Christoper Skaife lifts the lid on an impenetrable fortress and its guests
Could the raven surpass dog as man’s best friend? It’s unlikely despite the bird’s usefulness, intelligence and uncanny ability to remember humans for life. But it’s perhaps what self-described Raven Master, Christopher Skaife wants to pose to us, the uninitiated.
As hidden as the secret life of its ravens, The Tower of London is as mysterious a jewel as the treasure (stolen?) it houses. The lives of those held captive there are told in other stories; Hess, Raleigh, Casement, Krays. What sets Skaife apart from other writers though is the delicacy with which he lifts the veil to this primordial ‘black site’ of Tudor-era renditions. Skaife preserves the mystery while answering every question we could ever have about literature’s feathered doom harbinger.
In The Raven Master, Skaife shares what almost ten years of chief raven husbandry has taught him about these misrepresented animals and the site its fabled will crumble to dust should the ravens ever depart. Skaife’s goal is to keep the Tower from crumbling by keeping the ravens satisfied. He calls it the ‘oddest job in Britain,’
This book starts as many good books do: at 5.30am, when the Ravenmaster’s duties begin. Climbing the Flint Tower with the urgency of the commuters he can hear entering the city, wishing they’d used the toilet before they got on the train, Skaife hopes today will not be the day the ravens left. He breathes easy when he sees all seven ravens present and accounted.
Starting with this apocalyptic prophecy unfulfilled Skaife propels the reader through ages as he describes the weight of his position – Yeoman Warder – a title dating back to Henry VII. A position the young soldier couldn’t possibly have plotted a course towards when he joined the Army so he could go fire guns in the Falklands. It would lead to quarter century in the Forces, uneducated until the ravens zeroed in on their newest pupil.
When we are introduced to those who rule the roost, they’re presented as if they were part of a crack team of chaotically good mercenaries: “Rocky. Male. Entered Tower Service July 2011.” Skaife separates his charges with the single-mindedness of the Birdman of Alcatraz even if he is the jailor of this prison and some novelists could learn from the deftness with which Skaife characterises a non-speaking rogue’s gallery with only a few tactical ‘Ghars’.
With one eye on his flock, there’s a sense Skaife worries whether the position he’s lovingly fostered can weather the transforming fog rolling in from the Thames. A spiritual epilogue to this book might involve Skaife in dialogue with the Tower’s first yeoman explaining how he can reach more people with a tweet than ever conceived. Skaife chronicles all the post-war ravenmasters in an appendix which testifies to the author’s humility. The Tower (and its ravens) will succumb to the sieging modernisers. At the time of writing, beefeaters remain in dispute with their employers over a controversial pension change. Skaife’s sketch of a unglamourous royal palace will record this moment on the precipice so that if the ravens do in fact depart, something will remain in tact.
The Ravenmaster by Christopher Skaife, published by Fourth Estate, is available at all good bookshops.