‘I began to dream of secret swimming holes and a journey of discovery….’ Roger Deakin, ten years on.
17 August 2016
In about 1997, I was sharing a bottle of wine with my good friend and neighbour Roger Deakin in the garden of Walnut Tree Farm, his house in the Waveney Valley. Although his life was going through a period of restlessness and change, Roger was in good form.
He was going to write a book, he told me. My spirits might have drooped a little at that point. Although Roger had written for magazines, I had always considered him more of film-maker than an author. But when he told me that his plan was to write a travel book, based broadly on John Cheever’s short story ‘The Swimmer’, that he was going to take a swimming journey through Britain, my doubts disappeared: it was a brilliant and highly commercial idea. Then, or soon afterwards, he came up with his title – Waterlog.
He wrote the book, disappearing for weeks in his battered Citroen to reappear with unnerving tales of watery peril and clashes with authority. Although it was personally an unhappy time in his life – an important relationship had come to an end – he was clearly enjoying himself, living, then writing, Waterlog.
When I read the manuscript, it was a revelation. Roger had found the perfect form for his own peculiar perspective on the world – clear-eyed, full of knowledge and intelligence, but also with a sense of childlike wonder, combining the observed and personal, exterior and interior. Beneath the excitement and the joy of discovery, there was a tug of melancholy which gave the story a telling personal edge. Roger was not just swimming to explore but also to escape – from a fretful world, from romantic disappointment, from loneliness.
‘I wanted to follow the rain on its meanderings about our land to rejoin the sea, to break out of the frustration of a lifetime doing lengths, of endlessly turning back on myself like a tiger pacing its cage. I began to dream of secret swimming holes and a journey of discovery through what William Morris, in the title to one of his romances, called The Water of the Wondrous Isles.’
The book was published, and became a huge deserved success here and internationally. Roger enjoyed his popularity but without the slightest hint of vanity. He treated it all as a rather wonderful surprise, as if an otter had made an appearance at his moat. A book on wood planned to be as offbeat and personal as Waterlog, was commissioned. There were literary festivals, interviews, the beginnings of fame.
To survive professionally, an author needs to find a balance between confidence and insecurity: too much of either can be ruinous. In his late fifties when his first books was published, Roger had that balance. A great, late-flowering future seemed to await him.
It was not to be. Within seven years of the publication of Waterlog, he was dead, felled by a brain tumour which had been discovered in April 2006 and which killed him in August, ten years ago this week.
His second book Wildwood was published after his death. From the time when he had started researching Waterlog, Roger had kept notebooks which contained wonderfully observational material about his daily life which were not used in his books. With Roger’s partner Alison Hastie. I edited a collection of extracts from those notebooks to make Notes From Walnut Tree Farm.
Quite soon after he died, it became clear that Roger’s writing, indeed his life, spoke to a wider readership than had been evident when he was alive. There were articles, even editorials, in praise of him. He was credited as a pioneer of what became known as ‘new nature writing’. A one-man play was written, conflating Waterlog and events in Roger’s life. There was a TV documentary. A big-time screenplay writer interviewed his friends in preparation for some kind of biopic (it was later abandoned, having been thought to lack the necessary narrative arc).
An exhibition of photographs of his house, moat and field have became the subject of an exhibition. In June this year, the Aldeburgh Festival exhibited the pictures and hosted a talk between three eminent writers, discussing Roger’s house and ‘the authenticity of place’.
For me, and perhaps for others, this morphing of Roger into a green hero, a symbol of this or that, has been a mixed pleasure. Of course, I had wish he was around to enjoy the fuss being made of him, and to debunk some of the nonsense that has been said and written.
But there has been something disquieting about the process, too. In a culture hooked on feeling, Roger’s premature death has become part of the story, adding the required tang of tragedy. His life has been pored over, with impertinent, often plain wrong, conclusions drawn about what he felt and thought.
Then there was the backlash. I have been at a public event where an eminent author – one of Roger’s contemporaries, whom he had always rather admired – bitched rather gracelessly about the new nature writing, implying that it was some kind of marketing stunt dreamed up by a group of writers. There have been parodies of this new writing in which poor old Roger becomes part of the joke. This was Craig Brown (a great fan of Roger’s, as it happens) in Private Eye:
‘Water. Sometimes deep, sometimes shallow, yet always wet. As I was rereading one of my own books, I recalled the pleasure I had taken from swimming along the Cam with Roger Deakin while discussing the possibility of metempsychosis into the otherness of mermaid.’
Maybe this grim process of myth-making, sometimes followed by piss-taking, is inevitable when a distinctive writer dies before his or her time. It must have happened with Plath, Chatwin, Foster Wallace and others. The effect it has is to push the writing further way, to smooth off the interesting rough corners of a life, replacing a real, complicated person with a shiny icon. Somewhere along the line, image obscures the work.
It seems peculiarly unfair that it has happened to a writer who was utterly his own man, and never knowingly part of any trend or movement. It is my small personal wish on this tenth anniversary of his death that Roger’s words will be read by even more people over the next decade, but without the attendant noise and silliness of literary celebrity.
‘You approach my place along a bumpy track across a Suffolk grazing common. It is hidden behind tall trees beyond a moat that runs around parts of the perimeter of the common – a strip of spinney, ash, maple, goat willow, holly and old, gnarled thorn trees. You can just see the chimney above the trees. I thought when I first saw it that it must be a fantasy, a form of East Anglian mirage, and I still do…’
A shorter version of this blog appeared in the Guardian, 13th August 2016. The photograph is by Gary Rowland.