Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: A quiet man with the eye of a falcon


The natural world has its cult books, as the arts world does or the economics world does, if by a cult book we mean a little-known work with a major mystique among a minority; and for a long time now the cult book for anyone who takes a serious interest in the natural world in Britain has been JA Baker's The Peregrine. Published in 1967, and hardly known, if known at all, by the general public, it is an account of a man who spends a winter in the flatlands of Essex and on the Essex coast, closely observing a pair of peregrine falcons.

This is the shape of the narrative: man goes out each morning, looks for peregrines, usually sees them, also sees other birds, and records his observations. This continues, day in, day out, in a quite unchanging pattern, from October to April. There is no major plot development: the observations begin, and eventually they end. There is no personal narrative arc: we know no more of the observer at the end than we did at the beginning, in fact, we know virtually nothing whatsoever about him, only gradually learning, for example, that he uses binoculars, and rides a bicycle.

In its scope and subject matter the whole work would merit no more than a signed weekly column in a local newspaper, were it not for two factors, the first being its central theme: violent death. Almost every day, the peregrines kill. They hunt other birds, and they do so spectacularly, diving vertically upon them from hundreds of feet above in a "stoop" which is so forceful it knocks the life out of them instantly, or slash-stabbing them with a raking claw in a passing attack from below. Woodpigeons, gulls, ducks, lapwings, partridges, all tumble bloodily to earth in a cascade of savagery, backs broken, heads lolling, wings dangling, to be torn apart and consumed.

Yet although the violence is unrelenting, it is presented with no covert glee, with none of the macho posturing of Hemingway, say, or the meretricious indulgence in violence which makes the films of Quentin Tarantino so superficially compelling and underneath, so heartlessly vacuous. It is presented as it is, looked at straight as part of the world, terrifying in its cruelty, but also, in the peregrines' complete aerial mastery, beautiful beyond words. Baker writes: "The killing that follows the hunting flight of hawks comes with a shocking force, as though the hawk had suddenly gone mad and had killed the thing it loved. The striving of birds to kill, or to save themselves from death, is beautiful to see. The greater the beauty, the more terrible the death."

The second factor to give the book its astonishing quality is its use of language, which infuses Baker's observations – and his observational skill is formidable – with unforgettable energy and fiery life. He is a master of modern metaphor and simile, in a way not dissimilar to Ted Hughes though with his own blistering originality, and almost every description makes you see the familiar in an entirely new way and seems to renew the power of English.

But who was he? Who was this JA Baker? Over the years I have wondered many times, as all his readers must have done. The text of The Peregrine gives nothing away about his age, home, family status, background or occupation, and my own copy, a book club edition from 1968, offers nothing on its jacket or its endpapers. Baker's reputation has slowly swelled by word of mouth, while the man himself has remained invisible.

Not any more. A new edition of The Peregrine has just been published which is coupled with Baker's one other book, The Hill of Summer (long out of print), and with extracts from his diaries, edited by John Fanshawe. Crucially, it also includes a biographical-cum-critical essay by Mark Cocker, the naturalist and author of Birds Britannica and Crow Country, he too a dweller in East Anglia, who gives an absorbing analysis of just why Baker's prose is so enthralling, while providing the facts of his life, even the basic ones, which we did not know.

JA stood for John Alec Baker. He was born in 1926 and died in 1987, and lived in Chelmsford with his wife Doreen. No literary coteries, no salons, no publishers' parties, for him. He was the manager of the Chelmsford branch of the Automobile Association and later, of a fruit juice depot. Yet although he did not live the literary life, what he produced was a literary masterpiece, one of the 20th century's outstanding examples of nature writing; and with this splendid republication, very much a labour of love, we may hope that The Peregrine will now reach the wide audience which it so eminently deserves.

It's worth a wager on the heat to come

You may not have noticed that the Met Office have issued no forecast this year of what the coming summer will be like. This is because they were so bruised by the public reaction after predicting a "barbecue summer" last year (it was a washout) and then by predicting a warmer than average winter (it was the coldest for 30 years) that they have quietly dropped the whole idea of publicly announced seasonal forecasts. But that doesn't mean they have stopped predicting, and the climate modellers in the Met Office's Hadley Centre think 2010 will be the hottest year ever recorded for the world.

Would that show up here? Not necessarily. But it could, and the current UK temperature record of 101.3F (38.5 C), set at Brogdale near Faversham, Kent, on 10 August, 2003, might just be broken. If you're the betting sort, you might like to know that Ladbrokes have just cut the odds on the record going, from 6/1 to 5/1. Fifty quid, anyone?

For further reading

'The Peregrine'; 'The Hill of Summer'; and 'Diaries: The Complete Works of JA Baker', by JA Baker, Collins, £20.

newsGlobal index has ranked the quality of life for OAPs - but the UK didn't even make it into the top 10

Kirstie Allsopp has waded into the female fertility debate again

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
peopleStella McCartney apologises over controversial Instagram picture
Gillian Anderson was paid less than her male co-star David Duchovny for three years while she was in the The X-Files until she protested and was given the same salary

Gillian Anderson lays into gender disparity in Hollywood

Life and Style
Laid bare: the Good2Go app ensures people have a chance to make their intentions clear about having sex
techCould Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
Arts and Entertainment
Swiss guards stand in the Sistine Chapel, which is to be lit, and protected, by 7,000 LEDs

The Sistine Chapel is set to be illuminated with thousands of LEDs

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Burr remains the baker to beat on the Great British Bake Off
tvRichard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
footballArsenal 4 Galatasaray 1: Wenger celebrates 18th anniversary in style
Arts and Entertainment
Amazon has added a cautionary warning to Tom and Jerry cartoons on its streaming service
The village was originally named Llansanffraid-ym-Mechain after the Celtic female Saint Brigit, but the name was changed 150 years ago to Llansantffraid – a decision which suggests the incorrect gender of the saint
newsA Welsh town has changed its name - and a prize if you can notice how
Arts and Entertainment
Kristen Scott Thomas in Electra at the Old Vic
theatreReview: Kristin Scott Thomas is magnificent in a five-star performance of ‘Electra’
Life and Style
Couples who boast about their relationship have been condemned as the most annoying Facebook users
Arts and Entertainment
Hayley Williams performs with Paramore in New York
musicParamore singer says 'Steal Your Girl' is itself stolen from a New Found Glory hit
Ronaldinho signs the t-shirt of a pitch invader
footballProof they are getting bolder
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Middleware Support Analyst

£45000 - £50000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Senior Java Developer/Designer

£400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: My client are looking fo...

Domino Developer and Administrator

£40000 - £45000 Per Annum + benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Domino ...

IT Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Group: Full or Part Time ICT Teacher ...

Day In a Page

Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

An app for the amorous

Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

She's having a laugh

Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

Let there be light

Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

A look to the future

It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
The 10 best bedspreads

The 10 best bedspreads

Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

Arsenal vs Galatasaray

Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?