Book Of A Lifetime: The Peregrine, By JA Baker

Reviewed,Adam Foulds
Friday 22 May 2009 00:00 BST

Very little is known about JA Baker. Born in 1926, he was a librarian, lived in Essex and wrote two books about its wildlife. We know that he has died although not exactly when. This dim biographical silhouette contrasts with the blazing intensity of the work. The Peregrine is increasingly recognised as one of the masterpieces of 20th-century prose. It's a book I find deeply restorative and one I often give to friends as a gift.

Its power derives in part from its simplicity of form. The project is announced in the opening pages: to follow peregrines in one small area of the Essex coast from autumn through to spring. The motivation seems double, both to pursue a fascination with the birds and to get far away from people, "to let the human taint wash away in emptiness and silence". An essay on the peregrine inaugurates the mesmerising process of entering its world ("Like the seafarer, the peregrine lives in a pouring-away world of no attachment, a world of wakes and tilting, of sinking planes of land and water").

Thereafter it takes the form of a diary. He spends day after day out in the landscape, in the changing light, observing, following. His senses sharpen, his noticings grow more acute as he sinks into the animal's world: "I shut my eyes and tried to crystallise my will into the light-drenched prism of the hawk's mind." We learn the creatures' signs, their needs, habits and fears. We understand the subtle intimacy of predator and prey, their interaction in an endless present tense that shimmers with beauty and terror.

It is Baker's extraordinary prose that makes this possible. He can distil the mood of a landscape in a couple of sentences: "The morning was strange and wraith-like, very pure and new... The sun had no grip of warmth." His brilliance with verbs does much to arrest the drama of motion and moment: "a wave of sparrows dashed itself into a hedge"; "Godwits ricocheting across water, tumbling, towering."; "Peregrines sear across the cold sky and are gone."

As with Ted Hughes, whose writing Baker's most resembles, the harsh vitality of the living world is perceptible at every point. Take this astonishing sentence describing crows sitting on the ground: "Jackdaws charred the green slopes to the north with black." His way with similies is equally impressive. A mouse spins an acorn in its hands, "like a potter at his wheel".

Baker's prose reads as laconic, but it is also rich, sensuous and occasionally extravagant. The enormous technical accomplishment of The Peregrine reveals a paradox at the heart of the greatest descriptive writing: as the language becomes more passionately exact, it becomes simultaneously more transparent, falling away instantly as it launches you into the reality it attends. It transports us far from the "human taint", deep into the unfolding actuality of the living world.

Adam Foulds's novel 'The Quickening Maze' is published by Cape

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