George: A Magpie Memoir by Frieda Hughes; Cry of the Wild: Eight Animals under Siege by Charles Foster - review by John Burnside

John Burnside

Creature Discomforts

George: A Magpie Memoir


Profile 164pp £16.99

Cry of the Wild: Eight Animals under Siege


Doubleday 256pp £16.99

While it is not misleading as such, the title of Frieda Hughes’s George: A Magpie Memoir only begins to suggest what riches this thoughtful and deeply moving book holds. True, one of its central characters is a magpie named George, rescued as a fledgling from a nest ruined by storms, but every creature that moves through these pages plays its part in illuminating Hughes’s primary concern, which is an enquiry into what the American poet Lucie Brock-Boido calls ‘love and its relinquish’. These creatures are various (several dogs; the author’s father, Ted Hughes; a Bengal eagle owl named Arthur) but they all have one thing in common: they are objects of love and care. Towards the end of the memoir, as the author deals with the twin burdens of ill health and the collapse of a marriage, a new character appears, a foundling crow chick named Oscar, who clings to life for a mere forty-six days. His loss somehow embodies all the others, human and animal, that Hughes has experienced in the course of her life: ‘When I got back in the car I burst into tears again. I felt as if I’d never stop. I felt that Oscar’s death linked me to all the other deaths: my mother’s death, my father’s death, George’s departure, my collapsing marriage, and all the other deaths in my life. The sense of emptiness and loss was so profound, so deep, it seeped through my veins like a sticky ink. I reasoned with myself that one cannot – should not – live without love, and those we love may die – or leave – and it is OK to grieve.’ There are those who might see these tears for a dead crow as an expression of ordinary sentimentality, or even projected self-pity, but it is what Hughes says next that makes all the difference. ‘But I thought of Oscar’s slow, quiet passing and was consoled by the fact he died so peacefully. He died in warmth and comfort and without being finished off by magpies. He simply went to sleep in the company of someone who cared. Who could ask for more?’

Those who dismiss such caring as sentimental critically overlap with the folk who, after Hughes adopts George, opine to her that ‘magpies are vermin … as if they knew all about magpies’. To classify anything as a pest is, of course, a received idea, and one that seems

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