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The Invention of Roger Deakin

Reviewed by Andrew Burton

The Swimmer by Patrick Barkham (Hamish Hamilton: 2023)

Photo: Gary Rowland

If Roger Deakin had not existed, surely it would have been necessary to invent him. His influence over British new nature writing has been incalculable. A larger-than-life, multi-faceted and extremely complex character, he squeezed more into one lifetime – before his untimely death in 2006 – than most of us could even dream of. 

For some, he is an intrepid swimmer whose playful and beautifully observed Waterlog (Vintage, 1999) heralded the current trend for wild swimming. For others, he is an environmentalist and passionate champion of local distinctiveness, a concept pioneered by ‘Common Ground’, a grassroots conservation organisation he co-founded. For students at Diss Grammar School in 1975, he was a visionary, maverick English teacher whose unorthodox lessons have lingered in the mind for decades. Look further back in his career, to his days as a recent Cambridge graduate, and you’ll find Roger making his money by writing advertising copy in London in the 1960s, a man about town dressed à la mode and ostentatiously driving around in the Morgan sports car he’d long dreamed of owning.

He was a veritable mass of contradictions: a committed environmentalist who also penned the British Coal Board’s most memorable advertising catch phrase ‘Come home to a real fire’; a sensitive soul who seemed quite oblivious to the emotional distress his actions frequently caused to those closest to him; a man with deeply communal instincts who also had an insatiable appetite for solitude. 

Patrick Barkham’s The Swimmer: the Wild Life of Roger Deakin brilliantly exposes and interrogates these contradictions, structuring each chapter around a different facet Roger presented to the world. The early chapter ‘The Wild Boy’, for example, shows Roger’s fledgling fascination with nature, exemplified by the ‘Cosy Cabin’ which became his garden retreat. ‘The Student’ explores Roger’s undergraduate days at Cambridge, under the sometime tutelage of Kingsley Amis, most of whose supervision meetings seem to have taken place in the local Little Rose pub. ‘The Teacher’ shows Roger talking himself into gaining a teaching post at Diss Grammar School, despite having no formal teaching qualifications. The students’ reactions to Roger’s extraordinary presence sum up his larger-than-life presence. Former pupil Bill Seaman, for example, described Roger as ‘…a tsunami of passion and intellect washing over us. We were a very sleepy rural grammar school. And he woke us up’, while for another former pupil, Claire Mortimer, ‘He was like a creature from another planet’. Subsequent chapters chart Roger’s career progression as an impresario and a film-maker, before he settles, relatively late in life, on the idea of becoming an author. And it is in Waterlog that we find Roger inhabiting his natural milieu. It combines astute observation of the natural world, from a frog’s eye perspective, with insights into the state of the nation, our relationship to wild water and to the wild within ourselves. 

Photo: Gary Rowland

It is surely no coincidence that Waterlog begins with Roger taking a swim in the moat outside his beloved Walnut Tree Farm in Mellis during a summer downpour. The house is central to Roger’s identity. He bought it – together with twelve acres of adjoining land – from the old Suffolk horseman, Arthur Cousins, in 1970, and made it his nest through years of physical labour and unhurried restoration work. One of the joys of Barkham’s book is the range of voices it contains. And of all the people who comment on Roger’s extraordinary life, it is the nature writer Richard Mabey who manages to illuminate key aspects of the enigma that is Roger Deakin, with such fine and precise use of language. Of Walnut Tree Farm, for instance, Mabey observes: ‘It was his kingdom. He built it virtually from scratch. It was an extension of his hair – all his character, his life and beliefs were expressed in the landscape and iconography of Walnut Tree Farm’.

Photo: contributed

I am eagerly anticipating Wednesday 19 June 2024 when I will be hosting Patrick Barkham. On that evening, starting at 7:30pm at Ipswich Institute, Patrick will be giving an illustrated talk about The Swimmer, answering questions from the audience, and signing copies of the book after the event. 

I do hope you will be able to join us and find out more about the life of one of Suffolk’s most distinctive and inimitable writers. 

Patrick Barkham will be talking to the Suffolk Book League at an event on Wednesday 19th June 2024. 


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