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August 15, 2018

Swell: A Waterbiography, by Jenny Landreth

The gendered nature of swimming is something I think about all the time, although most often when I am sharing a lane with a man who has found taking up ample space by merely having longer limbs than I do unacceptable, and therefore has decided to enhance his lengths with flippers on his feet and paddles on his hands, increasing his chances of making violent contact with my body as he passes me. The women in the pool I swim at don’t do this, and neither do they, as one swimmer in Jenny Landreth’s spectacular book Swell: A Waterbiography does, butterfly up and down narrow lanes driving all other swimmers into the gutter. In her recent book, Boys, Rachel Giese writes about the way that boys are taught to be entitled to public space, as they dominate the basketball courts on the playground, and because I spend most of my time hiding in libraries, I don’t encounter this very much, but it’s in the pool I do. And it all makes me think of the line on the very first page of Swell, which was where I fell in love with this book: “how swimming can be a barometer for women’s equality.” We’ve all come a long way, but still.

Swell is my favourite book I’ve read this summer, a summer that has been all about swimming, in pools and lakes, as both my children are both at pivotal stages in the development of their inner fishes, and we can worry slightly less about the little one drowning. I’ve gone swimming by myself four mornings a week along with the men with the hand paddles and the flippers, and then later in the day we’ve all gone to the public pool and I’ve sat in the shallows and tried not to think about pee as my daughters delighted in turning somersaults over and over again. So yes, Swell was just absolutely perfect.

It’s a book I’d situate as what might happen if Sue Townsend of Adrian Mole fame got together with Elizabeth Renzetti’s Shewed and they decided to have a literary baby that was also a social history of women swimming in England. The result is absolutely delightful, empowering, and so terrible funny in its asides that I kept reading them aloud to the people around me who became very confused about what this book was about exactly. But that’s because it’s about everything, about the history of suffrage, and bathing suits, and public pools, and mixed beaches, and how women used to drown all the time because they weren’t taught to swim, and about how when they decided they did want to learn how to swim, no one could teach them because all the instructors were men and men and women couldn’t possible swim together. It’s about pools where women were accorded very little time for swimming, and it was usually during the day when no one could make it anyway. It’s about women who defied convention (and their mothers!) to become swimming superstars, pioneering the front crawl in England, swimming the English channel, being the first women swimmers in the Olympic games.

Landreth writes, “‘In front of every great woman is another great woman… Women whose lies will change. Some who will take this story, make it their story and push it on to its next pages.”

And of course, Landreth’s own story is part of this book, her “waterbiography”—and she admits to being proud to have coined the term. She grew up in the Midlands, which is kind of a swimming desert—when I lived there I was once so desperate for a swim that I dove in the duck pond on the Nottingham University Jubilee Campus—and was an unlikely candidate to become an avid swimmer for a host of reasons. She writes about learning to swim as a child, about travelling to Greece in her 20s and trying proper swimming for the first time, about lacklustre swimming as part of the 1980s’ fitness craze, about what an awful and unfulfilling thing it is to go swimming with small children—and then about finding her identity as a swimmer once her children were older, and what a thing it is that women can do this at any age. About how empowering it was to learn to call herself a swimmer.

There is indeed something womanly about swimming, in spite of the Michael Phelpses and the men with paddles on their hands. I mean, have you ever heard of a male mermaid? No. And I can’t for the life of me think of a single man who’s swam across Lake Ontario, but I know about Marilyn Bell and Vicki Keith, and Annaleise Carr, a swimming hero for every generation. I have dreams of one day swimming in the Ladies Pond at Hampstead Heath. I used to buy terrifically fancy swimsuits, but lately I’ve become enamoured of my sporty suits, the ones I wear while swimming in the pool in the mornings. Where my favourite swimmer is this woman I’ve never spoken to, but she’s my hero—grey bathing cap (I wouldn’t know her without it) and same bathing suit as mine, a bit stocky, older than I am. And in the pool every morning, she’s the fastest every time.

More on swimming:

One thought on “Swell: A Waterbiography, by Jenny Landreth

  1. theresa says:

    I wonder if men are predisposed towards outward expressions of…well, you know. The men at our pool in winter are the ones with equipment. Snorkles, big goggles, those paddles on the hands, flippers. The women calmly swim their lengths or do the exercises for hips and knees. There’s less gasping, less performance. I try to find a time when the only man in the pool is my husband, who is just there to do laps. Quietly. Thanks for another swimming book to add to the pile.

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