Saturday, 18 November 2017

My House of Sky: The Biography of J.A. Baker by Hetty Saunders, Panel Discussion at the London Review Bookshop

On Wednesday 15 July 2017, I was privileged to attend a public, ticketed event at the London Review Bookshop. The LRB in Bury Street, within sight of the British Museum is a charming book shop with a huge range of titles and cosy café. They run a series of ticketed literary events and I would recommend signing up to their mailing list. My House of Sky written by Hetty Saunders was a biography on J.A. Baker, a very significant figure in English Literature. The book was immediately recognised as a fine piece of literary writing. Robert Macfarlane one of the finest contemporary exponents of nature writing spoke of how Baker influenced many writers with his ability to see the world with a heightened sense of visual acuity (my paraphrasing as I did not make notes of what he actually said). Macfarlane did mention that Baker's writing was 'landscape on acid', a phrase that struck me and resonated with a passage that John Fanshawe read out from one of the earliest editions of The Peregrine. The panel and the discussion was electric. It was moderated by Gareth Evans who handled it masterly and stitched questions from the audience and the comments from the panellists into succinct, intermittent re-caps whilst maintaining momentum.

Baker's writing straddled genres. It was a book that deeply affected birders, environmentalists and followers of literature in equal measure. Mark Cocker in the November 2017 issue of BBC Wildlife magazine writes of Baker's influence and refers to him being credited for setting the gold standard in British nature writing. Mark Conor Jameson in Silent Spring Revisited (Bloomsbury) opens his book with Baker. The involvement of Fanshawe reinforced the link with birders. Fanshawe is a familiar name to birders having co-authored field guides to the Birds of East Africa and another title on the Birds of the Horn of Africa. Whilst reviewing Phil Gregory's Birds of New Guinea, I learnt from the acknowledgements that Fanshawe had been an inspiration for that book.

Baker has remained an elusive figure, with very little known about him. All that changed when Fanshawe was contacted by a relative and received a treasure trove of material which is currently deposited with the University of Sussex. Hetty Saunders nearly did not sign up for a course in writing. But she did and Macfarlane one of the course tutors asked her to look at Baker's material and catalogue it. One thing led to another and just over two years after finishing her course has emerged this biography of one of the most important figures in British literature and the inspiration behind many of the best nature writers in Britain.

Panel discussions have their own dynamic and I was glad to have attended as insights come out of discussion. The fact that Baker's writing is special, is self evident. But I was also struck by Macfarlane and Saunders discussing that Baker was very much aware that he was working on something special and in his manuscript maintained a page count and running count of verbs, nouns, metaphors and so on. This was a numerical measure of the punch he was packing in to his writing by using metaphors to colour the book. The biography carries a foreword by Macfarlane and an afterword by Fanshawe, which reinforces how Baker was both a nature writer, a bird watcher and an environmentalist.

Evans more than once pointed out that Little Toller Books may be little by name and but a giant in stature to have published this book. I was able to chat with Jon Woolcott from the publisher and learn that they at times use crowd funding to fund books and at least twenty of the initial crowd funders were at the event. I am not in the loop on the background to the publishing of the biography but no doubt it is a coup to have beaten the giants of publishing to publish My House of Sky. Little Toller Books have also published authors such as Richard Mabey and Oliver Rackham, whose books are a source of inspiration for me as I labour over a guide to the common trees of Sri Lanka.

For readers who may be interested in more information I have copied below the press release from Little Toller Books.

My House of Sky - the first biography of writer J. A. Baker
J. A. Baker was the most ordinary of men. He was happily married, lived in a council house in Chelmsford and worked at the Automobile Association offices in Essex. Yet when his book The Peregrine was published 50 years ago, he became one of the greatest nature writers of the twentieth century.

J. A. Baker is revered all around the world today for his intense insight into the landscapes and nature of the British countryside. An extraordinary prose stylist, widely celebrated while he was alive, Baker fell into obscurity after his death 30 years ago. His books were no longer printed. Nobody knew anything about him. Baker became a dim silhouette.

Until now. With The Peregrine enjoying its 50th anniversary this year, the small, independent publisher Little Toller Books is publishing the first biography of J. A. Baker, exploring how he came to become such an important voice for nature and influential writer.

My House of Sky will be published in November 2017. The author, Hetty Saunders, worked with Robert Macfarlane (author of Landmarks, Holloway and The Old Ways) and conservationist John Fanshawe (of BirdLife International) to piece together a fascinating portrait of J. A. Baker. This is the first book that Saunders has written, admitting: "I became a bit obsessed with Baker – he has that effect on people – he captures them and drags them in….every time I thought I’d pinned something down, or learnt it for sure, something new would creep out of the woodwork." She adds: "as I went through his material, journals and archives, I feel I got to know J A Baker, but it’s an incomplete picture and there are still lots of intriguing questions about his life that have remained unanswered, which I think is fitting for a man who was as elusive as the peregrines he followed."

What emerges is a man obsessed with his subject – someone who, for more than a decade before The Peregrine was published, spent all of his spare time out on his bicycle, binoculars slung over one shoulder and a flask of coffee in the pocket of his heavy gabardine coat, recording in meticulous detail every bird he saw in his home county of Essex. His journals and diaries are full of the descriptions of wildlife which ended up in his books. He annotated Ordnance Survey maps with his sightings – examples of these appear in My House of Sky, alongside photographs of the journal. But despite this obsessive behaviour he retained a playful side, as Saunders says "he signed off letters to friends with the words ‘your faithful jester’", was a fan of writers like G K Chesterton, and loved to tell humorous anecdotes. Saunders says his writing is sometimes at odds with this. "It can be quite austere, quite misanthropic, very distant, but the character that came through from the archive was very funny, had lots of warmth, and I felt that this was a story that needed to be told."

The biography also reveals Baker’s lifelong passion for reading, his troubled relationship with his father, and how his terrible experiences of the Blitz as a teenager shaped both his birdwatching skills and his brilliant writing. Like many civilians, Baker was deeply scarred by the Blitz and spent time at a ‘rehabilitation centre’ in Sussex to help overcome his anxiety. Being outside walking, birdwatching or cycling helped him recover and establish himself as a successful writer.

As well as including some of Baker’s previously unpublished poetry My House of Sky also reveals the tantalising prospect of an undiscovered, book - something that Baker had been working on for years
but never published. Although it is not clear whether this was fiction or non-fiction, Little Toller Books hope that this new biography will help encourage people who might have known Baker to come forward if they have any letters, photographs or memories of him. Saunders is optimistic about the prospect of another book. "We know he was writing a third book at the time of his death – there are hints in the notes that Baker left about a new book and letters to admiring readers assuring them of new work to come, but so far it has not been found." The archive was collected from Baker’s family and friends and it remains possible that somewhere, in a loft, or forgotten drawer, is the third book from this elusive genius.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the first publication of The Peregrine, which was one of the first literary works to examine the impacts of pesticides on wild animals and the environment, the effects of which are still being seen today. As Saunders says "Baker was sensitive to the needs of nature in a way that many weren’t in the late 1960s. He was ahead of his time, and his writing style is still so striking, and the content about species extinction so prophetic that it feels almost ahead of our time."

Little Toller Books publication has a foreword by Robert Macfarlane, an afterword by John Fanshawe, and is illustrated throughout by photographs by Christopher Matthews, including images of the journal pages and diaries, of maps annotated by Baker, his binoculars and telescopes for birdwatching, all of which make up a large section in the book. The special edition of the book will include a special print by the stone carver Jo Sweeting, inspired by Baker and his work.

The new book has already been enthusiastically endorsed by the British reading public. Little Toller Books launched a crowd-funding scheme to enable publication of the book and within days achieved the target.

My House of Sky is published on November 1, 2017, by Little Toller Books (RRP £20).

Left: Gareth Evans (Moderator). Right: Hetty Saunders and Robert Macfarlane

Left: Hetty Saunders. Right: John Fanshawe reading from an early edition of The Peregrine.


My thanks to Johnny and Shalmali Paterson who gave me their tickets when I found the event booked out, weeks ahead.

The Peregrine images below are  (c) James Sellen. They are not from the book. My thanks to James for allowing me to use these to show what a magnificent bird of prey the Peregrine is. Anyone interested in birds and other wildlife and living within a 20 mile radius of St Pauls Cathedral may find it useful to visit the website of the London Natural History Society and to consider membership.


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