SI Vault
Clive Gammon
January 17, 1972
Brimstone, an evil-looking hawk eagle with blazing eyes, turned out to be a feathered joke compared to a feisty six-ounce kestrel that drew lots of blood—all of it the author's
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January 17, 1972

Fly Me-if You Dare

Brimstone, an evil-looking hawk eagle with blazing eyes, turned out to be a feathered joke compared to a feisty six-ounce kestrel that drew lots of blood—all of it the author's

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As his dark and hawklike eyes flickered round the table and caught mine, I was ready for him. Unlike some of the others, now shamefacedly looking down at their blank note pads, I had done my homework. And what, asked Mr. Phillip Glasier, had I read in preparation for the falconry course?

I looked up at him intelligently. "I made a start," I said, "with T.H. White's The Goshawk...."

"Very good," said Mr. Glasier in a deceptively calm tone. "Very good indeed," his voice rose sharply, "for wrapping bloody fish and chips up in." He modulated back again. "If it was only a bit bigger."

I lowered my head like the others. Mercifully the telephone rang. "What a rude telephone," said Mr. Glasier in his comic cockney voice and went off to answer it. We looked up, Terry, Roger and Brian and Betty, a couple in their 40s who had come in giggling at the start of the session, then sat down, signaling each other with little teensy-weensy finger waves until silver-bearded, sharp-tongued Mr. Glasier arrived. There were no more sweet nothings after that. One by one, the master had put us into our proper places. Novices. Know-nothings. Idiots who had been drawn to learn the ancient art of falconry by absurd, romantic notions of themselves striding the heather, hawk on leather-gauntleted fist, silhouetted against dramatic landscapes of boulders and flying clouds, or green beech woods in a medieval summer.

And Mr. Glasier saw very clearly what his first function was. To burn what he called the Robin Hood out of us. He had picked out the worst case of Robin Hood straightaway, Roger, a pale youth with long black ringlets and a King Charles I beard and mustache set who wore a big gold crucifix and operated a web-offset machine on the Bournemouth Evening Echo. He had made the foolish mistake, even before the course properly had begun, of asking where he could get hold of a falcon for himself.

Mr. Glasier had smiled gently at this opportunity. "If," he said, implying that he was uncertain whether Roger was actually capable of forming sentences on paper, "you write to the Home Office, you might get a reply in six months permitting you to take a kestrel for training. Or it might take two years. A kestrel is the only bird of prey which the government will let you have. And when you have got it trained, what do you think you will be able to catch?" Then Mr. Glasier did his favorite thing, soon to become so familiar to us, of raising his voice to a high-pitched mock cockney. "You will catch BEETLES AND MICE!"

Roger's mournful spaniel's eyes did not actually fill with tears, but you could see that this was a sensitive boy. Nevertheless, he persisted. "I saw it on the telly," he said, "where they were catching grouse. Up on a grouse moor," he added informatively. "With peregrines." He looked at Mr. Glasier beseechingly.

"If you were ever lucky enough to own a peregrine," his instructor told him, "which is extremely unlikely, you would then have to hire a grouse moor for the season." He looked round at all of us, and we knew just what was in his mind. Persons like ourselves, who had opted for the cheap, five-day introductory course instead of for the full deal were fortunate to be allowed to see a telly film of a grouse moor, never mind the real thing. He seemed to forget about us for a moment, something he was to do frequently as the course went on. "You get some nutters," he said, "going up to Scotland with falcons in early August, when the season opens. They get plenty of birds, of course, but they're bloody squeakers! Too young to provide any sport. The time to go up is October, when they've been shot at and worked over for a couple of months. That's when you get the sport with a peregrine. Then you'll see how clever a grouse can be, with the falcon stooping on him at 100 miles an hour. You won't get so many birds as early on, or as with the gun, but, by God, you'll see some flights."

We were seeing a new side of Phillip Glasier, who was possibly not too far removed from being a Robin Hood himself. But he soon recollected his bread-and-butter audience. There are not many ways of making a full-time living in falconry, but this was clearly one of them: capitalizing on the craze for the sport that has grown up in Europe in the last few years by giving a taste of it to city Robin Hoods. However, we were the 17th class of the year, and you could tell that Mr. Glasier was beginning to feel it, sitting in a drafty room in an old Gloucestershire farmhouse, a room that smelled of wet dogs and damp leather. It looked out over dull pasture and bare elms that were beginning to be traced with edges of white from the first snow of the year. A falconer's life was easier when he had an honored place at the side of a medieval prince.

Returning from his phone call, he addressed himself with a sigh to the lecture. "You may have read," he said, "of the hierarchy of falconry. You know, a gyrfalcon for an emperor, a peregrine for a king, a sparrow hawk for a lady, all that caper. It's a load of old rubbish; take no notice of it, especially all that about gyrfalcons. Fine-looking birds I admit, all snowy white from Greenland. Their main purpose is to be given as presents to oil sheiks by the Foreign Office. The Foreign Office rings me up all the time asking for gyrfalcons." He gave a brief imitation of the foreign secretary pleading with him for a gyrfalcon in a cockney voice. "They tell you a gyrfalcon can bring down a wild goose. It might manage a sickly gosling. They say it can stoop at 250 miles an hour. More rubbish. Fastest I've ever timed one with a speedometer attached is 87. Silly things only fit for sea gulls. Give me a peregrine any day."

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