Swimming is heroic. This is an opinion I have held since reading Charles Sprawson’s book ‘Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer as Hero’, which makes the case for this view very well. Appropriately enough, the book was recommended to me by a Hungarian man I met in the pool at the Vancouver Aquatic Centre in 2005. (Vancouver has some gorgeous pools. My favourite is the Kitsilano beachfront lido – in fact, this might be my favourite place in the world – but the lido at Second Narrows is very pleasant too). I remember the Hungarian at the Aquatic Centre giving me some pointers on my freestyle and then proceeding to recommend Sprawson’s book. It was a good recommendation. Sprawson’s cultural history of swimming is full of fascinating little vignettes about all things natational; as well as detailing great swimmers in history, literature and art.
Indeed, I have thought about my own swimming in a slightly different way since reading Haunts of the Black Masseur. It’s one of those books that stays with you, subtly but persistently adjusting your world view. As a youth I was a mediocre club level swimmer. I went to galas and competed, after a fashion, with other kids. One or two of the other club members, who were far better swimmers than me incidentally, have gone on to achieve pretty heroic things in pools around the world. But I only really started enjoying swimming in my mid-twenties, and only then in a very leisurely way. Recently, my swimming has been fairly solitary. My membership of a club near where I live lapsed a few years ago and was never renewed. Currently I swim, usually alone, after-hours in the pool at the school where I teach. The water is pleasingly chilly and it is a small luxury after a day’s work to have a whole pool entirely to yourself. Like reading, swimming is a solitary pleasure, and like reading it feels restorative, improving. One feels a little wiser after reading a good book, and chlorine-scrubbed and smugly wholesome after a good swim.
I think the solitude of swimming is what keeps us coming back. In the water you are sensorily deprived and held in an unstimulated suspension. Your smart phone is of no use here. You are literally out of your element and often out of your depth. For me, this isolation is something that can’t be found elsewhere in a busily connected, city-dwelling life. This feeling, and the thrill attached to it, is magnified when swimming in open water, when the black depths recede beneath you, inhabited by things far more adept at moving within them than you are.
In the Mediterranean off the Costa Brava this summer, I was swimming along quite happily when a large jellyfish pulsed in the water just under me. It is something I have seen in that particular spot before, but it never fails to frighten; a reminder that we should tread carefully in places where we don’t belong, and that treading water can, at times, be fraught with danger.