Part of The Peregrine was first published in 1967. It and its additions still have a great power to astonish and thrill. Who was John Alec Baker, with his bike and binoculars, the Chelmsford man of so many unsatisfactory jobs, that he could turn the average birdwatcher’s diary into some of the most marvellous prose of the twentieth century? Mark Cocker cannot tell us in his introduction to Baker’s complete works, fine though it is. No one can. What happened when Baker returned home with his notes (in which a peregrine only briefly appears), to transfigure their commonplace words into arguably the most beautiful natural history statement since John Ray’s botanical works, is a miracle.
Baker himself remains elusive. The diaries are full of the names of places through which he travels as he rides out of Chelmsford to the well-known bird-water of Abberton Reservoir, the Chelmer estuary and the marshes. All is what might be called normal in the world of a