Sunday, 7 October 2018

Ravens to rave about

It was early 2016, on a chilly Saturday morning, that I set off for the Tower of London, with the explicit aim of being one of the first visitors through the gates and of heading straight to find the ravens before crowds clustered around them.

I  can’t put a finger on precisely when I’d started to become fascinated by these particular birds, but by the time of my Tower trip, I was part of the way through having a tattoo of Odin’s ravens, Hugin and Munin, done. The Other Half was away for work and I wanted to see the reality behind the myriad wonderful tales.

Two years later and pre-ordering a memoir by Ravenmaster Chris Skaife was a no-brainer. On Friday, I got my hands on it – I read the final page this afternoon.

The Ravenmaster: My life with the ravens of the Tower of London is as light a read as you could hope for: the Yeomen Warders of the Tower act as guides to all many visitors that pour through the gates every year, and this reads as though you were on a particularly special tour.

Skaife writes with a lovely, light tone, full of humour – not least the self-deprecating variety – and a very great sense of love and respect for his charges.

There is an autobiographical element to the book: all Yeoman Warders have to have given over 20 years of unblemished service in the military before they’re eligible to apply to become a Beefeater, but the Ravenmaster makes light work of this, sketching in his own background, as the real stars here are the ravens.

The one and only Merlina
And of course, the biggest star of all, as anyone who follows the Ravenmaster on social media knows, is Merlina.

But while it’s a light book, that doesn’t mean it isn’t also chock full of fascinating observations and facts about these extraordinary members of the corvid family.

A late chapter, describing the responses of two ravens to losing their partners/mates is utterly incredible and very moving.

Skaife is a delightful storyteller, but the success of this book really rests on his attitude toward the birds in his care. His determination to give them the best life possible – to constantly improve their care – is wonderful. And that attitude extends to the foxes who have, over the years, proved a threat to the birds.

Instead of seeing them as pests to be exterminated, he has used his background to work out how to keep them away from his charges – by providing food for them, away from the ravens’ enclosure, believing that they have as much right to be there as the warders, visitors and ravens.

He makes it quite clear in the opening pages that he is no ornithologist: that too is part of the book’s charm. His knowledge of the ravens is not book-learned (though he has read widely on the subject since taking the job and there’s a great suggested reading list at the end), but is predominantly based on the keen observational training of a former infantryman

There is, however, biology here as well as mythology and history, and every bit of it is fascinating.

Back in March 2016, I got really close to Merlina and managed to get several great photographs of her. I saw her hopping on a bench because there were crisps in evidence – and terrifying a young woman in the process.
'She had crisps'

Right next to me as I sat on a bench, she rooted in a bin and, finding a piece of banana, took it to a nearby puddle on Tower Green to wash it.

This sort of behaviour by the bird that is closest to Skaife is chronicled in the book – along with much more.

It gave me a special glow to realise, reading the pages, that I had probably got those shots because, without really thinking about it, I’d behaved in the right way: quietly, not moving too fast and not being remotely scared.

Since then, I’ve seen ravens in the wild in Germany. On one occasion, gliding around a medieval tower on the first warm day of spring. In April this year, a vast one few past The Other Half and I at the top of Tegelberg in the Bavarian Alps, as we sat chilling with two Alpine choughs – other members of the corvid family.

This delightful book makes me realise that it’s time for another trip to the Tower. Perhaps I should take a tube of Pringles and see how long it takes Merlina to spot them?

The Ravenmaster: My life with the ravens of the Tower of London, by Christopher Skaife, is available now from 4th Estate.

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