The Man Who Unleashed The Birds

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The Man Who Unleashed The Birds: Frank Baker & his Circle by Paul Newman

In 1963 the world of entertainment was transfixed by the terrifying movie The Birds directed by Alfred Hitchcock and based on a short story by Daphne Du Maurier. But what many people do not know was that the same story had been written thirty years earlier by a brilliant young writer called Frank Baker who depicted the city of London falling apart as it was mercilessly attacked by a mysterious flock of birds. This novel had been forgotten and Baker was smarting in penury as he watched what he saw as his own creation go on to reap thousands of dollars. He communicated his anxieties both to Hitchcock and Du Maurier. The first ignored him; the second sympathised and consoled; but this did not salve his torment. Isolated and neglected, bisexual and devoted to alcohol, he felt very much a literary leftover, hiding away with his family mainly in the duchy of Cornwall, about which he wrote with tremendous passion in his brooding first novel The Twisted Tree (1935), in which a mother sacrificed her son, and a later work – also set on the Penwith Peninsula – Talk of the Devil in which a black magic conspiracy turns out to be a ruse concealing a Nazi espionage network. But he was actually a writer of worldwide renown whose classic supernatural comedy Miss Hargreaves was adapted for the London stage with his friend, Margaret Rutherford, taking the leading role. And yet, although he’d been saluted by several critics and a film had been made, starring Robert Donat, of his heart-rending novel Lease of Life, the greater body of his work remained unknown.
This pioneering biography tells the story of this talented, tormented and intensely likeable man who was for a while was organist for Bernard Walke at St Hilary, near Penzance, later becoming an actor and author in London, and finally returning to Cornwall and settling amid a circle of gifted friends, artists, poets and musicians. Hence, in these pages not only do we meet famous authors like Compton Mackenzie but refugees of the ‘forgotten generation’ of the 1920s like Mary Butts and that master of the macabre, Arthur Machen; also the zealous, morally stringent critic of the 1930s, Derek Savage, who lambasted George Orwell on the issue of pacifism; the audacious, satirical painter, Lionel Miskin; John Layard, the much-travelled, widely influential anthropologist and psychologist who killed himself (unsuccessfully) after the poet W.H. Auden had betrayed his affection; the witty and inebriate ‘Jock’ or W.S. Graham, picked out by T.S. Eliot as one of the most remarkable poets of the 20th century; the yachtsman, pacifist and supplier of yarns from Cornwall, Denys Val Baker, and the creator of charming songs and ballads, John Raynor. We also hear about the antics of Aleister Crowley in Cornwall (about whom Frank wrote about in his sensational novel Talk of the Devil) and the Fitzrovian visitors from London, including Peter Warlock, Oswell Blakeston, Augustus John and Dylan Thomas.

Paul Newman, former editor of the literary magazine Abraxas, has written books and articles covering subjects as diverse as symbolism, topography and literature. Titles include The Hill of the Dragon (1979) and The Meads of Love (1994), a life of the poet-miner, John Harris. Together with the sculptor A.R. Lamb, he shared a poetry collection In Many Ways Frogs (1997), followed by Lost Gods of Albion (1998), a study of British hill-figures, and A History of Terror: Fear and Dread Down the Ages (2000). His Arthurian novel Galahad (2003) won the Peninsula Prize and was followed by a piece of investigative non-fiction (about Aleister Crowley in Cornwall) called The Tregerthen Horror (2006) and Haunted Cornwall, a work that was part of a popular series. He was among the international scholars asked to contribute to Scribner’s Dictionary of Ideas. His most recent title, Under the Shadow of Meon Hill, deals with the Lower Quinton and Hagley Wood Murders.

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