Interview: Esther Woolfson

By Jenni Frazer, August 22, 2008

We meet the Chinese-speaking author who writes brilliantly about her close - feathered - friends

‘On Friday evenings, she recognises... the sound of Kiddush, the lighting of candles, the recitation of blessings (my one enduring nod towards the life spiritual)... and will express eager, vocal anticipation of the coming of Shabbat... or the cutting of the challah... Such frummers! Who'd have imagined!"

Who would have imagined, indeed. The "she" in question is a rook, called, somehow naturally, "Chicken", and in Corvus, Glasgow-born Esther Woolfson shares the extraordinary story of her family's life with an assortment of winged creatures.

Woolfson, who currently works in a bookshop in Royal Deeside, has a remarkable story to tell, and she does so beautifully, in limpid prose which draws the reader in inexorably, however unfamiliar the subject matter.

Brought up in Glasgow's Pollokshields in a conventional Jewish family, Woolfson spent time in Israel after the Six-Day War studying Chinese at the Hebrew University. She stayed at the university for two years before coming back to Scotland, where she finished her degree in Edinburgh.

It was there that she met her Zambian-born husband, David - who became a doctor - and embarked on a series of moves: "from Fort William back to Edinburgh, then to Aberdeen, to London and back to Aberdeen again. We seemed forever poised to go, migratory, only partly related to place."

Though the constant moves precluded any pet-keeping, perhaps they were a harbinger of the eventual menagerie Woolfson's household was to become. Today, she gives a home to doves, the aforementioned Chicken, a "little cockatiel", and a crow called Ziki, short for Ezekiel. At various times, she has housed parrots, a distressingly adolescent magpie named Spike, plus some rabbits, rats and a not very successful tortoise.

But it's the birds which have galvanised Woolfson's imagination. Corvus is a sort of joyous, commonplace book of her observations of birds, most of whom she has been able to study in the closest of circumstances.

Chicken, for example, may have a bit of an identity crisis, since, in Woolfson's description, this rook - an extraordinary 18 years old - behaves like a cat or a dog, hanging round Woolfson and the rest of the family, tugging at her jeans while she cooks, sitting on her lap or, hilariously, delicately dropping a morsel of poached salmon on Woolfson's bootlaces before deciding on another, better part of the house in which to secrete her hard-won lunch.

For those of us who can't tell one bird from another, the revelation that each has a distinct personality is fascinating. Woolfson's gentle, humorous prose style offers a delightful insight into an unfamiliar world, and if in the mix she throws in a little medieval history here, and a little environmental science there, it's all to the good.

"Sometimes," Woolfson says, "I talk to the doves when I'm feeding them. I have language tapes: sometimes it will be Chinese, but I like to keep up my Hebrew and I'm going to teach myself Yiddish." The thought of Hebrew- and Yiddish-speaking doves, eagerly anticipating Woolfson's Friday night kiddush, is too delicious not to share.

Corvus: A Life with Birds is published by Granta at £16.99

Last updated: 3:54pm, August 22 2008