They were an unlikely group in an unlikely spot. Two middle-aged men, one with his head shaved in an aggressive counter-attack on the ravages of baldness, and the other in a bulky anorak. And two older women, one with a hat pulled down over her ears against the cold and the other in an ersatz fur coat who kept moving off from the main group to have a ciggie.
Unremarkable. Yet they drew a steady crowd of onlookers in the churchyard, which is one of the few green spaces in the centre of the unprepossessing Lancashire town of Ashton-under-Lyne, because John, in the anorak, was holding a dead day-old chick in his hand, while the shaven-headed Ed was encouraging a bird of prey, which sat on an AstroTurf perch 30 yards away, to swoop down to take its daily meal. The women, Janet and Sue, looked on with bated fascination as the long-winged kestrel propelled itself from its perch and hurtled, just a few breathtaking feet from the ground, towards the unwary chick.
It was not the scene most people would have conjured had they been asked to envisage the noble art of falconry with its historic aristocratic lineage or modern-day field sports image, red in beak and claw. But then the strange scene – which enticed and enthralled passers-by ranging from yobbo youths to besuited businessmen, mums with pushchairs to ancient traditionally garbed Asian grandads from the terraced houses opposite – was not so strange as the story of the man who had brought the group together.
Forty-six years ago, Ed Seager was born not far away and was brought up in the mean streets of the conurbation between Oldham and Salford. It was, as they said in those days, a deprived childhood. The poverty was abject. As a boy, he knew cold and hunger of a degree that stretches the comprehension of most of us today. His parents were drunks; his father was a chronic alcoholic, aggressive and violent; his mother, who also had a drink problem, left home several times and eventually became a vagrant. Later, when Ed was a social worker, she even turned up on his patch as a drunk-and-disorderly case. But we are leaping ahead.
The boy did not do well at school. By the age of 14 he was up in court for pinching scrap metal. His life seem plotted into failure as inexorable as the succession of menial jobs in shops, stables and offices that followed. But something saved him. In childhood he had collected eggs and stolen fledglings from magpies' nests to rear them by hand. As the fascination grew he filled the bedroom of his home with cages. Then when he was 14, Ken Loach's classic film Kes came out. It was the story of a boy from a background almost as harsh as Ed's own, whose life was transformed by his relationship with a young kestrel. "I was deeply moved by it," Ed recalls more than four decades later. Soon after, he stole a kestrel from the nest too.
But where the story of the film's hero, Billy Casper, ends that of Ed Seager just begins. For the fictional hero of the film, based on Barry Hines's novel A Kestrel for a Knave, which has since become one of the nation's most popular school set texts, the transfiguring experience is brutally cut short when the bird is killed by the hero's loutish bullying brother.
"What happened to Billy afterwards?" is one of the commonest questions asked by young readers at the end of the novel. Ed Seager's biography is like an answer to that question, a real-life coda in which harshness and hope entwine as they did in fiction.
Ed left home at 17 and found a cheap, three-storey cottage to rent. He converted the top floor into a hospital for sick and injured birds which he nursed before returning them to the wild. Hearing of it, a local businessman offered him 2 acres of land to turn into a bird sanctuary. "There was a lot to do, maintaining and clearing out all the nest-boxes, so I put the word around that I needed volunteers," says Ed. "Lots of the young lads who came along turned out to be on probation or supervision orders. Cruelty was the only link most of these kids had ever had with wild animals. The effort and commitment to help with sick and injured birds did many of them a fair bit of good."
When the local social services department heard they asked Ed, then aged 23, to open an aviary at the Moorland Young People's Centre for young offenders, not far away, on the edge of the Pennines. It was such a success that the BBC came to make a documentary about this real-life Kes. After three years there, Ed went off to college to train as a social worker where, as part of his course, he took his kestrels to work for four months with some of Britain's most difficult and disturbed children in the top security unit at Aycliffe.
But this is not a fairy story. At college a second thread began to be woven into this extraordinary tale. Until he was 23, Ed had never wanted to drink alcohol. The example of his parents had seen to that. But at college, booze was part of the culture. "I began to drink. I found that I didn't just like it, but that it seemed to help," he recalls. "Academically, I left school with no qualifications. I always felt inferior to other people. My bird work lacked credibility in many people's eyes. Drink helped combat that inferiority complex. It gave me that extra edge – as it does, for a while."
He told himself he would stop drinking when he left college. He didn't. His low self-esteem persisted. "Even after I qualified as a social worker I'd have a drink to give me confidence when I had to appear in court," he says. In the Eighties, he developed a dream to convert a Pennine farmhouse into a hostel for young offenders, with a bird sanctuary attached. But, when the scheme was refused planning permission after Ed had bought the property with a massive mortgage, the drinking took over. He drank himself into a black hole of lost years which culminated in him being picked up wandering the streets by the police.
"I was sent to a psychiatric hospital and sectioned for three days," he recalls with a far-off expression, as if he is talking about someone else. Some time later he jumped off a fire escape and, after treatment for back injuries, was sent again to a mental hospital where, this time, doctors diagnosed Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, a condition that straddles the borderland between psychiatry and neurology. It produces gross disorders in both thought and emotion, and makers sufferers prone to mood swings and depression. "Yet it was such a relief to get the diagnosis," Ed says. "I had thought I was going mad."
The diagnosis gave him new courage. He went to his first meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. It too was not a straightforward course. "I was off the drink for four years, but then went back on it for three years. Then I came off again. It is still a day at a time but I have been sober now since 4 July, American Independence Day, 1995."
It was an independence day for Ed too. In his darkest days his kestrels had been no help. "When I had a bird when I was drinking I felt negligent and felt I had to get rid of it," he recalls. Though he has had a bird for most of the last three decades he kept giving them away when his drinking was most out of control. "When I was at my worst in drink I couldn't deal with the bird. There were probably a total of five years when I couldn't face having a kestrel in the house." Looking back he now sees that birds and booze were not just incompatible, they were mutually exclusive. The insight prompted him to attempt to analyse why.
In part, of course, it's practical. His present kestrel, Jude, a two-year-old female, lives on a perch in the living room of his flat. (He doesn't believe in the standard practice of tethering.) That means he has constantly to keep a window open, winter or summer, and that there are no carpets on the floor. It takes him half an hour a day to clean up her defecation and she has to be fed on day-old hen chicks; neither of which are practices for stomachs made squeamish by drink.
"She helps me get out of the house," he says. "I take her out even when the depression wants to keep me in the room. But it's more than that. There's a stillness and a quietness about the birds. To me, falconry is not a field sport; it's a peaceful activity. There's something about her presence," he adds, looking up at the bird sitting on the perch above his stereo, looking down on us with black unblinking eye. "When you come in at night there's a wonderful feeling of being in the room. A silent strength. An intimacy. A calmness. It's almost a spiritual thing."
Two years since training the falcon, Ed – who was forced to retire from full-time work five years ago because of his epilepsy – has now decided that he wants to communicate that spiritual connection to others who suffer from depression and alcoholism. He has set up an informal project called St Jude's Room (Jude was the patron saint of "hopeless causes") which invites other members of the local AA to handle the bird in the hope that they can catch some of the sense of peace that Ed experiences.
A dozen or so people are involved now, he says, inviting me to meet three of them – John, Janet and Sue – one grey weekday afternoon last week. The three are all recovering alcoholics who, in the tradition of AA, prefer only to give their first names.
John has been coming for 12 months now. He started to handle and stroke the bird early on but it was only last month that he felt the confidence to begin to fly the falcon for her 45 minutes of daily exercise – wind permitting – in the churchyard opposite Ed's flat.
"It's hard to put into words," says John, hesitantly, when the day's flying is over and the speckle-breasted kestrel is fed and sated back indoors. He falls into a silence. Ed tries to fill it. "When recovering alcoholics first become sober they often get this sudden sense of tremendous clarity. It's as if you're seeing things – trees and leaves and everything around you – for the first time," explains Ed. "The bird does that again and again. It can snap you out of yourself momentarily."
Sue joins in. "It's a very moving experience," she says, "stroking it, feeling its little heart beating; that closeness to nature." But it is watching the hawk fly that seems to be the transcendent experience. "In the sky, the bird is getting closer to heaven, nearer to God," says Janet. Throughout history, adds Ed, "winged creatures have been powerfully associated with God's presence in the world... and Gerard Manley Hopkins' famous 'Windhover' poem is about a kestrel..."
"By God," interjects Sue hastily, afraid they're starting to sound like some crackpot cult, "in Alcoholics Anonymous we don't mean the traditional notion of God. We mean 'the God of your understanding' which can be anything from the Christian God to just 'the power within the group'. The first thing for a recovering alcoholic to do is acknowledge that drink has power over you – and that to fight it you have to submit yourself to a higher power. We're always searching, and our experience with the bird can be part of that." She tries out a secular correlative. "It's connected with freedom," she says. "Alcohol made me unfree, it chained me, it got control of me. But nothing controls the bird."
It is, says Ed, borrowing a line from Kes, trained but not tamed. "There is something wild always about it I respect," he says. "It's an emblem of honesty."
The silent John suddenly finds his voice. "There is something about the power of this wild creature rushing towards you and then landing on your wrist," he says, encouraged now. "I arrive here in one mood, and leave in another entirely. I feel as though my time with her is well spent, by contrast with other parts of my life."
Ed Seager has a waiting list of people who hope for the same liberation. Something – call it hawk, nature, God, freedom or whatever – seems to be at work here, among this unlikely group, in this unlikely spot.Reuse content