I have been out walking through the stage of twilight which makes my feet seem to glow pale against the dark road. Staying at my mother's house in the country the dark is so much darker, the stars are so much clearer, and the only remaining traces of the cyclone which did damage on the East coast of New Zealand a few days ago have been beautiful, variously towering clouds, seemingly adjacent yet lit differently by the sun.
I just finished Sylvia Townsend Warner's biography of T.H. White, which has put at least a comma in my run of enthusiastic reading about him. The minute I finished England Have My Bones (picked up on a whim after two years spent on my shelf after being chanced on at a bookshop's closing-down sale) I bought The Goshawk (because kindle one-click purchasing is a wonderous peril), and shortly after finishing The Goshawk my grandfather handed me the copy of H is for Hawk which has been circling around the family. The university library provided the biography next. But taking The Once and Future King off my mother's shelf now, I find that I need more distance before the shadows cast by the many impressions of White I've gathered become faint enough to show up the page clearly, instead of outright obscuring it. The correct thing to do would be to go off and read more Sylvia Townsend Warner instead – some of her sentences make me read them over twice for sheer pleasure, and there's so much of her left! – but none of it in the house. What then? Perhaps Winnie the Pooh. T. H. White despised A. A. Milne.
White is a person I might have liked to meet and would have liked to know. For better and worse he seldom failed to command a social setting, though he was often alone. He had an immense capacity for happiness, and was often miserable. He learned things as an antidote. A red setter was the love of his life. I can envy him his energy because I am safely connected to so much that he lacked. England Have My Bones is a book of physical activity – even when not compressed between two covers, the life it shows was one filled with doing. (It resurrected several hobbies of mine from the dead depths of my to-do list).
The explanations of White's psychology and motives in H is for Hawk, where the roles of student and teacher, victim and torturer, bird and austringer, merge with sharp logic, are beautiful, and I have a mild instinctive distrust for them, the distrust that Samuel Vimes would show Sherlock Holmes: how do you know the cigars were not cigars?
But they so well may not have been. Even meeting him couldn't have helped me here. I'm glad I read The Goshawk, a plain partial telling, before H is for Hawk added another keen eye's depths to that story.
The books' overlap changes them. I felt a tailing-off in Warner's biography as White left Ireland, because the other stories left him: the books I know him for practically finished, the animals I know him for dead, the richly-textured country of England Have My Bones receding behind him. Because I had read that book, I kept expecting him to go back. He didn't. Someday I may read all these books again, with each informing each.
As I drowned a wasp today, I thought of White shooting birds. The jar I held the wasp inside slipped from my hand and lay transparent on the bottom of the pool; the wasp climbed out of the mouth and spun upward through the clear water. It was beautiful. Should I have crushed it, instead? Perhaps it found something to hang on to. It probably drowned, and our bees are probably that much safer.
As we go about the touchy invitation of the newly-adopted ginger cats into the territory of the decade-resident tabby, I think of White's falcons.
As the biography approached its end I thought, “Please let the last things he did have been happy. That would pay for all.” And some of all was paid for.