June 12, 2024

It is strange to come to know Roger Deakin so intimately and yet not know him at all. Like many others, I first met him in the pages of Waterlog when I read how he slipped into the spring-fed ditch beside his old farmhouse and swam during a summer thunderstorm.

This classic of British nature writing has inspired many of us to swim outdoors and savour the wild world. Possessed of a naturalist’s eye for detail and a comic’s sense of the ridiculous, he was a warm, witty and welcoming guide as he breast-stroked through the ponds, lakes and rivers of Britain.

Like many readers, I imagined he would be a dream dinner party guest but, in the end, I never met him – he died, suddenly, aged just 63, in 2006. For years, I enjoyed his writing but also pondered the distinctiveness of his generation and its value – my parents were the same age and, like Roger, had moved at the end of the 60s to seek a new kind of life in the East Anglian countryside.

Fifteen years later, my wife spotted on an open water swimming forum that people could now stay at Roger’s old place, Walnut Tree Farm, and swim in his moat. She knew I admired his writing and booked a visit. Sleeping in the railway wagon that Roger rescued from a farm auction – he had a knack for many kinds of plundering – was magical. He discovered the farm in the Suffolk village of Mellis in the summer of 1969. He bought it just in time: its four fields totalling 12 acres would have been obliterated like the surrounding landscape by the government-funded, hedgerow-ripping, chemical farming of recent history.

But arriving at the farm 50 years later I discovered an oasis of wildness within intensively farmed countryside. Its owners, Titus and Jasmin Rowlandson, childhood friends of Roger’s son Rufus, had kept the place not as a shrine but sensitively in step with his values. Its meadows still danced with butterflies; its billowing hedgerows sang with blackcaps and garden warblers. The “moat” where Roger swam was bustling with newts; pondweed trailed into the depths like tiny stars; its spring-fed water was soft and sweet. Walnut Tree Farm seemed to reverberate with the spirit of Roger, a maverick who also embodied a generation that may be more distinctive than any other. To my surprise, no one was writing his biography, so I began.

Roger was best known as a wild swimmer but he was much more besides. He was an ad man in Swinging Soho who moonlit as an upcycler selling stripped pine furniture to hipsters (including a young Judi Dench) on Portobello Road; he embraced self-sufficiency in Suffolk then became an inspirational English teacher; he was a filmmaker, a musical impresario, and he co-founded Common Ground, a prescient environmental charity which championed “ordinary” nature – verges, hedgerows, orchards. Despite finding the role that best suited his creative mind in his 50s – a writer – he never published another book in his lifetime, succumbing to a brain tumour that quietly grew as he struggled to finish a book about trees, Wildwood, which was published after his death.

For three years, I have sought out this singular but elusive person: inhabiting his terrain, meeting his friends and entering his mind. The biography I’ve written is a collaboration between me and Roger, as well as his many friends who are reaching their 80s. In general, I love listening to stories of people’s lives. And age often liberates older people from the defensiveness or discretion that governs younger ones more beholden to their stake in the world.

But there is something particularly striking about Roger’s questing generation. This generation suffered the misfortune to be born during the chronic anxiety of the Second World War, but Roger’s cohort, or at least its white male members, may be the most fortunate generation ever. Their free-roaming childhoods unfolded as the economy boomed, they missed national service and came of age when sex was invented, between the Lady Chatterley trial and the Beatles’ first EP. Roger and his peers enjoyed great gifts – a welfare state, social mobility, plentiful jobs, affordable property, accessible global travel – but they struggled, too. In hindsight, the 60s’ social, cultural and psychological revolution seems inevitable but social transformation has to be fought for. He embraced new styles of thinking, feeling and living.

Roger was born into a humble family, the son of a railway clerk and a secretary, and grew up in a bungalow near Watford. Social mobility knocked, and he obtained a government scholarship to Haberdashers’, a public school then teaching the super-bright sons of the Jewish diaspora. Like Roger, my mum was an upwardly-mobile scholarship girl who reached Cambridge University exactly when he did, from 1961-64. She never met him but knew plenty of men like Roger, and married one. My dad is six weeks older than Roger, and shared a similar mass of curly hair, a thirst for romance and an urge to shrug off stultifying parental standards. Like Roger, my parents embraced self-sufficiency. My dad became an environmentalist, as did Roger, but despite the small worlds of environmentalism and East Anglia, their lives did not intersect.

In the beginning, I assumed that not having met Roger would bequeath me a crisp, neutral gaze. Later, I craved five minutes in his company. His education taught him how to reason but he chose to live as a romantic – by following his feelings. I wanted to feel that innate sympathy that comes from sharing a space with another living being. At least Roger and I shared the same sky: we loved the same woods, winds and moods. I discovered that he had moved his mum into a cottage in the Suffolk town of Eye in the 1990s, just when my dad moved to another cottage 50 yards away. Roger and I were regular visitors to our parents. Surely we both stood in the queue in Eye greengrocers one Saturday morning.

Roger was researching Waterlog in the library at the same time as I was there, revising for my finals. His Filofax revealed that in the late 90s he had frequented the north London pubs where I drank when I moved to the capital. In the 2000s, he cut out and kept and kept several of my Guardian news stories – about commons and crack-addicted squirrels. I even discovered I had bought my first house (in Norfolk) from his neighbour in Mellis.

Finally, in early 2021, he materialised, wearing a dark green jumper, in one of my dreams. He was enthusing about something and punched me on the arm. For the first time, I felt his energy, how he took people with him. This helped, for I had reached the moment probably every biographer experiences when they fall out of sympathy with their subject. Roger brought joy but he also caused serious pain. Disappointed romantics are dangerous. I wrote 90,000 words of conventional biography but they possessed a definitiveness that Roger eschewed. So I made Roger the lead narrator of his own biography. I could do this because, from the age of nine, Roger wrote his thoughts in notebooks, and kept them all: millions of words about childhood holidays, teen kisses, fast cars, career crises, cuckoos, combustible relationships, an ant crossing his desk. His notebooks were the siblings he never had, in whom he confided his feelings and impressed with stories. After his death, this life-trove was placed in an archive at the University of East Anglia, alongside his black Speedos.

So I spliced together many thousand shards of memoir, fact and feeling found in his notebooks, letters, jottings and journalism. Then I juxtaposed his enraptured view of the world with the recollections of his friends. Sometimes there is harmony between them; at other times realities clash violently. What emerges, I hope, is a feel for Roger’s passion and poetry, and an honest, unsparing portrait of a life.

Roger leaves a big literary and environmental legacy. Waterlog has been the catalyst for an aquatic revolution. My local millpond was once empty of life except for pike. These days, despite the pike, people jump in whatever the weather. Were he alive today, Roger would be delighted that his swimming proved so trailblazing, he would rage against pollution and lack of public access to rivers but, with characteristic optimism, he would believe there were enough river enthusiasts like him to better protect our waterways.

Biographer-subject is a strange relationship. Close study of anyone’s life provides useful lessons. I found several in Roger’s life: I’m inspired by his bravery, how he spoke up for the ordinary nature found in all our neighbourhoods, the importance he placed on respectful relations with all animals and plants, and his insistence on doing things for himself; I take careful heed of his struggle to compromise and his sometimes reprehensible behaviour towards his partners. For all the different Rogers I discovered– in the memories of his friends, in recordings of his mellifluous voice, in the farm he inhabited so originally, and in my subconscious – the closest I came to him was when I opened his notebooks.

In his published work, he swam determinedly on the surface but he dived deeper in his private jottings, revealing a less varnished self. Even so, tantalisingly, he still omitted fragments of his inner world. Good for him. I can picture his soul soaring free, defying categorisation, as I close the pages of “his” biography for the final time.

The Swimmer – the Wild Life of Roger Deakin by Patrick Barkham is published by Hamish Hamilton at £20. Buy a copy for £17.60 at guardianbookshop.com

L’impact des pièces gratuites sur TikTok : Expliqué
TikTok Coin Generator Safety Tips
Free TikTok Coins: Your Path to Fame
Revue des générateurs de pièces TikTok : Meilleures pratiques
TikTok Coin Hacks: The Complete Guide
TikTok Coin Hacks: The Complete Guide
Iniciándote en las Monedas de TikTok: Guía para Principiantes
Unlimited TikTok Coins: Myth or Reality?
Boost Your TikTok Engagement with Free Coins
العملات TikTok المجانية: نصائح للمبتدئين
The Secret Sauce to TikTok Coin Generation
Free TikTok Coins Today: Quick Tips
Cómo Obtener Monedas TikTok Gratis: Estrategias Comprobadas
TikTok Coin Generator Safety Tips
Free Coins on TikTok: Tips and Tricks
Booster votre expérience TikTok avec des pièces gratuites
TikTok Coin Hack: A Comprehensive Overview
TikTok Coin Generator Review: What Works Best?
Estrategias para Monedas TikTok Gratis: Consejos de Expertos
Free TikTok Coins: The Holy Grail of Success
Free TikTok Coins Today: Quick Tips
Secretos para Recolectar Monedas Gratis en TikTok
TikTok Coin Generator Review: What Works Best?
Free TikTok Coins: The Game Changer
Cómo Obtener Monedas TikTok Gratis: Estrategias Comprobadas

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *