Caught by the River

The Caught by the River Book of the Month: November

Sue Brooks | 22nd November 2017

My House of Sky: The Life of J.A. Baker by Hetty Saunders
(Little Toller, hardback, 148 pages. Out now and available here)

Review by Sue Brooks

Appropriately for November, reading My House Of Sky has been an act of remembrance: a recounting of the eleven years since The Peregrine entered my life on April 15th 2006. There was alchemy at work that day. Not a falcon, but a female sparrowhawk in full view on a bright morning from an upstairs window where I was reading Kathleen Jamie’s Findings. The most intimate encounter I have ever had with a hawk. She sat on the fence, moving only her head and all-seeing eyes for a good twenty minutes while I watched close-up through binoculars. I had a feeling she knew I was there.

When it was over, I continued my reading and reached the page where Kathleen Jamie is doing exactly the same thing from the window of her home in Fife. Not sparrowhawks though: she is watching peregrines. She quotes from a book by J.A. Baker: ‘The peregrine lives in a pouring-away world of no attachment, a world of wakes and tilting, of sinking planes of land and water’. Some kind of electricity passes through me. I order the book and it arrives five days later. The 2005 NYRB edition with an introduction by Robert Macfarlane. I open the cover (with an inexplicable photo of a red-tailed hawk) and read ‘JOHN ALEC BAKER (1926 -?) was born and lived in Essex’, and the four additional sentences of biography ending ‘Little else, including the exact year of his death, is known about this singularly private man’. I am on full alert now, imagination primed for what is unfolding. It is pure theatre. The curtains are closed. Robert Macfarlane enters front-of-stage to deliver the prologue — still the best, for me, of all the marvellous tributes he has made in subsequent years. The audience is silent, waiting. The curtains draw back. Ah…I recall the exact details of the room where I read Part 1. Beginnings. ‘East of my home, the long ridge lies across the skyline like the low hull of a submarine’. The quality of the light outside the window (it was April 24th in Cornwall) when I would pause to gaze for a few moments before reading a paragraph, a sentence and often a single phrase over and over again — as I have done many times since, but never with quite the intensity of that first encounter.

‘Of J.A. Baker himself’, comments the introduction, ‘it is unnecessary to know more, nor is there much to know’. But at the height of my obsession in 2006, secretly wondering and hoping that perhaps he wasn’t dead after all — and if I looked in the right places with the right attitude he might appear — my desire for more was insatiable. I booked into a B&B at Tolleshunt Major for a week. I had the book and the two OS maps which cover the area and an introduction to David Cobham. Such a week that was. There was a sense of being possessed; of seeing differently; of being guided; of getting closer, until finally, sitting at the kitchen table with David Cobham, I opened the A4 accounts book from Boots and saw the handwriting, the lists, the meticulous recording, nothing disregarded. Every hedge sparrow, robin, blackbird given careful attention. Recalling it now I think of one of my favourite passages from The Hill Of Summer: John Baker enters a barn and ‘possesses a sudden freedom. I have entered an illumination, like the sculptured moonlight of a dream, a cave within the vagary of the streaming day. These things around me in their unguarded plainness, have now an ethereal beauty, as though they shone in the momentary revelation of a lightning flash’.

I went once again to Essex in 2010 when the archive was established at the University — in two B&Q plastic boxes in those days — and held the binoculars and ran my hands over the worn leather case. It was an act of reverence. The life and work gathered in two boxes on a shelf in a quiet room. There could be no more.

Until now. Tirelessly, John Fanshawe has tracked down living history, people who knew John Baker and kept his letters, and combined with the work of Mark Cocker, James Canton and Hetty Saunders, the biography has taken shape. It has been long-awaited and greatly anticipated, and yet I was aware of misgivings surfacing at times behind my excitement. Would the mystery of this singularly private man stand up to scrutiny? How much more did I really want to know?

There was no need to doubt. Hetty Saunders has stepped with care and respect, keeping to the pathways. Facts, not speculation. What he chose to leave behind, and what others remembered. She has left what may or may not have happened at Roffey Park behind closed doors, and his private life with Doreen and members of her family, or indeed his own family as his parents aged, the same. Saunders knows when to remain silent and when to make a simple statement. ‘Doreen cared for him until the end’. All we need to know expressed in a few words which touched me deeply. As did his love of opera: it made such sense. In his writing and rewriting, every waking hour for all the years he was working on the book, holding, weighing, sounding, measuring each phrase, speaking it aloud perhaps in the upstairs room, and now another dimension — perhaps singing, or imagining the words set to music. And most of all, the account of his death. He was cremated at Chelmsford Crematorium. His ashes were scattered over the public lawn. He asked to have no specific memorial.

The Peregrine and The Hill Of Summer are his memorial. My House Of Sky is his memorial: the third and unquestionably the most beautiful. The more I look, the more there is to see. The silky texture of the paper which has a faint lustre along the outer edge; the black and white photographs enhanced by shadow; the astonishing colour photos which leap out from the page. Reaching the last photo is to step into the Inner Sanctum. Nine grey boxes on a trolley in a perfect alcove of ancient leather-bound library books. The J.A. Baker Archive. The light seems to glow from within.

The loving care which has been poured into My House Of Sky is palpable. It stretches beyond the 101 listed names of those who crowdfunded it — each one with a tale to tell or a song to sing not unlike my own — to the unknown names of others whose lives have been changed and enriched by J.A. Baker. Those born and those yet to be born. Jo Sweeting’s talismanic hawk/man took me back to the only book in my personal archive which comes close to the alchemy of The Peregrine — Ursula Le Guin’s The Wizard of Earthsea. I doubt John Baker would have read something regarded as a work of children’s fantasy, but I believe he would have liked the song which begins and ends it:

Only in silence the word, only in dark the light, only in dying life: bright the hawk’s flight on the empty sky.


My House of Sky, with an introduction by Robert Macfarlane, is out now and available here in the Caught by the River shop, priced £20.

Sue Brooks on Caught by the River