We always had a sweepstake on the number of its leaves.
On Christmas night friends and relatives would arrive, among them my step-uncle, Captain Charles Knight, and after dinner by candlelight at the gleaming mahogany table, we would all troop into the drawing room and cluster round the piano to sing. On Boxing night we would have dinner at my uncle’s house and play charades after wards.
In one of these charades my uncle appeared dressed as the fairy queen complete with magic wand. We laughed so much it hurt, and every time we managed to stop he would wave his wand and endeavour to make his seventeen stone look as fairy like as possible. This set us all roaring again, and his moustache made it seem even funnier.
In the same charade, Robert, one of my cousins, excelled himself by taking a swig of liquid furniture-polish from a bottle which he thought held water.
Once the festivities were over, discipline was resumed, and as I grew up I somewhat naturally spent more and more time at my uncle’s house. My father and I had little in common and being somewhat of a rebel I found my uncle’s easy going ways, as well as his interests, far more to my liking. He lived, like us, a few miles out of Sevenoaks, and his home was only some five minutes’ walk from our house. Here I was introduced to my first trained falcon.
My uncle had always been interested in birds and was a keen photographer. During the First World War he had joined the Royal West Kent Regiment and was for a time a sniper, for he was an excellent rifle shot. As ‘Sniper Knight’ he used the ruins of an old barn for a firingpost, and the efforts of some swallows to rear a family there led him to photograph them, for their reluctance to leave their old home in spite of the frequent shelling seemed to him worth recording.
What amazed him even more was hearing a golden oriole singing in an oak wood in no man’s land, and in his excitement he temporarily forgot the war and photographed its nest.
In that he did, on the day and date stated, contrary to King’s Rules and Regulations and to the prejudice of good order and military discipline, leave his post and unnecessarily endanger his life, in order to photograph a bird’s nest, sir’ ; that would have been a charge far more noteworthy than the one against the Finn being drunk in command of a reindeer and sledge.
Later on he was commissioned and, after being gassed, went to the United States as a captain in the Honourable Artillery Company, in charge of a demonstration drill team. There his paradeground voice, which used to terrify me so much, later on, stood him in good stead.
After the war he worked for a while for a tobacconist in the City, a job which he detested intensely. Finding a ready sale for his photographs and articles on birds, he bought an old Newman Sinclair cine camera and made his first film, ‘Wild Life in the Tree tops’. He lectured with this film and with lantern slides to schools and similar bodies, and wrote his first book on the subject.
Falconry was his main hobby, and there was invariably a falcon or hawk of some sort to be seen in his garden. In fact on Armistice Day itself he had rescued, and later on trained, a kestrel winged by a shooting party.
He kept other birds too, among them a raven that delighted in tweaking the dog’s tail when it was asleep and could bark exactly like the dog too, and a tame shelduckling that would come running across the lawn when one called ‘Puddley, Puddley, Puddley’ to it.
Why Unk, as I called him, put up with me, I cannot imagine, for he never ‘suffered fools gladly’, and I must have been a damned nuisance to him at first. I tagged after him like a puppy trying hard not to do the wrong thing, and wagging my metaphorical tail if I won any praise.
For a long time praise rarely came my way, for he was extremely critical and never hesitated to quote his grandfather’s favourite expression, I don’t mind ignorance but I cannot stand crass stupidity.
For him I was quite prepared to go through fire and water if need be, and my bare legs certainly suffered in his cause when I waded through the stingiest of nettle beds and the scratchiest of bramble patches in order to push out a rabbit for one of his hawks to fly at.
Going with him on these hawking expeditions soon became my greatest delight, and in due course he taught me how to train both hawks and falcons.

By Isan Lu

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