Words: Dan Richards
The Roger Deakin Archive is held at the University of East Anglia on the outskirts of Norwich. Formerly housed at Walnut Tree Farm, it now sits in UEA’s library at the heart of that famously Brutalist campus; less salmon run, more Logan’s Run.
The archive was launched at the Sainsbury Centre gallery on May 7th 2010. I remember the night well because it was the first time I’d been back to UEA since my student days and the first time I met Andrew, Jeff and Robin. Robert Macfarlane, Roger’s literary executor, introduced us with a conspiratorial grin and the definite implication that we’d all get on; that we would inevitably end up drinking beer, talking music and laughing in the corner like naughty schoolboys… he’s a very astute man.
Roger’s voice was in the room throughout the event. A scratchy VHS of him talking in his house played on the sort of wheeled-TV-on-a-stand I remembered from school — there he was, shock-haired, tall and wellied. A frog in the kitchen, wind in the eaves. The shepherd’s hut where he used to write and sleep, his pine tent — willows trailing in the moat.
I remember that we all paused at intervals to watch the film and listen. I remember there were speeches, introductions and applause. Was Louden Wainwright III played? I think he probably was; probably The Swimming Song — a song I’d later put on a playlist for the launch of Holloway; a book that would never have happened if not for Roger.
I was reminded of that night again this summer at Port Eliot when a between-set mixtape included a passage from The House. There again was Roger, talking whilst people swam in the river and paddled caked in the glorious estuary mud:
‘It’s about 11:30 at night. I’m working late. Summer rain. It’s that vertical rain so I’ve got the windows open… 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.’
John Peel’s voice has the same effect — conversational, wry, observational, immediate. Pitching up unbidden but always welcome, steeped in happy overtones but bittersweet as well. I’ve always thought that there was a parallel between Peel and Deakin, both in terms of the way they communicated their infectious enthusiasms and their generosity towards others. They were both champions, and whilst Peel is often cited as someone who promoted countless musicians and groups, I don’t know whether that aspect of Deakin’s life is always appreciated. Caught by the River’s celebration gave me pause to think of the writers, artists and environmental causes for whom he raised awareness and flew a flag, and what we’d lack had Roger not campaigned and crusaded so: Caught by the River itself, perhaps.
This website and myriad satellite ventures: championing, enthusing, meandering away, is a wonderfully apt continuation of Roger’s energy, engagement and interests. He seems to have always been a doing man, all verbs, diving into things, plunging like that snail, devoting himself wholeheartedly. Such love and joy continue here, in his wake — in this ‘true confluence of currents’, Roger is the Riverman.
As the UEA archive launch thinned out, we all piled into a taxi with the brilliantly urbane David Holmes — who so wonderfully illustrated Roger’s book covers and chapter headers — and drove back into town. Then, whilst David went on to the station, we four walked down for a drink at the Norwich Playhouse, sat beside the Wensum.
The St George’s Street Bridge between the art school and Playhouse is mentioned in Waterlog. Deakin describes an impossible swan dive made by a market trader named Goodson in the 1920s from the copper turret of the then technical college, over Soane’s bridge and into the Wensum.
I was studying at art school when I first read Waterlog and found the bridge in its pages. That was 2006. At the time I was all about the swan dives and wild plunges, having set myself to build a fairly massive discursive Zeppelin to exasperate the institution and for the sheer fun hell of it. The gumption, inquiry, disobedience and exuberance I discovered in Waterlog, followed rapidly by Wildwood, helped inspire the airship and the tangential book which followed — a book which took me to the doors of Stanley Donwood and Robert Macfarlane and from which came Holloway — another confluence with Roger at its heart.
The UEA archive contains a letter Roger wrote in which he set out his initial thoughts on Waterlog, provisionally titled ‘Swimmingly’ :
‘I concluded that the best plan would be the simplest … taking basic camping kit, some old plimsolls or plastic sandals, a bar or two of chocolate, thermos and hip flask … being single-mindedly amphibian myself, I would hope to bring out the amphibian in the people I meet along the way … I would like to write (as I naturally do anyway) discursively. DeQuincy and Thoreau come to mind, as well as Cobbett … This is swimming for pleasure, or out of curiosity … Turning into a swimmer is one way of being a chameleon observer of our native land and people. Like the wart in the Once and Future King, I will turn into a fish, or an otter in Clacton, Bognor Regis, amongst the beach huts of Southwold or Walberswick, or in a Highland river pool amongst salmon, or in seaweedy Kimmeridge Bay, nudged by languid mullet.’
The letter is reproduced in the archive guide given out at the launch, fronted with a photograph of Roger fully dry-suited, complete with gloves; grinning beneath a swimming cap and goggles. Whilst writing Holloway, I returned to UEA to look through the 23 linear metres of papers, articles, manuscripts, jotters and clippings, looking for traces of a 2004 trip he and Robert took to Dorset – the first jaunt to the holloway, as described in The Wild Places and Notes from Walnut Tree Farm (18th – 20th July).
Amongst the files and boxes, I found a notecard recalling his childhood love of the book Rogue Male and identification with the unnamed protagonist, a scribbled fragment thought:
‘As an only child, the sheer solitude of the hero’s escape and odyssey appealed to me. He was a swimmer too, dragged his tortured body into the Rhine like an otter – throwing off the guard-dogs that pursued him.’
I found a great deal else of interest — sketches; things seen and thought whilst travelling; conversational entries where you can hear him thinking. He frets about how to end the David Nash chapter in Wildwood, walking it around for a few pages before ending with the thought that he’s struggling because the sculptor is the only one in full command of the necessary language: he speaks wood.
‘You’re left without words at all; just the fact of sculpture.’
Another note in a squared notebook, ostensibly about the wood used to make Gibson Les Paul guitars, ends with the suddenly flash:
‘Whoever pilfered my Pink Floyd 45s — You’re out there, you bastard, and I hope you suffer.’
Careful with that axe, Eugene…
Maybe that convergence of music and writing is a good point to leave this… it’s late and I’m up long after everyone else has gone to bed, but I felt moved to write something to mark the passing of these ten years. The writing of this piece has really brought home how much I owe Roger Deakin — both in terms of my writing and the friendships I’ve made in light of his books. Reading the tributes on this site over the past couple of weeks, I think that’s true of a lot of people.
I think the book of Roger’s I return to most is Notes from Walnut Tree Farm — the collected best of the archive notebooks gathered into the shape of a year. Every page has a line which shines. I’ll open the book at random, to end. Here goes —
Last night, a big cloudburst as I lay in the railway wagon, the rain hammered down on the roof and resonating through the wooden ceiling, like being inside a drum. It woke me up and then, from 3.30 to 4.30, I lay half asleep, half dreaming. A cloud like a punchball rolled in over the common, suspended low over the land — if I were to punch it, the rain would spill down. It was full to bursting, like the bags of muslin we hang up full of the hot pulp of crab apples or rosehips when we’re making jam or wine.