Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Peregrine

Years ago John Gray recommended The Peregrine by J.A.Baker, 'probably the only example,' he said, 'of shamanism in English literature.' Finally, I am reading it.  It is astounding. There is only one human character - Baker -and he spends the entire book following a pair of peregrines across a vast area of Essex farmland and coastline. This gives you the gist. What becomes clear is that Baker despises humans and loves these birds. Indeed, he wants to become a peregrine to the point where he sees himself and the birds as 'we' and humans as 'they' - 'We shun men. We hate their suddenly uplifted arms, the insanity of their flailing gestures, their erratic scissoring gait, their aimless stumbling ways, the tombstone whiteness of their faces.' Humans, he thinks, are too comfortable - 'Man might be more tolerable, less fractious and smug, if he had more to fear.' Baker was born in 1926, The Peregrine came out in 1968 and The Hill of Summer the following year. He is thought to have been a librarian, but the date of his death is unknown. This is said to be a mystery, but now I know it isn't. One night he became a tiercel peregrine and simply flew away.

16 comments:

  1. it does seem interesting. I have added it to my amazon wishlist.

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  2. Well, now I know who one of Richard Bach's inspirations was: "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" came out in 1970. And though I loved it when I first read it (at about age 12), I doubt if it would hold up now. But "The Peregrine" sounds like it would.

    It would be interesting to know what was in the cultural unconscious then, for I believe Robert Penn Warren was writing a number of his red-tailed hawk poems in the same period.

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  3. It is an odd, not necessarily admirable, and possibly dangerous specimen that prefers another species over his own.

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  4. That's an interesting thought, Frank. But I must say, I do prefer the average dog over the average human.

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  5. Frank, I don't think that should stop you reading this book. Remember it was written not long after Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. Baker plainly thought we were killing the birds. The intensity of the book arises in part from this. And the writing is unique in my experience. I'm now heading in the direction of WH Hudson, another great artist of nature.

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  6. Actually, Bryan - though I deplore anti-humanism - I was planning on getting in touch with NYRB books about it on Monday. The book does sound fascinating. One Saturday, a few months ago, while walking to my office, I watched a peregrine, perched atop a streetlamp, breakfasting on a pigeon. We used to have one visit our backyard in the spring.
    I like dogs, too, Susan, but I value them less than my fellow humans, despite their human failings (which, of course, I share).

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  7. I'd never heard of this book or it's author but it sounds terrific and he sounds like one of the good guys. Great subject for a biography? Thanks for letting us know about it and him.

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  8. He would be a great subject, swordsman, but for the fact that nothing seems to be known about him. And - all part of the service.

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  9. Nothing known? 'He is thought to have been a librarian' - enough for any man surely? I'd be happy with that for a biography (or a blog profile, come to that). About this shamanistic thing, though, I'm not entirely happy - something almost pathologically overwrought and insistent about it, like someone standing on your toes and speaking into your face - whereas Hudson, as Ford (I think) said, 'writes as the grass grows'.

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  10. As to what was in the cultural unconscious then, it was indeed the beginning of environmentalism, triggered by book-bombs like "Silent Spring." But also hovering around (ahem) was Robinson Jeffers, whose poems I'm sure Baker would have found resonant with his own ideas, if he knew of them. Jeffers' ideas of "Inhumanism," which I mention knowing full well how often they havae been totally misunderstood, dovetail with Baker's.

    The idea that this book is shamanic is interesting. I need to look at it, for that reason, and will seek it out now.

    Thanks.

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  11. Play.Com - £5.68 (incl. p and p in UK) Paperback.

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  12. i happened to read this post while drunk so instantly ordered a copy of The Peregrine from Abebooks. Still, it was cheap, and i generally prefer dobermanns, dragons etc. over the two-legged virus, so should be a good read.

    Please, Bryan, bear in mind that when i'm drunk i just automatically order anything you recommend (just ordered a selected Ashbery) and do anything you say. This is a terrible responsibility. It's one reason i try only to read your blog at work, when i feel obliged to be sober.

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  13. You place an awesome responsibility on my shoulders, Elberry.

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  15. I hope that you didn't bother with *The Peregrine*, Frank. I doubt that you would understand it, any more than you would understand, say, Nietzsche. Stick to your smug, comfortable little humanism....

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