2017 has been a bumper year for outdoor swimming books. No surprises there – with more than 25,000 members of the Outdoor Swimming Society and rising, it’s getting hard to move for tales of travel, meditation, healing and aquatic self-discovery.
While these cold-water confessionals make us feel warm and cozy inside, don’t deny that swimming contains just as much comedy as it does serious reflection. Let’s face it, the smiles at the end of a chilly dip are just as likely triggered by a wardrobe malfunction as they are by a massive release of endorphins.
Which is why Jenny Landreth’s ‘waterbiography’, Swell, is a standout addition to a crowded pool of waterlogged memoirs. Touching on the serious business of swimming as a force for equality and emancipation, her story also captures the messy, visceral and occasionally embarrassing world of the outdoor swimmer.
Sparkling with wit and emotion, this very honest book doesn’t shy from telling it like it is. While swimming is an opportunity to transcend the everyday and explore new horizons, at times it’s bloody terrifying. A nighttime, nightmarish episode in open water where “things unknowable from the deep are drawn to your pale legs like moths to a lamp” will resonate with anyone who learned to swim in the decade of Jaws, The Deep and coin-operated televisions from Radio Rentals.
Swimming hard, fighting harder
Not only a very funny account of a life immersed, this is also a clever, compact history of feminism viewed through a well-fitting pair of goggles. I was ashamed not to know that women consistently out-perform men at long-distance swimming, but not at all surprised that men have spent hundreds of years trying to cover up the fact.
For this reason, it’s hard not to admire the amphibious suffragettes who swam hard and fought hard to make pools and lidos the shared spaces they are today. From Agnes Beckwith, who at the age of 17 swam 20 miles from Westminster Bridge to Richmond and back in 1878, to Charlotte Schoemmell who navigated 156 miles of the Hudson river, “clad in a bathing cap, a coat of black axle grease and nothing else”, women throughout history, as Margaret Nevinson put it, fought “a long and weary struggle to win not the freedom of the sea, but the freedom of rivers and lakes and ponds”.
Where does this leave Jenny in 2017? A year-round swimmer at Tooting Lido, south London, she brings to life a renaissance in lido culture and camaraderie that has swept the UK in recent years. As anyone who has swum through the seasons will tell you, the experience of emerging from freezing water “like a steaming lobster pulled out of the pan” forges life-long bonds that are harder to crack than heavy ice concreting the shallow end in the middle of January.
The knotty question of knitted swimsuits
If you’re a hardened outdoor swimmer or wondering what the fuss is about, Swell is an essential read. Like all autobiographies, this a tale not just of the teller, but the world they grew up in and the values they hold dear. In this case equality, cold water dips and the power of snacking – whether recovering from a February frolic in the lido, or two hours into the Dart 10k, one of the UK’s most popular endurance swims.
And of course, it’s very funny. Whereby one last word of advice. Don’t, whatever you do, think too hard about knitted swimsuits when you’re notching up the lengths in your local lido. Mid -crawl laughter will upset your catch, disrupt your pull phase, and play havoc with your bi-lateral breathing. You have been warned.
Swell: A Waterbiography, by Jenny Landreth, is published by Bloomsbury