Saturday, 20 August 2016

Roger Deakin - The Epitome of an English Eccentric.

Roger Deakin - The Epitome of an English Eccentric.

Today is 19th August 2016. It’s exactly 10 years since the untimely death of my old friend, the author, film-maker and environmentalist, Roger Deakin and, while I’m reminiscing, I’m thinking that if I don’t put down on paper my own memories of him they’ll start to fade. A lot has been written about Roger and he sometimes comes across as being a serious and even rather dour person. Not the Roger I knew. He was one of the few genuine eccentrics I have ever met. He had a wonderful sense of humour and a wicked, but never malicious, sense of mischief that endeared him to many – though not, I must admit, to everyone. He really did live life to the full, was massively energetic and always up for a challenge.

We first met in London in 1969 – some time in the summer but I can’t recall exactly when. I was working as a copywriter at a large, American-owned advertising agency called Erwin Wasey, housed in a brutal concrete building across the road from Paddington Station that we had christened The Ministry of Advertising. I was 20-years old: one of the louche, over-indulged, cannabis-fuelled creative brats who inhabited the late 60s London advertising scene – many of us the product of the then-famous Watford Copywriting Course. Our job was creating expensive, eye-catching advertising campaigns for large, wealthy companies.

Mike, the tiny, rather bemused, Italian-American Creative Director who ended every sentence with the word “check”, ushered Roger into the large office where my art director, Greg, and I had sole occupancy since the departure of another creative team for greater things. He introduced him as the new copywriter (“check”) then scurried away to safety. Roger didn’t bat an eyelid when he saw us seated on the floor and seemed to understand immediately when we explained that, since reading Dylan Thomas’ Adventures in the Skin Trade, we had decided to pile all the furniture up to the ceiling in one corner. He just came over, sat down next to us and started happily chatting away in his enthusiastic, slightly-clipped, public school accent.

I took to him right away but I could see from his horrified expression that Greg didn’t like him – and, to be honest, he never really ‘got’ Roger.

It was hardly surprising. Greg was a dapper, but rather defensive and introspective New Yorker of the type seen in the gay comedy film ‘The Boys in the Band’; always beautifully-dressed in expensive clothes from Simpson’s in the Strand where his boyfriend was a fashion designer. Roger was the absolute opposite. His curly brown hair was an unkempt halo around his open face, his Zapata moustache above the enigmatic smile was untrimmed and he was dressed in shabby jeans and an old jumper, topped – as always, for as long as I knew him – by a stained, thigh-length, leather jerkin of the sort worn by dustmen to protect themselves when carrying bins (he later told me that he had bought it for five bob from a fellow stallholder in Portobello Road Market, where he himself, on a Saturday, sold a curious, eclectic melange of odd crockery, restored furniture, and other bizarre bric-a-brac).

Roger and I hit it off as work colleagues and also became firm friends. After work, we’d go out to pubs in the evening, or sit drinking wine with his girlfriend and his cat in his flat just a few minutes away, and he would educate me on the finer points of English literature, as taught to him by Kingsley Amis, his tutor at King’s College, Cambridge. He was still friends with Amis and the only times I ever saw him in a suit and tie in those days was when he was ‘off to the Garrick for lunch with Kingsley’.

Sometimes Roger would disappear for days on end, as often as not driving to France, Spain or somewhere to buy a load of cheap local pottery, beaten-up furniture, 200 Russian sheepskin hats and several boxes of leather ammunition belts from some defunct army, to sell (or not, in the case of the hats and belts) on his stall. In those days nobody seemed to mind – or even notice he was away. Our working days were spent creating ridiculous press and TV campaigns for clients such as Cadbury. The high (or low) point was when we came up with a launch campaign for a dark chocolate bar called Plain Six and, using the pay-off line “So dark, ‘tis almost wicked”, created a series of commercials that were pastiches of Shakespeare plays. To everyone’s astonishment, the client loved it and we were given a huge production budget to shoot three commercials. The question was, who would we get to direct? Roger had one of his usual outrageous brainwaves. Dick Lester! He wanted to use the well-known director of films such as The Knack and The Beatles’ Help to shoot our commercials. “It’s alright”, he assured me, “I do vaguely know Dick. I’m sure I can persuade him”. And persuade him he did. Not only did the great Richard Lester shoot our commercials, but Roger, a budding film maker himself, made of film of the shoot which he then, I believe, sold to the client.

We parted professional company for a while when I was headhunted for more money than I could refuse, to work at Greys, another big agency just off Regent Street. Roger and I continued to meet, but less frequently, until I bought a house in Surrey then quickly sold it for a flat in then-unfashionable Chiswick and other priorities took over. Roger rang me one day to say that he had left Wasey’s and was going to spend more time renovating his derelict farmhouse in Suffolk. We didn’t see each other for several months.

I hated Greys. It was not a ‘creative’ agency and I was told by the Proctor and Gamble client that my campaign for Ariel detergent was ‘facetious’. Then, out of the blue, I got a call from Roger asking me to lunch at a now-defunct Italian restaurant in Soho. Over several bottles of wine he told me he had just been appointed Creative Director of an agency in St. Martin’s Lane called Interlink and he wanted me to go and work for him as a Group Head. When we were back together again, things started to get really silly. The lunatics were in charge of the asylum. Several years later I met the then MD again and he said, with a huge smile, that between us we had practically bankrupted the agency.

Thinking back on what we got up to, I can see why. Roger was a true, practicing socialist (he once insisted that I go and vote in his place for the Labour candidate at a General Election, as he was away at the time). For his creative department, this meant big salaries, well above the going rate, and big Christmas bonuses which we didn’t deserve. The agency had a directors’ and clients’ dining room with its own chef and a well-stocked wine cellar, and he insisted that the creatives took it over for a huge lunch once a month, often inviting one of his many well-known friends including Clement Freud and Dereck Nimmo. Needless to say, we got ridiculously drunk on expensive wine and usually disgraced ourselves in some way (which even now I’m too embarrassed to recount). Roger was never a huge drinker, but the rest of us drank incessantly, often not making it back to work in the afternoon.

Roger and I came up with ever-more ridiculous ideas. One commercial for the Solid Fuel Advisory Service had penguins sat around a roaring fire in a miniature set of a gentleman’s club. Nobody bothered to think that penguins hate heat, and they ran as far away from the fire as possible. In the end, we had to trawl around London buying or hiring every stuffed penguin we could find. In another commercial for the same client, to encourage people to stock up on coal for the winter, we piled hundreds of tons in a massive pile in the garden of a suburban bungalow and took shots from a crane. Of course, Roger insisted on a helicopter as well but, when it hovered above the pile, coal dust was spread across the entire neighbourhood and the poor actor/presenter looked like he had been ‘blacked-up’. Roger also insisted that, to curry favour with the client, we install a huge, modern open fire in the agency reception. Unfortunately, he didn’t get advice on installing a chimney, which proved impossible, so this great white elephant remained unlit.

Every Friday evening, Roger would set off for Suffolk in his beautiful, rare and much-cherished Morgan sports car – always with the hood down and always wearing the inevitable dustman’s jerkin and (still hoping to start a fashion trend and corner the market) one of his unsold Russian hats. Early every Monday he would return, covered in dust, grime, pigeon droppings and god-knows what else. He’d go for a shower in the directors’ bathroom, sometimes don the suit which he always had hung-up behind his door and settle down behind the vintage mahogany desk that he’d insisted on for his office, calling out to his long-suffering secretary to ring round to find the very best price on an Aga or some reclaimed bricks, or to try and track down a decent thatcher. He always returned from Suffolk with wonderful stories about the wildlife and the locals; how he’d slept in the open air, under a polythene sheet or in the inglenook of the roofless farmhouse, which was the only place to get any shelter. Once he told us how he had managed to start his ancient tractor in reverse and knocked down a wall he had just finished building. Another time he turned up with a bottle of water from his moat to get tested to see if it was safe for fish (or, more likely, to swim in). Behind his back, we emptied the bottle and all peed in it. The results of the test bemused him until we ‘fessed up and, of course, he saw the funny side of it.

One sad morning he returned minus the Morgan. When we asked what had happened, he said that he had agreed to lay a reclaimed brick path for top chef, Robert Carrier, at his Hintlesham Hall restaurant. Rather than find a lorry or trailer to cart the bricks, Roger had taken the passenger seat out of the Morgan and used that. Unfortunately, the weight proved too much for the poor car and it collapsed in the middle. Despite sending it off to the Morgan factory at Malvern, the car never ran again.

But it was with the poultry where he became really eccentric. One Monday he turned up with some baby ducklings which he then kept in the agency projection room for a couple of weeks. The mess was unimaginable. Another time he hatched out chicken eggs in a box in his office, under an anglepoise lamp, and they ran riot for a while. His biggest plan, though, was firmly vetoed by the MD. The agency was in the heart of Covent Garden, which was then still a wholesale fruit market, so every morning the streets were covered with discarded fruit and veg. Roger’s plan was to get a pig or two, keep them in one of the garages at the back of the agency, and fatten them up on the waste fruit. Free pork for everyone! One of his brilliant ideas that didn’t come to fruition.

We went our separate ways in 1975. For various reasons I had decided to go to live in South Africa for a while. I was flying out on New Year’s Day 1976 and we met up a couple of days earlier. Little did I know that that would be the last time I’d see him. He went off to live permanently in Suffolk and became an inspirational English teacher for a while. When I came back to England a couple of years later I always meant to get in touch but it wasn’t until I saw that Waterlog had been published that I actually wrote to him and told him what a great piece of writing I thought it was. His typically self-effacing reply was, “Coming from you, Pete, that’s real praise”. We corresponded on and off for the next few years but somehow never got together. I didn’t hear of his death – or even his illness – until late September 2006. A friend at work asked me if I’d heard. I was, quite literally, stunned and it took a few days to sink in.

As I said, Roger was one the few completely natural and unselfconscious eccentrics I’ve known. But a kind and humorous one with no hard edge. My experience of him was long before the publication of Waterlog and his deserved reputation as one of the new generation of nature writers, although, even then, we shared many of the same interests, especially in trees and the works of John Cowper Powys. He not only helped me in my career, he also encouraged me to write poetry and songs. As I was getting off the train back from work a few days after I’d heard he was dead, I looked up at the sky and this poem came, as if from nowhere. When I reached home, ten minutes later, it was complete.

The Swimmer (for Roger)

It was one of those moments when you feel the earth turning.
A three-quarter moon in a clear autumn sky
Brought into my heart a curious yearning
For things that have passed and have yet to pass by;
For friends who have gone and for those still remaining;
While the river of life still winds through the land,
Whose secrets, revealed by the long years’ waning,
Can slip through our fingers or be grasped in our hands.

There’s a feeling that time is not of the essence;
Not a fear of the future or delight in the past,
Just a space that is filled by a friend when his presence,
Is replaced by the pleasure of what he has left.
Now the spirits of the earth rise to embrace the giver
Like the low-lying mist of a soft autumn dawn,
And the swimmer goes down once again to the river,
Where, as sun glints on water, the dream is reborn.

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