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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

‘My House of Sky’ explores the elusive life and work of ‘The Peregrine’ author J A Baker

The greatest strength of this book lies in the vividness and acuity with which the author animates Baker’s complex, demanding, vulnerable and singular sensibility

Seagulls take flight as they are hunted by a peregrine falcon. Getty Images
Seagulls take flight as they are hunted by a peregrine falcon. Getty Images

In 1966 an obscure figure by the name of John Alec Baker (1926-1987) sent to the offices of a London publisher a 400 page manuscript concerning the nature of an obsession that had taken over his life – an obsession with the life of peregrines.

Not, perhaps, an immediately appealing subject. But when the assembled pages found their way to the desk of an editor at Collins named Michael Walter, they secured Baker admiration, a contract, an advance of £250 and, on the occasion of The Peregrine’s publication the following year, a blizzard of critical approbation. Maurice Wiggin termed it “the greatest wildlife document of our time”. For Clancy Sigal it was “a beautiful and astonishing book, perhaps one of genius”. And for reviewers across the country Baker’s achievements were held to rank alongside those of William Blake, Dorothy Wordsworth, Charles Dickens, Gerard Manley Hopkins, William Faulkner, Dylan Thomas.

This squall of praise was quickly followed by an avalanche of speculation. Where had Baker, with his magical cadences, his burning adjectives, his flaring metaphors, come from? What kind of being could write something so uncannily and minutely attuned to the unknown world of the winged predator as to earn himself a reputation as a man who thought like a hawk? Over the years that have passed since The Peregrine’s publication, Baker’s readers have not been afforded much in the way of an answer to these questions. An early notice in The Sunday Times from 1967 (the details of which might playfully have been provided by Baker himself) described a man of 40 who “lives in a council flat in Essex”, “doesn’t want his neighbours to know what he does”, “hasn’t got a TV or a phone”, and “never goes anywhere socially”.

But since the appearance of that brief and dubious vignette, little information about Baker’s life has been forthcoming. His death from cancer in 1987 was hardly reported. When his widow Doreen died in 2006 it was widely assumed that his story had been lost.

Yet thanks to a discovery that was made by Doreen’s brother Jonathan Coe, over the past decade or so it has been possible, with the help of the writer and zoologist John Fanshawe, to assemble a rich archive of material (diaries, letters, maps, manuscripts) with which to forge an account of Baker’s life, working habits and preoccupations.

It is to such a project that Hetty Saunders turns her attention in My House of Sky. The result is an elegant and absorbing work, beautifully and generously augmented with photographs of Baker’s papers, that offers an empathetic, measured and affecting portrait of a man who spent his days in a restless effort to cleanse himself of “human taint” and find freedom in the lineaments of “a life beyond… where all that could ever really matter was happening unregarded.”

It was an objective that flowed from Baker’s conviction that “the hardest thing of all to see is what is really there”, and one for which his character and circumstances had long been preparing him. As a child growing up in Chelmsford he was preternaturally sensitive to the suffering of animals, bright, obsessive, reclusive, introverted, lonely (he hated being an only child), obsessively alert to the joys of nature and literature and the noticing that each seemed to foster, and horrified by human brutality. In later life he recalled being “haunted ever by a scene” he witnessed at the age of 7: “I stood between my mother, in tears, and my father, carving-knife in hand – his face suffused with an indescribable malice.” Such episodes were not uncommon.

Around this time Baker was felled by a bout of rheumatic fever – a terrible augury of the arthritic disease (ankylosing spondylitis) that would plague him throughout his life. Despite the disruption it caused to his studies, he did well enough to secure a place at King Edward VI Grammar School, though his burgeoning interest in the natural world and his introversion prevented him from securing a place at university. He decided instead to become a writer.

This ambition was almost immediately thwarted when, following an acutely disruptive experience of unrequited love, Baker suffered a nervous breakdown (“a disaster of neurotic distemper”) and was hospitalised for seven weeks. From this point his life became an almost comical series of false starts, mis-steps and wrong turns. Precluded from serving in the Second World War because of an array of health complaints, Baker embarked on a number of preposterously short-lived and disastrous careers. He managed about a month as an assistant at Oxford University Press; slightly longer as a librarian at the British museum; no time at all as a farmhand in Gloucestershire; a short stint at teacher training college. He eventually settled, for a relatively long time, at the Automobile Association in Chelmsford. It was while working there in the 1950s that Baker met his wife, Doreen Coe. And it was at this time, too, that his interest in birdwatching became “systematic”.

In 1954 he recorded one of his first encounters with a peregrine. And his passion for the bird soon developed into a fever. Over the course of the next 10 years, as the effect of agricultural pesticides caused the peregrine population to drop by around 80 per cent, he tracked his beloved falcon with phenomenal intensity. By 1965 he had resigned from his position at the Automobile Association, determined to write the work that would that would awaken the world to the enormity of falling peregrine numbers. In 1969 Baker published his second and only other book, The Hill of Summer. It was coolly received. In the ensuing decade and a half he would gradually succumb to illness: first arthritic immobility, then cancer.

Saunders tells this story with pace and insight. The attention she pays to the historical, social and environmental contexts of Baker’s life and work illuminates his endeavours without sacrificing narrative flow, and allows her to dispense persuasively with those who have suggested that the peregrine sightings recorded by Baker might have been fabricated.

The greatest strength of this book, however, lies in the vividness and acuity with which Saunders animates Baker’s complex, demanding, vulnerable and singular sensibility. To read her account of its nature and formation is to be reminded of the wonder and vitality of the unregarded life beyond – and to feel something of the strength you need to get there.

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