.

The better the bird grew in flight, the more annoying it got. “Nothing is now safe from its destructive curiosity; Not a quiet moment sheltered from the possibility of a sudden gust of wind and the feeling of claws sinking into your scalp. “Most terribly, benzene once fell on a woman and whipped the contact lenses out of her eyes.

Charlie Gilmour swung from the cenotaph in 2010. For this crime, he was sentenced to 16 months in prison when he was 21 years old

Charlie Gilmour swung from the cenotaph in 2010. For this crime, he was sentenced to 16 months in prison when he was 21 years old

Benzene's hiding holes and his propensity for theft became more and more sophisticated. Under a dirty tea towel at the bottom of a wicker basket, Charlie and Yana discovered a treasure trove of stolen goods, including pebbles, lighters, coins, screws, safety pins, string, and sealing wax.

Whenever they left the house, they returned to chaos: soil from a potted plant that had been strewn on the floor, a jar with pegs upside down, Yana's sewing box torn to pieces. “A spool of black thread has been unwound and crossed from end to end in our bedroom … At the very end of the line is the magpie, helplessly trapped in a web of his own construction and no doubt regretting decisions that made him on this point have led. & # 39;

Books on pet birds usually revolve around the author's identification with the bird, and featherhood is no exception. Like benzene, the young Charlie Gilmour was helplessly trapped in a net, although the net was not entirely built by himself.


Magpies can see their reflections in a mirror. Only certain monkeys, elephants and dolphins share this ability.

His father was Heathcote Williams, a cult hippie poet from Old Eton, a bad combination even in the best of times. Williams had left Charlie and his mother without warning when Charlie was just six months old. One day Williams was there and lived with them in a cottage on a large estate. The next day he was gone, hiding down the street in the main house that belonged to an old-school friend, Peregrine Eliot, the 10th Earl of St Germans.

"He broke down and doesn't want to see you," Eliot explained to Charlie's mother. "You can't expect him to play Mummy Bear, Papa Bear, and Baby Bear forever, you know."

The book is, among other things, a goddamn glimpse into the egocentric narcissism of the hippie mentality. Williams appears to have convinced himself that taking care of both mother and child would affect his work as a poet, so he dropped her. He then spent the rest of his life producing long, sprawling works of what on the surface appear to be love letters to whales and elephants, but which are in truth fueled by a deep hatred of humans.

Late in life, in a rare gesture of paternity, Williams sent grown-up Charlie one of his terrifying ranty poems:

America's business is business

And the main business is war.

Selling your values ​​with Hollywood

It makes the world its whore.

After reading it, Yana remarked shortly, "Did he really have to leave his family to concentrate on writing things like that?"

Perhaps inevitably, Charlie spent his childhood and youth longing for the missing father. His mother had married the friendly David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, who then legally adopted him and had a dream childhood: full of care and affection; Campfire and Dogs ”. But all the while, young Charlie longed for his father, who didn't want to see him. "There is no explanation for the perversity of the human mind." Like a tongue searching for a sore tooth, my mind has repeatedly examined the tiny hair break that runs through this perfect image. "

When Charlie was 12, Williams finally agreed to meet him at Paddington Station and for dinner a week later. But just as suddenly he stopped answering Charlie's emails. A year or two later, Charlie found Williams' phone number and called. While Charlie babbled down the line, "he hung up and never answered my calls again".

"I blamed myself," writes Charlie. "I wasn't interesting enough, or smart enough, or as rebellious as I had to be to get his attention."

From then on, Charlie's life went off track. When he was 13 he started drinking spirits and smoking cannabis. At university, he stopped attending lectures and gradually lost control. Retired with a deadly mixture of tranquilizers and brandy, he joined student protests against the Cameron / Clegg coalition and swung himself out of the cenotaph.

For this crime, he was sentenced to 16 months in prison when he was 21 years old. A prison officer greeted him by saying, “Come with me. There is someone who wants to meet you. "Then he locked him in a cell with a murderer." He asked me to break your neck, "the murderer explained." And are you … will you do it? "Asked Charlie." Of course not. I hate that, "he replied.

Charlie came out of jail in a state of heightened paranoia, convinced that all cars with poppies on them would try to run him over. Meeting Yana was his first step towards salvation, followed by the unexpected appearance of Benzene, the Magpie.

Early on, he felt the acute feeling of empathy that sometimes arises between birds and people. After teaching benzene to fly back when he whistled, he remembers a sense of amusement when it falls on my wrist like I was the one who just shot through the air. However, he was aware of the dangers of identifying oneself to an extent that may be psychologically unhealthy: the bird as an abandoned offspring, as an adopted, prisoner, paranoid entity.

Even so, Featherhood is a book about this identification and much more. When I first heard about it, I feared it would be a wretched memory of a spoiled rich kid who had gotten mixed up and with a crazy corvid thrown into it. But it's infinitely more interesting and subtle. It's wise, confident, never forced, often funny, beautifully finished, and in the end as moving as Kes, that other great job about a boy who received the gift of liberation from a bird.

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