You might have noticed, under Looking... over on this sidebar>>>>> that some really very fine books indeed have arrived. I've called it Looking... when in fact they all have a great deal of reading in them, along with the requisite sumptuous pictures, and so I will be writing about quite a few over the next few weeks.
The hidden bounty in books like this is the fact that I didn't have the first clue about the story of swimming, nor that I might even want to know, but when Susie wrote to me and mentioned that she had been a crocheting dovegreyreader tent visitor at Port Eliot, and would I be interested in seeing a copy of her book on swimming, I very politely said yes please, expecting perhaps a little handbook on the history of the swimming gala or something.
Jim the Postie may now have a hernia but this gorgeous great big book arrived, and I have spent many happy evenings reading it...
I'm not a brilliant swimmer, this I must admit. I'm self-taught really, so some very flaky keep-the-hair-dry breaststroke, more suited to having a conversation with someone swimming alongside me than any aspirations to be Anita Lonsborough (Rome 1960, my first remembered Olympic Games). I can manage a passable backstroke but I really hate not being able to see where I'm going, and only a very rubbish four strokes at front crawl before I splutter and panic because I have forgotten to breath. I've been too busy worrying about what my arms and legs aren't doing properly, and then I feel as if I'm drowning, and as for butterfly, well let's not go there. About diving, hmm....well, it always feels as if I am in perfect alignment whilst the look on everyone's face when I surface seems to say 'That must have hurt.'
Susie Parr far braver than I, a devotee of outdoor swimming, the term 'wild swimming' often used, and one coined by Roger Deakin in his book Waterlog, and wild swimming in the River Lynher now a regular feature of Port Eliot Festival. This all involves being really keen to plunge into the nearest lake/loch/dock/harbour/ocean, whilst I'd be stuck on the side wondering about the raw sewage and the E Coli count per cc of water.
Not Susie, and it is her own intrepid swimming life (and presumably a tried and tested immune system) that mingles perfectly with the social and cultural history of swimming, from the Romans to the present day, alongside the pictures many of which have been taken by Susie's husband photographer Martin Parr...
'During the lake season (May to September) I fall into the grip of a powerful addiction. I have to get to the lake every day, no matter what the weather. If I cannot go, because of work or visitors, I become crochety, edgy, ill at ease...'
I have a nursing colleague who is an outdoor swimmer, except this very day she is en route to Africa for a two week nursing project in Kenya where I have no doubt she will find some swimming. She somehow manages to bury her extensive knowledge of pathogens and the risk of septicaemia via an innocent looking cut in order to regularly traverse Plymouth Sound or Roadford Reservoir in aid of charity, and I just pay up and offer words of encouragement and gaze on with incredulity.
So why don't I want to do that??
It's not as if I wasn't showing potential at an early age after all...
Remember the Lido? Susie has plenty on the Lido and this is one of the multitude of very revealing aspects in The Story of Swimming ...the fascinating detail surrounding the many different and influencing factors on the practice of swimming; the wars, poverty and class, legislation, transport, the economy, and changing concepts of health, education, beauty and fashion, politics, feminism and sexual liberation.
And then there are the literary swimmers from Wordsworth to Iris Murdoch and let's not forget Rupert Brooke's skinny dip with Virginia Woolf at Byron's Pool near Grantchester. Suzie swims there too... we'd call it a bandit run (the Kayaker paddled many of these slightly out-of-bounds places) ignoring all the Private/ Do Not Bathe signs and exercising a sort of Right to Swim. And Susie definitely risks a plethora of water-borne diseases in a pool that is now a very far cry from the cool, inviting place it must have been when Rupert and Ginny first dived in there, on the eve of the Great War. Fighting with a scum of plastic bags and other unmentionable detritus plus a great deal of mud, Susie emerges feeling her furtive swim in a place that should be 'glorious', has instead been 'rushed, fearful and unpleasant.'
Lidos were about the democratisation of a sport and form of exercise that had become a little elitist in the 1930s, initially challenging the expensive changing facilities on the beaches. Easy to forget the sensitivities, and the fact that rummaging your cozzie on under a towel was absolutely not the done thing. I had no idea that 'mackintosh bathing' even existed, let alone that many local authorities banned the practice of travelling from your guest house to the beach with your bathers on underneath your mac to avoid the expense of hiring a beach hut.
Lidos now fast disappearing, but we'd be awake all night at the thought of the next day's promised trip to Tooting Bec Lido. Speechless with excitement as we sat on the bus from Mitcham and all to swim in a freezing cold pool with the multitudes whilst fighting for about a cubic foot of water each. Now I discover it is one of the largest open-air pools in existence, so you can just imagine how many of us crammed in there back in the early 1960s, and why we had to wait hours for a free changing cubicle. And we were robust and didn't catch things either, now every time I swim in a pool I have a sore throat within days... rubbish and unchallenged 21st century immune system obviously.
Frankly I blame children and the wetsuit.
Children because they would insist on spending hours and hours in the sea so we would have to do the same, hence the wetsuits, and the consequent reluctance for cold water ever thereafter. Susie would be having none of that. The whole point seems to be the envigorating cold water on your skin, pulling clothes back onto a half-dried body afterwards and sitting huddled up with a thermos... and I'm almost tempted to go and have a quick dip in the Tamar right this minute.
Only 'almost'... there's wild and then there's crazy. It was all looking a bit swift under Horsebridge this weekend, I'd be out in Plymouth Sound before I knew it..
So a really lovely book and my thanks to Susie Parr for at least making me think about my own swimming history whilst pretending that I might go 'wild-swimming'. I have spent many worthwhile evenings reading and browsing this book, and with much pleasure. The Story of Swimming is published by Dewi Lewis media, a company of whom I knew little but now know a great deal more, and what an eclectic and unusual list of books they produce.
So any one else keen on plunging into the nearest lake??
Any other 'keep-the-hair-dry' swimmers like me out there??