Swell by Jenny Landreth
|Swell by Jenny Landreth|
|Category: Politics and Society|
|Reviewer: Lesley Mason|
|Summary: A joyful splash through the history of swimming both global and personal…if this doesn’t make you want to campaign for the re-opening of your nearest defunct Lido, nothing will. Witty, intelligent, informative and a jolly good read.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 336||Date: May 2017|
|Publisher: Bloomsbury Sport|
|External links: Author's website|
I love Jenny's own description of her book as a waterbiography and I love her encouragement that we should each write our own. This is more than just (I say just!) a recollection of the author's own encounters with water; it's also a history of women's fight for the right to swim. That sounds absurd until you start reading about it, then it becomes serious. Not too serious though – because Jenny Landreth is clearly a lover of the absurd. Not a lover of book blurbs myself, I do always seek to give a shout-out to those who get it dead right: in this case I'm definitely with Alexandra Heminsley's giggles-on-the-commute funny.
What makes you giggle (if you even do giggle, it's such a girly concept) will be very personal, but if you're not sure whether Swell's sense of humour for you, I suggest you get hold of a copy and check out the photograph of the author in her knitted swim-suit. Cross that with the official jacket author photo (where she looks far less manic and much more wise) and then trust that the writing absolutely reflects the image of the person you have now got in mind.
I know one should not judge an author by their books, but if one could, I'd be obliged to say that Jenny Landreth is a delight. As I can't, and as I could be wrong – she may be an absolute horror of the highest order – I will have to settle for saying that her book is such a delight.
Do we still use the word erudite? If so, then our guide through the backwaters of history is that too. She has dredged up the forgotten heroines who have opened the way for all of us who ever set more than a foot in a pool, river, pond, lake or sea.
Unlike some of us who took to water like the proverbial ducks, but then never get beyond a head-up breast-stroke most of the time (and frankly don't care a jot, so long as we're still allowed in), the author was not a natural swimmer. As an aunt she was taken swimming by an aunt, sort of flapped about in the water a bit, hated school swimming lessons and learnt nothing in them. It was only years later that she found herself encouraged back into the water, and bit by bit, learned to love it, and then learned to swim properly and so love it even more, love it to the point of being one of those hardy all-weather outdoor swimmers the rest of us wish we could emulate for the whole five seconds before we decide they are, basically, bonkers.
She now calls herself "a swimmer". Defiantly. Exultantly. I think she is more than that – she is, not a swimming champion (no medals, no glory) but a champion of swimming. I'm not familiar with her column or her guides on where to swim in New York or London, but in this volume she keeps coming back to the joy of swimming. She's not precious about wild swimming v. pools – although she must be the (un)official ambassador for the intersection between the two: the Lido.
If I seem to be prevaricating and not telling you very much about the book…it's because I want you to buy it and read it and discover it all for yourself. I want you to know you will love it, without telling you what it sets out to tell you. I'm guessing that's not really going to work though, is it?
Ok…there are three main strands to the book, which are interwoven. One of them is the history of women swimming, the second is her own waterbiography (if you like, the history of her swimming), the third is the philosophical pondering on 'why do it'? Why do 'extreme swimming' – the Channel, the Manhattan Island swim, the Thames crossings – but more than that, fundamentally, why do women get in the water at all, anywhere, ever?
The last aspect, I will leave you ponder as you read, as for the rest…
The historical aspect is enlightening showing, as it does, just how hard women in the western world have had to fight to be allowed the same rights of access to water as men – not just in council-provided facilities, but in rivers, lakes, the sea, which we might have assumed were equally available to us all. She ties this to the concurrent fight for other rights, but also acknowledges that it wasn't all about gender. It was also about class and wealth. When isn't it?
She shows how slow the ground-giving was…and points out that in some parts of the non-western-world the battle is not yet won. She makes the point that it isn't just about equality or freedom, it is about fundamental safety of women and children, especially those who live near the water.
In sharing the history, she brings back into the light the stars of the time. The women who did stuff just to prove they could do it as well as the men (and in worse clothing). We meet the champion swimmers, but also the committee members and coaches without whose support and help the swimmers wouldn't have swum. We meet the men who also championed women's swimming.
Whilst she is often flippant in tone and her admiration for some of these women is not quite absolute, her gratitude for what they achieved never wavers.
The actual waterbiography I love so much, probably because I can relate to so much of the early years of it – and I regret that I've lost touch with my inner water-babe. Like her, I am a fan of swimming outdoors; unlike her I have done pathetic little of it in recent years. So, maybe part of my reason for loving this book is that it might just get me back in the water again.
In many ways Swell is as frivolous as the cover photography suggests – in many others, it is anything but.
If you like this, we think you’ll also enjoy a similarly sideways look at women’s running Running Like A Girl by Alexandra Heminsley.
You can read more book reviews or buy Swell by Jenny Landreth at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy Swell by Jenny Landreth at Amazon.com.
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