Sunday, 29 April 2012

Swimming books

As the rise and rise of open water swimming / outdoor swimming / wild swimming continues, there has been a parallel flurry of books on the subject - histories, biographies, autobiographies. I've recently read a couple of them and offer my views below:

Lynn Sherr (2012) Swim: Why We Love the Water New York: Public Affairs
Susie Parr (2011) The Story of Swimming: A Social History of Bathing in Britain Stockport: Dewilewis Media

Sherr's book is structured around a swim of the Hellespont, joining an annual event that I also took part in in 2008. (Incidentally, it was here that I encountered an extraordinary concentration of Channel swimmers, and within a month of returning from my trip, I was booking a pilot. So be careful.) Sherr's book is punctuated with an account of this swim, broken into broadly chronological fragments that are then related to the focus of each chapter. The book is extremely wide-ranging, covering cultural, historical and scientific themes, and ranging from Polar Bear swimming to elite competition.

It is sprinkled with wonderful illustrations - woodcuts, photographs, advertising hoardings, paintings, postcards - that highlight the cultural significance of swimming, and of the water; plus, many of the illustrations are extremely incongruous to the contemporary eye. I particularly loved (in an appalled sort of way) the 1922 photo of the older man on a beach carefully measuring the distance from knee to the lower seam of the swimming costumes of female bathers to ensure that, in the interests of decency, that they hadn't exceeded a display of more than 6 inches of thigh. The inside of the book is decorated with a delightful series of cigarette cards from the 1930's illustrating the different swimming strokes, and little figures from the cards swim discretely along the bottom of each page. Adorable.

Sherr evidently loves swimming, and this leaps out of every page, but as a book, I also found the text a little frustrating. It is very journalistic in style (which is not surprising, since Sherr is a journalist), jumping around a lot across time periods and topics in order to weave an engaging, but in parts very superficial narrative. I always wanted to know a little bit more and found the jumping about a little frustrating. I was also very disappointed with her completely uncritical reproduction of the notion that women have to look good (defined entirely by slimness) before they can feel good. In a section on swimsuits, she states: "Want to see a grown woman - any woman - act like a victim in a horror film? Two words: bathing suit". Not "any woman", Lynn, I can assure you.  She then quotes playwright Nora Ephron, who says: "I think the day you go to buy a bathing suit is the day that even women who like to shop feel like committing suicide". Really? And you don't find that ever so slightly tasteless? The following page is a homily to the 'holding in' properties of spandex, endorsing the notion that it is only once women feel suitably compressed and constrained that they should feel free to swim. What sexist, self-loathing tosh and nonsense. And it's a shame, because the rest of the book is so much about the glorious sensations of swimming, and the freedom and joy of it. It's a small part of the book, but it spoiled it for me.

Susie Parr's book, on the other hand, is 191 big, fat pages of delight. It's literally a big book - hard-backed, square and heavy; it spreads out luxuriously in your lap. While Parr shares Lynn Sherr's passion for the water and her text includes a number of engaging autobiographical snippets, it is a chronologically ordered social history, during which she is able to give herself time to explore particular issues, trends and social moments more fully - the section on the Romantics is a perfect example of this, and is wonderfully done. The chronological narratives also provide a discrete structure to an incredibly wide-ranging text.

Visually, Parr's book is stunning (and I'm not just saying this because it has a picture of me in it...Page 167, since you ask...), combining historical artefacts with beautiful photographs taken by her non-swimming husband, Martin Parr. His position as a non-swimmer gives a fascinating on-shore perspective, combining shots of people and places (and people in places) with quirky oddities: a mermaid scarecrow; a graffitied swimming pool sign. Occasionally, Parr herself appears in the pics, sometimes standing facing the camera, arms by her sides in a holiday portrait pose, and in others, engaging actively with the water. In one glorious picture at the opening of the book, she stands, back to the camera and facing an expanse of water, arms stretched out in celebration and anticipation, embracing the scene.

I actually had a copy of this book for quite a while before I read the text, such was the distracting appeal of the images, but having greedily consumed the visual feast, I was finally able to appreciate the text itself, which is an additional joy. It's very carefully and precisely written, and engagingly presented. There is a lot of information here, with a very strong sense of changing social mores and how those in turn played out (and were infuenced by) swimming. This is a must-read for anyone interested in the social history of swimming, in all its richness.

So, both of these books share a love of swimming, and intermingle autobiography with historical and social narrative. Both demonstrate a keen eye for some of the splendid ludicrousness of historical engagements with swimming (at least to our 21st century eyes); I don't think I will ever tire of looking at pictures of landbased swimming machines, or diagrammatic instructions for how to swim. For me, and aside from my irritation with Sherr's book about the 'you have to look good to feel good' issue, Parr's is the better book; it is more structured, informative and beautiful. But it's not a book you would keep in your bag to read on the train - it both requires and deserves an armchair. Sherr's book, on the other hand, is more a series of tasty snacks; I read it in a couple of hours on a cold wet afternoon, or you could imagine using it to liven up your daily commute.

Happy reading.

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