Supplementary memorandum submitted by
Mr Roger Deakin
To deprive large sections of the population
of swimming, either because there is no pool close enough to where
they live to make regular swimming practical or because the rising
costs involved put it out of reach, is to limit the imaginative
and mental capacities of the people (especially children and young
people), as well as their ability to become healthy and fit. As
a participation sport and recreation, swimming has the potential
to combat the tendency of television spectator sports to nurture
a nation of couch potatoes.
It is perhaps significant that a remarkable
number of writers are regular, passionately committed swimmers.
They find, as I do, that a daily swim is essential to imaginative
as well as physical fitness. This article by Kate Kellaway from
a recent Observer, Sunday 26 August 2001, makes the point
Does swimming mean a couple of lengths at the
local pool or a transcendental experience? Cast off the dross
of everyday life and take the plunge . . .
I put a foot in the seaa cool warning.
A second footand now I am, suddenly, in waist-deep with
a wave that bossily pushes past me to the shore. I brace myself,
gasp as the water folds over my shouldersand swim. The
North Sea has not changed. It is, as Stanley Spencer described
it in 1937, the colour of "dirty washing water". This
is the stretch of Suffolk coast in which the Victorian poet Swinburne
once revelled. (He was a keen swimmer who took bracing waves and
sharp shingle as sybaritic punishment.) This is where, more recently,
ardent-to-the-point-of-perversity swimmer Roger Deakin (author
of Waterlog, a marvellous account of swimming across Britain)
elected to swim at Christmas with a party of friends. But faced
with the sight of the winter sea, his friends bottled out and
Deakin was left "gamely trying to balance on one leg in the
wind, and struggle out of a pair of long-johns and into my frozen
Speedos". Once in, it was a case of "gritting my teeth
and thinking of England for a moment or two", but then came
his reward: "the intoxication of the fiery cold".
The difference between Deakin and his friends
is that he is a compulsive swimmer. It takes one to know one.
When I see water, I have to swim in it. Once I have overtaken
the cold, I am happy as a seal. I exult in the unpredictability
of water, the beauty of the coast and the distance from land.
I've been addicted to swimming since my early
20s and have learned that the world divides into those who love
itand those who are like horses that you drag to water
but can't get to swim. My husband announces that the trouble about
swimming is that you "get wet". He has recently boasted
that the pain of getting into the sea can be lessened by "going
in backwards" but although he refers to this breakthrough
frequently, he is seldom seen even ankle-deep in water.
Swimmers form a tacit cluband I am struck
by how many writers belong to it. There is, I think, an affinity
between writing and swimming. For the writer/swimmer, swimming
is as necessary as breathing. Byron, Coleridge, Shelley, Swinburne,
Goethe, Flaubert and Pushkin were all obsessive swimmers. So was
Tennessee Williams and Iris Murdoch. Arthur Miller liked to swim
every day. And John Cheever (who wrote the extraordinary story
The Swimmer), describes swimming as the "apex of the
day, its heart". Heathcote Williams, Deborah Moggach, Vikram
Seth are all passionate swimmers.
And A S Byatt's much publicised swimming pool,
secured with her Booker prize money, was not an idle impulse,
it was what her swimmer's heart most craved. Oliver Sacks puts
it like this: "Swimming gave me a sort of joy, a sense of
well-being so extreme that it became, at times, a sort of ecstasy
. . . I never knew anything so powerfully, so healthily euphorian
and I was addicted to it, am still addicted, fretful when I cannot
Sacks reports that there is "something
about being in water and swimming that alters my mood, gets my
thoughts going, as nothing else can". Most of his book A
Leg to Stand On was written during long swims in a lake when
every half hour or so, he would get out and write "drippingly,
on to paper". Roger Deakin defines the addiction beautifully:
"Swimming is like dreaming. It is entering a dream world
where you are not subject to the laws of gravity as you are on
land. It seems to have magical effects on the imagination. You
changebecome an aquatic version of yourself".
Water itself is a muse and the sea poses a question
that every writer worth his sea salt must answer. The sea demands
description as we stand at its edge but repels conclusions. It
makes, however briefly and inadequately, writers of us all. Writers
who are keen swimmers attest to the beauty of swapping one element
for another. Scott Fitzgerald in The Crack-up proposed
that all writing was like "swimming under water and holding
There is also, perhaps, a link between swapping
land for water and stepping out of reality into fiction. Roger
Deakin puts it like this; "You let yourself go, launch out,
cross over some sort of boundary. Looking out at a black sheet
of water is like contemplating a blank sheet of paperbut
once you are in, you are in". And in both, he adds there
is the sense of travelling, of getting somewhere, as if crossing
a bay. Alan Hollinghurst conceived his elegantly written, homoerotic
novel The Swimming-Pool Library at the YMCA pool. He would
swim 50 lengths a day and plan the book in his head. He liked
the "unconscious rhythm" of swimming. Nowadays, he prefers
the less disciplined pleasures of the men's pond on Hampstead
Heath(currently closed, he sighs, because of blue green
Charles Sprawson turned his obsession with swimming
into a magnificent book, Haunts of the Black Masseur, described
by Iris Murdoch once as "zestful as a plunge in champagne".
He explains that for the nineteenth century Romantics swimming
was "a new experience". He likens it to "taking
opium". Swimming and sex are also linked. Byron used to boast
about his swimming exploits in much the same way as his sexual
conquests. More recently, the poet Katherine Pierpoint compared
the water to a "rediscovered lover". But it took a Frenchman,
Paul Valéry, to make the sexual nature of swimming explicit
in his majestically unequivocal phrase "fornication avec
l'onde". For the Romantics, half in love with easeful death,
part of the allure of swimming was its danger, the risk of drowning.
And there were many drownings in the nineteenth century. "Shelley
made no effort to come to the surface", Sprawson observesand
then laughs acknowledging the ghastly humour of his phrase only
on completing it.
Swimming can also be for consolation. In Sally
Friedman's Swimming the Channel: A Memoir of Love and Loss,
swimming was a way through bereavement. Her husband was killed
by a lorry on a Manhattan street corner the day she was to fly
to England to attempt to swim the Channel.
Swimming is also about transformation: even
the lumpiest bodies can be experienced as svelte in water. As
Deakin says, "You can never make an ugly movement in water,
Everything is graceful". Byron could forget his club foot,
Sprawson his dicey knees and Oliver Sacks's father a man
"huge and cumbersome on land"became "graceful,
like a porpoise in water".
Modern swimmers are inheritors of a romantic
idea: they continue what the nineteenth century swimmers started.
Deakin argues that we need the romance of swimming more than ever
because we live in "such an unromantic, materialistic world".
He sees swimming as a "release into a timeless world".
He adds, "When you take your clothes off, you divest yourself
of all the dross of everyday life. And that is tremendously romantic."
There is nothing obviously romantic about indoor swimming pools.
On the face of it, it seems strange that anyone could be addicted
to visiting a heavily chlorinated, turquoise oblong every day.
And yet swimmers come religiously to pools throughout the landand
religious really is the word. There is something devotional about
swimming lengths. Swimmers in indoor pools are like beads on a
rosary moved along by their compulsion to swim. A friend of mine
describes it as a positively improving activity "You come
out a better person", she swears.
Katherine Pierpoint describes the allure of
the indoor pool in the wonderful poem Going Swimmingly: "Swimming,
everything is simplified . . . A rhythmic peace, of rocking and
being rocked, plaiting yourself into the water".
And yet, in my experience, London pools at their
worst are like a demented version of rush hour. Swimmers, stressed
as commuters, hurry up and down: they might as well, I sometimes
think, have their briefcases underwater with them. But we all
have something in common: we are hooked. Without a swim, our day
will not be complete. I am getting out of the sea nowan
unstable business because the coast shelves steeply and the waves
are so strong. Momentarily, I lose balance and pitch forward but
then I right myself and now I swap water for land, leaving the
last wave behind me like a heavy skirt.
Celebrity swimmers . . .
Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Algernon Charles
Swinburne, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Alexander Pushkin, Gustave
Flaubert, Paul Valéry, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Tennessee
Williams, Rupert Brooke, John Cheever, Arthur Miller, Iris Murdoch,
John Bayley, Vikram Seth, Deborah Moggach, Heathcote Williams,
A S Byatt, Harold Evans. Waterlog by Roger Deakin.
6 December 2001