Roger Deakin: Exploring the Archive

17 May 2017 // Remembering Roger Deakin

Roger Deakin continues to be a fascinating man and someone we hold close to our hearts here at Caught by the River.

Roger Deakin: Exploring the Archive was the name and theme of a recent afternoon of talks, readings and discussion, held at the UEA, celebrating the work of the wild swimmer, nature writer and patron saint of this parish.

Danny Adcock kindly visited on our behalf. Here’s his report:

I am sure that most people familiar with this website will also be familiar with Roger Deakin and his work. His first book, Waterlog, was first published in 1999 and became something of a cult classic for wild swimmers. But its gently ironic humour, passionate evocations to nature and landscape, and the quirky originality of it all, have placed it firmly at the head of the so-called new nature writing canon.

Last Sunday (30 April) I drove the three-quarters of the way across Norfolk and into Norwich, to attend an afternoon of talks and readings entitled Roger Deakin: Exploring the Archive, organised by Jos Smith, lecturer at the UEA, and author of The New Nature Writing: Rethinking the Literature of Place. Infuriatingly, Google Maps sent me on a wild goose chase through Norwich’s leafy suburbs, walking for twenty minutes in the wrong direction, and so I missed much of the first hour, including Jos Smith’s introduction and both Terence Blacker’s and Andrew Burton’s talks, so I apologise to all three for not being able to go into the detail of their individual contributions here.

As I finally, hurriedly, approached Dragon Hall – now home of the Norwich Writers’ Centre – where it crouches rather splendidly in King Street, amidst the garishness of the modern city, a stone’s throw from a loop of the river Wensum, I couldn’t remember whether the river was mentioned in Waterlog. Flicking through it later in an attempt to find a reference to it proved a dangerous business. So full is it of potential side-tracks and distractions that after an hour I had to force my fingers back to the keyboard because I found I had accidentally read four chapters in their entirety, and could have happily continued re-reading what is an already well-thumbed copy. Once inside the building, you ascend a staircase, and emerge head first, as through a trap door, into the middle of the ancient hall itself and, amongst the beams of the thousand oaks used in its construction, what instantly came to mind was Roger’s description of the Suffolk house he bought in 1969, which he describes rebuilding at the beginning of Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees, published the year after his death. It seemed a very apt location to be discussing a man who had such a connection with trees, their cultural and physical purpose, and their metaphysical and spiritual characteristics.

Keshia Glover. Photo: Margaret Hedderman

Happily, I was in time to hear Keshia Glover’s reading of her article ‘There is much in my life I can thank Roger Deakin for’, originally published on this site as part of 2016’s Remembering Roger Deakin series, which marked the tenth anniversary of his death. Roger’s ability to inspire, to incite, and to provoke reaction is obvious in Keshia’s writing. Given Waterlog by her mother, who was taught by Roger, and remembers his nickname as ‘Freaky Deaky’, she described its effect on her as ‘to take the plunge even though the water’s murky, to jump the gate with the ‘keep out’ sign, to free the butterfly from the cobweb – to reign some benevolent but anarchistic justice on the world. Be generous, be kind, be fearless, and ever curious.’ Which seems not a bad philosophy with which to entertain life.

To the left of the stage a large screen carried a slideshow of pictures that clicked silently throughout the afternoon: Roger up to his neck in the moat of his Suffolk house; Roger as a child; Roger in speedos; Roger’s speedos; Roger with bonkers hair and ‘tache fully justifying the ‘Freaky Deaky’ nickname from his teaching days.

After Keshia’s reading, Terence Blacker and Andrew Burton joined her onstage for questions. The journalist and author Terence Blacker was both a neighbour and friend to Roger. He described him as a complicated character, an only child who as an adult had a diverse energy that could be tempered with loneliness. And there was a lovely anecdote of Roger’s anger at returning home to find his house-sitters had swept away all his spiders and their webs.

The first of the day’s two poetry readings was from Elizabeth-Jane Burnett, whose poem ‘swims’ is her own attempt to express that peculiar joy some people find in plunging themselves into what, if I remember correctly from Roger’s descriptions in Waterlog, seems to be often freezing water. My own interactions with rivers I prefer to be with a pair of waders on, and a fly rod in hand, but I can understand that wont to sink down into the water to seek the frog’s eye perspective Roger described. ‘swims’ is also about a long series of wild swims across the country, in which the speaker is immersed amid the milfoil and the trout, and seems almost weaved into a fusion with the river and all the life it contains. Later Peter Larkin read from his forthcoming poetry collection Introgression Latewood, which deals mainly with the New Forest, where he was born. Both poets’ work draws together those themes of wood and water, which Roger wrote about in all their various incarnations, extremely sympathetically.

Kate Norbury, Elizabeth-Jane Burnett & Charles Rangeley-Wilson. Photo: Margaret Hedderman

The next two speakers were authors Charles Rangeley-Wilson and Katharine Norbury. Kate read from her 2015 memoir The Fish Ladder, and her deeply personal and touching disclosures are testament to the healing abilities flowing through our rivers, but that are also found, of course, in much of our landscape. Charles Rangeley-Wilson, as well as being an author and photographer, is a conservationist who has played a large part in much of the ongoing river restoration currently taking place here in Norfolk, and is one of the founders of the Wild Trout Trust. Before reading from his forthcoming book he wondered aloud about the relevance of his reading. But he chose well, reading as he did from a chapter concerning what was once the most important fish in East Anglia, the eel: ‘It’s hard to separate myth from memory with eels… They’re like that, eels. If I open the damp and silty locker in my mind where eel-ish memories are stored I find a writhing mass of fact and folk-lore and fishy-tales.’ It seemed particularly apt because Roger also dedicated a chapter to the eel’s cultural and historical slitherings amongst the Fens in Waterlog, and I feel sure he would have been just as dismayed as us to hear of the eel’s recent population crash.

The day’s final two speakers were James Canton, writer and lecturer on wild writing at the University of Essex, and Neil Sinden, Director of Policy and Campaigns at the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England. Having worked with Roger at Common Ground, the charity he co-founded with Sue Clifford and Angela King, Neil confirmed that irascible nature sensed in his writing, as he described him launching a diatribe at Thames Water officials over their failure to address water leakage. According to Neil, Common Ground, originally intended to help connect local communities with their environment, undoubtedly influenced the CPRE, which perhaps starts to give an impression of just how far Roger’s influence has spread. James Canton spoke and showed slides from The Oak Papers, a work in progress, which explores the cultural and historical factors surrounding oak trees and their place in the landscape.

As much as exploring the archive, the day was about the future. In examining the themes of river and wood, which Roger Deakin cared so passionately for and wrote so wonderfully about, it was impossible not to envision, in the eel’s demise and the discussion of urban encroachment on the countryside, the growing threats to both.

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There have been many words written about RD on here over the past ten years, and we have no doubt that this is something which will continue for as long as we do. Take a dip in the archive here.

Danny Adcock on Caught by the River/on Twitter

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