Another Look spotlights Joseph Conrad’s novella Shadow-Line


On May 10, the Another Look book club will weigh in on Conrad’s The Shadow-Line, written by one of the darkest and most prophetic voices in English fiction.

Joseph Conrad (foreground) on the secret service ship Ready in 1916. He wrote The Shadow-Line when he returned from this voyage. (Photo: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)

The author Joseph Conrad insisted his work The Shadow-Line: A Confession was not a book about the supernatural. But sometimes the real can be spookier than the imagined, and what we observe outpaces our worst nightmares. So it is with Conrad’s late novella.

“The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness,” Conrad said a few years before World War I. Certainly the rest of the century bore out his conclusions.

The Another Look book club will discuss Conrad’s 1917 novella and the Polish author at 7:30  p.m. Tuesday, May 10, in the Bechtel Conference Room of Encina Hall. The Shadow-Line is available at Stanford Bookstore, Kepler’s in Menlo Park and Bell’s Books in Palo Alto.

The panel will be moderated by Another Look director Robert Pogue Harrison, an acclaimed author and professor of Italian literature. Harrison is a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and the host for the popular radio talk showEntitled Opinions. He will be joined by drama Professor Rush Rehm, artistic director of the Stanford Repertory Theater, and Monika Greenleaf, associate professor of Slavic languages and literatures and of comparative literature.

The event is free and open to the public.

“I chose this short novel because of its exquisite prose and quintessentially Conradian drama,” Harrison said. “It probes the enigma of fate by putting circumstance, landscape and depth psychology into play all at the same time.”

He spoke English with a Polish accent.

He added, “Conrad is a master when it comes to putting his characters through trials. The Shadow-Line is one of the most intense of Conradian trials of character. It is not one of his best known novels and is certainly deserving of another look.”

Conrad’s short masterpiece describes the “green sickness” of late youth, when a young man desires to “flee from the menace of emptiness.” The unnamed narrator’s flight ends when he is captain of a merchant ship in Southeast Asia; the terrors of sickness and the sea bring him to grief, maturity and wisdom.

In a two-page author’s note, Conrad denies the supernatural has anything to do with his story. We are meant, then, not to draw a line between the mate’s superstitious and feverish fear of his former captain, buried at sea, and the destruction of the ship to weather, wind and contagious fever. The mate says the ship will not have luck until it passes the spot where the reckless and demented captain was put overboard.

The Shadow-Line can also be read as a psychological study of the disintegration of an entire ship’s crew. That would be in keeping with Conrad’s worldview; he once called life a “mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself – that comes too late – a crop of inextinguishable regrets.”

The year The Shadow-Line was published, The Argus praised the novel: “It holds the reader under a spell so strong that the book must be finished at one sitting, and even when it is laid aside it keeps its grip on the memory, and the impression left remains with a curious persistence.”

The Sunday Times wrote, in 1917, “Mr. Conrad is an expert in the business of suggesting mystery and the action of malevolent agencies and the endurance of a man under the buffets of fate. Not even Coleridge has held passers-by more spellbound under a tale of horrors on the ocean than does Mr. Conrad in this work.”

Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski – Joseph Conrad – was born in 1857 in a largely Jewish village in territory that is now Ukraine; it had been part of the Polish-Lithuanian Respublica before partition, and at the time of his birth was part of the Russian Empire. His father was a Polish patriot and man of letters, and the family had a migratory existence. Conrad began a seafaring career as a teenager, and eventually joined the British merchant marine and became an English citizen.

He was one of the very few writers to establish his literary reputation in a foreign tongue. (Vladimir Nabokov comes to mind as well, but the author of Pale Fire and Lolita was reared in an aristocratic Russian family; however, he later claimed English was the first language he learned in his trilingual household.)

World War I was much on Conrad’s mind as he wrote Shadow-Land, and the book is dedicated to his son Borys, a soldier. By the time it was published, Borys had returned from the front, shell-shocked and gassed in the new technology of warfare. The war’s end would change forever the face of the Europe Conrad remembered.

Shortly after the war, a visitor to the Conrad household observed: “Conrad spoke fluently, but his accent, his manner of expression were such as I observed among the inhabitants of the south-eastern Polish borderlands. One felt clearly that when he thought of Poland, it was of a Poland of half-a-century ago. When I listened to him, I could not evade the impression that I am being carried back in time and talk to one of the people of long ago.”

Another Look is a seasonal book club that draws together Stanford’s top writers and scholars with distinguished figures from the Bay Area and beyond. The books selected are short masterpieces you may not have read before.

Galsworthy remembers Joseph Conrad: “It was the sea that gave Conrad to the English language.”

Author-to-be Galsworthy

On a South Sea voyage in 1893, John Galsworthy met Joseph Conrad, then the first mate of a sailing ship harbored in Adelaide, Australia. The chance meeting convinced Galsworthy, the future author of The Forsyte Saga, to give up law for good and become a writer instead. As he wrote decades later, ”no other writer knew him quite so long, or knew him both as sailor and novelist.”

Six year’s after Conrad’s death, Galworthy’s Two Essays on Conrad was privately printed in 1930, in a fine edition of less than a hundred copies – pale gray blue boards, backed with dark blue cloth. One of them is in Special Collections at Stanford’s Green Library.

A few excerpts:

Many writers knew my dead friend, and will write of him better than I; but no other writer knew him quite so long, or knew him both as sailor and novelist. It was in March 1983, that I first met Conrad on board the English sailing ship “Torrens” in Adelaide Harbour. He was superintending the stowage of cargo. Very tan he looked in the burning sunlight – tanned, with a peaked brown beard, almost black hair, and dark brown eyes over which the lids were deeply folded. He was thin, not tall, his arms very long, his shoulders broad, his head set rather forward. He spoke to me with a strong foreign accent. He seemed to me strange on an English ship. For fifty-six days I sailed in his company. … With the crew he was popular; they were individuals to him, not a mere gang; and long after he would talk of this or that among them, especially of old Andy the sail-maker: ‘I liked that old fellow you know.’ … Ever the great teller of a tale, he had already nearly twenty years of tales to tell. Tales of ships and storms, of gun-running adventure, of the Malay seas, and the Congo; of men and men; all to a listener who had the insatiability of a twenty-five-year old.


Conrad onboard in undated photo. (Courtesy Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscripts Library)

It was the sea that gave Conrad to the English language. A fortunate accident – he might so easily have been acquired by the French. He started his manhood, as it were, at Marseilles. In a letter to me of May 8th, 1905, he says: ‘In Marseilles I did begin life thirty-one years ago. It’s the place where the puppy opened his eyes.’ He was ever more at home with French literature than with English, spoke that language with less accent, liked Frenchmen, and better understood their clearer thoughts. And yet, perhaps not quite an accident, for after all he had the roving quality which has made the English the great sea nation of the world; and, I suppose, his instinct led him to seek in English ships the fullest field of expression for his roving nature. England was to him, too, the romantic country; it had been enshrined for him, as a boy in Poland, by Charles Dickens. He always spoke of Dickens with the affection we have for the writers who captivate our youth.


… he was habitually impatient with labels, and pigeonholes, with cheap theorising, and word-debauchery. He stared life very much in the face, and distrusted those who didn’t. Above all, he had the keen humor which plays old Harry with class and catalogues, with all ideals and aspirations, too, not grounded in the simplest springs of human nature. He could not bear the clichés of so-called civilization. His sense of humor indeed was far greater than one might think from his work. He laughed with an almost ferocious enjoyment of the absurd.


Conrad and Polish cousin, 1924. (Courtesy Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)

I saw little of Conrad during the war. Of whom did one see much? He was caught in Poland at the opening of that business, and it was some months before he succeeded in getting home. The tall words – ‘war to end war,’ and the rest of it, left him, a continental and a realist, appropriately cold. When it was over he wrote: “So I send these few lines to convey to you both all possible good wishes for unbroken felicity in your new home and many years of peace. At the same time I’ll confess that neither felicity nor peace inspire me with much confidence. There is an air of ‘the packed valise’ about these two divine but unfashionable figures. I suppose the North Pole would be the only place for them, where there is neither thought nor heat, where the very water is stable, and the democratic bawlings of the virtuous leaders of mankind die out into a frozen unsympathetic silence.” Conrad had always a great regard for men of action, for workmen who stuck to their last and did their own jobs well; he had a corresponding distrust of amateur omniscience, and handy wiseacres; he curled his lip at political and journalistic protestation; cheap-jackery and clap-trap of all sorts drew from him a somewhat violently expressed detestation. I suppose what he most despised in life was ill-educated theory, and what he most hated blatency and pretence. He smelled it coming round the corner and at once his bristles would rise.


He never shirked. In an age more and more mechanical, more and more given to short cuts and the line of least resistance, the example of his life’s work shines out – its instinctive fidelity, his artist’s desire to make the finest think he could. Fidelity! Yes, that is the word which best sums up his life and work. The last time I saw Conrad – about a year ago – I wasn’t very well, and he came and sat in my bedroom, full of affectionate solicitude. It seems, still, hardly believable that I shall not see him again. His wife tells me that a sort of homing instinct was on him in the last months of his life; that he seemed sometimes to wish to drop everything and go back to Poland. Birth calling to Death – no more than that, perhaps, for he loved England, the home of his wandering, of his work, of his last long landfall. If to a man’s deserts is measured out the quality of his rest, Conrad shall sleep well.

Andrzej Wajda’s film version of The Shadow-Line – and why it didn’t work

Andrzej Wajda in 1974.

Andrzej Wajda in 1974

The Shadow-Line is the story of the inner life of its characters, told through a series of events – and that’s the very quality that defeated the eminent Polish film director, Andrzej Wajda when making his 1976 film, one of his few cinematic failures: “I pursued the mood, the elusive nature of words, understatement. And so I created an inarticulate, elusive, and uncommunicative film.” The film, Smuga Cienia, nevertheless won the Special Jury Prize at the 1976 Polish Film Festival.

The director wrote years later that the book has “a clear, easy-to-follow plot; nonetheless, this prose is difficult to adapt for film.” He made the film in English – another decision that caused misgivings: “Why the hell do I need an English film?” he would ask himself.

Wajda, who turned 90 in March, bypassed a more straightforward idea to make this film – and we can only regret that he made one, not two, films. Screenwriter Bolesław Sulik approached him to make a film about a little-known incident in Conrad’s life. During World War I, Conrad had enlisted on a decoy ship designed to trace German U-boats. The small merchant ship was equipped with a hidden cannon.

The crew was not happy about having a famous writer onboard, given the danger of their mission and their responsibility for his safety. When Conrad developed a bad cold, that was the moment they had waited for. They put him ashore. He was grabbed by the British police watching coastal traffic. Conrad’s heavy Polish accent didn’t help, and he his friends had a hard time getting him out of jail.

“Describing this anecdote now after many years, I can’t understand why I dropped this project,” Wajda muses years later. “Of course, Sulik’s screenplay was not as good as The Shadow-Line, but its essence was beautiful and it contained a noble film idea. However, at that time I believed it would be easier to adapt Conrad’s story than to write an original screenplay about him.”

Andrzej Wajda today (Photo: Creative Commons)

After a month of filming, he wrote in his diary in October 1975: “I’ve had enough – I’ve lost heart for illustrating something that was written and meant to be read.”

“It is true that this film is different from my other films; it is ascetic, dry, with a single plot. It is a surprise for me as well. It turned out that Conrad’s short story is so cristalline, concise, and perfect in itself that it does not give in to any transformations. Everything that was added was artificial and unnecessary.”

Marek Kondrat as the Captain


In 1981, he wrote: “If you want to be faithful to a novel which you are transferring to the screen, you must demolish it completely in order to put the pieces back together again and give it an opportunity to live on screen. When I think about adaptation I recall what Hamlet said to his mother: ‘I must be cruel, only to be kind.’ I wasn’t cruel enough to The Shadow-Line.

“Conrad’s novels were our best loved reading during the Nazi occupation. Oh, how we loved to read them! But the problems contained in Conrad’s works, when presented in the reality of the Warsaw Uprising, acquire dramatic value, clarity and a cinematic character, which my film The Shadow Line is missing.”

Still want to give the film a try? It’s online here. You can hear the English beneath the Polish. Below, Marek Kondrat as the Captain in The Shadow-Line.

Marek Kondrat in "The Shadow-Line"

Borys recalls his father, Joseph Conrad: his death, his accent, and his desk

When Joseph Conrad’s first child was born in 1898, the author wrote to Stephen Crane: “A male infant arrived yesterday and made a devil of a row… It’s a ghastly nuisance.” 

Yet The Shadow-Line is dedicated to Borys, the first of his two sons. Borys was a soldier in the “Great War” who returned from the front, shell-shocked and gassed. Years later, in 1970, he published a memoir, My Father: Joseph Conrad. 

A few excerpts:

When I visited Pent Farm recently I was surprised to see how little it had changed in appearance; and the room in which my Father used to work looked astonishingly familiar. There was an oak table in the corner in the same position as I remembered his desk, and an armchair by the fire exactly as his huge wingchair had been placed. This chair, which remains in my memory as the focal point of the scenery upon the stage of our family life, invariably presented its back to the door so that, when in use, the occupant was invisible to anyone entering he room. Invisible, that is, with the exception of one foot which protruded at the side, owing to his invariable habit of sitting with his knees crossed. I believe we could all assess the mood of the head of the house by a surreptitious glance at that foot. If it was motionless it could be safely assumed that its owner was reading or thinking, and in a reasonably tranquil frame of mind, but any movement of the limb indicated all was not well. In fact, the degree of his displeasure oculd be fairly accurately gauged by the rapidity with which the foot waggled, and really violent movement was a danger signal unwise to ignore.


At this point it is necessary to mention that my Father had difficulty in pronouncing certain words in English, and there were those who wrote about him as having a strong foreign accent, but I consider this to be a gross overstatement. Nevertheless, it is true that, when unwell or under emotional strain his mispronunciation became more marked. We in the family were, of course, familiar with most of the words with which he had difficulty but occasionally one would crop up which was not known to all of us. This happened after our visit to the doctor and, for a short time, caused me acute distress.

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Werner Herzog Visits Another Look: The Movie!

Herzog shares his love of Virgil’s “Georgics” (Photo L.A. Cicero/Stanford News Service)

First the dynamite onstage conversation, now the movie!

Our February 2 event with legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog discussing J.A. Baker‘s The Peregrine – and so much more – is now available on youtube, in a full-length version (here) and a highlights version (here). Or look below.

Herzog quibbles at a point. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Another Look’s director, Prof. Robert Harrison, a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and host for the popular “Entitled Opinions” radio talk show, was the interlocutor for the discussion.

The event was covered by Caille Millner in the San Francisco Chronicle (here). Meanwhile, the highlights version is below, and the full hour-and-a-half discussion below that.

Is The Peregrine one of the greatest books of the 20th century? Werner Herzog is coming to Stanford to say so.

By Cynthia Haven

J.A. Baker wrote The Peregrine at a precarious moment in environmental history: By the 1960s, the falcons had almost vanished entirely from the English countryside, thanks to aggressive use of pesticides. Baker’s response, an ecstatic panegyric to peregrines, stunned critics with its originality, power and beauty.

The young J.A. Baker (Photo courtesy Albert Sloman Library, University of Essex)

The little-known 1967 masterpiece will be the subject of an onstage conversation with legendary film director Werner Herzog, who has said that The Peregrine is one of his favorite books.

The Another Look book club event will take place at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 2. The event is free, but registration is required and offered through the Another Look book club’s website; details on the event and the venue are included with registration. The Peregrine is available at Stanford Bookstore and at Kepler’s in Menlo Park.

Herzog’s interlocutor will be Robert Harrison, an acclaimed author and Stanford’s Rosina Pierotti Professor of Italian Literature, who writes regularly for the New York Review of Books and hosts the popular radio talk showEntitled Opinions.

“One of the finest pieces of prose”

Herzog has made edgy films about grizzly bears, prehistoric cave drawings in southern France, Rajput festivals, and more – but he also prides himself on his role as an author and screenwriter. The Peregrine is required reading in Herzog’s Rogue Film School, and he has called it one of the greatest books of the 20th century, praising “an intensity and beauty of prose that is unprecedented, it is one of the finest pieces of prose you can ever see anywhere.”

The Peregrine, which received England’s prestigious Duff Cooper Prize, has no plot and no characters. Instead, Baker distills 10 years of observations into a single autumn-to-spring period, written as a diary. Baker’s passionate, unsparing descriptions of peregrine falcons in the fenlands of Essex convey the urgency of the historical moment:

“Before it is too late, I have tried to … convey the wonder of … a land to me as profuse and glorious as Africa,” he wrote. By the spring of 1961, tens of thousands of birds were found littering the countryside, dead or dying in agony, along with other animals.

 Read the rest here.

A few words from Werner Herzog on The Peregrine

At the Venice Film Festival, 2009 (Photo: Nicolas Genin)

I’m Werner Herzog, I’m a filmmaker normally but I do read. The book I would really recommend is an obscure book published in 1967: “The Peregrine,” by J.A. Baker, who is somebody about whom we know nothing, literally nothing. He wrote in Great Britain when the last peregrines were dying out—now they have bounced back a little bit. He observes peregrines and it’s a most incredible book. It has prose of the caliber that we have not seen since Joseph Conrad. And an ecstasy—a delirious sort of love for what he observes.

The intensity and the ecstasy of observation is something that you have to have as a filmmaker or somebody who loves literature. Whoever really loves literature, whoever really loves movies, should read that book.

In a way, it’s almost like a transubstantiation, like in religion, where the observer becomes almost the object—in this case the falcon—he observes. He writes, for example, about the falcon soaring high up, and then higher and higher until the falcon is only a dot. Then he writes, “and then we swoop down,” as if he had become a falcon himself. And there’s a variety of moments where you can tell that he has completely entered into the existence of a falcon. And this is what I do when I make a film, I step outside of myself into an ekstasis in Greek, to step outside of your own body, a point outside. Baker steps into the fog and in an ecstasy of observing the world it is unprecedented.

It’s a wonderful, wonderful book and it’s on my mandatory reading list of my Rogue Film School. They have to read Roman antiquities, Virgil, Georgics, for example, and old Icelandic poetry, and among others the Warren Commission Report on Kennedy’s assasination, which is a wonderful piece of literature, wonderful crime story. And incredible in its conclusiveness.

What’s it like to have a peregrine for a friend? Ask falconer Hans Peeters.

Hans and friend

Hans and friend

Hans Peeters is the author of Mammals of California (2004), Raptors of California (2005), and Owls of California and the West (2007), as well as American Hawking (1970) and a number of scientific papers. He is a painter as well as an ornithologist, and has contributed illustrations for several well-known field guides to North American birds and Birds of South Asia, The Ripley Guide. His paintings have been exhibited in museums worldwide and have been used for postage stamps promoting conservation. 

At 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, February 10 at CEMEX Auditorium, he is giving a (free) presentation on “Discovering Raptors.” Details and directions here.

We caught up with Hans to ask him a few questions about the raptor that so fascinated J.A. Baker – the peregrine.

Q. Tell me a little about your background with peregrines.

A.  I saw my first captive peregrine at the age of 12 at the house of a falconer in Germany. Since then, the peregrine has always been the pinnacle of falconry for me and is in fact the standard for falcons used in falconry. I flew peregrines almost continually from 1963 until 2003, although I trained other hawks and falcons as well, which of course offered comparisons. I have watched wild peregrines nearly around the world – in India, Africa, Australia, South America, and in the British Isles and Europe.

“Like a very demanding child.”

Q. What’s it like to have a peregrine for a friend?

A. Having a peregrine for a friend is rather like looking after a very demanding child.

Falcons need to be relaxed; otherwise, they damage their plumage, so valuable for flight. Peregrines, unlike other falcons, are by nature calm, but they do expect a decent daily meal. If raised properly, they sit about quietly all day, tethered to a perch, and begin to row their wings as flying time approaches, somewhat as a dog will bark at the door or bring you a leash. Once the hawking season is over – it lasts roughly from September to March, the falcon is usually turned loose in a mews, a special chamber, and allowed to put on some weight, which aids in the growth of new feathers.  Almost all falcons enjoy a bath now and then, and some indulge themselves daily.

Purely from the standpoint of friendship, a peregrine gives one pleasure besides making demands. They are personable enough where they usually recognize their owner and, in the air, will pick him out from among other people, waiting on above him while ignoring others. They also distinguish between the falconer’s dog and other dogs in the field.  As friends, they are reasonably faithful but can be led astray by the urge to migrate, the joys of soaring in warm weather and the hormones of love, as well as by fear of powerful predators – though in the end, they nearly always come back.

You do grow to love them when they perform as desired and when they show some affection towards you in terms of never using their powerful beaks and talons on you.

Q. What do you mean by “waiting on above him”?

A.  Simply put, it is circling overhead at a good “pitch,” or height, to stay in an advantageous position to catch something the falconer kicks up. The falconer waits until the falcon is in position.

Q.  What’s so special about falcons in general, and peregrines, in particular? How are peregrines different from other birds – eagles, for example?

A. Compared to other raptors, such as Red-tailed Hawks, Goshawks, Cooper’s Hawks, and Sharp-shinned Hawks, all of which are trained for falconry, falcons on the whole tend to be calmer and more easily managed – as is the Redtail, an exception among the hawks. All falcons excel at flight and are much more aerial than the other species.

The downside of such flying is that they are relatively short-legged and long-winged, which means in practice, they are less agile on the ground and in cover, where tight turns are important in capturing prey.

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J.A. Baker’s last book celebrates the song-lit English summer

A goldcrest in Lancashire (Photo: Francis C. Franklin)

J.A. Baker only wrote one other book after 1967′s The Peregrine. While his first, The Peregrine, charted the Essex landscape from fall to spring, his second, The Hill of Summer, runs from April to September, celebrating the verdant English summer.

Here is an excerpt from The Hill of Summer, published in 1969:

On the far side of the wood, a goldcrest sings among the larches, hidden in the high green light. He hops and flutters quickly along the branches, singing from bare dark twigs. It is a thin song, but vehement, emphatic, ending with a flourish. Occasionally his shrill call-note pierces down, a sound very close to silence. The large wood holds the wind gently persuasively, the high branches sifting it with a sound like the hiss of falling sand. The hot sun, and the big white clouds returning, are far beyond the tree-tops. The light under the trees is green and yellow, like the bending reflections of tree and sunlight in green water. Two swifts, the first of the year, hawk for insects in the upper sky. One rushes down at the other; then they sweep upward together in a rising arc, and fling themselves apart. Their distant screaming trails across the blue. A fox walks past, reddening the shadows. Then all is still; and there are only the nets of sunlight drifting over the dry bracken, and the green bracken growing, and the soft sifting, the endless sifting, of the wind in the feather large leaves.

A kestrel circles above the trees, gliding and fluttering. It soars higher, twining around the smooth column of the rising air. Above the dark crescents of the swifts it dwindles, feeding upon insects, swerving and half-hovering to catch them in its talons. Swallows rise to mob it; gently it rocks itself up beyond their reach. It floats up till the sky heals over it. It descends, and is visible for a moment, but it rises again to blue. Under and over the blue dust of the air it gleams and vanishes. Then suddenly it turns entirely into light, and is seen no more. I stay in the large wood, drowsy and at peace, while the quiet afternoon subsides into the song-lit April evening.

How much did Baker really see? The controversy that surrounds The Peregrine

“The hardest thing of all to see is what is really there,” J.A. Baker wrote in The Peregrine. The iambic heptameter thought forms a sort of credo for the elusive author. But the sentence may have a double meaning; it’s not clear today how much Baker really observed in his outings on Essex’s fenlands.

Questions about The Peregrine began to surface shortly after the book’s publication in 1967. No falcon expert had ever observed a peregrine eating worms, ever – yet Baker observes this happening often, in such passages as this one: “He rose up almost at once, with a thick red earthworm dangling from his toes. … he bent his head down to meet his uplifted foot and ate the worm in three gulping bites. … Three times, during the late afternoon, he planed down to the field to catch and eat a worm.” There were other objections:

  • Peregrines don’t perch in bushes and swamps, as Baker claims.
  • His peregrines hunt in ways no one else has witnessed (they do not engage in play, for example).
  • His account of peregrine biology is mostly faulty (the peregrine’s eyes do not swivel, they do not weigh anything near one ounce each).
  • Peregrines do not fly with wings held in a dihedral.
  • They do not hover nearly as much as Baker claims to have seen them hover – on one page (166) the peregrines “hover” five times.
  • A peregrine’s prey does not behave in the suicidal ways that Baker describes.
  • The quantity of peregrine kills he claims to have discovered are highly exaggerated.

Mark Cocker (Alasdair Cross/Creative Commons)

The last question raised perhaps the greatest controversy. Baker claims to have found, over a ten year period, 619 carcasses of birds killed by wintering falcons. And how did he see falcons so regularly in Chelmer Valley, where few others had seen them? The dispute continues today, and is likely to continue for some time to come.

Baker died in 1987, many of his letters and much from his diaries has been destroyed. Yet Baker insisted to his death that he wrote what he had observed. He was convinced he was right. We are left to make the best of it, and many have tried.

Author and naturalist Mark Cocker, in his introduction to 2011 edition of The Peregrine, The Hill of Summer, and Diaries (Collins), took up the defense: “if you watch peregrines long enough they will do things that other people do not normally see, and even things that no one else has seen, such as eating worms. Recent research has just disclosed behaviour not widely recognised – namely that peregrines hunt and kill during the hours of darkness (Baker, incidentally, notedthat the birds are active after sunset.)” We can’t call something untrue simply because it was without precedent, he insisted.

“Peregrines, however well-studied, are birds of mystery still. That, surely, is the allure of all field study,” he wrote. Cocker reminds us that Baker was distilling the observations of a decade, and possibly more. He had “compressed and manipulated the time frame,” wrote  Cocker. Elsewhere, “To read the book as a blow-by-blow series of genuine journal entries is to fail to appreciate the difference between the literal truth of a notebook and the literary truth as expressed by Baker.”

Author and conservationist Conor Mark Jameson came up with a startling insight of his own in Silent Spring Revisited: “Looking again closely at my copy of The Peregrine and these peculiar, detailed, loving descriptions of the bird, I had what felt like a moment of clarity, as a hypothesis dawned on me that just might clear up the confusion. There is a species that all of this fits, and could describe, and it’s neither Peregrine nor Kestrel. It’s Saker Falcon – Falco cherub. Or even, at a push, Lugger Falcon – Falco lugger. Or possibly a hybrid of either of these with Peregrine Falcon. They can be cross-bred in captivity…

“Baker’s decade straddles a period in which the owning of raptors had become what Gerald Summers called a ‘craze’.” They were problematic to train, easy to lose, and others flew off and were released.” In other words, Baker was viewing birds that may have been hybrids, and partly tamed.

Jameson defends Baker

As for the dead carcasses of birds, he had his own theory for that, too: “It’s well known that organo-chlorine pesticides persisted in the food chain in the post-war period, accumulating in the bodies of top-end predators like Peregrines, causing infertility and reproductive problems. What seems less remembered is that these chemicals were sometimes directly lethal, killing birds of all kinds in large numbers.” Mulling over Baker’s book, he suggested, “Perhaps poisoning might even explain the unusual or lethargic behaviour of closely studied raptors of the time.”

Cocker knows that the questions are challenging and difficult: “These doubts cannot simply be dismissed as the kind of pettifogging scepticism that sometimes seems indivisible from the science and pastime of ornithology. There are serious issues that all informed readers of The Peregrine have to face.”