Featherhood by Charlie Gilmour: Of birds and fathers

Cover image for Featherhood by Charlie Gilmour I suspect I wouldn’t have read Charlie Gilmour’s memoir had it not been for the persuasive, clearly heartfelt enthusiasm of its editor coupled with a great quote in the letter which accompanied the proof. Gilmour’s name may be familiar to many through his stepfather, Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour, or his brief period of notoriety during the 2011 student fees protests here in the UK. The cleverly titled Featherhood explores the fallout from his difficult relationship with his biological father, the writer Heathcote Williams, prompted by an unlikely connection: a love of corvids.

Benzene. Both natural and manmade. Shining, shimmering spirit that evaporates into air. The bird has found his name.

When Gilmour’s partner brings home a barely alive magpie fledgling and proceeds to feed it grubs, his heart sinks. He knows the intensely practical Yana is likely to be called away on a set designing job soon leaving him in charge of this tiny creature he has no idea how to look after. When the evitable happens he turns to his mother for help who remembers his biological father’s experience tending a jackdaw, commemorated in a poem. Gilmour has had a fraught relationship with Williams since the breakdown which triggered his departure when Gilmour was just six months old. Contact with him has often precipitated a crisis in Gilmour’s life, not least the much-photographed assault on London’s Cenotaph, the result of a drug-fueled psychosis, which resulted in a prison sentence. Over the past year there have been tentative emails, perhaps more enthusiastic from Williams than Gilmour. As he explores this toxic relationship, so different from the one he has with his stepfather, Benzene the magpie grows into a beautiful but messy presence in Gilmour and Yana’s lives, refusing to take advantage of the liberation offered a few months after their wedding. This bird, so tiny and vulnerable when it first arrived, wields a potent influence over Gilmour’s life, its presence triggering memories of his father and an attempt at reconciliation before it’s too late.

The wild magpies, who nest somewhere out of sight a few gardens over, think that the world is a common treasure house for all to enjoy. Whenever l put food out, they shoot in like bank robbers on mopeds to appropriate as much loot as they can.

It’s tempting to compare Gilmour’s memoir to the fabled magpies’ nest, full of vivid images shining brightly and nuggets of information about this much-maligned bird, but Gilmour’s writing is more subtle than that. His own story and Benzene’s are neatly woven together, the one sometimes reflecting the other. Male magpies are nurturing, apparently, a quality that Gilmour associates with his stepfather, the antithesis of his biological father whose behaviour has left him with a fear of becoming a parent himself. Gilmour’s writing has a sincerity about it which gives his book a poignancy, particularly when he discovers Williams’ appalling treatment by his own father. There’s humour, too: Benzene’s antisocial antics, often performed at family gatherings are tolerated by some more than others. Readers, like me, who take notice of dedications and the like will know from the start there’s a happy ending to Gilmour’s story. Benzene’s seemed a little too good to be true but I’m a sucker for such things in real life so I’m going along with it.

Weidenfeld & Nicolson: London 9780857827791 288 pages Hardback

13 thoughts on “Featherhood by Charlie Gilmour: Of birds and fathers”

  1. This wouldn’t have been on my radar either but I was in a taxi that had the radio tuned to an interview with the author and he spoke so eloquently and sensitively that I thought I would get a copy. Great to hear how much you enjoyed it!

    1. I agreed to take a look at this one, all set to dimiss it as the outpourings of a rather spoiled brat but it’s far from that, and the writing is quite beautiful in places. That’ll teach me!

  2. You so rarely review nonfiction that I know it has to be a special book to tempt you. I’d vaguely heard of this one and will definitely read it if it comes my way. Do you know Corvus by Esther Woolfson? She kept a rook named Chicken for about 30 years, as well as various other birds.

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