Is this what whales sing about?
We live in water until we are born. We evolved from creatures which lived in water. Our bodies are approximately 60% water.
I’m fascinated by writing and films which capture the transformative, liminal qualities of swimming. When you move from air to water, you literally slide into another world. Your relationship to your surroundings changes: boundaries shift, melt and merge; time changes pace; gravity diminishes; perspective distorts; the senses both sharpen and blur; the mind roams.
This is fertile ground (dotted with tempting swamps) for metaphor and symbol, for exploration of the relationship between conscious and unconscious mind, the overlap between waking and dreaming, primeval memory and modern life, then and now, real and surreal. This is the province of creative fiction, poetry and sometimes autobiography.
Water rocks. The waves rule Britannia.
Here's the beginning of my armchair swimming booklist.
The Swimmer by John Cheever (1964)
A surreal short story in which Ned Merrill decides to swim home through a chain of his neighbours’ swimming pools in suburban America, but doesn’t end up where he expected. Absolutely brilliant.
Waterlog: A swimmer’s journey through Britain by Roger Deakin (2000)
A thoughtful, inquisitive and observant personal meander and crawl through some of the rivers, tarns, bays, lakes and streams of Britain.
A waterproof book. Yes, really - plastic pages. A collection of 14 stories about swimming and swimming pools which you can drop in the pool or the bath. Published by Melcher Media.
Haunts of the Black Masseur: The swimmer as hero – Charles Sprawson (1993)
Despite the weird title (sounds like gay porn?), this is an intelligent, eccentric, wistful swallow dive through the cultural and literary history of swimming and diving, with particularly good bits on the ancient Greeks and Romans, the Romantic Poets, Leni Riefenstahl and the swimming pools of America. Inspired me to hurl myself into several icy South African waterfalls.
The Art of Swimming by Captain Webb (1876)
Facsimile of the original edition. Published by Pryor Publications. 1999.
An account of Captain Matthew Webb’s first swim across the English Channel in 1875 and other spiffingly virile swimming feats of the time together with his instructions on swimming technique.
The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard (1962)
A haunting and possibly prescient vision of a post-apocalyptic London, flooded, decaying, menacing. One scene, in which Kerans dives down to explore the submerged London Planetarium laps on the edge of memory like a bad dream.
Not waving but drowning – Stevie Smith (1957)
That scary iconic poem. Much further out than you thought.
Moby Dick – Herman Melville (1851)
The wily great white whale stays well out of Captain Ahab’s obsessive clutches. Call me Ishmael…
The Joy of Water - Peter W. Atkins in "How Things Are" Ed. Brockman & Matson (1995)
A short but fascinating essay on the physical chemistry of one oxygen and two hydrogen atoms combined and the resulting unique, life-sustaining and awesome properties of water.
Locus Solus – Raymond Roussel (1914)
An odyssey of French surrealist writing. Mad, exotic, incomprehensible. Chapter three involves a huge glass tank of oxygenated water containing a submerged dancer, sea-horses, electrodes, a depilated cat and the decomposing head of Danton…
The Shipping News – Annie Proulx.
Quoyle clutches onto the coolbox and drifts when his boat capsizes. This resonates with bad sailors like me.
Dougal’s Deep Sea Diary – Simon Bartram (2004)
A children’s book with great pictures about a man who escape from his boring job to go diving and finds a whole new world under the sea.
Deep Immersion - The Experience of Water - Robert L. France
A book about the eons-old relationship between people and water, by an expert in ecological planning and environmental design. The premise is that if we all spent more time near water, appreciating water and immersed in water, our lives would be enriched and we would look after our rivers, lakes and seas better. I'll drink a glass of H2O to that.
Swimming Underground – Mary Woronov (1995)
Interesting vitriolic amphetamine memoir about Woronov’s time in Andy Warhol’s “Factory”. Its not about swimming but the prologue includes a description of swimming out to sea with her mother, convinced she is going to drown.
The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley (1863).
An obnoxious Victorian morality tale. But I was read an abridged, illustrated version of it when I was a child, and have never forgotten how chimney sweep’s boy Tom slid into the water, and discovered another world.
“But Tom was very happy in the water. He had been sadly overworked in the land-world; and so now, to make up for that, he had nothing but holidays in the water-world for a long, long time to come. He had nothing to do now but enjoy himself, and look at all the pretty things which are to be seen in the cool clear water-world, where the sun is never too hot, and the frost is never too cold.” – from The Water Babies, Chapter 3.
The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence (1915)
Gudrun and Ursula get their kit off and plunge into the river, butt-naked but weighed down by the lead bricks of Freudian theory and Lawrencian metaphor. Yawn.
Swimming to Antarctica by Lynne Cox (2004)
Memoir of a long-distance cold water swimmer.
Liquid Assets by Janet Smith (2005)
A meticulously researched history of all the lidos of Britian, those that were and those that still are. Shocking how many are gone. Illustrated with fabulous pictures.
Writing about swimming: Fiction, travelogue, poetry, science, autobiography, cultural history and whatever