J. A. Baker’s The Peregrine, published in 1967, recounts one winter from the author’s ten-year obsession with peregrines hunting near his home in in Essex. It is a record of what Baker believed was a dying breed, for by the mid-1960s the damaging impact of pesticides on peregrine populations was evident. It is also a record of the Essex landscape, a land to Baker that was “as profuse and glorious as Africa”.
Despite being a book where, as Robert Macfarlane describes, “very little happens, over and over again”, The Peregrine won the Duff Cooper prize in 1967 and since then has influenced generations of nature writers. Macfarlane – who has been instrumental in the book’s revival – praised it for being “a masterpiece of the literature of place: a book which sets the imagination aloft.” Mark Cocker has called it “the gold standard for all nature writing”; Werner Herzog suggested that anyone who wants to be a writer should “learn the whole book by heart.”
Richard Mabey has described J. A. Baker as “the single most important inspiration of all who followed” – and yet until recently, very little was known about the man himself. When the New York Review of Books edition was published just over ten years ago, the date of Baker’s death was a question mark.
Now, the University of Essex is able to reveal more about the author behind The Peregrine through the J.A. Baker archive, housed at the Albert Sloman Library at the University of Essex. The archive was given permanently to the library by Baker’s brother-in-law Bernard Coe and ornithologist and conservationist John Fanshawe. It includes Baker’s letters, early manuscripts of The Peregrine, Baker’s ornithological diaries and some of his unpublished, early work.
To celebrate the launch of the archive and its catalogue, which can be found online here, a small J. A. Baker conference is being held at the University of Essex on Wednesday 6th July. John Fanshawe and Mark Cocker will be among those presenting papers.
Those wishing to view the archive may do so by contacting the Albert Sloman Library to arrange a visit.