A confession: this time last year, I couldn’t swim. Not a single stroke. As a child, apparently, I could manage not to sink, but as an adult, whenever I got in the water, I’d not be able to swim at all. I’d flail around, or become one of those people who simply hang around the shallow end creating the impression they can swim but they just can’t be bothered. It was embarrassing, but I reckon I’d get away with it.
Roger Deakin’s book, Waterlog, changed this.
When you swim, you feel your body for what it mostly is – water – and it begins to move with the water around it. No wonder we feel such sympathy for beached whales; we are beached at birth ourselves. To swim is to experience how it was before you were born. Once in the water, you are immersed in an intensely private world as you were in the womb. These amniotic waters are both utterly safe and yet terrifying, for at birth anything could go wrong, and you are assailed by all kinds of unknown forces over which you have no control. This may account for the anxieties every swimmer experiences from time to time in deep water. A swallow dive off the high board into the void is an image that brings together all the contradictions of birth. The swimmer experiences the terror and the bliss of being born.
Deakin was one of Britain’s finest writers. (His posthumous book, Notes from Walnut Tree Farm, is one of my favourite pieces of literature.) Waterlog is Deakin’s exploration of British waterways, from rivers to coast to distant hilltop pools, and it has become the defining book of wild swimming; his rich descriptions map an utterly unique relationship between people, water and swimming – but particularly the natural world. Not indoors, not especially paddling on a sunny day on the beach: but more those remote gems, that hidden bend in a river, where a swimmer becomes part of a natural cycle.
There was much here I envied. Waterlog creates a yearning to escape to such places, to immerse oneself in them and discover something rare. I certainly felt that way, at least. Here was a relationship with nature I had never experienced, and one I badly wanted to.
I had experienced that mild sense of shame that I ought be able to swim for some time; it might not mean much to some people, but it did to me. It was really only because of Deakin’s book that I decided to swallow my pride and receive proper swimming tuition. I was amused at first, watching the toddlers in the class before me splashing around, only to realise that I was actually not much better (at least there were no tears with me). Humbling wasn’t quite the word, but soon enough, I began to form the correct, precise movements.
I can swim well enough, now; certainly the backstroke (my favourite) and a decent enough front crawl. My breaststroke leaves a lot to be desired, but I might get that right in a couple of months. I’ve made the move to going swimming on my own quite a few times at the local pool in addition to the lessons. I wouldn’t be here without Deakin’s words. And now I’ve reached that stage where I can frown at others and wonder how, with such eccentric strokes, they don’t sink. Old ladies in particular amuse me when they drift by with apparently no effort whatsoever, as if they’re privy to some swimming lore lost to the younger generation.
But I’ve still not quite reached my goal of wild swimming. Later this year I hope to venture out somewhere interesting – even if it’s just the sea, though I’d prefer some distant tarn. Only then can I see if Deakin’s descriptions hold true.