Seán Street is a poet, broadcaster, teacher and writer on sound aesthetics. Books include Camera Obscura (poems) and the prose trilogy, The Poetry of Radio, The Memory of Sound and Sound Poetics: He is Emeritus Professor at Bournemouth University.
I had my 21st birthday in Paris in 1967. I was living in an apartment on L'ile St Louis, behind Notre Dame, and just across the river from George Whitman's Shakespeare and Company bookshop, where I spent a lot of my time. Towards the end of the year, a friend sent me a birthday present. It was a book called The Peregrine, newly published, and written by an author I didn't know, a man called John Alec Baker. It was a curious gift to receive in the heart of a great European capital, especially since I was immersing myself at that time in most of the things that pivotal year had to offer the young, while reading writers like Sartre, Camus and Colin Wilson. Here was a book about lonely elemental places in the landscape of eastern England, wild and open, with a bleak beauty that seemed alien to me. I put the book aside.
About a year later, back in England, I picked up Baker's book again, and read it almost at one sitting. It was unlike anything I'd ever come across. J.A. Baker was an office worker living in Essex, who escaped into the landscape on his bicycle whenever he could, and kept a diary of what he saw. He had a major obsession, and it was the Peregrine Falcon, a creature that hunted savagely across the wide open expanses of his county; and he wrote about it in language the like of which I had never encountered. This was not soft, gentle romantic prose. It was visceral, it flew at me, full of percussion, stressed syllables that had the effect of hammer-blows on the page; above all his words made sounds in a way I did not know was possible. Baker's hero was a bird, but this bird had the character of a missile, a killing machine of intense efficiency. To this day, it remains one of the most hypnotically violent books I've ever read. But it is also a book of great beauty and tenderness, a book of transcendent language in which no word is wasted or extraneous. It is an extended prose poem; in and through it, the eye listens and the ear sees.
While in Paris, I had done my first radio work for the French national broadcaster, O.R.T.F. It was a changing point of my life, and from that moment onwards I moved away from the life I had known, that of an aspiring and moderately successful jobbing actor, towards what would ultimately consume me ever after: poetry, radio, sound and the aesthetics of listening. The Peregrine was a staging post on that journey, but it was much more than that, because it has remained a textbook for reading the senses to which I have returned ever since, to remind myself of the importance of weighing language as sound before it is written or spoken. Fifty years later, I am still learning: John Baker is still teaching me.
He teaches me to seek precision, the art of honing until there is nothing extraneous and the bone of meaning is exposed and the image and its significance is sharp and audible and visual and burnt into the mind. There is violence in the book, yes, but there is also brooding stillness, a sense always that something is about to happen, the ebb and flow of tension, of danger and relief. Remember that moment in the jungle during Apocalypse Now, when the tiger strikes from out of the trees? Remember the absolute stillness just before the moment? The Peregrine is full of such moments. Above all, it is not sentimental. By paring everything down, Baker teaches us to see and hear through economy and language that appears spontaneous and yet is the product of selection, analysis and reflection as clear-eyed as any raptor as it observes the world from its poised vantage place on a thermal. Take this:
Curlew coming over from the island in long flat shields of birds, changing shape like waves upon the shore, long 'V's' widening and narrowing their arms. Redshanks shrill and vehement; never still, never silent. The faint insistent sadness of grey plover calling. Turnstone and dunlin rising. Twenty greenshank calling, flying high; grey and white as gulls, as sky. Bar-tailed godwits flying with curlew, with knot, with plover; seldom alone, seldom settling; sniffling eccentrics; long-nosed, loud-calling sea-rejoicers; their call a snorting, sneezing, mewing, spitting bark. Their thin upcurved bills turn, their heads turn, their shoulders and whole bodies turn...They flourish their rococo flight above the surging water.
To call The Peregrine a book about natural history is to imply an importance that could be seen as limited to a genre, and it is much, much more than that. It is one of those books that transcends its genre, as Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men is so much more than science fiction. Beyond all, it is a book that teaches the urgent importance of looking and listening to the world, and the understanding that we are not only a part, but a small part of what surrounds us, and at the same time how dare we impose ourselves on an order that has an existence older and stranger than us that we seldom credit or even fully understand. We are seduced by the everyday into not recognizing the moments of wonder round every second's corner, and we need crucially to work harder on that. This is not a book exclusively for readers of natural history by any means; it is a text – a handbook – for living and interacting with the world and for coming to terms with our own identity in relation to the context of existence. To learn to value the natural world is to learn the value of all existence. Through the pace and hubbub of everything, it teaches us to listen to the sound under the sound until you get to silence, then listen again. Listen to the voice, but more than that, listen to the sound of the voice, the tone and the mood. Is there aggression there? Or fear? Is there a smile hidden, or a sob? We should listen actively, and remind ourselves when our senses are becoming passive. That small voice, that whisper or tiny sound, that minute dot in the high, far sky is so easily missed, but we need to attend to it – it might be a matter of life or death. As Baker says, 'distance moves through the dim lines of the inland elms, and comes closer, and gathers behind the darkness of the hawk.'
To say I love this book, or even that I like it, is too simplistic, and anyway, it's not the point. The Peregrine is not an easy book. But it is essential.