A witches’ brew of ideas and practises influence the overall approach here at the Haunted Shoreline, the main reference points being Hermetic and alchemical symbolism filtered through an idiosyncratic mesh of Surrealism and analytic psychology. But beyond, or underneath, all that is an attempt at a direct, gnostic engagement with place, a deliberate permeability between the actual, tangible shoreline and its representation in the imagination of the writer. This interaction is mediated by the sensorium, the physical Being, of your correspondent. The human nervous system is both the interface between inner and outer worlds, and the crucible in which their synergy ignites.
In this regard, there is a book that should be mentioned as an influence of sorts: “The Peregrine”, by J.A. Baker.
John Alec Baker was born in Essex in 1926, and lived for most of his life in Chelmsford- the same town, it so happens, in which I grew up. In fact, my copy of The Peregine came from the ‘local authors’ section of a bookshop in a small Essex coastal town where my parents would often take us for family holidays in the 1970s. I bought it there only last year, on a day charged with solemnity and deep reflection. My mother had recently died. My father, my sister, and I had returned to this old haunt for the day to scatter her ashes. This we did at the shoreline – that location being a collective decision, I should add. Later that day I chanced upon the bookshop while meandering through the town.
The Peregrine was first published in 1967; there have been a number of new editions in recent years, including one introduced by Robert Macfarlane, author of The Old Ways– you can read a terrific essay of his on Baker’s book here. My copy is the version shown above, the most recent edition, which also contains Baker’s other published writings (these are scanty) and some letters, as well as two cracking introductory pieces by Mark Cocker and the editor John Fanshawe- these are important, as they contain virtually all that is known about the life and personality of J.A.Baker.
Previously, Baker was invariably described (and at the time of writing this still is, on Wikipedia) as someone about whom “little is known”, save that he “worked for many years as a librarian”. In fact, this solitary morsel of biography turns out to be untrue: he was never a librarian. Instead he spent most of his working life in some managerial role at the Britvic soft drinks company, which has its headquarters in Chelmsford. He was married but childless, and was for many years the chairman of the local branch of the Automobile Association, despite never learning to drive. As far as I can ascertain there is only one extant photograph of him: it is on the back of the book, but appears not to be available anywhere online. It shows him aged about 30, round-faced, with 1950s-style Brylcreemed hair and thick, owlish glasses. This final detail is significant, as Baker’s poor eyesight is one of the factors that has led his readers to wonder just how factually accurate are his recorded observations of birds and animals.
The book is in the form of a journal, covering a period of half a year. Baker makes it clear, however, that this is a storyteller’s trick, and that in fact the material derives from numerous solitary journeys into the countryside around Chelmsford over the span of a decade or so- all this, or the edited highlights perhaps, has been telescoped into the timeframe of the book. Essex was far less urbanised then than now, although an interesting feature of the book is that many of Baker’s days out take him through agricultural landscapes- managed fields and woods- rather than the elemental wildernesses that are the more standard settings for ‘nature writing’.
He hops on his bike, cycles to these nearby rural locations (which are described, but not named), and once there this apparently quiet, conventional man seems to have entered into quite extraordinary states of mind. He immerses himself utterly in the world: his connection to his surroundings is not so much mystical as simply direct. He wrote up his impressions in the evenings, with a startling gift for phrasing, bending and moulding the language to the demands of whatever moment he sought to describe, to invoke. The result was an astonishing prose-poetry that dares to tackle the vivid multiplicity of cross-sensory impressions that make up our experience of outdoors.
In his Introduction, Mark Cocker selects some wonderful examples of Baker’s style, which uses nouns as verbs and mixes the senses:
“Quiet sunlight gleamed the falling tide”
“Gulls bone-white in ashes of sky”
or his description of the song of a nightjar: “Its song is like the sound of a stream of wine spilling from a height into a deep end booming cask.”
Cocker also points out that Baker’s words can often be readily recast as poems; here is one of his examples:
Creak of bats wings
Over the steel river,
Of the lemuring owls.
Baker’s central concern is, of course, the peregrine falcon. Early in the book, after one of his first encounters with the male of the pair of peregrines that he spends much of his time thereafter observing, he sets out his stall:
Wherever he goes, this winter, I will follow him. I will share the fear, and the exaltation, and the boredom, of the hunting life. I will follow him till my predatory human shape no longer darkens in terror the shaken kaleidoscope of colour that stains the deep fovea of his brilliant eye. My pagan head shall sink into the winter land, and there be purified.
And this is what happens. He watches the peregrines, records their habits, absorbs their world, and through some strange English shamanism, achieves knowledge (gnosis) of them. His account of it all is extraordinary- although the blazing intensity, and the torrent of images and impressions, require that it be read in short sections. Doubtless the circumstances in which I first encountered this book contributed to the potency of its effects on me. But even without those added layers of personal resonance, it’s heady stuff. Baker at times seems exalted, his language aflame with ecstatic poesy. That line in the quote above, My pagan head shall sink into the winter land, has stayed with me: often as I walk towards the beach I am visited by a mental image of submerging my own head in the pebbled, quaggy sands at the shoreline’s edge, and there being purified. And the phrase the shaken kaleidoscope chimes with me too: Baker uses it here to describe the peregrine’s eye; I have always liked the image of a kaleidoscope as a demonstration of the endlessly shifting Real: how basic elements, obeying physical laws, can be infinitely reconfigured so that they look a little different each time we gaze upon them.
And in speaking of how things seem, we once again find ourselves at the shoreline of imagination and the external world. The degree to which The Peregrine is an imaginal, as opposed to strictly factual, work has never been clear. Even the book’s central motif is uncertain. While peregrine falcons are indeed sometimes seen over the Essex countryside and marshes, even in Baker’s time they were not common, yet his exhaustive documentation of their kills suggests they must have been present in large numbers. Can this really have been the case? And there is the question of Baker’s eyesight- does the sharp detail of his observations owe a debt to imaginal reconstruction? A comment on this piece quotes an acquaintance of Baker’s as having said “the man was blind as a bat, all his peregrines were kestrels“. (Kestrels are smaller, rather less fabled birds of prey, and far more common than peregrines in the English countryside.) Further, the author of that comment describes themselves as someone who has worked in falcon conservation for many years, and finds that Baker’s account, the fierce brilliance of his prose notwithstanding, “simply does not ring true.”
So it may well be that the terrain Baker explores in The Peregrine is some alchemical fusion of the inner and outer worlds. His insistence on not naming or identifying his locations lends weight to the idea that the actual physical environments were a sounding board for something more deeply personal: his own private falcon-haunted mindscape. The ornithologists who have relied on his descriptions of peregrines and other birds may find this interpretation problematic, but, personally, I hope it is true. The Peregrine would thus become at once a document and an act of creation- an act of magic, one might say.
If the book is taken at face value, however, then to say that Baker does not impose himself on his material would be an understatement. The reader learns nothing whatsoever about him as regards the facts of his life. Inasmuch as his personality can be read through his writing, he seems to combine a dry, at times obsessional, precision with a vividly hyperacute sensitivity. In this, he is perhaps what I might call a “Shoreline character”- a person in whom stark contrasts do battle, with something vital, alive, emerging at the interface.
The Haunted Shoreline, meanwhile, has been up to its usual tricks. I had planned this post for a while, finally writing it in dribs and drabs over the last week. Having made a start on it last weekend, I took an afternoon trip, daughter in tow, to Birling Gap (where the Ouroboros Egg was found), near Beachy Head. On arrival at Birling Gap we were greeted by the sight of the ‘spotters’ board’, on which recent wildlife encounters are recorded:
A closer look..
Peregrine falcons are uncommon here in Sussex (and at this point it seems appropriate to mention the work of the Sussex Peregrine Study, whom I came across in the course of researching this post). The appearance of a peregrine on the Shoreline, on the day I started writing about this book, is one of the more sonorous and resonant synchronicities this place has thrown up. And I would give a lot to know what John Alec Baker would have had to say about it.