April 16, 2017


Country Matters on Booksquawk

by Roger Deakin
416 pages, Penguin

Review by Pat Black

The blossom’s out, the sap is high, and so am I. It’s time to don the tweed, slip on the thigh-high wellingtons, keep the Savlon handy and tiptoe through the cider bottles with some great British nature writing.

A couple of years ago, I fell helplessly in love with Roger Deakin. His wild swimming masterpiece, Waterlog, was a charming, engaging book - an exercise in fraternity, nature, literature and English dottiness. I was held fast in its current. It was my favourite read of 2015, and if the Folio Society was to bring out a ruinously expensive illustrated hardback edition and slipcase, I’d dive right in.

Adding to the charm is the man himself – an affable dreamer, seemingly unconcerned by the world of commerce and brute competition, a lover of newts – so cruelly stolen from us by cancer only a few years after making a splash in the literary world. Like watching Bowie videos on YouTube, he is as close as we get to a real ghost – thrillingly present in his art, chillingly absent in reality.

Even Walnut Tree Farm, the arboreal idyll in which he so happily shared bed and board with mother nature, is gone now – sold up, redeveloped, and possibly unrecognisable (understandably so – sorry mate, but f*** having a flock of birds in yer loft).

As well as being a compelling writer, Waterlog’s author had a compelling existence. He lived a wizardly life, swimming in his own moat every morning, then poring over ancient maps and scrolls for remote ponds to dunk in. He might have been the first human to ever swim in some of those plashy glades. You expect him to sit down to tea on giant toadstools; you imagine trees sprouting from the floor in his front room, talking rooks cawing at him from the branches. You expect him to write on parchment with a quill. You picture him high-fiving squirrels and supping pints alongside centaurs down the local pub - surely called The Green Dragon, and run by an ogre and his wife. He might ride a gryphon there and back. Well, I imagine all this, anyway.  

Seldom if ever have I wanted to go back to the start of a book and start reading again after the final page was turned, as I did with Waterlog.

The same was true of Wildwood – but for different reasons.  

This is a difficult thing to write. Wildwood bored me. Some of it was like watching trees grow.

This wasn’t the case right away. I had a wee holiday last year in the middle of a forest. Wildwood had joined my to-be-read pile the Christmas before; the circumstances were irresistible. I got through the first 90 or so pages on one blessed morning in the rarity of absolute solitude, sat outside the cabin in the early May sunshine. Pheasants padded through the trees, safe for the moment from being blasted to oblivion by shotgun or car grille.

I took my time, savouring the book, and I needed to do so. It was quite heavy going, but not unpleasant – a challenge, not a slog, like approaching the summit of a mountain. It was scholarly rather than brisk. But I was in the right setting, and the right frame of mind.

I came back from holiday. I set it on the bedside table, the bookmark lodged at page 90.

Wildwood book barely moved from its berth for nearly a year. When I shifted it for a house move, I made a clean spot. Once we’d moved, I put it back in the same place. I forced myself to get back into it in March of this year. One full ring grew inside the trees before the last page was turned.

I felt a sense of grief when I towelled myself off after Waterlog; but I felt only exhaustion at the end of Wildwood. I rarely get a chance to sit down with a book these days, and others nudged ahead of it, brash, insistent pupils sucking up the teacher’s attention. I literally dusted off the book more than once. I could barely get through a chapter before turning the light off. Something had gone wrong.

It’s billed as a journey through trees, and I suppose it is. But it’s unstructured, and it focuses too much on using wood to build, or create art from. Some of it is like reading a real-time description of a guy building a table and chairs. I’d liken it to a garden allowed to grow wild, but that at least can be interesting. Untidy things usually arrest the attention. Wildwood frequently doesn’t. I found large parts of it a painful struggle, like cramming for a long-dreaded exam.

Much of this book is dull. Like the sound my head might make upon contact with a two-by-four of solid oak.

This is my failing, as a reader, as a person, and maybe, as a man. Writing too dense in detail can turn me off. But I’m also a hugely impractical guy. You get a certain type of person whose soul stirs when they contemplate building sheds, redecorating rooms, stripping down engines, and watching James May build Airfix Spitfires. The sort of person who might take time to stop and appreciate a bridge, and know who built it, or how many rivets were used in its construction. The kind of person who, in hearing the car roar when they floor the pedal, doesn’t focus so much on the rapidly unfurling road and the wind shrieking in chorus with the music, but what’s going on inside the engine, the churning axle, the pressing plates and spinning cogs, all laid out before them in explosive 3D, their own internal Haynes Manual.

I am not one of those sorts of people. They might absolutely love Wildwood.

Practical matters annoy me. In this, I’m a familial aberration. My dad and my two brothers worked on the tools – oily hands, calluses you could take a blowtorch to, able to tell the calibre of fittings down to the millimetre by sight, possessed of the ability to have copper wiring twined, latticed and hung as if by telekinesis, and dexterity with screwdrivers and spanners to rival that freak at school who could finish a Rubik’s cube in 10 seconds. It isn’t me. To this day, screws slither out from between my sausage fingers and laugh as they roll under the furniture. In my frustration at an angle not sitting right, or a nail splitting the edge of the wood, I go beyond simple swearing and start to speak in tongues. Neighbours knock the door and ask if everything’s okay.

Something went wrong. It is a failing. If the apocalypse comes I’ll need to develop other skills in double-time or we’ll all die. I wish I was a bit more practical, but I’ve probably lived more than half my life now and I must admit I’m not, and maybe never will be. It’s a source of disappointment.

A bit like calculus, it isn’t that I don’t grasp it, or can’t do it - it’s just that I’d rather not. Ask me to put up a fence, and I can (and in fact I have). I’d just rather be doing other stuff. In considering building flat-pack furniture, I do it, but only after a lot of sighing. Anything more complex than fitting slot A into B is more often done badly than not.

If I ever want to make my missus laugh, I tell her the truth of the matter: I’m not a builder, baby. I’m not a farmer either.

I’m a killer.

Show me a castle and I imagine a siege, boiling oil, clashing swords, and perhaps dragons. Show Roger Deakin a castle, and I suspect he’d wonder how he could construct battlements and a drawbridge along the edge of his moat; or if he could perhaps steal some of the loose stonework and use it to build a sauna with an ergonomically pristine wood-fired boiler requiring no gas or electricity.

Roger does actually consider making this contraption in the course of Wildwood.

Perhaps fuelled by my desire to propel the book to its conclusion, like shoving a length of timber into a sawblade, I picked up the pace near the end. I was rewarded; Wildwood takes off, right after Roger does, away from England’s sleepy hollows in search of the motherlode of apple trees in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and one or two other places in need of an emergency aid drop of vowels. This provided the kind of action and adventure which drenched Waterlog, and whose absence leaves us pawing along the desert in Wildwood.

Here was my dearest Roger again – off-road, meeting people living simple rustic lives, marvelling at the simplicity of their lives, lived in harmony with nature instead of destroying it. Roger is very much at home in this peaceable, Zen state. He speaks of a moment of communion with a beekeeper out in the middle of nowhere, a guy who speaks not a word of English, and yet Roger knows he has met something of a soul-mate, someone he could form a lifelong friendship with. He is left with a deep sadness when he says goodbye, knowing their paths will never cross again.

I was reminded of a similar meeting during a trip to Peru years ago, an author and local character I had an uproariously boozy afternoon with during a guided tour. “I shall not forget you, my friend!” he told me. The feeling was mutual.

But this section is all too brief. Back on Ent Time with Treebeard, there’s lots of splicing, coppicing and grafting, and appreciations of humanity’s interaction with wood – how it became a vital part of building civilisation, and how it remains a labour of love to this day, a compact between structure, Euclidian geometry and wild nature.

Roger turns things out in his workshop and even considers the sawdust as he blows it away. I sorta get that. I’ve always been fascinated by timber warehouses; something to do with the epic space, the smell of the wood. He wonders about the trees and bushes encircling his property, at some length (in both senses). And he speaks to artists who work with wood, from the UK to Australia and back. They turn living trees into monuments, they collect and reshape driftwood from the beach, they get busy with planes and chisels and hammers and whatnot, and there we go, another day done, lights out, zzz.

More than once I confronted an ugly truth: these are people with lots and lots of money, and lots and lots of spare time. There’s a big chink in the armour of the English eccentric and the sweet art they make, a petty point, but one worth making: it takes serious money to be a gentleman itinerant. Like it or not, you have to buy yourself out of the rat race.

As well as outlining my lack of practical skills, Wildwood also exposes a gap in my education. I love nature, I love looking at it, I love being in it, I love interacting with it, I love writing about it, and I love reading about it. But if you sent me a link to one of those clickbait quizzes identifying trees and their leaves, I’d score about 21/100 (matching my Higher Maths prelim percentage, December 1992). Botanical ignorance is a grave disadvantage when you read this book. Roger blithely witters on about walnut this, oak that, and for pages at a time he might as well have been talking about cycads, krynoids, the Thing From Another World, Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors, whatever.

What this book repeatedly nailed down – angrily, burying the metal into the trembling pine, and at a f****** angle – was that I am ignorant, and I need to educate myself, about trees for a start. One is waving at me out the window as I type, and I couldn’t tell you anything about it except that it’s green. Pine… willow… sycamore… birch… yeah, I could spot those. After that, I’m chapping. You better knock, on wood. I hear John Cleese saying, “The larch,” and see a slide flipping over, but I do not laugh. It’s a terrible irony that I love British nature writing yet know so little about it, like Jesus earning a living as a carpenter before being nailed to some shoddy woodwork. My next book on this subject will be the Collins Guide To British Trees. I’m going to sit down with it, I’m going to study it, and damn it, I’m going to learn it.

I’ll go back to Wildwood. I’ve failed, not Roger. I want to say sorry to him. It’s a beautifully-written book by a lovely bloke, who was cleverer than I will ever be. I feel a bit like I’ve been invited to tea by that nice quiet boy in class, and he’s showed me his collection of acorns, and I’ve sniggered. Maybe I’ve even given him heat for it, back in class, among the wolves.

One day I hope to be sat before a log fire, cracking open my ancient copy of Wildwood, and starting again at the proper pace in the proper setting, in the old age Roger was so unfairly denied.

For now, I’ll struggle on, at many things. We can’t all be craftsmen, more’s the pity. 

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