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The Story of Swimming Hardcover – 10 Nov 2011
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A fascinating social history. An essential read for every wild swimmer. --Kate Rew, author of 'Wild Swim' and founder of The Outdoor Swimming Society.
An intriguing investigation of water's influence on the psyche and society. - --Daniel Start, author of 'Wild Swimming' and 'Wild Swimming Coast'.
In this magnificent book about outdoor swimming part cultural history, part journal Susie Parr recognises the way water changes and stays the same, exerting its power and pull through time. This is a chronological story and a personal exploration of an 'addiction' to swimming. The book is the size of a large stepping-stone, with a picture of a demure, naked, 18th-century swimmer (Thomas Rowlandson's Venus) attempting an improbably decorous stroke on its pale blue cover. The glorious illustrations stop one in one's tracks: there is a comically urgent photograph of helicopter pilots bustling into a bitter Shetland sea on Boxing Day (re-enacting an ancient cleansing ritual). There is a spooky mermaid scarecrow, wrapped in a green fishing net a strange catch smiling through eyes like black beetles, her chest studded in shells. There are Donald McGill's saucy seaside postcards (once graded 'mild', 'medium' and 'strong') and there are bathing belles galore it is touching to look back through the years at their holiday faces. And there is a wonderful photograph of Susie Parr on Raasay beach, arms wide open, about to step into the water. This and many of the book's most striking pictures are by her husband, Martin Parr first-rate photographer and confirmed landlubber. But the book should come with a warning: do not let its illustrations keep you from the fascinating, meticulously researched, beautifully written text. This history fresh and salty connects one to every swimmer who ever swam. It also makes one glad to be a swimmer now. Swimmers of yesteryear swam heavy: Roman soldiers sometimes swam in armour. An Elizabethan gentleman strolled into the water with a knife to pare his toenails and a hawk showily balanced on his wrist. Victorian women wore hats, coats, shoes and corsets into the briny. How wonderful that nowadays we don't need much more than determination and a towel. A particularly absorbing chapter is devoted to the romantic poets who saw swimming as an encounter with the sublime. Parr's dripping dramatis personae includes Shelley (who could not, to his chagrin, swim and eventually drowned). But he was a persistent bather and once caused a stir pitching up at a dinner party naked, malodorous and with seaweed in his hair. Parr is entertaining, too, about 'Lord Byron, Noted swimmer and poet' (as he is remembered on a plinth in the Bay of La Spezia). As well as swimming the Hellespont, he would jump into Venetian canals to avoid 'compromising' situations. And, one suddenly realises, Byron's was a swimmer's poetry: fluent, rhythmical, long haul. For Swinburne, the affair was with the sea itself. Its slap and tickle was translated into luxuriously masochistic verse that was promptly banned. It is pleasing, too, to discover that Jane Austen who mocked romanticism loved bathing (I like to imagine a dainty breaststroke). Today's 'wild swimming' is indebted to romanticism. And Parr interviews a variety of inspiring cold core swimmers (she suggests, unconvincingly, that her own swimming is more tame than wild). They believe, as swimmers have for centuries, that cold water is good for the health and a time-honoured cure for depression. And she explains 'anticipatory thermogenesis', the mind-over-water ability to boost one's body's core temperature before an icy plunge. For anyone not tempted to try out anticipatory thermogenesis this December, there can be no lovelier way in which to swim vicariously than through this book. I plan to dip in reregularly until spring. --Kate Kellaway, The Observer, Sunday 4 December 2011
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