01 July 2016

J.A. Baker archive offers new insights into wild writing masterpiece

Peregrine

Almost fifty years ago J. A. Baker published one of the most influential book’s on our natural world - The Peregrine. Bestselling wild writer Robert Macfarlane – who has been instrumental in the book’s revival – has praised it as “a masterpiece of the literature of place: a book which sets the imagination aloft.”

Now we can discover more about the reclusive Essex-based writer who wrote this landmark book after his archive of letters, early manuscripts of The Peregrine, ornithological diaries and unpublished early work was given permanently to the University of Essex’s Albert Sloman Library by Baker’s brother-in-law Bernard Coe and ornithologist and conservationist John Fanshawe.

To celebrate the launch of the archive and its catalogue, a conference dedicated to Baker is being held at the University of Essex's Colchester Campus on Wednesday 6 July featuring leading conservationists and writers including Fanshawe, Crow Country author Mark Cocker and writer and social historian Ken Worpole.

The Peregrine, published in 1967, recounts one winter from the author’s ten-year obsession with the birds hunting near his Chelmsford home. It is a record of what Baker believed was a dying breed as by the mid-1960s there was growing evidence of the damaging impact of pesticides on peregrine populations. It is also a record of the Essex landscape, a land which Baker said was “as profuse and glorious as Africa”.

The Peregrine won the Duff Cooper prize in 1967 and since then has influenced generations of nature writers. 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.

Wild writer and academic Dr James Canton, from the Department of Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies, said: “It is incredible how the archive tells us so much about such a reclusive person who is now seen as such a significant 20th century writer."

Access to the archive will enrich the learning experience for those studing on the MA Wild Writing: Literature, Landscape and the Environment at Essex and also be accessible to visitors to the Library. Dr Canton, who teaches on the MA, said: ”Looking through the archive is wonderfully exciting and you can unearth so many insights into J. A. Baker’s life – from letters to school friends through to idiosyncratic and detailed responses to reviews of The Peregrine.

“As the 50th anniversary arrives in 2017, I’m looking forward to more people coming to look at the archive and seeing more material from the archive shared with the wider public.”

Those wishing to view the archive can contact the Albert Sloman Library to arrange a visit.

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