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

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The Independent Online

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.