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28 April 2018

My house of sky: the enduring cult of JA Baker’s The Peregrine

Since its publication in 1967, The Peregrine has been celebrated as the “gold standard” of nature writing, counting Werner Herzog amongst its devoted fans.

By Helen Macdonald

“Wherever he goes, this winter, I will follow him,” John Alec Baker wrote in The Peregrine. “My pagan head shall sink into the winter land, and there be purified.” Narrated by a lone man searching for communion with wild peregrine falcons, the book has been celebrated as the “gold standard” of nature writing and provokes strong opinions: I’ve heard it dismissed as the ultimate summation of the white male gaze, and others have assured me fervently it’s the best book they’ve ever read, has changed their lives. Werner Herzog advises every would-be writer or filmmaker to learn it by heart. It will teach them, he says, the right way to see the world, with loneliness, human pathos, enthusiasm, ecstasy and rapture. Since its publication in 1967 it has influenced a whole generation of nature writers, and Baker, mysterious and little-known during his life, has become something of a cult.

Drawing on archival material retrieved after his widow Doreen’s death, Hetty Saunders has written a smart, compelling biography of a man renowned for his secrecy. With a rare gift for the evocation of place and weather, she pieces his life together, discussing everything from the history of birdwatching to the aerial photography that fuelled Baker’s vision. Photographs in the book show a man with fair hair brushed back from his forehead, round spectacles, a broad, open face. His school friends called him Doughy. He didn’t excel academically, but his all-consuming desire to be a writer led him to copy hundreds of poems into notebooks and read voraciously – 60 books in three months, he wrote to a friend in 1946. It was as if he could become a writer the same way he became close to his peregrines, through long, devotional exposure.

Baker spent the war working at a company producing packing cases for munitions and machinery in Chelmsford, the Essex town that remained his home until his death in 1987. There were military constructions in the marshes, bombing raids on local factories, V2 rockets, barrage balloons, cartridge cases raining from the sky – it was an early education in expecting death to come from above. There was an episode of unrequited love, and a nervous breakdown in 1945; broken glass, blood, a diagnosis of acute neurosis and a stay at an industrial rehabilitation centre. He blamed his problems on his early life with a judgemental, violent father. “I see no prospect of ever growing out of my childhood,” he wrote to a friend. “I think that’s the real explanation of my nature.”

His early career was all false starts and disappointments; among others, a short-lived office job at the Oxford University Press and an attendant librarianship at the British Museum. Baker wrote that he recoiled from the “accepted standard of mundane vacuity” and complained of the “moronic environment” at the library, where his colleagues did not appreciate his gifts. To escape, to be free, he climbed on to the roof of the OUP building and imagined London from the perspective of a bird flying high above the streets below. It was a view that would, he wrote, furnish his “house of sky”, his work of literature. “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 wrote, in a sentence that makes palpable his sense of being trapped, and makes ambiguous the extent of the hawk’s agency in the matter of being freed. Aged 25 he began working at the Chelmsford branch of the AA, where he met his wife Doreen, until he quit in the mid 1960s to write The Peregrine.

Obsessive, depressive, yet in possession of a wry comic streak; misanthropic and self-critical yet prone to entitlement, Saunders gives us a man of contradictions, one who loathed brutality and suffering but rejoiced freely in the gory death-dealing of his falcons. Her biography does not fall into the trap of trying to explain away Baker’s works through his life, but as she guides us through his childhood, his myopia, the bombing raids, the agonising arthritic disease that eventually left his hands like claws, it is not hard to imagine why he might have wished to reject humanity and make his decade-long winter pilgrimage across soaked ploughland and through rain and mist in search of peregrines that were at once his alter ego and a divine presence. “We live, in these days in the open, the same ecstatic fearful life,” he wrote. “We shun men.”

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So frequently did Baker find them, and so close did he approach them, that some have expressed doubt they were peregrines at all. Saunders suggests the birds may have been unusually tame because they were stricken by pesticides. But I suspect Baker’s wintering peregrines were tame because they were migrants from the far north, birds that might not have ever encountered a human before. The doubts come from the fact that Baker was a winningly bad birdwatcher, as Saunders explains – his diaries brimming with confusion over the identification of birds he saw in the field. And Saunders makes the acute observation that Baker’s ordinariness was part of what made his book so extraordinary. Like JG Ballard, JA Baker was an apocalyptic, visionary poet of the suburbs.

In The Peregrine, the Essex countryside is not only a vector for Baker’s feelings but gloriously inhuman. It lacks place-names and is described only in terms of weather, woods, fields, mud and water, pressures and presences, marks and traces. Yet the everyday world is deployed spectacularly in Baker’s similes: the spasms of a dying woodpigeon like a toy train meaningless away from its rails; a shelduck corpse shining like a broken vase; a dead porpoise like a sack of cement.

His figurative colonisation of nature with everyday objects was consonant with the landscape he walked in, increasingly full of human-made things that threatened to destroy it. For Baker’s book is a fever dream from the endangered countryside of the 1960s, where ancient forests were being cleared, hedgerows torn out, farmland birds were dying from pesticides, and the DDT-induced extinction of the peregrine seemed eminently plausible. Inspired partly by Moby-DickThe Peregrine was an elegiac meditation on the darkness humans were bringing to a bright world. “Their life was lonely death,” Baker wrote of coastal peregrines. “All they could do was take their glory to the sky. They were the last of their race.” Baker’s second book, The Hill of Summer, was less focused, a little drifting, less ecstatically received. Saunders explains that he went over it with a pen after publication in a fit of self-loathing. “Very poor,” he wrote in the margin. “Rubbish.”

She gives us poignant visions of his later life, living on benefits as his health declined, Doreen making him packed lunches and driving him into the countryside. Throughout his life he’d obsessively listed and diarised; now he listed his car trips, with dates and temperatures, wrote the names of birds on maps where they’d been seen. At home he copied titles of books under the headings: Great Novels, Very Good Novels, Acceptable Novels. He marked up his own proofs with metaphors and similes, sprung rhythms, judging them as “excellent” or “very poor”. Stuck inside, unable to draw inspiration from the natural world, he turned instead to photographs of it from glossy magazines, and at the time of his death in 1987 was apparently working on a third book – no sign of which remains.

Noting that Baker destroyed all the journal sightings of peregrines he used in his book, Robert Macfarlane says in his introduction that the writer’s work resists reading back into the real. Yet that is what his followers have long attempted to do. An essay by John Fanshawe included in the book describes how he and Mark Cocker, who unearthed the Baker archives, had their own ecstatic pilgrimage walking the paths that Baker had walked. “It was possible to sense Baker,” he writes, “mining the woods, river and estuary for moments of encounter.”

The book includes a set of photographs by Christopher Matthews of “Baker Country” and images of relics from the archives: proofs, manuscripts, notebooks, folders full of material. More than anything these pages demonstrate the desire of so many to touch Baker, to see the world through his eyes, as he himself saw the world through the eyes of his peregrines. Those scuffed binoculars he used, the Mirakel 8x40s? We learn that Macfarlane and Fanshawe recorded the birds they saw through them: wood pigeons and chaffinches respectively, both men eager to look through what Macfarlane has called “the perfect emblem of Baker’s own intense, and intensely limited vision”. 

My House of Sky: the Life and Work of JA Baker
Hetty Saunders
Little Toller, 256pp, £20

Helen Macdonald is the author of “H is for Hawk” (Vintage)

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This article appears in the 25 Apr 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn ultimatum