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6 May 2017

Why do we swim?

Three new “swimoirs” plumb the depths of the question.

By Philip Hoare


Why do we human beings swim? We don’t need to, after all. I’ve just climbed out of the English Channel in Devon, just before dawn, having left my warm bed to plunge my body in a body of water, which rises at springtide as if to drag me in. I do this every morning, more usually from my home waters in Southampton, where the confluence of cold waters from two rivers turns the experience into an even colder shock. (A passer-by once asked me, “Haven’t you got a fridge at home?”)

No one makes me do this – except for myself. I do not do it for the exercise. I do it because it is entirely other, an experience that stands outside anything else I will do today. It is a release, a leaving of the land, a momentary if illusory freedom from gravity – certainly a respite from the clamorous electronic fug that surrounds most of our landlubber lives.

I never learned to swim until I was nearly 30; all my life I feared the water, to the extent that I didn’t like taking a bath. Having been converted, by an elderly lady in a ­daisy-strewn rubber hat at an East End Victorian swimming baths, I cannot go a day now without immersion in open water.

But I was right to be apprehensive. No bodily immersion is without its hazards. The sea takes no prisoners. When I entered the Atlantic off the north Cornish coast in February, right after Storm Doris hit Britain, I was royally rolled about in the stony beach for my presumption. Our dog stood there aghast, watching as I climbed out scourged and bleeding from my hips to my knees and feet; my sister said I looked as though I’d been crucified. It took some time (and a sterilised needle) to extract the smaller stones that had been driven under my skin, like grapeshot.

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The water makes us a little mad. But then, the new vogue for “wild swimming” (isn’t it just “swimming”?) speaks to a dysfunctional relationship with the natural world. As the gap between us and the rest of creation – between species, between the elements – grows wider, the swimmer seeks to reconnect. It is, of course, best done naked, as the great poets understood. Baudelaire knew as much when he wrote of the sensation of swimming as being kissed a thousand times. Swinburne abandoned himself to the masochistic pleasures of the shock of cold water. Shelley, who never learned to swim, nevertheless customarily entered the water, sometimes allowing himself to sink to the bottom, claiming he might thus find himself on another planet.

Byron, Oscar Wilde and Wilfred Owen all bore testimony to the poetic power of communion with the sea. It was the only time the club-footed Byron felt elegant; Wilde swam like a shark, according to his son; and swimming was the last thing Owen ever did in England. Gay men and women have often found swimming a refuge and an expression of their otherness and forbidden sensuality: an escape and a connection with nature for those who have been told that they are unnatural. Hence Walt Whitman and Edward Carpenter’s shared love of swimming. They felt made mythic, utopian by it. Its allowable nakedness gave them what Owen called “a Greek feeling of energy and elemental life”.

Virginia Woolf, who skinny-dipped with Rupert Brooke at Byron’s Pool in the Cam, was obsessed with the transcendent and mortal charge of the open water and the way it transformed the body; the way it would one day carry her away, too. Sylvia Plath’s first attempt at suicide came as she tried to emulate Woolf, her heroine, by wading into the Atlantic off Cape Cod. Samuel Beckett’s Molloy celebrates the same deathly infinity, seeing the last of the land as the last of a man.

Any body of water confronts us with our mortality, and our illusory hold on the two-dimensional world, because we know it could so easily kill us. That is part of the thrill and challenge: the abandonment of human hubris. The possibility that this swim might be your last.

Yet it is also the ultimate in life-giving. After all, it’s where we began. Especially if you subscribe to the alternative evolutionary theory propounded by Elaine Morgan in her 1982 book, The Aquatic Ape: that early human beings drifted to the water, feeding on food high in omega oils, which helped their brains to develop, and where females developed body fat that would help them carry and nurse their children as they moved. Morgan’s work was summarily rejected by male scientists (though its ideas have recently been revived, not least by David Attenborough). And whatever the atavistic reasons for our instinctual connection with the sea, you never feel so alive as you do when you climb out of cold water and the blood rushes back to your extremities. The restoration of sensation is a physical reboot, a rebirth out of amniotic oceans.

Three new books celebrate this burgeoning interest in swimming. It is not a coincidence that they are written by women. Culturally, historically and geographically, the water stands beyond male dominion and hierarchies. It is one of the few places where that order is not imposed. These “swimoirs” offer an almost utopian, Edenic vision of succour and restitution. The water is a therapist who does not answer back, or send in expensive bills. Its solace is free.

Alexandra Heminsley (celebrated for her earlier memoir, Running Like a Girl) slips from marathons to swimming, becoming ever more adventurous, moving from pool to river and open sea. She is so obsessed with the physical transformation that she swims off Brighton Beach right through the winter. Along the way she encounters the backslapping machismo of competitive men in their thirties, a contrast with the softer outlines of her female fellow dippers. Aiming for an uplifting tone, Leap In celebrates the glory of swimming, and it has an extremely useful part two that deals out valuable advice: from what goggles to wear, to how to come to terms with the unknowable deep and that lurking idea of monsters down there. Pragmatically, the author recommends that open-water swimmers should find out with whom they might be sharing the sea to dispel that particular terror.

Heminsley’s deceptively bright and breezy and self-deprecating tone (I’ve seldom read such a squirmingly honest description of the indignities forced upon the flesh by getting into a wet suit) is countered by a very rational and no-nonsense statement of exactly why swimming is good for the body and the soul.

She is an inspiringly energetic, even childlike writer. Like a child, Heminsley does not dither at the edge, despite all the challenges she faces in getting into various bodies of water. In the process, her own body changes, as her runner’s shape adapts to the water and develops new muscles. And as much as she admits her equivocation – the same ambivalence to which any honest open-water swimmer will readily confess – Heminsley’s determination is a tonic. Though many will sympathise with her husband, who prefers to watch it all from a stony beach.

Jenny Landreth, a former contributor to the Guardian’s swimming blog, has an equally lively voice. Swell: a Waterbio­graphy has the air of one long stand-up routine, a larky dash through the modern history of female swimmers. As Landreth relates in her witty voice, the subject only really became an issue in the 19th century – partly in reaction to female constriction, a sense of release that echoes dress reform. Women discovered that “lungs which in ordinary life breathe but feebly” were suddenly freed from corseted bodies. It was, as she describes it, “a massive dose of liberation”. So ingrained was this sensibility that at times it seemed women had to be taught how to move at all in the water. “So you dear reader, when you swim, do not go about like a floating coffin, but be cheerful, enjoy yourself,” advised Why Do Not Women Swim?, a self-help pamphlet of the 1850s.

In central London, the campaigner Elizabeth Eiloart persuaded the all-male committee of the Marylebone Baths to officially admit women in 1858. It was the start of a new female space for “front-line swimming suffragettes”. The battle was certainly not won yet, however. The apparent indignity, not to say indecency, of women in the water prompted one resident of Tonbridge, Donald Clark, to complain about “women in the sea looking like wet Scottish terriers” (I’d take that as a compliment). By 1898 there were still only 14 public baths in the United Kingdom with women-only pools.

The rising popularity of swimming as a sport helped to change things for good. In 1875, just three weeks after Captain Matthew Webb made his first crossing of the English Channel, Agnes Beckwith, aged 14, swam five miles from London Bridge to Greenwich in “a tight bathing costume of rose-pink llama trimmed with white lace . . . her long flaxen hair neatly bound by a ribbon”, and was greeted by crowds along the route, to whom she blew kisses as she swam. Beckwith became a 19th-century sporting superstar, celebrated for such feats as 30-hour swims, during which she took her meals in the water.

Others “caught the mermaid fever”, including the Australian Annette Kellerman who, in 1905, became the first woman to emulate Webb and attempt to swim the Channel. She achieved this stunt suitably prepped: “the pores of my skin had been rubbed full of porpoise oil”, she recorded, and her goggles were glued on with bear grease. The woman had basically become a marine mammal – a physical foreshadowing of Elaine Morgan’s theory.

For anyone exhausted by all this frenetic activity and campaigning polemic, Jessica J Lee offers a sublime, philosophical slipping into the deep. Her book, Turning, is filled with a wonderful melancholy as she swims through lakes laden with dark histories. Her aquatic territory lies in and around Berlin, a city ringed with rivers and ponds that seem to have absorbed its human history.

Lee’s book pays more attention to her environment: the 52 lakes in and around Berlin she pledges to swim, sited everywhere from anthropogenic quarries to idyllic stretches of grünwald, from the Flughafensee (literally, “airport lake”) to a hidden inland sea so blue and clear it looks like a tropical lagoon. Alone or with visiting friends, through wolf-haunted woods and summer undergrowth and past naked men – their penises dangling, in Lee’s memorable description, like cockle shells below their bellies – or stepping through sticky snow to reach her goal, she is fraught, as all true swimmers are, with the perverse anxiety of her chosen pursuit of the perfect swim, and is therefore always surprised when it delivers joy.

Along the way she remembers incidents from her childhood – nearly drowning in an indoor pool when she fell off a foam duck – and applies herself to limnology, the scientific study of lakes, though she confesses that “it won’t make me less afraid of lakes”. As an alien, the daughter of a Chinese mother and a British father, brought up in Canada, she is restlessly seeking another home: “I found in the middle of the lake a small, self-centred security, like a pin stuck into a map.”

Lee’s episodic text is as cyclical as her cycle rides to the lakes. She keeps going back, forever in search of that perfect watery epiphany. Her clear, calm writing encompasses the truth and terror of open-water swimming: the conjunction of human and natural history that it represents as we swimmers hang there in the water, caught between elements, between our land-bound lives stationed in front of liminal screens and the infinite deep that lies beyond. Swimming is a leaving of one constructed reality for its unconstructed counterpart. And Lee’s Berlin swims can never escape the city’s centrifugal history. She swims in the shadow of a decommissioned nuclear reactor, and in the lake of Goebbels’s country retreat.

The surface of these waters may be “stitched with gold leaf” in the ebbing heat of autumn, but they are also suffused with the history of the human bodies that have passed through them. Her personal memories, of boyfriends and jobs, of idyllic swims with her friend’s tattooed legs seen through the water, merge with Berlin’s memories: those birch woods around the lakes, “hushed and sheathed in the most distant kind of sadness – like so much of the city”.

A couple of years ago, ducking out of duties for the British Council, I took a trip into suburban Berlin to visit the villa on the shores of the Großer Wannsee where the Final Solution was bureaucratically determined. After less than 15 minutes in the building, now run as a museum by Jewish volunteers, its lucent, lake-lit interior containing some of the worst images of the Holocaust I had ever seen, I felt physically sick and close to tears. I left, walked to the water’s edge, took off my clothes and waded through the reeds and into the lake. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so grateful for cold, clear, calm water. I felt, not for the first time, that it would wash everything away.

“RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR” by Philip Hoare will be published by Fourth Estate in July

Leap In: a Woman, Some Waves and the Will to Swim by Alexandra Heminsley is published by Hutchinson, 240pp, £12.99

Swell: a Waterbiography by Jenny Landreth is published by A & C Black, 336pp, £16.99

Turning: a Swimming Memoir by Jessica J Lee is published by Virago, 304pp, £16.99

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This article appears in the 03 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Russian Revolution