Having heard a mention of this book on NPR, I happened to come across it in the New Books section at the library, and immediately picked it up to check out and read. It was close to perfect for me and reminded me of just sitting down to a cup of tea with this charming author.
Being a ravenmaster (or person in charge of the ravens at the Tower) is quite a new job title, despite the long history of the location. People have only been given the title since the late 1960’s – before that, staff (i.e. the Beefeaters*) would look after the ravens, but it was put under the responsibilities of the quartermaster (or similar).
And it’s the little (and surprising) tidbits that really drew me into this read. Skaife is the perfect guide to this small but prestigious world of people who live within the grounds of the Tower of London. (And the Beefeaters and their families really do live inside the castle. The drawbridge is pulled up every evening around 11 or so, and then the inhabitants are cut off from the rest of central London for the night.) The Tower is still an official royal palace and yet, despite having lived inside its confines for more than a decade, Skaife still retains his wonder and curiosity which is communicated to the reader throughout the pages.
Despite the cachet of being a Beefeater (also called the Yeoman Warder), each person who holds this position has at least 24 years of unblemished service with the British military, and then once in this position, warders usually stay there for the rest of their lives until they retire.
Skaife has been doing the Beefeater-ing for the past 15 years or so, and the Ravenmaster-ing for the past eight (or more?) years after completing 24 years as an infantryman (and drum major) in the British Army. He knows his stuff and reports that most of his deployment time as an active soldier was in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles (1970s/1980s), which means that he was frequently at risk from the IRA.
So Skaife came to this position legitimately and having paid his dues. Despite being an infantryman and despite having a patchy formalized education, he succeeded when he joined the army at the (young!) age of 16 and a half. (Good for him, I say.) He’d been veering down the path of trouble in his early years, and his parents were happy to see Skaife doing some honest labor under army discipline.
His time as a full-time professional soldier was spent immersed in military life, but he’d maintained a lifelong interest in history despite his early attitude to formal education. When coming to the end of his army career, there was an opening to be a Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London, and he applied and was selected.
His job as the ravenmaster (its real job title!) came after years on the job as a Beefeater, and his main job duty now is to look after the seven HUGE ravens who inhabit the castle. Tradition holds that should the ravens ever leave the castle, it will lead to the destruction of the Tower and great harm will come to England, and Skaife’s recollections of how he looks after these birds (and how they look after him) is incredibly interesting. (Luckily, the ravens are happy with the food and the set-up that they have at the Tower, although every now and then, one of the birds tries to make a break for it.)
The day-to-day routine provides a general structure for the narrative, but interspersed is related information to do with the history of the Tower, its ravens and his own life. It’s a fascinating mix, mainly because Skaife seems to be one of the most charming raconteurs in addition to being a self-taught raven expert. He’s self-deprecating, funny, and modest, all of which combine to make the book read experience come across as though you’re having a cuppa tea with one of your friends.
Skaife pulls together mythology and facts about the Tower and about the corvids (name for ravens), and as he recounts his life with the birds, you can’t help but join in with his enthusiasm for his life. (As it turns out, Skaife learns during his research on the job that the ravens haven’t actually been at the Tower for centuries (despite the legend). He thinks that the ravens arrived around the 1880s, and have just stuck around since then. They have a safe living situation for the most part, a steady supply of food and water, and Skaife works to keep the flock as wild as they need to be whilst they’re there at the Tower. He doesn’t clip their wings to force them to stay there (although he does trim their feathers every now and then)…
Skaife honestly seems to be one of the most genial people that I’ve ever read – he’s both convivial and authentic, and so both the reader and the ravens are in good hands with him. Plus – he has an Instagram account as well (ravenmaster1) if you’re interested.
This was a thoroughly enjoyable read. Highly recommended.