Friday, 10 April 2009
Wise Owl Writers
I was inspired to think about owls by a piece on television: an examination of how silent owls are in flight. It seems that design engineers are experimenting with feather-like fringes for the wings of planes, to make them more silent as they land in cities.
Some wonderful shots of a white barn owl flying reminded me of a farm holiday we had in Scotland when the children were small. Mr J, the farmer, was a whipcord, weatherbeaten man whose hobby - when his farm chores were done - was to break in fine horses. Long before the Horse Whisperer was written, we witnessed that same strange magic on this farm in Scotland.
Every day at dusk Mr J would walk a section of the boundary of his farm. One night he asked me to join him and - as we walked - he uncovered for me the layers of history of the landscape and the nature of the families that once lived in the tumbled cabins. When we got back I was tingling all over, quite certain that I had just travelled through time. Later, Mrs J told me - without a touch of rancour - that was the first time he'd ever let anyone do the walk with him. Even she was not allowed to go. A true honour.
Because of Mr J's Pied Piper charisma the children spent a lot of time 'helping' him, so I was free to roam. Beside the river down from the farm was a ruined water mill where I spent a lot of time watching the water rush by and scribbling in my notebook. Late one evening I was sitting there and suddenly felt very conscious of being observed. I looked around. No one. Then, as I watched, a white barn owl rose with a whirring rush - up, up through the trees growing inside the mill. He glided silently across my vision and vanished into the darkening sky.
After that, I went down to the mill every night to be rewarded by that same magic. And I told no one. Not even the children.
Since then I have loved owls. I have read and enjoyed books full of owls, from Winnie the Pooh's advisor, to the one who went to sea with a pussy cat, right down to the owl that flutters cleverly around Harry Potter. I have learned that - according to legend - Greeks believed that owls had a a magical "inner light" so they could see in the night. And Greek stories tell of soldiers seeing an owl fly across the field on the night before a battle and knowing it as a sign of victory.
But owls are creatures of the night. They have a vicious, dark side. They are silent stalkers and serial killers. Maybe that's part of their attraction. For me The Owl Service by Alan Garner, (winner of both The Guardian Award and the Carnegie Medal), best expresses the mythic contradiction within these enigmatic creatures. His beautifully written novel is a brilliant evocation of the fragility of adolescent relationships and young people living in the borderland betwen myth and reality. (As an adolescent I myself lived in such a place...) Only David Almond, writer of the wonderful Skellig and the even more wonderful Fire Eaters can match Garner in this combination of insight. sensitivity and crackling, poetic prose.
Perhaps it's worth noting here that The Owl Service was one of only two novels, where - once I had finished it - I instantly read it right through again, to find out what the heck had really happened and enjoy it even more. The other novel where that happened to me was The Magus by John Fowles. That must be a mark of a good novel, I think.
(I wonder what instinctive signs and signals you get, to know when a novel is a good one? I like these instinctive personal signs. Much better than waiting to be told what makes a novel good by some reviewer or literary advisor)