The Swimmer: The Wild Life of Roger Deakin by Patrick Barkham - review by Richard Smyth

Richard Smyth

Muddying the Waters

The Swimmer: The Wild Life of Roger Deakin


Hamish Hamilton 400pp £20

This was never likely to be, in any sense, a critical biography. Roger Deakin – the former ad man who rebuilt a tumbledown house in rural Suffolk, wrote a book, Waterlog, that redefined a genre and died too soon, at sixty-three, from a brain tumour – is still seen as a reverend godfather to the new nature-writing movement. His biographer, Patrick Barkham, writes books in more or less the same vein and in a curious preface makes no bones about his admiration for his subject: Deakin’s writing was dazzling, Deakin was a ‘poetic hero who wooed us with his stories’, his house at Walnut Tree Farm was a ‘magical kingdom’. ‘Roger’, Barkham writes, ‘was one of the most compelling members of perhaps the most distinctive generation that ever lived.’ This seems a big call – Deakin was born in 1943 – but in any case, it means we go into the book with no expectation of close interrogation of either the work or the man.

Barkham’s big gamble here is to have Deakin himself play the part of narrator (the conventional biography form, Barkham explains, ‘ill-served the fluid spirit of an unconventional man’). In some places, this means we are reading, with a swimming sense of déjà vu, repurposed excerpts from Deakin’s own work. In others, we are reading supplementary information supplied by Barkham ‘in Roger’s voice’, while in the opening chapter we find Barkham imagining ‘how Roger might have started this book’. This would be fine in a modern novel, but in a biography it seems a presumptuous move (especially from a writer who, by the by, never even met Deakin).

The resulting Frankenstein’s narrative is in some places intercut with verbatim contributions from Deakin’s friends – ‘chums’, invariably – and acquaintances. Barkham explains that these testimonies ‘provide multiple interpretations of the same events, and cast doubt on the idea of life as one simple flow’. For a little while, there’s some fun to be had here, as this or that romantic recollection butts up against some other chum’s flat contradiction. ‘My childhood unfolded during an era of austerity … Money was a constant worry for my parents,’ says Barkham as Deakin, only for Deakin’s cousin John to chip in: ‘He never went without, I’m sure of that … I remember an awful lot of stuff at their house.’ Later we hear about the Waterlog launch party, which was either ‘a buzzy, great event’ where ‘we did really naughty swimming’ or a not ‘really riotous evening’ where ‘we were all standing around rather awkwardly’.

It’s an interesting, lightly mischievous approach, but it has shortcomings. One of Deakin’s friends recalls that he ‘came over’ one day in the 1980s with Serena Inskip, his partner: ‘He’d hit her on the head with a frying pan but he was contrite.’ On the same page, another contributor weighs in: ‘I think Serena tormented him by being half gay.’ Inskip herself remembers furious rages and instances of physical abuse. Suddenly the magical kingdom doesn’t seem so magical, the puckish prince loses his shine, and Barkham is nowhere to be seen. Having fretted in the preface that, in his relationships with women, Deakin might seem ‘an impossible man’, Barkham ducks out of sight when it becomes apparent that ‘impossible’ wasn’t the half of it. No one expects a biographer to lay down the law, but one might hope, here and elsewhere, for some insight, comment or context, some guidance on coming to terms with the character of the man. None is forthcoming, which – particularly in view of the author’s willingness to step into Deakin’s shoes elsewhere – seems an abdication of responsibility. Barkham writes in the preface that in adopting this form he is seeking to ‘shrug off judgements and labels’. At times, it feels less like a shrug than a squirm.

Much of Deakin’s writing, and therefore much of this book, is aspirational literature, in the same way that a Farrow & Ball colour chart is aspirational literature. At every turn here, there are ‘pots of bean stew on the Aga’ and people having ‘fabulous, exciting, dynamic conversations’ and marvellous times. Again, we could often use a sober biographer’s steadying hand. There’s a good deal of unexamined privilege: reading the book can feel like being trapped in a too-small tent at the Port Eliot Festival while people talking about Rog’s marvellous curly hair won’t let you leave. It’s all rather a pity, because Deakin was a significant nature writer who merits proper contextualisation (even if his influence has mostly been felt at one remove, through the electrifying effect he had on the young Robert Macfarlane). What’s more, Barkham has done a remarkable amount of research here, gathering together the raw material for a colourful oral history of the man and (to a lesser extent) his times. The pity is that, having emerged from the archive with a groaning wheelbarrow, all he does is tip the contents out over the floor in front of us: ‘What do you make of this, eh?’ That such a deeply researched work should be published without an index tells us a great deal.

The narrative itself – the story of Deakin’s life, which was complicated but not that complicated, interesting but not that interesting – has a lopsided feel. We are told far too much about his boyhood and Cambridge days (very middle-class people have odd ideas about what constitutes a funny story, a problem compounded by the fact that ‘Deakin’ has to tell so many of the stories ‘himself’, giving an impression of self-importance). We are not told nearly enough about his work with the charity Common Ground, which he co-founded in 1982 in order to ‘motivate and help people to conserve their immediate environment’ and ‘encourage people in the arts to overtly celebrate and defend … the countryside and its wild life’. Common Ground is still going strong and may be his most important legacy, even more so than Waterlog and the wild-swimming movement it fed, and certainly more so, for those outside his circle of friends, than Walnut Tree Farm. There might have been more room to explore, say, Deakin’s writing or politics had we forgone some of the pages about pegged joints and thatch.

Barkham’s abandonment of the traditional form is at least a bold move, of which Deakin would, in principle, surely have approved, though Barkham is probably right to suppose that Deakin would have been outraged by the book itself. He did not take kindly to being edited (we learn here that Rebecca Carter, his editor on Waterlog, was left deeply shaken by the experience) and we can only wonder what he might have made of his biographer’s ventriloquisms. The problem is that Barkham’s boldness with the form isn’t matched by an equal boldness in the handling of the facts of the man’s life.

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