Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


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 well:


  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 sea—a cool warning. A second foot—and 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 shoulders—and 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 it—and 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 club—and 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 swim".

  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 change—become 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 your breath".

  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 paper—but 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 algae).

  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 observes—and 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 land—and 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 now—an 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

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