An abandoned baby bird helps a talented new writer come to terms with his past.
“Whenever I see a magpie flying overhead, in the back of my mind, I think it’s going to come and land on my shoulder,” says Charlie Gilmour, speaking by phone from West Sussex, England.
Such thoughts are hardly surprising, given that Gilmour and his partner once nursed an abandoned chick and raised her to adulthood. The magpie, whom they named Benzene, took over and transformed Gilmour’s life, helping him come to terms with the fact that when he was 6 months old, his biological father, Heathcote Williams, suddenly and inexplicably abandoned Gilmour and his mother.
Heathcote, who died in 2017, was a poet, actor and political activist, as well as an amateur magician with a knack for disappearing. Although Gilmour met him a handful of times, he never really got to know him. Gilmour describes his stellar debut, Featherhood: A Memoir of Two Fathers and a Magpie, as “the conversation we never had.” Writing about his father came somewhat naturally, Gilmour says, because “in one sense, he has always been a character in my imagination.”
Though he just turned 31, Gilmour sounds infinitely wiser than his years. He, his wife and their child, Olga, have been weathering the pandemic with Gilmour’s mother, writer and lyricist Polly Samson, and his adoptive father, David Gilmour, the renowned musician of Pink Floyd fame. Commenting on his creative, colorful family, Gilmour admits, “I was very, very fortunate to have quite a cast of characters to play around with—quite a few larger-than-life people.”
By far the star of the memoir, however, is Benzene, who had free rein of Gilmour’s London home, stealing trinkets left and right while leaving droppings everywhere, often in Gilmour’s long, dark, curly hair. One time the brazen bird even plucked a contact lens right out of the eye of their visiting friend, a photographer. “Benzene had this weird knack of being able to know what people value, and then she would go for it,” Gilmour muses. Despite such antics, he never considered caging the magpie. “She wouldn’t have stood for it in any case,” he says. “She would’ve shouted the house down.”
Gilmour began honing his writing skills while he himself was caged— in prison. In 2011, during a state he describes as “possessed of maniacal energy and messianic purpose,” he was part of widespread student protests in London against raises in tuition. The 21-year-old was later arrested for violent disorder and sent to prison for four months, followed by additional time on house arrest. “People are often punished when actually what they need is some form of treatment,” he says.
One bright spot during his sentence was a box of books he received from Elton John and his husband, David Furnish. “I’d never met either of them in my life,” Gilmour says, but he devoured their gift, which featured prison classics including War and Peace and Crime and Punishment. The gift of books “was a very generous and kind gesture,” he says. “I think it’s one of the few things you can do for someone in prison. . . . It gives them the opportunity to at least very briefly escape from where they are.”
While imprisoned, Gilmour kept a daily journal, and he continued writing after his release. Several years later, when Benzene became part of his life, the bird’s presence intensified his need to know—and understand—his biological father. He learned that Heathcote had also rescued a young bird not long before Gilmour’s birth, a jackdaw that he kept as a pet.
In a mysterious moment that seems straight out of Hitchcock’s The Birds, Gilmour says that when he was in the midst of writing the scene about Heathcote’s death for his book, he heard “a cacophony of screams from all the crows and jackdaws and rooks around me.” He recalls, “I ran towards the noise, and there was this angry cloud of corvids over the field, and underneath them, red kites [birds of prey] were standing over a jackdaw. I ran towards them and snatched the jackdaw off the red kites, and the jackdaw just died right there in my hands. It felt like this incredibly eerie coincidence considering I had just, in writing, killed my biological father.”
“After four years of it, I can safely say that the best place for birds is in the trees—not sleeping above your bed."
Featherhood also explores Gilmour’s own journey into fatherhood. “I love being father to this child,” he says of Olga, now 2. “It’s a joy. And it also makes me very sad that this joy was something that Heathcote couldn’t allow himself to experience.” One of Heathcote’s favorite quotations was Cyril Connolly’s adage, “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall,” but Gilmour has found the opposite to be true. Somehow he became a more efficient writer after Olga’s birth, often attending to her needs at 4 a.m. and then writing for two or three hours. “It also feels like a bit of an f-you,” Gilmour admits. “I was going to prove him wrong by writing this book while the pram was very much in the hallway.”
As it turns out, nurturing Benzene was excellent preparation for fatherhood. “She taught me a lot about what it means to love and care for another creature,” Gilmour says. And of course, both birds and toddlers can be distracted by shiny objects.
As much as Gilmour treasures the time he spent with Benzene, he doesn’t endorse keeping wild birds as pets. “After four years of it, I can safely say that the best place for birds is in the trees—not sleeping above your bed, defecating on you as you yourself sleep. . . . I loved her, but I wouldn’t recommend the experience to anyone else.”
Author photo by Polly Samson