Last Saturday friends and fans of the late Roger Deakin gathered at the Corn Hall in Diss to celebrate his work in the month of what would have been his 70th birthday. Bob Jellicoe reports back from what was obviously a very moving and wonderful evening:
Roger Deakin, no stranger to readers of Caught by the River, has become something of a cult figure since his early death from a brain tumour seven years ago. Yet, as his friend Terence Blacker said in his opening remarks on Saturday, February 9th in the Corn Hall in Diss, “It is easy to lose sight of the real person when he becomes representative of causes and movements.” To redress that imbalance and to mark what would have been Roger’s 70th birthday, Blacker gathered close friends and fellow writers Robert Macfarlane, Richard Mabey, Ronald Blythe and Roger’s partner, Alison Hastie, to present Roger Deakin – In His Own Words, an evening of readings, sound recordings and film clips to take us back to the man himself, to hear his voice, see again his unique view of the world.
Starting with a film clip from a 1999 Bookmark programme, we saw Roger and Griff Rhys-Jones (who was present at the Corn Hall) taking tea in Roger’s study at Walnut Tree Farm, his moated farmhouse at Mellis in Suffolk. They are discussing the inspiration behind Waterlog (Roger’s first book) – John Cheever’s short story, The Swimmer – in which the hero, Ned Merrill swims the eight miles home from a party on Long Island via his neighbour’s swimming pools. Cut to Roger and Griff in bathing trunks walking determinedly to the moat. Griff is smiling cheerily. With no hesitation, they both dive in. When Griff resurfaces, his voice is higher than it was before. “It’s full of weeds! It’s fresh! It’s very, very cold, Roger!” “Swimming is invigorating,” Roger remarks laconically back in the study. “It’s like Bob Marley says, ‘Lively up yourself.’”
Roger talks next of dangerous swims he should not have made. Hellgill Gorge, a treacherous pothole, caused “a few uneasy moments”; while swimming the industrial waters of the Medway involved crossing shipping lanes and the possibility of swallowing its polluted waves. He survived both. A culture is no better than the state of its rivers, he says. One can get a sense of the state of the nation by swimming in them. When the authorities put up NO SWIMMING notices, that is where to find great bathing holes. Walking, swimming and cycling are always subversive he says, because they allow us to regain a sense of what is old and wild in these islands by getting off the beaten track and breaking free of the official version of things. Asked what he hopes readers will take away from Waterlog, he replies that he hopes they will regain a sense of wonder for the simple, immediate and accessible world that is out there- and come away with the feeling that they’d like to go for a dip.
Cut back to Griff struggling up the steps of the moat, his trunks only fractionally bluer than himself. Livelied.
To listen rather than to read places a third voice between reader and text. And when that voice has its own connection with the subject, it can bring a dimension not usually available. So when Robert Macfarlane took the stage, he let Roger talk through him as he read the account of their expedition to Dorset together in search of the holloway described in Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male. (See:-Notes from Walnut Tree Farm, 18th¬¬–20th July).
It is a wonderful piece. Listening to Rob read, I was struck by how infrequently Roger uses similes and metaphors – not of course that he doesn’t – eschewing descriptions of what the world is like in favour of showing it as it is. And that, I think, takes us to the heart of Roger’s prose – he gives us imagery of utter clarity which takes us right into the moment and allows us to live it with him. Rob’s reading of that shared experience brought this out and surely this is what I, and a packed house, came to hear.
Next it was Roger himself, giving a running commentary on nocturnal visitors to the farm one rainy summer night, as recorded for a Radio 4 programme, The House. “It’s about 11:30 at night. I’m working late. (Sfx: Rain). Summer rain. It’s that vertical rain so I’ve got the windows open and the door is open to the garden. There’s a snail going across the doorstep, moving quite fast and it’s got its horns up and its neck right out, its tail stretched out. It clearly knows where it’s going. It’s moving along the edge of the step now. It’s just plunging courageously into the darkness, plunging right down.” Here it is again, the living of the moment through direct observation.
Like Rob, Richard Mabey also felt moved to recall a part of Roger’s life in which he had been involved. In the 1980s when he had known Roger some five or six years, he was “free-range exploring” in the Yorkshire dales. He had been down a crevasse, he said, following enticing and mysterious names on a map, when he came across a bewitching fairy pool, absolutely clear, containing about 4–5 feet of water, so that he could see right to the bottom. It was formed of that mysterious substance called tufa, he said, and was obviously a place where fairies swam. Knowing that Roger was writing Waterlog, he told him about it.
Richard’s reading of Roger’s ‘encounter with naiads’ (See Waterlog:- Ch. 19) had a similar effect to Rob’s, taking us right there as if we were with him. ‘I stripped and dived in. It was so cold, I might have flung myself into a bed of nettles. Then came the heady rush of the endorphins or ‘endolphins’ as a friend once called them.’ ‘Endolphins’ or ‘the feeling of coming up like dolphin’, has since entered the vernacular, Richard said. And that is his favourite side of Roger, “when he is being whimsical and playing with words.”
Another of Roger’s whimsies, typical of his inventiveness,he said, was to build a musical instrument using crickets as sound generators. Since crickets stridulate at different frequencies according to temperature, Roger’s fantasy was to have a series of tubes wrapped round with heating coils, the crickets inside them so that it would be possible to get different sounds at different temperatures. Richard reassured us that this was only a fantasy. In reality, he said, Roger would never hurt a fly.
Ronald Blythe, author and friend, spoke tenderly and movingly in a gentle voice and without sentimentality. He told of the first time he met Roger. He arrived one day at his house and asked about allotments. Ronnie replied that they were the last thing he knew anything about. But when he put his mind to it he recalled from his boyhood, allotments each with a hut, film stars torn out of magazines adorning the walls, for this was a male preserve, no women allowed. When the men went home he remembered how they tied enormous bundles of onions to their bikes. From then on, Roger would always arrive unexpectedly and they would walk to Arger Fen nearby.
Once Ronnie accompanied Roger to a literary festival in the Lake District. It was like being out with a wonderful schoolmaster, he said. When they got there, they went for a short walk. “It was fearfully cold. Roger took all his clothes off and jumped in a tarn. And there was a lovely heated swimming pool in the hotel.”
When Roger was ill, his friends would visit. In the silences when there was not much to say, Ronnie read him John Clare’s poem The Nightingale, which he read again at Roger’s extraordinary funeral. He recalled that Roger’s coffin was adorned not with flowers but with twigs, oak leaves and berries.
Ronnie said that hearing Roger’s voice again made him feel as if he were present. “He was this extraordinary man living on Mellis Green; a marvellous person in all his friends’ lives. I loved him dearly and I miss him still.”
Ronnie also read from Notes from Walnut Tree Farm (See:-25th and 27th November; December and 6th December). Roger, he said, taught us to be very grown up and not grown up because he retained his childhood without ever being childish.
Next up was a film Roger made in the 1990s for Anglia TV, produced by Albion Films, The Ballad of the Ten Rod Plot. For this Roger had assembled a cast of old boys, each of whom arrived at the allotments by bike. (Never underestimate old Suffolk boys; theirs is the wisdom of the ages).
In his voiceovers Roger commented on the culture of the allotment and the allotment holder. By contrast to the desolate agricultural landscape, he said, the landscape of the allotment is peopled and has a skyline of sheds, sticks and poles as distinctive as that of New York. And what is cultivated on allotments is not just food but leisure, peace of mind, the chance to be alone, as well as friendship. But why in this day and age should we bother with this inconvenience food? Roger asked. Because they give food for thought, he suggested. And The final shot gave another answer too. We saw one of the ten-rod men leaving on his bike, beret on his head, with a bag of vegetables grown by himself, fresh for the table.
The final speaker was Alison Hastie, Roger’s partner, who recalled her indignation at their first encounter. Roger had come into her shoe shop in Devon and without her noticing was in the back lifting the lids off the boxes. What she realised, once she composed herself, was that he was taking the place apart because he was so interested.
Working with Terence Blacker putting Notes From Walnut Tree Farm together had helped to lift her spirits after Roger’s death, she said.
She read a wide selection from Notes from Walnut Tree Farm. If there was a common thread, she chose those things he particularly loved or felt strongly about:- bending a coppiced ash into a series of spirals (See:-February 28th); choosing the tree he’d be – a walnut (April 8th); sleeping in his shepherd’s hut and his grief at the retirement of his postman (June 6th); his feelings for his cat, Millie and whether the time he has spent daydreaming has been unproductive or its exact opposite (July 12th and 29th); what he feels returning home after being away (August 24th); the obscurity a writer requires, and why he chose to live in Suffolk ( September 22nd); the real wages of potters and woodworkers (October 9th).
To round the evening off, we heard another clip from The House. Listening through his open window on a frosty new moon night to owls hooting, not unlike Edward Thomas at Adelstrop, Roger imagined their calls being relayed from Mellis to Gislingham to Rickinghall to Botesdale to Redgrave, across the Fen, to Breckland, up along the Peddar’s Way to the North Norfolk coast. How terrifying it must be to be a mouse, vole or shrew; how lucky he felt to be a human lying in bed snug and safe.
So ended a wonderful and celebratory evening illuminating the many sides of Roger Deakin, as told in his own words and by those very close to him. Much as he enjoyed writing and working at his craft, ‘I would much rather be a jotter,’ he wrote. ‘Jottings in their spontaneity and complete absence of any craft, are often much truer to what I feel and think at any given moment.’ And that’s it. He has this remarkable ability to make you feel right there.