Caught by the River

Growing up in Mellis

13th September 2016

Part of our continuing tribute to Roger Deakin

I grew up in Mellis where my family had farmed since the early 1900s. For me, like many other rural teenagers in the 70s, the village was just somewhere to escape from – dull, bleak and boring with a solitary bus route out. I knew Roger from his reputation in the village and also because he was one of our English teachers at the Grammar School in Diss. He certainly stood out. Long hair and moustache, corduroy suits and little interest in throwing chalk or board rubbers at the more slow-witted pupils. His choice of core texts was also idiosyncratic – and it was only years later, reading Waterlog, that I understood why Rogue Male and The Goshawk had featured so prominently. Like all teachers, of course, he had to have a nickname and there could only be one: ‘Freaky Deaky’. When he left, the farewell gift was a goat. Roger’s smile of delight contrasted deliciously with the headmaster’s discomfort as the valedictory present failed spectacularly to observe the niceties of school assembly.

But Roger also gave the teenagers of Mellis and the surrounding villages something else. As he mentions, a number of literary and visual artists decamped from London to the Waveney Valley in the late 60s and early 70s. This spawned an alternative community newspaper, the Waveney Clarion, the rise of the Albion fairs, and gigs most weekends in local village halls and pubs. Roger was at the forefront of all of this and we gleefully took advantage of all the entertainment he threw our way. For some of us, it was also the opportunity to form a band. Being three years behind the rest of the country, we finally embraced punk in 1979 and, two months after forming, played our first gig at Mellis Youth Club (actually, one of the barns at the Beecroft’s). We asked whether Roger would introduce us – and he readily agreed. Faced with a mildly apathetic audience of six, maybe seven, Roger gave us a warm-up worthy of John Peel at his most eloquent and, despite the dreadful din that promptly followed, he was always supportive and managed to secure us a number of local gigs.

As the years passed, our paths rarely crossed. I remember ringing him from work in the mid 90s to see if he had contact details for an old friend. I was touched that he recalled who I was and we talked for a good while about the school and the village. Years later I moved back to the area and saw in the local paper that Roger had written a book called Waterlog. I read it voraciously and then listened to the programmes he had recorded for Radio 4. Suddenly, the village I had grown up in was transformed. It assumed a beauty and a mystery that, caught up in the dreams of escape, I had never appreciated. Like most people bound to the day to day normality of place, I rarely, truly opened my eyes. I think Roger’s best gift of all is that – gently, without didacticism or censure – he encourages us to look again at what surrounds us and to do so with joy and curiosity. I drive through Mellis most weeks now and it is a far richer place: the village of my childhood and the village that Roger taught me to see beautifully interwoven.

All the best

Ian Rodwell