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Book Review: Waterlog by Richard Deakin

Deakin, R. (1999) ‘Waterlog’ Chatto & Windus ISDN 0 7011 6652 5

The premise of Roger Deakin’s wonderful Waterlog is perhaps best summed up in his own words in the opening chapter The Moat. The following quotes are taken from it:

The more I thought about it, the more obsessed I became with the idea of a swimming journey. I started to dream ever more exclusively of water. Swimming and dreaming were becoming indistinguishable. I grew convinced that following water, flowing with it, would be a way of getting under the skin of things, of learning something new. I might learn about myself too. pg.3

So swimming is a rite of passage, a crossing of boundaries: the line of the shore, the bank of the river, the edge of the pond, the surface itself.pg. 3

I can dive in with a long face and what feels like a terminal case of depression , and come out grinning like an idiot. pg 4.

Most of us live in a world where more and more places and things are signposted, labelled, and officially ‘interpreted’. There is something about all this that is turning the reality of things into virtual reality. It is the reason why walking, cycling and swimming will always be subversive activities. They allow us to regain a sense of what is old and wild in these islands, by getting off the beaten track and breaking free of the official version of things. A swimming journey would give me access to that part of our world which, like darkness, mist, woods and high mountains, still retains most mystery. It would afford me a different perspective on the rest of landlocked humanity.pg. 4

The dust jacket goes on to confirm: inspired by John Cheever’s classic short story ‘The Swimmer’ Roger Deakin sets out from his moat in Suffolk to swim through the British Isles. The result of his journey is a maverick work of observation and imagination, a uniquely personal view of an island race and a people with a deep, instinctive affinity with water.

Deakin was born in Watford, the son of a railway clerk, and educated at Haberdashers’ Aske’s school in Hampstead and Peterhouse, Cambridge, where he read English. A period as an advertising copywriter followed and he then spent three years as an English teacher at Diss high school, Norfolk.

He had settled in Suffolk where, in the late 1960s, he purchased Walnut Tree Farm. The rambling farmhouse had an ancient moat in which he swam almost daily. In the grounds was a shepherd’s hut where he often wrote, once observing that he had a weakness for sheds or huts of all kinds. He went on to build a cabin for his son, Rufus, imagining a future of unofficial shanties stretching away across the country, down the generations.

Life at Walnut Tree Farm became the subject, in 2004, of a Radio 4 programme, The House, which recorded the creaking of the ancient house at night, with mice scurrying behind the wainscotting, owls hooting in the dark beyond, and the rain beating a tattoo on the barrelled tin roofs of the outhouses. A year later came The Garden, while Cigarette On the Waveney dealt with his trip, by canoe, down the Suffolk river.

Over time, East Anglia became the locus of his interests and attachments. His moral and political compass points were set – I well imagine – by the cardinal points of Ronald Blythe’s Anglicanism and Colin Ward’s anarchism. Both lived close by and were good friends, sharing an interest in the life of small things.

It is sometimes thought that those who have a strong attachment to a particular landscape are by definition parochial. This is far from the truth. Deakin’s interest in rivers, smallholdings, woodlands and vernacular buildings took him across the world, enabling him to seek out the commonalities of human experience, as well as the cultural and topographical differences.

Deakin was a co-founder of the environmental group Common Ground.

You might wonder why such a book would be of interest to boaters… well, in my minds-eye I find it exciting and thought-provoking to take the passages quoted at the start of this review, and substitute the word boating in the place of swimming – the result – I find,  comes close to capturing something of my reason for owning a boat and for exploring the inland waterways, within Deakin’s glorious words are something of my own manifesto for inlanding.

It doesn’t matter whether Deakin is describing a mill-race, the icy Channel crossing or an oxbow lake each journey, however slight or epic, is suffused with passion, sensitivity and imagination, every experience described in a lyrical fusion of cultural history, autobiography, travel writing and natural history.

I would strongly recommend this book to any boater who’s not yet come across it. Deakin’s magnificent personal journey, for me, speaks eloquently so many of the passions we all share. Waterlog is an unforgettable celebration of the magic and transformative qualities of water we’ve all, I’m sure at some time experienced.

He writes with an enviable lucidity and a poetic spirit that underpinned his conservationism. I hope you enjoy the book as much as I did.

Roger Deakin, writer and environmentalist, born February 11 1943; died August 19 2006

ps. if this review has whetted your appetite, why not have a quick look at caught by the river too…

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