Whether you’re on Team Shoot ‘em or Team Salute ‘em, magpies trigger intense, divisive and often irrational feelings in most of us. Charlie Gilmour – adopted son of Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour – proved an equally polarising figure when he went on a drug-fuelled rampage and climbed the Cenotaph during a student protest in 2011. Many felt the 16-month prison sentence he received was extreme. Others thought they should have thrown away the key.
But the truth – unlike a magpie’s feathers – is seldom black and white. Gilmour’s excellent memoir makes clear-eyed sense of the turbulent emotions that led to the events of 2011. And he credits the baby magpie he raised for helping him with the emotional fledging required to write it.
Gilmour’s magpie tumbled to the ground in south-east London in the spring of 2016. His fiancée Yana brought it home in a box. Watching Yana feed it grubs, Gilmour was unconvinced. Most of the injured wild things he’d found before had ended up in a shoebox at the bottom of the garden. He was “terrified by its fragility”, repulsed by the parasite nestled deep in the tiny creature’s throat, and wrote it off as a “bad-luck bird”.
Against the odds, Benzene – named for the petrochemical sheen of her feathers – survived. Soon she wormed her way into Gilmour’s heart and was indulged as she wreaked merry havoc in their home. The pleasure he took in nurturing the bird encouraged Yana to nudge Gilmour in the direction of fatherhood. But the subject of fathers opened a very different can of worms for him.
“The man who gave me life, then flew away”, is how Gilmour describes his biological father Heathcote Williams, a man who also once had a pet corvid, named Jack Daw. Today Gilmour can’t tell readers much about Williams that they won’t find on his Wikipedia page, but he offers a list: “squatter, writer, actor, alcoholic, poet, anarchist, magician, revolutionary and Old Etonian”. He reminds us that this “wild-haired icon of the Sixties underground” was admired by Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett; that he once set himself on fire on the doorstep of the supermodel Jean Shrimpton, whom he was dating at the time.
Gilmour’s mother, the novelist Polly Samson, met Williams when she was working for his publishers in the late 1980s. Although he was almost two decades older than her – and had conveniently forgotten his wife and children – he whisked her off to his Cornwall “hermitage” (a wing of his friend Peregrine’s stately home, Port Eliot). There, Williams “lived at the centre of a labyrinth of books and papers”, slept in filthy bedding and urinated into whatever came to hand.
Once pregnant, Samson began decorating an old cottage in the woods and for the first six months she told her son that Williams was a marvellous father – until he left them in the middle of the night and “went very mad”. Samson got together with David Gilmour when Charlie was two and they moved into his Sussex farmhouse where the little boy learned to muddle along with the guitarist’s children from his first marriage, “a secretive and somewhat anxious child, happiest hiding at the top of the wardrobe with a book, a torch, and the doors pulled tight behind me”.
He recalls his rebellions against his decent stepfather, smearing faeces on the wall and daubing green paint on Gilmour’s face in photographs. But in the absence of any contact from Williams, David Gilmour adopted Charlie when he was five. All went well until the boy went off the rails at university.
Gilmour is agonisingly honest about the breakdown that led to the events of 2011. It was partly triggered by a brief period in which he believed he was reconnecting with Williams, only to be dumped again. It’s horrifying to read of this sensitive young man’s rapid descent. By the day of the protests, he recalls feeling “zingy and immortal”, convinced he had the power to bring down the Government. Before climbing the Cenotaph, inebriated and on prescription tranquillisers, he let himself “into an ambulance in search of morphine, tried to kidnap a male academic with a fruit knife, and woke up a friend-of-a-friend with a chainsaw demanding a full English breakfast.”
Gilmour’s account of the four months he spent in prison – often visited by Gilmour but never by Williams – is skin-crawling. The hissed threats of violence made by his cellmate in the dark are enough to make readers shiver. No wonder he left prison in an arguably worse mental state than he entered it. Having received threats from British Nationalists, he developed a terror of any symbols of British identity, believing cars with Remembrance poppies were trying to mow him down. But it may have saved him from a worse fate. It halted a spiral – and showed him who his real father was.
When he and Yana decided to get married, Williams refused to attend the ceremony but, bizarrely, sent his son a model Cenotaph. Not long after the wedding, Williams became ill. Gilmour offered to bring his magpie to visit but was rebuffed until Williams was taken to hospital. When Williams died, he took a pair of secateurs to the funeral, hoping to remove a finger as a grim souvenir. Mercifully, his only private moment with the corpse was interrupted and Williams was buried intact.
Gilmour’s memoir ends as his own child is born. The magpie – which died after the memoir was completed – had helped bring much of the family history home to roost. Gilmour acknowledges that Williams was right about one thing: that writing demands some vanishing. But he does his own as his wife and baby sleep, breaking the cycle by returning to the nest when his work is done. “Yana and the baby stop me from flying away,” he writes, “and that is a very good thing indeed.”
The Daily Telegraph