1 February, 2018Issue 35.9BiographyEnvironmentNon-fiction

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The Outward Life

Patrick Burley

Hetty Saunders
My House of Sky: The Life and
Work of J.A. Baker
Little Toller Press

JA Baker
The Peregrine: 50th
Anniversary Edition

William Collins

Fifty years ago this month, a visibly drunk J.A. Baker stood in front of a distinguished crowd of writers, publishers and journalists to accept the Duff Cooper Memorial Prize. Awarded for his first published work, The Peregrine, both the book and its author seemed an unusual fit for an honour previously granted to the likes of Lawrence Durrell and John Betjeman. Although the prize was given for the category of “poetry”, The Peregrine appeared to be a bird-watcher’s diary. And the man who penned it was entirely unknown to London’s literary circle. That Baker abandoned his usual temperance and took to the complimentary champagne is understandable. This was his introduction, recognition and institution all at once, an occasion that demanded a public address from an acutely private man. In retrospect, the ceremony would be the high water mark of his career. Following this early success came a long slide into obscurity, and it was not until the NYRB’s 2004 edition – published 17 years after Baker’s death – that The Peregrine would once again be internationally acknowledged as a “masterpiece” of twentieth-century nature writing.

Such stories of literary recuperation are common. But there is something distinctive in the relation between text and author that has both shaped and sustained the ongoing Baker revival. In addition to the dearth of biographical information available when the book was bought back into print, much of The Peregrine’s intrigue stems from the startling presence of its narrator’s singular voice and the simultaneous absence of any concrete persona to identify it with. This uncanny centre is regularly cited as the book’s distinguishing feature, a mystery intensified by the rapt style that set The Peregrine apart from the forthright and fact-oriented world of naturalist non-fiction. If its “indefinable essence”, like that of Baker’s wilderness, exists in the space between watcher, raptor, and landscape, its emotional core is firmly rooted in the watcher’s camp: below the ever more vividly and violently imagined atrocities in the air is a sub-plot of the watcher’s own, unfulfilled longing “to be part of the outward life”, a desire to coincide with the anonymous, animal existence that resides “out there, on the edge of things”.

The horizon in sight here is that of the Blackwater Estuary, a ten by twenty mile stretch of marshland situated within cycling distance of Baker’s home. Distilling ten years of the author’s diaries into a single bird-watching season, The Peregrine “documents” a long winter spanning from October to early April, months when the then endangered peregrine falcon populated the south east coast. There is, however, very little in the text itself that would identify this as its location. Offering instead a kind of sensory cartography, the strange “pouring-away world” of The Peregrine can be a disorienting one: the ground “comes up” to crush a bird “gashed dead, looking astonished, like a man falling out of a tree”; a falcon gleams between sunlit branches “like a huge, inverted, golden pear”; the sun shines “upward” to gulls in flight, “almost transparent, ethereal with the glowing and holy illumination that hollowed out their slender bones and threaded their airy marrow.” If these last passages adopt a ripe, pastoral idiom it is quickly dispensed with. Committed to making “plain the bloodiness of killing”, the descriptions that follow on from these saintly gulls are more indicative of The Peregrine’s hardened diction: “Two dead herons lay in the snow together like a pair of gaunt grey crutches; eyeless and tattered corpses, torn and shredded by many shapes of tooth and beak and claw. Otter tracks led to fish-blood and the bones of pike.” These arresting bloody images appear to hold just as much fascination as the lightening terror of the falcon’s stoop. “Nothing”, the watcher states, “is as beautifully, richly red as flowing blood on snow. It is strange that the eye can love what mind and body hate”. This sentence holds the key to the sense of estrangement induced by Baker’s style. The Peregrine does not exactly give a human perspective, but that of a compulsive eye – detached from mind and body – obsessively searching for its next glimpse of a vanishing bird and ‘“the death that sustains it”.

There has always been an autobiographical current running through The Peregrine, however deeply submerged. And that this human drama is inseparable from the wildlife recorded is further affirmed by the paratexts that frame last year’s 50th anniversary edition. New contributions from Mark Cocker, John Fanshawe and Robert Macfarlane (the key figures driving Baker’s posthumous ascent) provide just enough biographical detail to bring Baker (the man) into view while generating just enough headwind to keep Baker (the myth) in flight. Cocker, for example, dispels the “half-truths” only to replace them with equally intriguing details: “A classic [speculation] is that [Baker] was a librarian, perhaps because of an assumption that only a bookish person could have produced such a literary work. In fact, Baker was the manager of the Chelmsford branch of the Automobile Association (odd, perhaps, in one who never drove), then later the manager of a Britvic depot.” These and other specifics only serve to reinforce the long-held image of Baker as a literary outlier, an eccentric, an anomaly. This latest edition will introduce the next generation of Baker’s readers to a more concrete but no less romantic figure: a dowdy, dissatisfied, and chronically ill middle-manager from Essex who found, in his writing, a way of rarefying himself and the “human taint” out of existence.

So it seems notable that the renewed interest in this work – engendered in part by the author’s willed self-effacement – should have occasioned Hetty Saunders’s new and illuminating biography, My House of Sky: The Life and Work of J.A. Baker. From the foreword on we are reminded that this book is connected to a larger project involving the creation of a J.A. Baker archive, a relatively small but rich body of material collected by Cocker and Fanshawe, catalogued by Saunders and now appropriately housed in the Albert Sloman Library at the University of Essex. Fully invested (and perhaps taking a little self-pride) in these newly discovered resources, My House of Sky is peppered throughout with reproduction photographs, newspaper clippings and manuscript facsimiles. It has the feel of a high quality scrapbook, a kind of supplementary dossier of The Peregrine’s parallel universe: a greyish, fifties world of plaid textures and damp rooms is evoked by Baker’s marked-up and well-thumbed maps, his military optics in their musky leather cases, the blotted pages of his birdwatching journals. It is a setting both contrary and yet somehow complementary to the stark wilderness conjured in his work.

To readers of the 50th anniversary edition, there is something both familiar and unfamiliar about the J.A. Baker fleshed out here. Though the melancholy figure chimes with a personality that devotees of The Peregrine might have expected to find, he seems far more personable than one may have previously imagined. As in the story recounted above of a shy man taking recourse to a bit of Dutch courage, Saunders has a knack of bringing out the humanity in a man who for many had been crystallised as a monomaniacal misanthrope, a kind of East-Anglian Ahab. Even during the most affecting passages, such as those detailing Baker’s lifelong struggles with illness both physical and mental, Saunders finds a man prone to a wry if stifled smile. In one instance, she highlights a letter in which Baker outlines the daily routine of the “rehabilitation centre” to which he had been admitted following a nervous collapse. It begins: “7.30 – Rise (and shine, if possible)”.

But maybe the most notable of Saunders’s contributions to the Baker story is that, while she retains an image of the author as an outsider, she makes no suggestion that his was an outsider art. Well-read from a young age, Baker appears to have been a literary obsessive who tirelessly and devotedly trained in style. Contra Cocker, we learn that Baker was indeed a librarian, a bookish type so bookish that he was sacked after only six months for ‘loaning’ himself items strictly confined to the reading rooms. Baker’s personal library is similarly revealing. Along with the more predictable touchstones of Hopkins and Hughes, Baker was also an admirer of J.G. Ballard and Arthur C. Clarke, tastes that bring his writing into compelling contact with some unlikely peers and perhaps offer a clue to the surrealist, otherworldly character of his prose.

In short, what My House of Sky most insists is that Baker was a writer first and a naturalist second. This is, incidentally, something that disgruntled ornithologists have also insisted for years. But whatever potential Saunders’s book has to feed suspicions about Baker’s abilities a birder, it counters with its portrait of a man whose investment in the land and its wildlife was as deeply felt as any conservationist or environmental scientist. If at times she appears a touch defensive of her subject – citing the pesticide-poisoning crisis as a possible explanation for peregrine behaviours that Baker alone seems to have witnessed, for example – Saunders’s fealty seems entirely justified. As is made clear in the meticulous records that Baker kept and Saunders has scoured, the author observed his falcons with a passionate intensity, even if he felt his true vocation resided in his art.


Patrick Burley is reading for a DPhil in English at University College, Oxford.