Hay Festival: Helen Macdonald and Tracey Thorn

On Saturday, my final day at the Hay Festival, I went to see Helen Macdonald deliver the Samuel Johnson Prize lecture at the Tata tent about ‘H is for Hawk‘ which has won both the Costa Book of the Year and Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction awards. ‘H is for Hawk’ was one of my favourite non-fiction books of 2014 and was the first memoir to win the Samuel Johnson Prize since its launch in 1999. The book comprises of three strands: Macdonald’s experiences of grief following the death of her father in 2007, her attempt to train a goshawk called Mabel and a biography of T. H. White. Her lecture focused on the former two aspects rather than T. H. White’s story. You can watch a clip of the event here where Macdonald describes meeting Mabel for the first time.

Helen Macdonald and Tracey Thorn

‘H is for Hawk’ is a book which has truly struck a chord with a wide audience and is very different from a typical grief memoir. As Stuart Proffitt, chair of the Samuel Johnson Prize, said in his introduction, it would be too trite to claim that training a goshawk helped Macdonald come to terms with her father’s death but it was a distraction. Similarly, Macdonald said that the message of the book isn’t “I bought a cat and then everything was fine” but training Mabel did take her to a world which wasn’t human during that period. The irony of trying to escape grief and death by training murderous birds of prey also hasn’t escaped her though.

As well as expanding on events already described in the book, Macdonald described her earlier experiences of working at the International Centre for Birds of Prey in Gloucestershire and the amusing reactions of young children when they meet the birds. Interestingly, the reaction from people in Cambridge where she worked as a research fellow at the university was also very mixed, with only outsiders (goths, alcoholics, foreigners) approaching her as she walked through the streets with Mabel.

Macdonald hadn’t realised how cathartic the experience of writing the book had been until she had finished it. She had initially been more guarded about the grief aspect and only wrote about Mabel in early drafts but the book didn’t work properly without the context of events in her own life. Tragically, Mabel died from an airborne fungal infection a couple of years ago. Macdonald hasn’t ruled out training another goshawk in the future although her life has since become much busier following the success of ‘H is for Hawk’.


The final event I went to was Tracey Thorn in conversation with Xan Brooks about her new book ‘Naked at the Albert Hall: The Inside Story of Singing’. Following on from her excellent memoir ‘Bedsit Disco Queen: How I Grew Up and Became a Popstar‘ published in 2013, ‘Naked at the Albert Hall’ is specifically about the “craft and myth of singing” where Thorn explores issues around stage fright, autotune and other practical and physical aspects of singing.

Thorn has been one of my favourite singers ever since I discovered her single ‘Plain Sailing’ on a Q magazine compilation album around ten years ago. She has had a varied career, most famously as one half of Everything But The Girl with her partner Ben Watts and also as a solo artist, collaborator with Massive Attack and a member of the Marine Girls. More recently, she has recorded music for the film ‘The Falling’. Thorn’s voice is often described as smooth and melancholic and the two clips below show how much her voice has changed over the years, blending well with both acoustic and dance music. Her cover of Cole Porter’s ‘Night and Day’ was an early Everything But The Girl single released in 1982 while ‘Why Does The Wind?’ is one of the stand-out tracks from her 2010 solo album ‘Love and Its Opposite’.

Thorn hasn’t performed live on tour since Everything But The Girl went on hiatus in 2000 and part of the book is an account of her experience undergoing hypnosis to address her stage fright. Much like Macdonald on ‘H is for Hawk’, Thorn doesn’t see ‘Naked at the Albert Hall’ as a self-help manual about overcoming these problems. She was careful to point out that the book is about her personal relationship with singing and doesn’t represent every singer’s experience. She mentions Dusty Springfield, Karen Carpenter, Sandy Denny and Romy from The XX as singers who have had similar anxieties but also cites Alison Moyet as an example of an artist who finds comfort in performing. While singers more at ease with performing tend to be more creative on stage, others like Thorn feel they are more creative in the studio. Thorn is still ambivalent about whether or not she will ever perform live again in the future and the book concludes with her forgiving herself for not touring in the past fifteen years.

I’ve had a fantastic time at the Hay Festival this year. All of the events I’ve attended have been brilliant and I’m sure I will return again in the future. Now to start reading some of the books I bought last week…

Hay Festival Books


Filed under Books

14 responses to “Hay Festival: Helen Macdonald and Tracey Thorn

  1. I am just about swooning with envy now. Hawk is next on my reading list and I love the subtlety and amazingness of everything about Tracey Thorn – the way she can express herself in her books, the way she can write lyrics, the truthfulness and integrity of her songwriting and voice, and the “of the time-ness” of her musical journey. I am reading Patient by Ben Watt at the moment – they certainly have been through it!
    Thank you again for bringing the Hay Festival to us!


  2. Have really enjoyed hearing about your time at the event. H is for Hawk even higher up my pile now, and thanks for reminding me of the ‘Night and Day’ track again. Brilliant. Thanks! Nicola


  3. I missed Hay this year. I had bought a ticket to see Ishiguro but didn’t get back from the US until late the day before his event and knew I was too tired to do it justice. Do you go every year


  4. I’ve enjoyed reading about your time at the Hay Festival – sounds as if you caught some excellent events!


  5. Have just finished reading ‘H is for Hawk’ and absolutely loved it, especially the descriptions of the English countryside. Thanks for sharing your experiences of the festival – sounds like you’re having a great time!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. A Fresh Tomorrow

    Now THAT is a stack of books. Excellent summary.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: The Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction 2015 Longlist | A Little Blog of Books

  8. Pingback: Naked at the Albert Hall: The Inside Story of Singing by Tracey Thorn | A Little Blog of Books

  9. Pingback: My Books of the Year 2015 | A Little Blog of Books

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