Photo: © Frieda Hughes
Poet Frieda Hughes Opens Heart and Home to a Baby Bird in ‘George: a Magpie Memoir’
In a Q&A, the British writer and artist – whose mother, poet Sylvia Plath, died when she was a toddler – says lost animals have become ' a weird sort of family' / BY Rosemary Counter / June 9th, 2023
The life of English-Australian writer, poet, painter and ornithophile Frieda Hughes is so much more interesting than her famous parentage. If you’re nosy and simply must know, she’s the daughter of poetry power couple Ted Hughes, who died in 1993, and Sylvia Plath, who died by suicide in 1963 when Frieda was about 3 and her late brother, Nicholas, was a baby. (Her team says I can ask about them if, and only if, she brings them up.) I get it: She’s living inside a big, hard-to-shake literary legacy that she’s surely long sick of revisiting throughout her own impressive writing career, which includes seven children’s books and four poetry collections. Her latest, George: A Magpie Memoir, is the weird and wonderful story of an orphaned bird that Hughes’ found in her garden in Wales in 2007.
An animal lover of all kinds, except maybe cats (as you’ll learn), Hughes brought the chick inside, named him George, and fed him hand-dug worms until he gained his strength and his big personality. In the U.K., magpies are like vermin that farmers often shoot, but she sees more to the bird with the bad reputation. “He wasn’t remotely beautiful, but he was certainly interesting,” she writes in the book, which is based on her diary entries from 2007 to 2009. Like many journals, this one includes a little bit of everything: her hand-drawn pencil sketches of George, daily updates of his antics and progression, even poems he inspires. As George grows up and becomes increasingly independent, his future as a house pet becomes more and more unlikely. “I later learned,” she writes, “that he had indeed reached adolescence and – like a human child – was now separating himself from me to prepare for another life.”
Naturally, George is something of a metaphor. Their time together, not unlike her increasingly distant marriage to her magpie-intolerant Australian husband, is limited and uncertain as both man and bird will ultimately fly away home. These days, Hughes, 63, lives in her gorgeous Welsh Georgian-style home, which was converted to flats a century ago. Hughes is renovating and converting it back, albeit slowly, as she’s caring for a small zoo of odd pets: more than a dozen owls, two huskies, five chinchillas, a ferret and a python. But of all these animal friends, why is George (still) the winner who warrants a memoir? And where’s the super-smart but oft-misunderstood magpie now? On the eve of her book release, we caught up with Hughes on an owl-filled Zoom call like no other.
Rosemary Counter: Your house, which is almost a character itself in this book, looks exactly like I’d imagined it.
Frieda Hughes: You mean the owl plates [behind me]? I can do better than that … this is my kitchen over here where George used to poop all over the place, and this, here, is Felix. Felix is a four-week-old Scotch owl, and I got him to keep company with this guy, Wyddfa, my snowy owl. He’s an absolute doll. He has a wing that didn’t develop, and they were going to have to put him down unless they could find someone to let him live inside. There are newspapers all over the floor, but I don’t mind.
RC: You’ve lived and travelled all over the world. Why did you decide to put down roots in Wales?
FH: I’ve only ever loved two places: One is here and one was Wooroloo, in Western Australia. Here, it was the house. I took one look at the house and knew I had to have it. I was moving from London to Wales, which is a lot cheaper, so I got a large house in a little village. It’s very quiet, no shops or anything, just a pub and mailbox. That’s about it. The house grows on you and around you. It’s ruled my life for 20 years now. I bought the other half of the house during lockdown and turned it into my art studio. I now have a private gallery and an even bigger garden.
RC: Which is of course where, in 2007, you found George the magpie. I should tell you my daughter’s nickname is Magpie, so I read this book with an extra metaphorical layer floating around my mind.
FH: Interesting. Does she like owls?
RC: She loves owls! And cats, which I read are the only animals you don’t love, because they kill birds.
FH: I used to rescue cats, actually, but not anymore. Now I have a royal python called Shirley, two huskies, five little bouncy chinchillas, 14 owls. You might think the owls would eat the chinchillas, but they’re so well fed that they’re not too interested. I love them all.
RC: I can see that! But of all the animals, why does George get the book?
FH: All of this is George’s fault! If I hadn’t had him, I’d never had got an owl, which I’d never thought about getting in my life. When I found him, I was right in the middle of a decaying marriage. George showed up from nowhere and started paying me attention. Felix here will pay me attention if he wants food, but that’s about it. George was different. He was playful, interactive. He was like a child. If I was ignoring him because I was on the phone, he’d get upset and come undo my shoelaces. I mean, I adore my dogs, but even they didn’t engage like this bird did. There’s something, too, about when things are going wrong in your life, pushing them all aside to focus on one thing and let that thing be the only thing that matters. There’s something quite liberating about that.
RC: Do you think you were low-key in love with this bird?
FH: I was smitten, that’s for sure. I’m half ashamed of the amount of love I had for this bird. I realize in retrospect that I was at an awkward junction in life and, because I knew I wouldn’t have him for long, I allowed George to become the centre of my life for a while.
RC: As the book goes on, it becomes pretty clear it’s going to be either George or the husband. Was it hard to choose?
FH: Well, I never asked George to leave. Let’s put it that way.
RC: He does have quite a little personality, and magpies are such interesting creatures. I love how they’re such avid collectors.
FH: Oh, yes. He’d pilfer things all the time, particularly red things. Magpies tend to like shiny things, but George had a thing for colours. And he’d like to stash things into other things, if they’re the right shape. I’d find them and think, wow, that’s an actual perfect fit. Once he collected 32 lightbulbs and hid them all under the floorboard.
RC: You just know there’s a reason there. We just don’t understand.
FH: I think so, and I do realize my tendency to anthropomorphize George, but I saw myself in him in all sorts of ways. He liked everything in its place, as do I. We both had a need for order.
RC: You both lost your whole family. Do you think that explains your affinity for George?
FH: I hate to say this, but yes. It’s sort of embarrassing, in a way, but it’s like when I hear lambs calling in a field. I think, I know that sound, that was me when I was kid. No mother. Where’s the mother? When I look at lost animals, I can’t help myself. There is that mother link with all creatures, but especially birds, which get to the point where they’re like, okay, we’re done here, bye, time to go off and form my own family. I identify with that, very deeply. At one point in my childhood, my parents separated and my father was sent away. He only came back when my mother died, so it was one thing after an another. If I hadn’t gone through all that, would I think the same way about animals? Probably, although it’s perhaps more acute. Birds have become a sort of weird family for me.
RC: How long do magpies live? Is it possible George is still alive out there?
FH: Well, no. He’d probably live about 12 years, so his children could be taking over now. It’s possible that’s them, right out there now in my garden.