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Nature Versus the Jewish Ladies

I love Roger Deakin’s classic paean to open-water swimming, but I can’t get past his line about Jewish ladies in red jackets with big gold buttons

by
Mark Oppenheimer
August 13, 2021
Peter Everard Smith
Roger DeakinPeter Everard Smith
Peter Everard Smith
Roger DeakinPeter Everard Smith

“The pool is surrounded by herbaceous borders and trees, and York-stone paving stones that are kinder to the feet than the regulation concrete slabs,” Roger Deakin writes in his book Waterlog. “Nearly all the High Point people swim in here. The Jewish ladies in red jackets with big gold buttons come down in the afternoons, and so does the successful architect who owns a Lubetkin flat much as other people might own a Stubbs or Hockney. There is a modest list of rules: ‘No ball games, no dogs … ’ I can think of no greater luxury than swimming outdoors at night in gently mulled water when there’s a chill in the air.”

Those sentences, in a paragraph extolling an after-midnight swim that the author took in the pool at Highpoint, Berthold Lubetkin’s famous 1935 International-style apartment building in London, hit me like a slur yelled from a passing car. I have since shown “Jewish ladies in red jackets with big gold buttons” to friends who did not take offense, who squinted to see what bothered me so much about it. But for me, it really was painful and abrupt: I had been consuming Waterlog with great pleasure. The book was going down so smooth, page after page, a many-course meal, each course paired with the perfect wine, and then I was served this coarse, undercooked morsel of caricature. No matter how many times I turned it over in my mouth, no matter how finely I chewed it, there was no way “Jewish ladies in red jackets with big gold buttons” tasted good. It was just … ewwww.

I had heard, and read, a lot worse. But that was part of the problem. Coming in the midst of so literary an undertaking, from an enlightened, cultured writer clearly incapable of the ugliest stereotypes, this was as bad as he got. Waterlog is a classic of English nature writing, a stealthily political tract that, when it was published in 1999, got Great Britain talking about swimming in lakes and rivers as a civil right as well as a balm for the soul; it was finally published in the United States just this past spring, and has already gotten attention from the right magazines (The Atlantic, Outside, Lithub, and so forth). Yet if you want to know where Deakin’s mind went when he thought of the Jews, it went here. We Jews were not malevolent, not conspiratorial, not bloodsucking; but we were a bit of a punchline. Which was especially sad for me to see, given the happy circumstances that had brought me to Deakin, to Highpoint, to the pool. To the army of Jewish ladies in red jackets with gold buttons.

I had been sent for the week to Birmingham, England, childhood home of many cricketers I had never heard of and many rock musicians I had, including Judas Priest’s Rob Halford and all five original members of Black Sabbath. None of that heavy-metal excitement had, so far, attached to my visit. It was hard to imagine Ozzy Osbourne biting a bat’s head here. In town for work, I was marooned at a highway exit hotel-and-conference center on the outskirts of town, the only entertainment within walking distance a shopping mall that was closed for my first two days there. I had arrived from New York on Christmas Eve, 2017, gone to bed, and awakened to Christmas Day, which was followed by Boxing Day, a holiday which, like marmalade, seems to exist for the sake of its own Englishness. I needed some retail therapy. I was craving American-style water pressure and food that was recognizably, chain-food American: Starbucks, McDonalds, anything at all. I wanted to spend money. And nothing was open.

So day three, the day after Boxing Day, I took the commuter rail into central Birmingham. I emerged from the station onto streets teeming with—yes—glorious commerce! Apple, Clark’s, the Body Shop. For an hour I ambled about, with the flaneur’s confidence that he’ll know his destination when he sees it. And I did. At the top of New Street, where it tees into High Street, I saw a Waterstone’s book store. Waterstone’s: like Barnes & Noble, but with more wood and a bigger selection. I formulated a plan of attack: I’d browse the ground floor and the next three above it, find a book to read, and settle down to read in the café, fortified by a hot chocolate and a baked good.

Browsing in a country that’s not your own but where they speak the same language is an uncanny experience. Many of the books on the display tables are the same titles you’d see back home, but with different jacket art; yet some of the books shilled by management with the most urgency, the books that seem to be getting the most buzz—what in the United States would be the James Patterson or Jodi Picault treatment—are by authors you’ve never, ever heard of (and others are, of course, by James Patterson or Jodi Picault). It’s as if somebody entered your house and rearranged some of the furniture—but did it well, stole nothing, and left on your coffee table a few books by authors who looked intriguing; and maybe that somebody was the friend you’d asked to water your plants; but he never told you what he was going to do, nor left any note explaining why he had. The experience would be strange but not entirely unpleasant. In the end, you might want your old living room back, but you wouldn’t return the new books.

On the first floor (that is, the second), I happened upon a section that would not even exist in an American chain bookstore: “Natural History.” It was hard against the Popular Science and Local Interest sections, which meant I could stand in one place and take in hundreds of titles about bogs, mires, and heaths, concerning their history, their geological formulation, and how to hike, navigate, and ford them. I had forgotten how much the English enjoy their landscape. These are people who go to the beach on rainy days, after all. If the so-called nature lovers of Northern California will drive 50 miles to hike 5, the English will hike 50 just so long as there’s a pub at the end, which there always is.

What made me stop and linger so long over the Natural History books? I like nature, but please don’t make me read about it. I like all of John McPhee’s writing except the nature stuff. I don’t want to read about geological formations, soil, bark canoes, any of it. I have not read Walden. I couldn’t get more than five pages into Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. As a Serious Nonfiction guy, I am not supposed to admit any of this. Nature writing is admired, even revered. But is it loved? I am skeptical. I think most public devotees of nature writing are private connoisseurs of spy thrillers, police procedurals, and bodice-rippers. I’m just willing to admit it.

Nature writing is admired, even revered. But is it loved? I am skeptical.

But while I don’t really want to have a different relationship with nature writing, I do fantasize about what it would be like to be the kind of person who is on intimate, affectionate terms with the untamed, or less tamed, outdoors. I have a particular fondness for the writer Daniel Duane, whose books Caught Inside, about surfing, and Lighting Out, about rock climbing, are exciting to me because of the portrait they present of the author, who is in some ways the anti-me: rugged, tough, handy, competent, woodsy, nautical, and above all focused. When he decides he wants to master a particular break, he surfs hours a day, for months on end, until he has mastered it, and when he becomes an obsessive rock climber, it’s only a matter of time before he has scaled El Capitan, in Yosemite. That’s the guy I want to be: not a rock climber or surfer, necessarily—though surfing looks totally, amazingly fun—but the kind of guy who, if he were interested in surfing or rock climbing, could stick with it until he got good. In reality, I stick with nothing; a partial list of skills I have tried to acquire but bailed on after less than 10 hours would include computer coding, sewing, fly-fishing, bridge, spoken Hebrew, swing dancing, and bicycle repair.

That focus that so many outdoorspeople and naturalists have—I covet that. I would like to be able to take my family camping and know that, with a little study beforehand, I would be able to pitch the tent, make a fire, hoist food in the trees to keep it from the bears, and, if we broke down on the way home, change a tire. That’s basic stuff for John McPhee or Daniel Duane.

And for Roger Deakin. Being American, I had never heard of him. But to judge from the prominent display he got on the table in the Waterstone’s Natural History section, his name meant something in England. The book was called Waterlog: A Swimmer’s Journey through Britain. It was a paperback, its soft cover the kind of matte paper that suggests modesty and seriousness. The background was a riverine slate-blue, against which eddied lighter-blue lines and swirls. Crawling up from the bottom of the page shot green lines of tall, aquatic grass; in the upper-right corner, the silhouette of a dragonfly. Two inches from the top, centered, in white type, was an intriguing blurb: “A delicious, cleansing, funny, wise and joyful book. -Jane Gardam.”

“Delicious”? I love delicious things. “Wise”? I like wisdom. Same goes for “joyful”—I dig joy. But who are we kidding?—lots of books are touted as being wise, joyful, delicious. Standard blurbalism. Nothing too unusual there. But “cleansing”? Now that’s good ad copy. I want a book that promises to cleanse me. Literally, figuratively, spiritually. Bring it on.

For how do we choose books? How do they choose us? However much we think we have a sensibility, a style, when it comes to our reading lives, the truth (as in all things) is that contingency rules. I look over at my bookshelf now—how did those books come to me? I see Chuck Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs. I read his first book, Fargo Rock City, because its jacket art called out to me, I read the description on the back, and learned that it was a 1980s coming-of-age story centered around heavy metal music. I don’t much like heavy metal music (even if, as boasted about above, I can name-check elite Brummie rockers), but I do like the 1980s, and I like coming-of-age memoirs. So I bought that book, loved it, and then just kept buying Klosterman books as they came. There’s Elaine Showalter’s Hystories, which I bought because I have an eccentric interest in hysterical epidemics, like the satanic ritual-abuse scare of the 1980s. Geoff Dyer’s But Beautiful, a strange, meandering meditation on jazz music, inspired by a Milt Hinton photograph of jazz greats Ben Webster, Red Allen, and Pee Wee Russell, I bought (in the American first edition, at the Strand) because my friend Ryerson once told me in a Starbucks that it was the best book he had read recently. I’ve now read a lot of Dyer.

Sometimes it’s the jacket art; sometimes it’s the section in which the book is shelved, as with the mystique that “Natural History” holds for an urban, bookish Jew; sometimes a blurb-word, the promise of “cleansing”; and sometimes it’s a serendipitously chosen word in the jacket copy, the description written by a publicist and approved by the author, or vice versa. When I turned the book over to read the description, here is what it said: “Inspired by John Cheever’s short story ‘The Swimmer,’ Roger Deakin set out to swim through the British Isles. The result is Waterlog, a uniquely personal view of an island race and a people with a deep affinity for water. From the sea, from rock pools, from rivers and streams, tarns, lakes, lochs, ponds, lidos, swimming pools and spas, from fens, dykes, moats, aqueducts, waterfalls, flooded quarries, even canals, Deakin gains a fascinating perspective on modern Britain.” Now, there are not many short stories a book-jacket reference to which could pull me into the book. Short stories are too small, too angular, insufficiently suggestive of anything other than themselves. I love Willa Cather, but if you told me a book was inspired by “Paul’s Case,” that would not do much for me. But Cheever’s “The Swimmer” called out to me, like the pools to its protagonist, Ned Merrill, who swims Westchester Country on a lazy, hung-over afternoon by going from backyard pool to backyard pool.

I sat down in the Waterstone’s third-floor café with a hot chocolate, a piece of chocolate cake, and Waterlog, which begins: “The warm rain tumbled from the gutter in one of those midsummer downpours as I hastened across the lawn behind my house in Suffolk and took shelter in the moat.” During my late-December stay, I had been subjected to several midwinter downpours, so a “midsummer downpour” was perfect escapist imagery: All I had to do was pretend that the actual downpours that had been moistening me nonstop since my arrival were coming at a different time of year. Also, I was homesick, so I was disposed to pass the time with one who “hastened across the lawn behind [his] house”—for how very much I missed my own house, and the lawn behind it. And how very much I wanted to take shelter in—

—“in the moat”? Deakin had a moat? Well, things just got very real. Or maybe they got surreal. If the clocks on the wall had begun to melt before my eyes, I would not have been more surprised than I was to learn that there were humans alive who could write, literally and truthfully, of their own moats. Somehow I had missed moat ownership as one of the home-buying possibilities available to men in the 21st century with good credit. I had to read on.

“Breast-stroking up and down the thirty yards of clear, green water, I nosed along, eyes just at water level,” Deakin writes. “The frog’s-eye view of rain on the moat was magnificent. Rain calms water, it freshens it, sinks all the floating pollen, dead bumblebees and other flotsam. Each raindrop exploded in a momentary, bouncing fountain that turned into a bubble and burst. The best moments were when the storm intensified, drowning birdsong, and a haze rose off the water as though the moat itself were rising to meet the lowering sky. Then the rain eased and the reflected heavens were full of tiny dancers: water sprites springing up on tiptoe like bright pins over the surface. It was raining water sprites.”

You can see why the book grabbed hold of me as it did. The man could write. Not only would I be cleansed, I would be cleansed in a manner more magical than any I could have conceived: Water sprites would rain down upon me.

As, in a sense, they did, for the next 332 pages. Here I will quote one final time from the opening page of the book, where Deakin hatches his mad plan. “It was at the height of this drenching in the summer of 1996,” he writes, “that the notion of a long swim through Britain began to form itself. I wanted to follow the rain on its meanderings about our land to rejoin the sea, to break out of a frustration of a lifetime of doing lengths, of endlessly turning back on myself like a tiger pacing its cage. I began to dream of secret swimming holes and a journey of discovery through what William Morris, in the title to one of his romances, called The Water of the Wondrous Isles. My inspiration was John Cheever’s classic short story ‘The Swimmer’ …”; one unforgettable Cheever line in particular moved him, a line about Ned Merrill’s unique vision: “‘He seemed to see, with a cartographer’s eye, that string of swimming pools, that quasi-subterranean stream that curved across the country.’” Deakin decided to spend the next year, approximately, “wildswimming” through England and Scotland.

He swam the River Test in Stockbridge, Hampshire. He swam the Cam in Cambridge. In Winchester, he swam the Itchen and quarreled with a riverkeeper paid to keep people out. “But surely,” Deakin says to the “short and portly porter with a beard and Alsation,” a figure “straight out of Dickens,” “we should all have access to swim in our rivers just as we should be free to walk in our own countryside. Don’t they belong to all of us?” The porter, the echt-bureaucrat, is not amused. “There’s plenty of coast and sea not far away if you want to swim,” the short and portly man replies. Here and elsewhere, Deakin trespasses, committing acts of civil disobedience by swimming in waters that were privatized by Thatcherites, or simply put off-limits by anxious health inspectors or risk-averse parks departments. He recovers the lost history of English swimming in the wild: “Cold bathing [in springs] remained popular all through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and four Cambridge colleges had their own cold baths: Peterhouse, Pembroke, Emmanuel and Christ’s.” He swims with eels in fens. He wisely chickens out of swimming the whirlpool off Jura, the Hebridean isle where George Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four.

As Deakin swims his native land, his promises grow ever more bountiful. Wildswimming offers a life of not just fitness and scenery and cleansing, but of fellowship and good conversation and community. Wherever he goes, he meets eccentrics and makes friends. Swimming outdoors, he concludes, “certainly appeals to free spirits, which is why the talk is invariably so good in those little spontaneous bankside, beach or poolside parliaments that spring up wherever two or three swimmers are gathered, as though the water’s fluency were contagious.” Wildswimming brings freedom in its negative and positive senses: freedom from routine, from shackles, from the office grind; freedom to move, to talk, to love. It’s a religious vision, and Deakin means it to be, hence the biblical echoes in “wherever two or three swimmers are gathered”—for in Matthew 18, Jesus tells the disciples, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them.”

Few potential swimmers in overwhelmingly secular Great Britain would catch the Christian allusion today, but that is part of the book’s appeal: It’s British to its bones, in unspoken ways that resist being made explicit. The landscape and weather of the book are British: old, cold, and damp, but ultimately cozy, like the indoor fire at the end of a winter’s day. It’s not a Christian book, but its terroir is the King James Bible and Milton. And the people it was written for, they got it. Never published in the United States—and why should it be? it’s not for us—Waterlog was in the U.K. a bestseller and an instant classic, Deakin a literary celebrity. Before his death in 2006 at the age of 63, he produced two BBC radio documentaries about his moated home, Walnut Tree Farm, and wrote two more books, both published posthumously. And he lived long enough to see wildswimming catch on, first as a fad, and then simply as the way things ought to be done. After Deakin, swimming in chlorinated pools seemed quite obviously less-than. One did it if one must, but come on. In 2006 the BBC produced a film, Wild Swimming, based on Deakin’s work. That same year, the Outdoor Swimming Society was founded. “Ten years ago,” its website reads, “outdoor waters were perceived by many as uninviting: dangerous, illegal, dirty and cold. Since then they have become increasingly something to be celebrated, photographed, written about and explored.” Its mission statement is a Deakinsian call to arms: “We believe in sharing the joy and adventure of swimming … We believe all have a right to swim under an open sky … We embrace the delight of cold water and its rejuvenating effects … We promise to strip and dip wherever we can.” Walnut Tree Farm became a pilgrimage site for enthusiastic naturalists, and the rivers, springs, and lidos that Deakin describes saw surges in popularity. In 2015, an English journalist named Joe Minihane started blogging, at WaterlogReswum.com, about his attempts to swim the places that Deakin had swum; he collected the essays in his 2017 book, Floating: A Life Regained.

For all the obvious kinship, one cannot escape the irony of Cheever’s inspiring Deakin: However wild and beautifully deranged his plot, Ned Merrill is in a sense the ultimate anti-wildswimmer: Literally all of his swimming is through chlorinated, chemical-tamed backyard pools. That’s how Americans swim. Also, our country is relatively young, as are our houses, so we don’t have moats. About once a month since reading Waterlog, I look up from slurping my Rice Krispies and say to my wife, “I want a moat!”—I mean, the sheer ridiculousness of it. An American with a moat! But in the English village of Diss, all things are possible. As they are in Cornwall and Dartmoor, and in Sussex and Wessex and Essex and all the -shires and -fields and -tons. These are not just names from Thomas Hardy novels—they are real places, where roofs are thatched and eggs are poached, and Deakin swam there.

I was in love. I did not want to go back to America; what I wanted was England, the England of Waterlog.

I took Waterlog to the register, purchased it, and read it on the train back to the conference. And I kept reading it, first in moments stolen from the conference, then on the airplane to New York, then curled up on my sofa hiding away from the New England January. The book, although short by what I think of as English standards—not Trollope, Dickens, or Eliot length—held for six or seven days. It was thus near the end of the first week in January 2018, when, creeping up on the end of the book, I got to the private pool at the private London community of Highpoint, where “[t]he Jewish ladies in red jackets with big gold buttons come down in the afternoons.”

Here, before I try again to explain why I took such offense at the passage about the Jewish ladies, I should state my position with regard to offense-taking: I am against it. People take offense way too easily. I think a little stereotyping is inevitable—in our hearts, we all generalize about groups of people, both groups to which we belong and groups to which we don’t. Anybody who tells you that she does not privately think in stereotypes, at least sometimes, is a liar. We stereotype because evolution leads us to seek patterns; because we cannot escape our cultures, and every culture in some way defines itself against other cultures; and because—this is important—stereotyping is pleasurable. In so many ways! Part of the fun of being Jewish is holding stereotypes about the goyim, the gentiles. I would never ask Black friends to give up their harmless, humorous stereotypes of white people. Much good comedy comes from stereotyping: Whatever self-respect the English upper class loses because of the stereotype that they are stupid and inbred, at least the rest of us gained the classic Monty Python sketch “Upper Class Twit of the Year,” in which Old Etonians like Simon Zinc-Trumpet-Harris and Oliver St John-Mollusc compete in such events as Walking Along the Straight Line and Kicking the Beggar. If the gentile comedian Mike Myers wants to wring laughs from his impersonation of his (now ex-) mother-in-law by exaggerating her Jewish New Yawk accent in his “Coffee Talk” sketches on Saturday Night Live (“I’m your host, Linda Richmond. On this show we talk about cawfee, New Yawk, dawters, dawgs, you know, no big whoop … ”), he should be allowed. We should never seek to abolish stereotyping (we would seek in vain), but rather to keep our stereotypes harmless and affectionate—and when we cannot keep them that way, we should keep them to ourselves.

And without stereotypes, we would not be able to signal intimacy by granting permission to use them. I have gentile friends whom I grant latitude with Jewish jokes. Stereotypes are a little dangerous, but if they weren’t, we would not be able to forge solidarity around them. Because they are slightly forbidden, using them becomes a password to friendship. There’s something naughty about invoking stereotypes, and that’s OK. It’s more than OK usually, when somebody says something stupid and potentially offensive about Jews, I choose not to be offended. Classic case in point: My freshman year in college, in a small literature seminar, the professor—an elderly scholar of French poetry, dapper, Protestant, old-school to his bones—was making a discombobulated point about Leopold Bloom in Ulysses and, for affirmation, turned to me and the classmate sitting next to me, a boy named Josh, fixed his blue eyes on us, and said, “And am I right that premature baldness is typical of Eastern European Jews?” The comment was stupid, and I suspect that in 2018 a student would have reported the good professor to some minor dean, who would have forced the professor to apologize: to me, to my friend, to the student body, to Jews everywhere. At the time, well, we just thought it made the professor look ridiculous. We were probably grateful for the story to dine out on. And did he mean to make his Jewish students, his Jew-dents, uncomfortable? No, he liked us. Did he have reservations about Jews in general? Probably. He probably thought we were loud, uncouth strivers. He was an old-money WASP of a particular vintage, so how could it have been otherwise? Oh well. So it goes.

But the old prof was also somebody who had spent his professional life among Jews. He had taught hundreds, even thousands, of us. Whatever he privately thought, and whatever objectionable notions slipped past his internal censor, the odds were that he had made his peace with Jews and did just fine with us. I knew he had reached an accommodation with people like me. Roger Deakin, by contrast, lived in a moat-encircled cottage in rural England, participated in recreational activities in which Jews are not known to show prowess, and wrote a book that, until page 298, is completely Judenrein (which was partly why I loved it—it felt so exotic, to be at swim with hardy ethnic Britons). So when I encountered his “Jewish ladies in red jackets,” the comment felt, to me, rather unearned. I was not entirely convinced that he was down with the Jews. Put another way: Who gave him permission?

And the more I inspected it, the less I liked it. “The Jewish ladies?” What is with the definite article? Why not “Jewish ladies in red jackets”? “The” implies some sort of known entity, a recognizable cadre, as if Deakin can feel confident that his audience will nod in recognition: Ah, yes, the Jewish ladies—how well I know them. And why “ladies” and not “women”? I am not of the “woman”-only school of sexing female characters; I admire a well-chosen deployment of “ladies” or even “misses” (I think “Jewess” has its place, reclaimed ironically). But I sniff something diminutive about Deakin’s “ladies,” as if they obviously lack the grandeur of accomplished, professional women, as if they could not be authoritative balebustes of the first order. I see “[t]he Jewish ladies” mincing into the pool area, careful not to scuff their pedicures. They are “in red jackets,” we learn—and I think, “What, all of them?” I was assured by an English friend whom I sent this passage to that, yes, the red jackets are a thing, like the drab-olive Barbour jackets that middle-class Brits wear when pretending to a higher caste. Maybe so. But putting them in those red jackets, consigning them to uniform, really does deny them their personal eccentricities. They are an army of identical old Jewish ladies, it seems.

Old Jewish ladies in red jackets “with big gold buttons,” to boot! You don’t have to be a professional Jew like me to wince a little bit at those big gold buttons. They trip all my stereotype wires, which aren’t so easily tripped. “Big” as in gaudy, gauche, tacky, in-your-face, loud. “Gold” as in ostentatious, incontinent, unrestrained, monied, jeweler-pawnbroker-international-currency-fixing-financier.

And these ladies, in their red jackets with their big gold buttons, they “come down in the afternoons,” because—because why? Because they have slept late, awakening at noon to breakfast in bed, croissant and tea served by a Black maid? Because they are the idle rich? Happily widowed—Saul or Mort may be gone, but his money stayed behind?

And besides, how does Deakin know that these women—these red-robed, gold-buttoned, late-waking women—are all Jewish? Is it their big noses? Their nasal voices? The famous Jewish predilection for red robes?

Deakin has come in for a bit of this scrutiny, not as a racist or xenophobe but rather as the sort of clueless naturalist who never bothered to ask why some people live in crowded tenements rather than in the plein-air countryside, with moats.

At this point, Roger Deakin—and perhaps many of you—would look at me and say, “Have you gone mad?” After all, not only did he not intend any of these associations, he might not even recognize them (although, on reflection, he might recognize some of them). “I was just noting,” he would continue, “that well-to-do Jewish women who live at Highpoint, like other residents of Highpoint, like to swim in the pool. Some of them surely work, and they swim at other times, but a group of them swim in the afternoon. And yes, for whatever reason, they wear red robes with gold buttons. Nothing wrong with that. So really, sir, have you gone mad?”

And the answer would be (if I were being totally honest with myself, and could overcome my defensive nature), “Why yes, I guess I have gone a bit mad.” Because I would have to admit that Deakin simply did not mean any harm. Nor did the editor and copy-editor and one or two other professionals at Hamish Hamilton, his publisher, who let this part of his manuscript pass through unpenciled. Nor did all the critics who saw nothing amiss here, and thus failed to comment on the Jewish ladies in their reviews of Waterlog. The gold buttons notwithstanding, I would have to stammer, red-faced, red-nosed, that I was just a nervous, oversensitive Jew, looking for slights.

I have recently been made aware that some writers who know Deakin, and England, and its tradition of nature writing better than I do, are not so quick to forgive. There apparently is a long tradition of xenophobia, even fascism, among English nature writers, and their writing. Henry Williamson (of whom I had never heard), author of the beloved 1927 countryside classic Tarka the Otter (of which I had never heard), was, to quote a journalist writing in 2018, “a ruralist, a naturalist, naïve and solitary, but a Nazi too, a fervent admirer of ‘the great man across the Rhine’ and an adherent of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists.” The writer goes on to note other British back-to-the-landers, from the early 20th century to contemporary Twitter, who prefer that the land not support immigrants. Their nightmare, broadly speaking, is of “a green England concreted over to build homes for immigrants.” Deakin has come in for a bit of this scrutiny, not as a racist or xenophobe but rather as the sort of clueless naturalist who never bothered to ask why some people live in crowded tenements rather than in the plein-air countryside, with moats.

In the end, the Jewish ladies did not diminish my enjoyment of this book much. I will return to Waterlog at least several more times before I go. It is one of those books I feel blessed to have found; I don’t like to think how close I came to never having read it. To stare at the utter contingency of our reading lives—what else am I missing, and what will I never find?—is like thinking about how close we all came to not meeting our spouses or partners. (What if we’d gone to a matinee of the movie instead of the late show? What if we’d sidled up to the other end of the bar? Different children, different wife, different life. …) But I did find Deakin, and he’s mine. For three years, it was delicious for me that Deakin would never be famous in the United States; Waterlog would always be the indie band that I could introduce people to. Now, I have to give up on that, share Deakin with the world. As I do, I become concerned what others will make of his Jewish ladies—or am I concerned that others won’t notice them at all?

I admire Deakin, envy him, revere him. Horrible as it is to say it, I am a little bit grateful that he is dead, because my idealized version of him will never have to answer to what he was really like. He was probably a terrific guy; he probably would have let me swim in his moat. But as he and I toweled off, I probably would have avoided the subject of my Judaism, which is something that we Jews do now, with a bit more frequency than in the recent past, whether in the company of coarse xenophobes or cultured English nature writers.

Mark Oppenheimer is a Senior Editor at Tablet. He hosts the podcast Unorthodox. He has contributed to Slate and Mother Jones, among many other publications. He is the author, most recently, of Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood.

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