Who was J.A. Baker?

Gillian Darley · Chelmsford's Ahab

Even though I was born almost in Essex, giving me an enduring taste for the exceptional qualities of an unexceptional landscape which I often indulge by walking in it, I hadn’t read (or, frankly, even heard of) J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine until it was reissued by New York Review Books a few years ago. Robert Macfarlane’s introduction says that almost nothing is known about Baker except that he was born in 1926 and was diagnosed with a serious illness around the time the book was published in 1967. The NYRB blurb added that ‘he appears to have worked as a librarian for the remainder of his life.’ There was no date of death.

The book is written in the form of a journal over six months, from October to April. Criss-crossing on his bicycle a small area of countryside to the east of Chelmsford, Baker is on the track of a peregrine falcon – less murderous in intent than Captain Ahab, but no less obsessed.

MacFarlane senses an atmosphere of requiem in the pages. The writer’s mood veers from calm – ‘all peaceful, just the talk of the duck floating in with the tide’ – to almost feral. Out in the open, man and bird ‘live... the same ecstatic, fearful life. We fear men.’ The writing is passionate, angry and elegiac. ‘I do not believe that honest observation is enough. The emotions and behaviour of the watcher are also facts, and they must be truthfully recorded.’

By the end, despite the soaring beauty of the writing, it's almost overwhelmed by a sense of nihilism and desperation. Watching a seal in the shallows, Baker writes that its life ‘seems a better one than ours. We have no element. Nothing sustains us when we fall.’ As the agrochemical revolution of the 1960s ravaged the wildlife of arable and non-arable Essex alike, as the long hard winter ground the countryside down, as Baker pedalled on his well-worn route out towards the coast, the marshes and mudflats, his prose turned ever darker. He was less willing to deal with daily reality, more and more enamoured of the birds he was stalking. He followed the falcons until his 'predatory self' dissolved into the ‘winter land’. Readers are given no clues to his fate. Perhaps he just walked out to sea? I have to confess to a bit of fruitless googling and was sorely tempted to ask Chelmsford Library about him, only to learn another admirer had already done so. No luck.

A Baker compendium was published earlier this year, combining The Peregrine, Hill of Summer (his only other book) and diary extracts. The introduction is by Mark Cocker, another, like MacFarlane, in the expanding ‘school’ of younger nature writers. He is writing about a different man. This John Alec Baker, born and brought up in Chelmsford, was no librarian, but worked first as a manager for the Automobile Association (though he didn't drive) and then for Britvic, the fruit juice manufacturers whose clock tower is one of Chelmsford's landmarks.

The diaries were a gift from Baker's wife to the film-maker David Cobham. She died in 2006, having long outlived her husband, who had died in 1987 from the effects of drugs prescribed for rheumatoid arthritis. And the diaries, covering the years from 1954 the 1963 (about a third are published here), show him in telegraphic style, watching wildlife – meticulously noting dates, times and weather conditions – anywhere that could be reached in a day’s bike ride from Chelmsford, west as well as east. Readers of The Peregrine might have suspected that, as with John Evelyn’s so-called diaries, the sequence of days and months is a touch too neat not to have benefitted from a retrospective polish. Baker writes of the months of snow during the winter of 1962-63 but adds telling details from other years, distilling the observations of a decade into the book.

The Peregrine, as Mark Cocker writes, is still ‘the gold standard for all nature writing’. But its imagined author, the Romantic denizen of the county library bookstacks, bearing his awful sentence of death, a man with sympathy for nothing and no one except the birds he watched in sodden fields, dying hedges and on rain-swept mud flats, turns out to have been a literary half-myth – a writer created by his readers, based on much less than implication. Baker’s reluctance to give any personal information (though he dedicated the book to his wife) ensured that everyone contributed their own small ‘observations’ to a convenient fiction. The pain in Baker’s book was felt for the falcons, apparently facing certain extinction from farm chemicals. (From which they are now thankfully reprieved.) Identifying so closely with them, Baker inadvertently led his readers down a false trail, leaving us peering into the tea leaves at the bottom of the book.