The secret life behind the writer of England’s greatest cult book
Fifty years on from the publication of The Peregrine, light is shed on its intense writer JA Baker
A Peregrine falcon: “I shut my eyes and tried to crystallise my will into the light-drenched prism of the hawk’s mind.” Photograph: Cyril Byrne
“Wherever he goes, this winter, I will follow him. I will share the fear, and the exaltation, and the boredom, of the hunting life. I will follow him till my predatory human shape no longer darkens in terror the shaken kaleidoscope of colour that stains the deep fovea of his brilliant eye. My pagan head shall sink into the winter land, and there be purified.”
No dialogue. No plot. Nothing really happens. And yet JA Baker’s The Peregrine, half a century young last year, has become an enigma of the English language whose cult seems to swell that tiny bit more with each passing spring. Newcomers are handed copies by frothing converts and are duly felled. And on it goes.
Since its publication in 1967, its woozy prose-poetry has bewitched readers of many hues, from birdwatchers and wildlife enthusiasts to nature-writing students, crime novelists, poets, filmmakers and the literary elite itself.
On the face of it, it looks like a slim and simple volume of painterly field journals. Its principal focus is one of the sexier species in ornithology, an animal that has lent itself to everything from the faces of ancient Egyptian gods to travel-agency logos. A blueprint for fighter jets and an emblem for sporting teams alike. Baker was not the first nor indeed the last to place this species on a lofty pedestal.
But birds and birding are only part of the picture in a book that, as nature-writing doyen and Baker disciple Robert Macfarlane puts it, still somehow “locks on to its readers, and they pass involuntarily into it”.
Little was known about its author until very recently, a factor that hasn’t hurt the book’s near-mythic status over its half-century existence. Despite The Peregrine winning the Duff Cooper Memorial Prize in 1967, as well as being the Yorkshire Post’s Book of the Year, Baker was fiercely shy of the attention these accolades garnered.
A Sunday Times profile of the day read: “John Baker is 40 and lives in a council flat in Essex. He doesn’t want it known which town. He doesn’t want his neighbours to know what he does. He hasn’t got a TV or a phone. He never goes anywhere socially and the last time he went out to be entertained was 12 years ago when he went to the pictures to see Shane.” You get the idea.
With the 30th anniversary of his death on St Stephen’s Day, 1987, having just passed, a new biography has emerged following the discovery in 2013 of a trove of diaries, manuscripts, photos, letters and notebooks. My House of Sky: The Life and Work of JA Baker sees biographer Hetty Saunders at last add flesh to the most mythologised nature writer of the 20th century.
Born in 1926 in Essex, John Alec Baker was so myopic that he needed thick glasses from an early age and was even excused from wartime national service. With his friends away serving, his unsettled, introvert nature and troubled relationship with his authoritarian father resulted in bouts of depression and neurosis, one of which led to institutional care in his late teens.
Severe arthritis would take a greater toll on his life, however, restricting his movement before medication taken to manage the condition caused terminal cancer to develop.
After being introduced to bird-watching by a colleague at his job in the Automobile Association (Baker didn’t drive, incidentally), an obsession sprouted that would see all his free time spent cycling and walking the local fields and coastline with binoculars, gradually narrowing his crosshairs over the bullet head and scythe wings of the peregrine falcon.
Obsession with falcons
He was hunting the hunters, and between its procedural detail and the detective’s growing obsession with an elusive serial killer, it’s not hard to see why The Peregrine has also been likened to a crime saga that counts emerald noir doyens such as Adrian McKinty and Declan Burke among its fans.
It is widely accepted that Baker’s obsession was borne not strictly out of wanting to merely observe the falcons but to be the falcons.
“I watched him with longing, as though he were reflecting down to me his brilliant unregarded vision of the land beyond the hill,” Baker reports with almost transcendental headiness during one sighting. “I became aware of my own weight, as though I had been floating upon water and was now beached and dry and clothed and inglorious.”
Elsewhere, the sensation starts to coagulate: “I shut my eyes and tried to crystallise my will into the light-drenched prism of the hawk’s mind. Warm and firm-footed in long grass smelling of the sun, I sank into the skin and blood and bones of the hawk . . . Like the hawk, I heard and hated the sound of man, that faceless horror of stony places . . . I felt the same strange yearning to be gone.”
The transformative effect heats up even further in the following extract: “I found myself crouching over the kill, like a mantling hawk. My eyes turned quickly about, alert for the walking heads of men. Unconsciously I was imitating the movements of a hawk, as in some primitive ritual; the hunter becoming the thing he hunts. I looked into the wood. In a lair of shadow the peregrine was crouching, watching me, gripping the neck of a dead branch. We live, in these days in the open, the same ecstatic fearful life. We shun men. We hate their suddenly uplifted arms, the insanity of their flailing gestures, their erratic scissoring gait, their aimless stumbling ways, the tombstone whiteness of their faces.”
We, we, we. Note that Baker’s raptor is “gripping the neck” of a dead object, and his use of words like “tombstone” and “scissoring” in reference to man. This suggests someone with a dark and difficult relationship with their own corporeal and spiritual existence.
These glimpses seem to erupt helplessly and forcefully throughout Baker’s text, all of them hinting at a man who wished to disintegrate into the falcons’ dimension. Peregrines not only have eyesight far beyond our comprehension, but their aerial mastery and record-breaking speeds make them universally exalted. The millennia-old art of falconry is structured upon this idolatry. They were everything he, with his short-sightedness and ailing mobility, was not and, thus, totemic.
“You cannot know what freedom means until you have seen a peregrine loosed into the warm spring sky to roam at will through all the far provinces of light,” he sighs enviously at one point.
This thickening broth of dark vicariousness, coupled with the time-stopping energies of its language, are for many the voodoo of The Peregrine.
“It has prose of the calibre that we have not seen since Joseph Conrad,” believes German auteur Werner Herzog, a book that he insists every film student read. “And an ecstasy, a delirious sort of love for what he observes. In a way, it’s almost like a transubstantiation, like in religion, where the observer becomes almost the object.”
Just as Moby-Dick has emerged as a favourite of Baker himself, Herzog has always been drawn to stories of obsessive figures venturing forth into the wilderness in search of all-consuming holy grails – opera houses, lost cities of gold, Alaskan bears, and, in the case of The Peregrine, a man wholly consumed by wild falcons wintering near a local estuary.
Galway poet Sharon Blackie feels it “reflects that mysterious tension between kinship and otherness” when we think of our relationship with animals. “The peregrine is so profoundly ‘other’ to him, and yet he identifies so strongly with it he almost becomes it.”
When I contacted Booker-winning author John Banville, he chimed with Blackie’s assertion about the text’s alchemical powers, saying: “The philosopher Thomas Nagel famously asserted that we cannot know what it is like to be a bat. The Peregrine refutes him: we come as close as humanly possible to the experience of what it is to be a winged creature seemingly utterly unlike us and yet, in Baker’s pages, entirely knowable, though only on its own terms.”
Baker went as far as to study RAF and Luftwaffe aerial maps to ensure a falcon’s-eye perspective of his home range but he also understood that landscapes emitted frequencies and energies that must also make it into any depiction. One unlikely reference that has emerged in his correspondence is a love for JM Synge’s The Aran Islands, saying that “it was Aran that cradled his [Synge’s] lovely, cadenced phraseology” and “for me, they [the Aran Islands] will be a point of pilgrimage in my journeying through the countries of the mind”.
Poets have lauded the hypnotic, kinetic style Baker evolved during his endless nights condensing and refining his field notes into book shape. The Dublin writer Dermot Bolger notes the language’s ability to be “sensuously and sinuously lyrical about nature while being unflinchingly in the cruel realties that underpin the peregrine’s world”.
This lyricism and its discarding of “the usual comforting pastoral” is something that has inspired H Is For Hawk author Helen Macdonald. However, she also attests to finding it an unnerving reading experience. “Baker writes like an angel,” she told me, “but always the angel of death. No community and little human warmth exist in its pages. Baker wrote it as if he were the last man on Earth and the peregrines he watched airborne revenants, lost and losing souls.”
Macdonald here unearths something that underlies the very DNA of The Peregrine – if it is a beautiful book then it is, as Yeats (another user of falcon imagery) put it, a terrible beauty, one filled with brilliantly crimson blood, glistening corpses and extinction threats.
More than once, Baker references the “filthy, insidious pollen of farm chemicals” such as DDT and dieldrin that were ravaging wild peregrine numbers both sides of the Atlantic at the time. If Baker did indeed despise his own species, it is undoubtedly in part due to the violently destructive effect of these chemicals on the countryside and his beloved apex predators in particular. Rachel Carson’s landmark expose Silent Spring had just blown the lid off the DDT crisis five years previously and Baker was one of a new generation of naturalists who feared the very worst.
Wartime German bombing raids, witnessed by a 16-year-old Baker over his local Chelmsford, would also feed into this bubbling fascination with death from above.
For Tim Dee, the brilliant nature writer, there is arguably a cold war subtext there too. In The Running Sky, Dee neatly sums up the “Iron-cold sadistic brutality” and “weirdness” of The Peregrine as being “nature writing’s Goya” (the Spanish artist’s Black Paintings do indeed work off a similar palette of disillusionment and dizzying violence). In Four Fields, Dee discusses the book as “a toxic account of a sick and self-hating man” chasing a dwindling species in a world on the brink of nuclear oblivion hinted at in Baker’s “magnesium flare” sun. It was Dee’s favourite bird book during his schoolboy years, presumably because its bleak seismic vibrations rhymed so keenly with the natural history classroom narrative of the day – pollution and extinction.
While peregrine numbers have returned with gusto thanks to the efforts of avian scientists, falconers and wildlife lawmakers, the wider unease The Peregrine feeds off is certainly being felt again today as the environment at large remains under peril and the embers of nuclear threat begin to glow again. It gives the book’s anniversary an eerie resonance. Leaving aside its gothic hues and the many questions over the authenticity of Baker’s notes – some passages are transparently fantastic – The Peregrine is a gift for all time. It has rendered this most exquisite of animals with a suitably exquisite colour scheme. It still shocks and astounds with its trippy linguistic vortices, despite its vintage. Like all the very best nature writing that has germinated as a result of it, it seeps in and places a surreptitious filter on how the reader goes on to perceive the environment around them. There is perhaps no higher achievement in literature.
My House of Sky: The Life and Work of JA Baker is published by Little Toller Books, €21.99. The Peregrine: 50th anniversary edition is published by William Collins, €14.99