How J.A. Baker became a great writer after showing no signs of talent for forty years

J.A.Baker showed no signs of becoming a writer who would win a major prize, have a dedicated following for fifty years, and whose book would be thought of as a talisman for a movement. Although he spoke to his friends about his intense ambitions to be a writer, he was just another young man who used long words and wrote mediocre poetry. The one thing that seems to stand out from his early days is the name he gave to his ambition: he called it his house in the sky.

He was also not an impressive birdwatcher, and he never particularly involved himself in their ranks. He was devoted to following peregrines and the combination of the birds' changed behaviour due to pesticide poisoning and his relentless expeditioning to see them locally meant he collected an intense knowledge of how they behaved.

Like many writers, he was an inforvore, collecting and systematising large amounts of information about things otherwise undocumented. No-one else was going out, week after week, collecting data on what species had been killed by peregrines in his part of Essex. He was able to show numbers of kills per species and how the distribution changed with colder weather. After each day out he sat at home collating the data about what he had seen and writing up his notes. His handwriting was florid but precise.

For a long time he was unemployable, mostly by his own choice. He went through about a dozen jobs, including as a draughtsman and a trainee teacher. Boredom merged into melancholy and he sometimes left jobs within weeks. The British Library sacked him for taking books home when he wasn't supposed to. After he dropped out of teacher training college, after coming to loath the whole profession, he got a job at the AA in Chelmsford and worked there for a few years, becoming a manger. He was, for all of these years, not even working on a book.

Eventually, he left the AA and he and his wife lived on savings and National Assistance in their council flat. His peregrine obsession was now burning in his like a fuse and he was deeply determined to write his great book. But if he had dropped dead at this point, all he would have left would have been some diaries of his trips out. The pages with the peregrine sightings were destroyed as he wrote his book later on, so we don't know whether they were literary gems or not. But to observers, nothing about Baker at this point suggested he was about to become a great writer.

All he was, was. freakishly obsessed by bird watching.

Hetty Saunders describes his book collection and notes that he has as much poetry as he does birding books. He was a large volume reader, often reading dozens of books at different stages of his life for aesthetic stimulation. The evidence of Ted Hughes and Gerald Manly Hopkins, for example, is pretty evident.

Much of his life is similar to Philip Larkin's. The solitary cycling, the isolation, the hatred of things, the constant subject in his work of death or disappointment, the lack of children, the removal of himself from life to preserve whatever it was about him that made him a writer. Larkin also had a dominant slightly oddball father and neither man's parents had happy marriages. Both of them were clowns in their youthful letters and both were disappointed in their own work as they got older. They were both small volume writers, both kept neat notebooks, and both produced their major work at about the age of forty.

The comparison breaks down here because Larkin had published The Less Deceived ten years' earlier, at the age of thirty three, whereas at a similar stage in his life Baker was so private a man no-one in his office knew what he did at the weekends. However, both men's writing was the result of an asceticism, a retreat, which started in contemplation and ending in either depression or writing. Unlike Larkin, Baker didn't drink. They were both ambitious.

Hetty Saunders' biography is excellent and unlike so many biographies has dozens of first rate photographs, including many lovely pictures of Baker's possessions: maps, binoculars, notebooks, manuscripts. The shows us just how mysterious Baker was because it cannot really explain where his books came from. It's as if when he found himself in the falcons he realised what his subject was and his talent was released. Samuel Johnson said you have to turn over half a library to write a single book, but for Baker that was a decade of close observation. Larkin's turning point was reading Hardy in his late twenties and realising he could write ordinary poetry about ordinary things, mostly from his own life.

Once Baker started watching peregrines, he learned something similar. He is a wonderful example of the Fitzgerald Rule. What most potential writers lack is a subject. Like Penelope Fitzgerald, living her erratic life steeped in the long tradition of European culture, Baker's monastic observances of bird life became an accumulation of things he could use his talents to re-create into work of writing. Evelyn Waugh described writing his books as being like walking over the rubble heap of his life, poking into it with a stick to see what he could find and make. use of in a novel.

In some ways, Baker's extreme personality, neurotic and introverted, mildly damaged from his childhood, shy to the point of secret, was what enabled him to become a writer. His refusal to fit in anywhere, despite his good humour and warm temperament, eventually led him out to the Essex marshes where he found his house of sky.

All the biographical information here is from Hetty Saunders' biography of Baker My House of Sky: The Life of J A Baker (US link). It's one of the biographies I have enjoyed most in the last few years.