That January, in the never-nothing of a mild English winter, I set out to find the real J.A. Baker. As the insipid pallor of a slight drizzle lay upon the drooping tall grasses, bending ever so-slight in a baby’s breath breeze, I wanted to seek the soul of an English ornithologist. I would pack a small luncheon box of pre-conceptions: some thin sandwiches of expectation and perhaps a crisp apple of knowledge, and I would try to find the beast within.

It started in the most divergent of sources. I had read a music blog about an Australian experimental musician called Lawrence English who had released (on vinyl LP only) a musical homage to one of his favourite books, “The Peregrine” by J.A. Baker. Musically, it’s all a bit hazy and a montage of soundwashy enveloping soothiness but that’s the sort of ambience I go for in these times. Put it on now if you like, while you read:

Lawrence English – The Peregrine (excerpt)

“The Peregrine” is a sort of “Cider with Rosie” except with flesh-ripping falcons instead of buxom village girls. The author sets out on his bicycle into the wetlands east of Chelmsford in Essex. Out alone along the banks of the Blackwater River and especially out to the estuary around Maldon and Osea Island; he followed the activities of several individual hawks. It would be quite wrong to replace the word “antics” for “activities” there: you must understand that this is as far away from the jolly japes of an Alan Titchmarsh narrating a slightly-funny / slightly-sombre documentary on British wildlife as it is possible to be. It would be quite acceptable however to slip in the word “obsessively” to qualify the activities of Mr. Baker. This is indeed common for reviews of this type.

I was drawn to the book for two reasons. The first is that it is a cult book. John Alec Baker was a never-before just into his 40s and (in 1967) this is his first book. His first award-winning book. He took a stipend from the Arts Council on the back of it and managed to produce that difficult second book a couple of years after, then no more for the remaining 18 years of his life. The second is that it is a book that has inspired the “new Nature writing” of authors such as W.G. Sebald, Robert Macfarlane and Tim Robinson: all of whom I enjoy.

The cult part depends on mystery, and this is amply reinforced by a Wikipedia page on him that (at least on January 20, 2012) is not exactly encyclopediac in its contents. J.A. Baker was a librarian, we are told, and not much more. Finding out more is a matter for academic research. In fact he was educated at the King Edward VI Grammar School, Chelmsford and became a middle manager who spend his working life at the Automobile Association (AA) and the Brtivic soft drinks company (a major employer in Chelmsford at the time). The most interesting fact about him is that he worked for the AA and couldn’t drive – imagine his annual performance review and setting objectives! He does seem to have given it all up rather suddenly and a mystery, life-threathening illness is the attributed cause. This illness didn’t kill him (or his wife Doreen), for they lived on for 20 and 28 years respectively. He took to bird-watching instead, and the Peregrine Falcon became the object of his attentions.

If you want to become obsessed with a British bird, then the Peregrine is a very good choice. It may eat the odd earthworm, but it is not a grubby little forager. Nor is it an Osprey or a Golden Eagle. Those are elitist birds and assume a certain amount of regular and easy access to Scotland, which would be alienating for readers in the south. If you want to don your mackintosh overcoat, pack your binoculars into their leather case and set out to find Transcendentalism on your doorstep, then the Peregrine has the right balance of panache and accessibility to warrant the selection.

After all, did not Thoreaux himself just pop along to a log cabin at the edge of town, not too far into the woods and close enough for his mother to bring him a basket of cookies every now and then?

It’s a little hard to get past the “Fly Fishing, by J.R. Hartley” pastiche.

But that’s unfair.

J.A.Baker shuts out the mundane details of his life because he wants to shut out the mundane world. Who can blame him for wanting to hide from the hunting / fishing brigade by pressing down low behind the Essex hedges? He probably didn’t want to be recruited into the Countryside Alliance or hear the latest reason for repealing the hunting laws. If he was out there now in these Only Way is Essex times he would probably have run screaming into the sea, followed closely by a despairing birdlife.

The Peregrine is one tough little mutha of a raptor. In the 1960s they appear doomed by the spread of agricultural chemicide and loss of habitat. In the 2010s, it is now swooping from the skyscrapers of London EC1 onto the hapless bodies of city pigeons (and hopefully defecating on bankers in the process). This is a survivor, and as good a symbol of hope as you are likely to find.

Falcons were once scored on a bird IQ scale as the most intelligent of birds. Beautiful, clever and dangerous: we should commission a TV show with Simon Cowell (Falcon Factor?) to discover them. But alas, the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.

And I have learnt so much in the process of reading this book. I now know that the Sparrow hawk takes it’s kill to the ground, forms a sort of tent using its wings and its tail spread out for balance. A sort of “num num” moment but a little unedifying (although I do, by and large, admire the genus). Whereas the Peregrine finds a perch and plucks its kill from the breast outwards. It strips the breast flesh from the bone but ignores the head, wings and feet. It is the fine diner of the forest canopy; the gourmet of the woods. My family treat a roast bird in the same way, so I suppose they are peregrines too after a fashion.

I now know that the male hawk is called a Tiercel, whereas the hen is just a generic falcon. The word is a rendering of “tercel” which in turn has an etymology from “tertiary”. It was believed that only 1 in 3 eggs hatched into a male bird. Others say it is so-named because they are sexually dimorphic. This sounds like it ought to catch the interest of a Tory MP, but sadly it only means that the female is 1/3rd larger than the male.

I also learnt that “to stoop” is almost a synonym for “to swoop” but differs in that stooping is a high speed dive. So when you stoop to conquer, you are not bending your shoulder slightly to get under the low beam of adversity. Rather, you are diving at 200 miles per hour onto your unsuspecting enemy.

Sources:

Buy this book on Amazon (I did and do not regret it)
Wikipedia article on J.A. Baker
LRB article on J.A. Baker
Review from The Independent
The London Peregrine Partnership (see photo gallery)
W.B Yeats “The Second Coming” (did you spot the quote?)