Caught by the River

The Swimmer

Sue Brooks | 1st June 2023

Patrick Barkham’s ‘The Swimmer: The Wild Life of Roger Deakin’ — a long-awaited biography of the late, great writer, environmentalist and moat-dipper — was published last week by Penguin. Sue Brooks reviews, finding a skilful piece of theatre.

‘What we have to decide is whether life is a little, cautious, grasping affair, or whether it is wonderful’. There is a picture in The Swimmer of Roger as a toddler sitting in a pram staring at some pigeons. He is frowning with the intensity of it and a line of adult men stand behind admiringly.  

There was nothing little about Roger’s life. Restless, fast-moving, collecting chums and girlfriends, charming his way into whatever fired his imagination. Bruce Chatwin came to mind constantly. The same electrifying company, the craving of attention and obliviousness to the needs of other people. There were times when I closed the book in outrage. Would this man ever grow up..? Would he accept responsibility for the pain he caused? But I always returned; drawn back by the next adventure; the next impossible achievement and above all, by Patrick Barkham’s skill as the producer.

This is a mightily accomplished biography. Collaborative, experimental, confident; a voice in the wings when emotions are running high. By making Roger the narrator, using material from the vast archive left behind at Walnut Tree Farm, and interviews with his friends, he has created a piece of theatre. The Acts are arranged chronologically, the 106 dramatis personnae are listed in the back pages with useful information about their connections with Roger and with each other. The Introduction is invaluable as a reference point. I came to trust Patrick implicitly; to trust his fine judgements about how to present conflicting views, and his honesty about the choices he made. ‘I’ve done my best’  he says, ‘to be true to you and to your friends who have lived, loved and sometimes suffered with you’.

There is a sense that Roger was making notes for a memoir throughout his life. The set pieces in his notebooks about his childhood; his uncle Laddie, the anarchist and Grandpa Wood; and at Haberdashers’ Aske’s Hampstead school, the camps at Beaulieu Road organised by Barry Goater, the biology teacher’ who infected us all with his wild enthusiasm’. It surfaces again in 1975 at 23 Queen’s Gardens in London after he had left Cambridge and worked as an Ad Man for a few years — ‘the flat of a rampant entrepreneur’, where friends (chums) came and went and Roger earned enough money to decide what he really wanted to do. After a desert island trip to Formentera he thought he knew. 

Walnut Tree Farm. The story as told by Roger and by the chums who visited, helped and fell in love with him and with the place. Could it involve marriage and a family? He and Jenny did get married, but it was short-lived and Jenny moved out when Rufus was little. Roger had a turbulent relationship with a younger woman and it is clear from his writing that he was losing control, physically and mentally, and perhaps closer to introspection than at any other time in his life. ‘Mellis is my promised land, so much a product of my imagination, that I feel complete there as nowhere else.’

These are some of the later Acts that thrilled the romantic soul of this reader:

Roger as an English teacher at Diss co-ed Grammar School in 1975. In a brown corduroy suit, masses of curly hair and refusing to wear the customary gown, he took the sixth form pupils by storm. “Come on guys” one of them remembers in a lesson about the romantic poets, “this is about you, it’s about passion, it’s about life, it’s connected viscerally with your existence.” Many of them remained friends and visited Walnut Tree Farm after Roger resigned in 1978. His farewell gift from his form — 3Z — was a young goat.

The impassioned campaign to save Cowpasture Lane which ran along the western edge of Walnut Tree Farm. All Roger’s eloquence and ingenuity went into persuading the Parish Council to uphold the Tree Preservaton Orders. He threw himself into it and in the process formed close friendships with Richard Mabey, Sue Clifford and Angela King, the co-founders of Common Ground. SUCCESS. Cowpasture Lane now has a new acronym — it is a BOAT. Byway Open To All Traffic.

The publication of Waterlog in 1999. A fascinating insight into the editing process. This was Roger’s first (and only) manuscript to an editor — Rebecca Carter in her first big editing job for Chatto. She advised extensive restructuring and slimming down, Roger was hugely resistant and felt chastised rather than supported. It was a very difficult time. Roger felt Chatto were blind to the poetry in his writing, but it was resolved, keeping the structure suggested by Rebecca, and Wild Swimming began. 

ACT 13: The Author. An audience of thousands who have read the book and want to applaud. Roger loved it. All the attention that came with the publicity. Radio programmes, interviews, fan mail, giving talks and making new girlfriends. Richard Mabey is there, and very appreciative of Roger’s writing. “I may have done some innovative things, but I’ve never, ever achieved the lightness of touch and intimacy of prose, which I think at its best, is a wonder.” Robert Macfarlane, too. He and Roger became close in 2003, going on trips together while Robert was writing The Wild Places and Roger was making plans for Wildwood.

In 2004, the signs of illness were becoming apparent. Confusion, forgetfulness, headaches. All the main players are on the stage now. So hard, especially for Roger himself, to believe what was happening. He died at Walnut Tree Farm on August 19th 2006, aged 63.

The last Act covers the funeral and the memorial a year later at Walnut Tree Farm. Everyone made a contribution, names which are familiar to me now, eloquent and deeply, deeply moving in their recollections. Most of all, Rufus Deakin saying “Tony Axon and Robert Macfarlane made the best speeches. Mum (Jenny), Margot and Serena got up together and spoke together which made me cry” (me, too).  These are the three women with whom Roger experienced the longest, most ecstatic and most painful relationships.

I found myself at the end wanting to hear his voice again. Not Alice Roberts on Waterlog, but Cigarette on the Waveney (Radio 4) which I first heard in 2016. There he is with his imaginery companions R.L. Stevenson and Hiawatha and all the playfulness and humour that I will always love about Roger, noticing tiny things. The snail trail on the underside of a bridge or the ivy leaved toadflax growing in a crack. The child’s eye view of the world. The wonder of it all.


‘The Swimmer’ is out now and available here (£19.00).