12 March 2009

Search for Essex wildlife writer

Colchester Campus

The Peregrine by J A Baker

A researcher from the University of Essex is searching for information about a reclusive writer from the county who won a prestigious literary prize in 1967 for his debut book about peregrines living in the Blackwater estuary.

Dr James Canton, a part-time teacher in the Department of Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies, has been researching J A Baker and his 1967 work The Peregrine whilst developing a new Masters degree on writing about the environment. Little is known about the author who is believed to have lived in Chelmsford around the time of his death in the early 1980s.

J A Baker had no ornithological training when he is believed to have given up work in 1965 to devote his time to the peregrines of coastal Essex. He had spent ten years following the migratory birds before writing the book, which traces the lives of two pairs of birds that came to hunt in the county one autumn. It charts J A Baker’s obsessive tracking of them from October to April until eventually ‘the hunter,’ he writes, has become ‘the thing he hunts.’

In 1967 the book was awarded the coveted Duff Cooper prize after receiving enthusiastic reviews for its lyrical prose. Baker picked up a substantial Arts Council grant and published his second, and only other book, The Hill of Summer, in 1969. What happened to him after this is not known.

James Canton said: ‘Baker is something of an elusive figure to trace. I now believe he died in 1987 and have traced an address in Chelmsford from 1982 or so. Just recently, I’ve been given some exciting information which will hopefully lead to Baker’s field diaries, so the trail continues to rediscover this Essex writer.’

‘The best pieces of nature writing involve a journey to discover, first-person narrative, memoir, a personal quest and the development of the narrator through the adventure. Sadly British nature writing lost popularity to an interest in more far-flung travel writing through the 1980s and 1990s but Baker’s reputation seems to be undergoing a gentle renaissance since the reprint of The Peregrine in 2005.

James started researching the author as part of the preparations for a new MA in Wild Writing: Literature, Science, and the Environment which will welcome its first students in October 2009. The programme offers a unique combination of science and the humanities with a focus on writing about the environment. A core module called The Wild East and Beyond will offer students the chance to study regional nature writing and meet local authors including Robert Macfarlane and Richard Mabey.

Anyone interested in finding further information about the MA in Wild Writing should contact the Department of Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies via its website: www.essex.ac.uk/lifts/.

If you think you can offer James Canton useful information about the life of J A Baker please contact him, e-mail: j.canton@talk21.com.


Notes to editors

For further information please contact the University of Essex Communications Office, telephone: 01206 873529 or e-mail: comms@essex.ac.uk.



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