Writer and broadcaster whose 'Waterlog' recounted his journey swimming 'wild' through Britain
Wednesday 23 August 2006
Roger Stuart Deakin, writer, documentary-maker and environmentalist: born Watford, Hertfordshire 11 February 1943; married 1973 Jenny Hind (one son; marriage dissolved 1982); died Mellis, Suffolk 19 August 2006.
Roger Deakin was a spiritual loner who loved his friends; a dedicated naturalist who was both poet and taxonomist; a man who put down roots in the Suffolk countryside but could make himself at home in a shepherd's hut in northern Greece or sleeping under the stars in the desert of Australia's Northern Territory.
He is best known for Waterlog: a swimmer's journey through Britain (1999), a marvellous rendering of the right to swim "wild". With Waterlog Deakin broke new ground, as well as water: it was both travel writing and nature study and very personal. He submerged himself in his subject matter, with great enthusiasm and sometimes carelessness. Taking his cue from a short story by John Cheever, "The Swimmer", (Burt Lancaster was in the 1968 film) about a man who makes his way through Californian suburbia by swimming through people's pools, Deakin decided to swim as many open water spaces (and indoor baths and and lidos) as he could find around the British isles, studying each pool, lake, loch, pond, race, river, tarn, strait and even a canal, to observe its natural inhabitants - from pike and eel to newt and skimmer - and to assess, and sometimes challenge, the way the local human population treated their waterways.
It was a history of swimming as a recreation, and water as a life source. Anecdotal, personal, experiential, the journey began in Deakin's own 16th-century farm moat at Mellis, near Diss in Suffolk, just a couple of dozen or so yards long and six yards wide, but as clean and clear as any water anywhere - and kept that way by the weeds and snails that Deakin cared for. Waterlog was as much about the people of the waterways as the water, whether they be swimmers, fisher-folk, lock-keepers, boat people, scientists or council minders. Deakin would often challenge the local protectors whose duty it was to warn off people from "unhealthy" or "dangerous" water. Of course, some of it really was dangerous, but it was Deakin's view that perhaps "danger" was something we should get more used to rather than be so routinely protected from.
In 1965, when I met Roger Deakin first, he lived on the third floor in one of the many four-storey, Bayswater cream-painted residential terraces. He had come down from Peterhouse, Cambridge, where he was tutored in English by Kingsley Amis, and been snapped up as a copywriter for Colman Prentis and Varley; but he had a natural, quite literally entrepreneurial spirit, which drove him to collect, remake and market all kinds of discarded treasures.
While he stayed in advertising, becoming creative director at more than one smart London agency, he was a keen stripper of old pine - kitchen chairs, cabinets, corner cupboards, chests of drawers. He was one of the first people I knew who would always check out the contents of a builder's skip, for useful or decorative objects which might make their way to his mantelpiece, his tool-box or a market stall.
He strewed his room with driftwood, dried flowers, long-stemmed blond grasses, enamel roadside advertising signs for Camp Coffee or Mobiloil, defunct, but not to be buried, Remington typewriters, and bakelite phones. I once nearly chucked out some "dead" fronds and was told, wisely but firmly, that nothing was ever really dead, and anyway there was another way of seeing them now they no longer had the burden of growing.
In his late teens, he was already a keen and courageous explorer of Europe. In our narrow Bayswater kitchen was earthenware trove he had found in southern Spain, from Antonio Sala's kiln in a village near Gerona in Catalonia. He and his friend Tony Axon sold the bulk of them in the Portobello Road and since those days, Sr Sala has done very well selling much finer wares, as supplier of ceramics to the Queen - but his early work is still at Roger Deakin's home in Mellis.
Deakin had that prize talent for combining a profound romantic imagination with boyish tinkering, and was drawn irrevocably to what people were still able to call "the country". He would disappear for long weekends in his sky-blue Morgan (not always alone), until in 1968 he found the tumbling Elizabethan moated farmhouse on the edge of Mellis Common, and began an endless loving process of refurbishing it, restoring it, but never "renovating".
Apart from a sturdy Rayburn, and some rudimentary, and far from "mod" cons, Walnut Tree Farm was almost as Elizabethan the day he died there as when he first moved in: brick floors, wide open fireplaces, rough furniture, rugs, vines, creepers and, on wet days, mud. Until last summer there was always a colony of visiting swallows in the main chimney and, for a year or two, he shared his kitchen with ducks and chickens. Outside he planted trees, including, in 2003, a line of walnuts that might take 40 years to bear fruit.
He argued with the locals, again firm but polite, about ancient rights of way, and tried to convince the authorities and the neighbours that a coppiced hedgerow was just as important as a wood or forest, and should be preserved, not just as a bit of greenery, but evidence of a dynamic relationship with the environment that was once everyday and everywhere.
Deakin was a co-founder of the environmental group Common Ground, made films for Anglia TV about allotments, woodland and musicians (the cult country singer Hank Wangford - aka Sam Hunt - Procul Harum and the Southend rockabilly movement) and played an important role on the East Anglia Arts Council, and for a few years was an impresario, persuading Carole King to play the Maltings at Snape, for example. He was able to export his passion for East Anglia to his mother Gwen, who moved to live in nearby Eye.
He was born in Watford in 1943, an only child who lost his father when he was 17 - it was his uncle who taught him to swim. After the publication of Waterlog in 1999, never a month passed by but a journalist or camera crew would arrive to film him swimming at Mellis, the inspiration and the start of his many journeys. Deakin made several radio programmes for the BBC about the ideas, philosophy and the inspiration that came from the fresh water spring at the bottom of his moat. Sadly, in the years of recent droughts, the surface of the moat had fallen by a couple of feet.
Mellis was Roger Deakin's ecological base from which he made forays: to other parts of East Anglia (he taught in Diss for three years), to the Lake District, the West Country and to Jura for Waterlog and to Kyrgistan to find the original apple trees and Tasmania to see the world's oldest untouched forests for Wildwood: a journey through trees, his book about the human love of wood. It was all undertaken on a shoestring: camping, hostelling, sleeping in bus shelters. He was a true free spirit, anchored to the home dirt he loved on Mellis Common, but open and eager to see what was happening on the other side of the world.
After a long struggle to preserve the local as well as the global natural world, the drought and the cold of recent months in Britain had made him wonder whether the war to save the planet from the gloomy prospect of terminal climate change might have been lost. Towards the end of last year, he and I exchanged e-mails about the changes we were noticing at either end of the planet - in Suffolk and in Sydney. Here's his e-mail received the day before Christmas 2005:
You're not missing much here. No light in the mornings until ten, dusk from about 2.30, hardly worth getting out of bed.
A month later:
Dark, gloomy and VERY COLD here. Fucking awful, in fact. I heard on the radio that Suffolk only had THREE hours of sunlight in December. January looks even worse.
And then in early February, this:
Unbelievable, unrelieved, unbearable, uninspiring uniform grey after grey, day after day - and fucking cold too, but no snow or thick enough ice to skate on, just the most miserable weather on record. I hardly remember what the sun looks like.
My last e-mail from Roger came on Easter Sunday 2006, still waiting for spring, and just finishing Wildwood. He had suddenly discovered he had a brain tumour, but even in the midst of that horrifying jolt, his parting shot was not about his illness ("don't worry - best people are on the case") but
Weather here certainly hasn't improved, MUCH. A tiny sprit warmer, but considering it's SPRING, there isn't a single bit of green anywhere except on the fields. Woods still as bare as brushes.
It would be remiss to leave that as an example of Roger Deakin's beautiful writing. There's much more of him in Waterlog and Wildwood (which will be published next year), where a poetic spirit underpinned his conservationism.
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