Friday, 18 August 2017

Swell, Turning, Swimming with Seals review – the new wave of women’s waterbiographies – The Guardian


What’s with all the water? As if a tide has turned or a hand has dragged through a lake to make a ripple, here come a wave of books on swimming in lakes, in the sea, in lidos. Each is by a woman who becomes a swimmer. Each is also about a kind of redemption. And snacks. Swimmers always have snacks.

To borrow Jenny Landreth’s inspired subtitle, all three are waterbiographies. Landreth takes – or swims – us through the history of fabulous swimming pioneers and what she calls swimming suffragettes, women who smashed prejudice and who enable us all to swim freely today and with strokes and costumes of our choosing. Jessica J Lee, a Canadian-British-Chinese academic transplanted to Berlin, chooses to swim through 52 lakes for a year, to gain strength after depression and a broken heart. Victoria Whitworth, a medieval historian, swims almost always in one place: off the Sands of Evie in Orkney, which is sheltered enough to feel safe, and where there are seals who look at her briefly before they move off with indifference.

Indifference: that is the lure of the water. Freedom is a word common to all these books, and each narrative runs along lines of one kind of redemption or another. Lee’s decision to overcome trouble by swimming in 52 lakes may seem like a book pitch rather than a genuine quest, and my hackles rose quietly at first. But with lake after lake, and train after train, and forest after forest, as she rides around Brandenburg, the land that enveloped West Berlin during the cold war, and that now envelops Berlin, the hackles lay still, and I was drawn in. I bobbed among these tales of lakes and their umkippen, the turning of their layers of water through the seasons. Lake, from Old English, meaning “an offering, sacrifice; also a gift”. Lakes, that “hold themselves open to the world. Broad plates beneath the sky, they welcome a swimmer fully.”

Still waters, but hers is the choppiest of these books, as she jumps from Berlin to London to Canada to random characters who appear and disappear. Yet the book is curiously empty of people. Few characters are given depth, beyond her favourite swimming companion, Anne, but this provides a quiet eeriness which I don’t mind. People are encountered as anonymous figures in forests, perhaps alarming, sometimes not. They rarely speak, beyond asking of this young woman in a swimming costume, cracking the thick lake ice with a hammer, Waren Sie baden? (“Did you swim?”) Stress any of those words and the astonishment comes through. She did swim, sometimes not far, but through all seasons, and enough to get what she terms “endolphins”, the rush that extremely cold water always brings, the adrenaline and endorphins that follow. (She says she has met opiate users who say cold water swimming gives the same pleasure as heroin.) The ice provides “pain gleaming into my bones”, and still she swims.

Whitworth’s book is also solitary, but only if companionship must be human or alive. She swims first with the Polar Bears cold-water swimming club of Orkney, but her renewal comes from returning again and again to the cold sea, and going in alone and then not being alone. Her companions are the seals and seabirds, but also the waves, and the people of the past. She writes beautifully of selkies and mermaids. Here is Hans Christian Andersen’s “Little Mermaid”, not a sweet romance but the brutalisation of a young female whose voice is cut from her – as if the loss of her tail, and walking on feet that feel like razors, is not enough. What stories and histories do to women; what callous brutality.

‘I do not know anyone who has started sea swimming and then given it up.’



‘I do not know anyone who has started sea swimming and then given it up.’ Photograph: Fabio de Paolo for the Guardian

There is callousness too in Landreth’s history of women swimming: she records the pomposity of men throughout most of history wanting women to be deprived of the pleasure of water, so that they are first not allowed anyhere near it, then confined to bizarre bathing machines and hindering costumes. One of Landreth’s appealing heroines, the editor Elizabeth Eiolart, may have exhorted women to not “go about like a floating coffin”, but they had little choice, given the seven or eight yards of material most costumes entailed, with flounces and bloomers and heavy serge. By the turn of the 20th century, British women had, after a considerable fight, been given 14 swimming pools of their own, though the ladies’ pool in Ashton-under-Lyne was one-ninth of the area of the men’s, and that was considered generous. The first competitive swimming event for women was held in 1892 in Glasgow, a 200yds-freestyle, and women were first allowed to swim in the Olympics by the liberal Swedes only in 1912.

Note that “freestyle”: there was nothing free about it. Women were encouraged to swim the “trudgeon”, described by Landreth as “a kind of head-up/overarm/scissor-kick/side stroke” until the Americans brought in the front crawl as we know it, and the marvellous Hilda James became the first Briton to use it, smashing records and becoming known as “the English comet”.

Landreth’s captivating champions include the heroic, who won medals or swam the Channel, but also those who made things better with attrition, such as the “poor woman of Coal Court, Drury Lane”, who in summer heat in 1881 dared to bathe in the Serpentine and was “arrested at once by a scandalised policeman, and dragged before a magistrate, while 200 male persons were left happily swimming”. Thirty years later, suffragettes staged a swim-in in the Serpentine, striking out for the boats in the middle of the lake. Landreth makes a decent case that swimming and electoral emancipation are inextricable, or at least coincidental: fight for the mind and you may as well free the body too.

Not all her subjects would have thought themselves political. Young Agnes Beckwith of the Beckwith Frogs, a family swimming troupe, probably thought she was just getting the better of sewage when she swam five miles from London Bridge to Greenwich. She wore “a tight bathing costume of rose-pink llama trimmed with lace, her long flaxen hair neatly bound by a ribbon”, and when she reached Greenwich, a band played “See the Conquering Hero Comes”. Apolitical or not, Beckwith inspired more women, young and old, to swim rivers, cross bays, become Olympians – although Baron de Coubertin, founder of the International Olympic Committee, thought athletics was against the laws of nature for women – and swim in cold lidos.

Despite these tales of epic courage, the triumph of each of these books is a quiet one and quietly achieved. Each woman, faced with black water, or a fierce sea, or self-doubt, thought: “I can’t do this” and then did. They persisted, and they found in themselves a force like water, the kind that furrows rock or seeps under the door and keeps coming, unassailably. They would not call themselves heroic, but they swim in conditions that would send most of us running to a warm car: on grey days, in storms, in swells and when there are orcas (a pretty name for a killer whale). “Orcas have never attacked humans”, Whitworth’s fellow members of the Orkney Polar Bears sea-swimming club tell each other, like children whispering that they don’t believe in ghosts.

Plantar fasciitis, a painful foot condition, pushed Whitworth to swim, but so did a troubled marriage. It is a push that becomes a pull, with swim after swim, in colder and colder water. After a few weeks, she is standing taller, her body uncrumpling. “Long-disused nerves and muscles stretch and furl in the dark, reaching after sunlight, oxygen, water.” She sees the doctor for depression, because she is longing to “swim out into the dark and drift … where my orca comes to find me, and none of it matters any more.” She is prescribed antidepressants and doesn’t take them. The sea will do more good. She realises that “I do not know anyone who has started sea swimming and then given it up.”

What is this draw that water has? Water gives buoyancy to old bones; it doesn’t care what you look like underwater. It strips off more than clothes. And it will perhaps make you different.

“The sea,” Whitworth writes, “makes me feel how I am put together.” I finished each of these books wanting to find a cold lido, or jump into a lake, or walk into the cold sea and stay there for as long as I could stand it, and then do it again.

To order copies of Swell (Bloomsbury) and Turning (Virago) for £14.44 each (RRP £16.99 each), or Swimming with Seals (Head of Zeus, RRP £14.99) for £12.74, go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.



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