I read about Notes from Walnut Tree Farm on the excellent So Many Books (So Many Books),and couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy. Once again, Roger Deakin is one of those writers I can’t believe I’d never come across before – and is yet another reason I’m so delighted I made the decision to start exploring book review blogging earlier this year. So far, it’s led me to Patrick Leigh Fermor; Nick Wood; Gladys Mitchell; and Roger Deakin. That’s some reading list.
For the last six years of his life, Roger Deakin, a writer, broadcaster and passionate advocate of wild-swimming, recorded his thoughts in a series of notebooks. This is a very finely edited collection of those writings, presented as a sequence of entries over the course of a single year. In these notes, Deakin observes the world around him; offers snatches of poetry and philosophy; relives encounters with friends; and muses on the way the habitat around the farm was being transformed by the mania for tidiness in rural areas and the invasion of urbanites in their four-wheel drives. It is a glimpse into a passionate, kind, intelligent, questing mind.
One of the many things I’ve been discovering as I’ve read more non-fiction this year – particularly in relation to travel, wildlife and environmentalism – is how these genres offer such consistently vivid, lyrical prose. It is a vast generalisation, of course, but one which seems to holds true; something about being so bound to the natural world, to paths and trees and wildness, gives the best of these writers an intense acuity. The same is true of the finest cricket writing, by the way – focusing on a tangible, physical narrative offers commentators the freedom to riff over the top of the scene, to describe images with occasionally outrageous sharpness and delight. It is some of the best prose writing I have ever come across, a world of astonishing poetry which is invisible if you dedicate yourself to fiction (as I have tended to do). (Really, I would urge any aspiring writer to read Neville Cardus – even if the game itself isn’t your thing, it’s a complete joy.) I don’t know what Roger Deakin might have felt about the cricket – he mentions in Walnut Farm that he doesn’t know who Phil Tufnell is, so I assume he wasn’t a fan! – but his writing certainly supports my nascent theory. He relishes language and its relationship to the Suffolk wildlife he loved so deeply; combining poetry with a remarkably shrewd eye for detail.
I walk up the field to investigate. Little haloes of stamens’ ruffed courtiers (as all the plantains flower, like tiny courtiers’ ruffs, all bowing and nodding to each other.
Moorhens sound like a cork twisting in a wet bottleneck.
And perhaps my favourite – We pitched the pup-tents side by side on an almost-level sward and slept soundly in the silence under a mackerel-sky perforated by stars.
“Mackerel-sky” – what a perfect image! I’d never come across the description before, but apparently a “mackerel-sky” is a sky dappled with rows of small white fleecy…clouds, like the pattern on a mackerel’s back (Oxford Dictionaries Online). In any case, descriptions like that come think and fast here – sources of rivers are the tear-ducts of the earth; an insect frantically washes its legs like Lady Macbeth – perfect little jewels, the kind of keepsakes you find in Ted Hughes or John Clare, and which compel you to scribble incessantly in the margin, adding stars and exclamation marks.
Notes from Walnut Tree Farm gives a very special insight into Deakin’s curious, irreverent mind. There’s something in the format which fosters real intimacy, lets you feel as though you are making a friend – a bit like reading Montaigne’s essays. The occasionally insights into the fact that he believed his love of conservation came from the death of his father when he was only seventeen are particularly moving, appearing like sudden bolts in the middle of the rippling narrative.
I returned to school still wearing a black armband, as people did in 1960, and my embarrassed friends avoided my eye. It was almost as though I myself had died, so ghostly, so invisible did I feel. Thus did I acquire my sense of loss – a deep-seated feeling that has followed me around all my life and that I’ve never shaken off.
Deakin’s anecdotes, like his descriptions, twinkle on the page, and his boyish enthusiasm runs through the text like an artery. (He makes frequent references to a novel called Rogue Male for example, a classic 1939 thriller which I have now acquired and very much look forward to reading.) One of the things he laments about the many changes to the English countryside is the fact that people no long acknowledge one another when they’re out walking. I will make a point of always doing so from now on, as a way of honouring Deakin, and to attempt to recapture some of the rural spirit he knew we were losing.