Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Doing lengths in the moat

I've just almost finished reading a book that is perhaps my favorite of everything I've read this year, a magically good book about swimming but also about a host of other things. Imagine if Sebald had a light-hearted English cousin with a passion for natural history, and this is the book that cousin would have written!

The book's only possible flaw is related to the ways in which is a kind of moral corrective to me: I always have a strong urge to read every book very quickly, straight through, from start to finish, and this book asks you to stop and savor it, to pace yourself in a leisurely rather than a voracious way, not to consume it all at once. Reading too much at once, the taste began to cloy--anecdote piled upon anecdote--but in small bits and medium-sized stretches it is simply miraculous.

I've been very conscious recently of the ways in which I seem incapable of just becoming mildly and enjoyably and frivolously interested in endurance-sport-related activities. Really I took to 'em because of the ways they are like the other hard-driving and results-obsessed kinds of thing I am fond of! They are soul-expanding in various ways, in other words, but there's a harder-faster-stronger element to the business that is somewhat at odds with the appreciate-the-loveliness-of-things mode that we ideally want to solicit in ourselves.

So: Roger Deakin's Waterlog. (Good title, eh, for a book about wild swimming?!? That's the US Amazon link, and I'm pasting in the UK one too because I'm very serious about this recommendation--I think this book must be significantly better-known in the UK than the US--here it is, anyway.)

Here is Robert Macfarlane's obituary for Deakin (a self-described "philanderer of rivers"), who died in 2006. Go forth and read! This will save me the trouble of writing a sensible description. Instead I am just going to give a few tastes...

As I read chapter four I was virtually chanting aloud to myself "This is my favorite chapter! This is my favorite chapter!" It's about Cambridge, and though it opens with Deakin swimming upstream in the Granta (charmingly his preferred mode is the breaststroke), he moves into a wonderfully literary mode as he begins to discuss the accomplishments of Jack Overhill, Cambridge's most celebrated river-swimmer in the early twentieth century:
Jack was one of the first people in Cambridge to swim the six-beat crawl. One evening in 1920 he was standing on the iron footbridge by the bathing sheds when a man in a red bathing costume came downstream and passed under the bridge, swimming a stroke he had never seen. He drew parallel with a racing punt, kept level with it for a while, then pulled away to one of the ladders and walked off to change. Jack was amazed. Most people at that time either swam the trudgeon, a kind of crawl with a scissor-leg kick, the breaststroke, or the original backstroke, with a frog-leg kick and both arms windmilled in unison. But this swimmer was kicking his legs up and down, like someone walking backwards. The bathing sheds were on fire with inspiration. This was the crawl, and the disciple swimming it was Jack Lavender, a Cambridge man who had learnt the new style in London, where he swam for the Civil Service.

The crawl! Stories about it were beginning to appear in Chums and The Boys' Friend Library. In one, a boy called 'The Dud' pretends he can't swim, then amazes his friends by winning a race swimming the crawl. In another, a boy-swimmer called 'Fish' Fanshaw raises 'a water-spout' with his feet as he does the hundred yards in seventy seconds. Overhill taught himself the crawl from an illustrated article in an encyclopaedia, although Jack Lavender did come down one Sunday to hold a master-class, demonstrating the crawl as he lay across a chair. After that, the river went quiet for weeks as swimmers practised the six-beat crawl, muttering to themselves the varied rhythm of its leg-kicks: 'Major, minor, minor, Major, minor, minor'.
There are various investigations in the Map Room at the library, and then a real-world search for something called the Moor Barns Bath, and it is all wonderfully appealing.

But the next chapter is my even-more-favorite chapter! Deakin sets out to join the "the last eel trapper in a city where the monks once paid their tithes to the cathedral with 30,000 eels a year." Deakin claims the eel and the otter as his two totem animals, and check out this description:
I spent that night in Freckenham, dreaming of my mother teaching me to swim, cradling my head as I kicked my legs in the water. I returned through the Fens in mist at a quarter to six next morning to meet Sid and collect the night's catch. His friend John was on board too, also dressed in yellow oilskin trousers but lacking the old tweed fishing hat Sid seemed to live in. John's job was to help haul in the tackle and untie the netting at the bottom end of each trap to release the eels.

As we approached last night's reed-bed, Sid's eye was on whatever subtle landmarks he had chosen to help him located the row of sunken traps. He throttled down the engine and John swung a grappling iron over the side, waited for it to sink, then heaved. 'I think it's the nets,' he said. 'I hope it's not a body.' In came the chain, then the first of the traps with the dark brown glistening shapes and flashes of white belly. Nothing could be more streamlined or agile than this. An eel's head, with its eyes set close together and high in the skull, and the sharp snout, bears a remarkable similarity to Concrode. Nothing could be so outlandish. An eel is so mottled and green and varnished in mucus it could be an uprooted plant, a mandrake root come to life.

John untied each trap at the bottom and tipped the creatures deftly into the plastic tub, where they subsided into a glutinous tangle, making little kissing sounds. Their electric energy was astonishing. They reared straight up in the tub on the tips of their tails like snakes, waving their little heads about looking for a way out, swaying like puppets, naked as bedsprings. Every now and again an eel spilled on to the bottom of the boat and slithered in reverse, then forward, curling itself into a question mark as if to say: 'What the hell is going on here?' I noticed they picked it up with a towel, or a pair of kinked tongs, and Sid explained: 'You keep your fingers away from them. If they did happen to get hold of you, you'd know about it. The trouble is they suck everything in, and the teeth go inwards and . . .' He pursed his lips and made a sucking sound. 'I did get nabbed once; they got this finger. But I got it out. Same as pike, you've got to be careful.' Sid sorted the eels as they came in, flicking the smaller ones back. Some nets had as many as half a dozen eels in them. John had to keep disentangling young 3- or 4-inch bream out of the leader nets. 'No ruff,' he says, 'thank God.' Ruff are horrible little spiky fish that get tangled in the net like bits of thistle.
Two other favorite bits, though almost everything here is my favorite:
After the show, and a pub fish dinner, I spent a blissful night in the back of the sometimes-reliable Citroen CV Safari down a farm track in a Dutch barn alongside a combine harvester. This is the beauty of the Citroen shooting brake. You can stretch right out and sleep in it, curl up and read in it, spread out your dinner in it, and carry a small library. Some people have prim little curtains in the back windows, but I carry a big air-force-surplus silk parachute with me and spread it over the car when I'm in residence. It works like net curtains in the suburbs; I can see out but people, or just as likely cows, can't see in. It also diffuses the light beautifully, prolonging sleep by softening the intensity of sunrises. It's the kind of parachute they use for dropping food parcels in emergencies. It is big enough to stretch out by the guy-ropes into an airy Bedouin tent, its brown, orange, green and white silk disguising the presence of a motor car, if not exactly unobtrusive. It keeps mosquitoes and midges out and means you can leave all the windows and the back door open on sultry nights. Even if it gets drenched, it dries out quickly in the sun. Once, when I was encamped inside it in the chestnut woods near Souseyrac in France, I heard some early walkers marvelling, 'Mais alors, il eest venu en parachute.'
And finally, irresistibly (a passage most characteristic of Deakin's irrepressible stream of anecdotage):
At Newmarket, there are several elaborate open-air equine swimming pools, and all the trainers now regard swimming horses as an essential part of their routine. It tones up the animals and improves their fitness and breathing. It might, in fact, be much better for horses to swim their races than to run them. This is exactly what the Thais do with elephants. Elephant swimming races are major national events in Thailand, and the champion animals are heroes every bit as famous as Red Rum. One of the current champions is Hai Pok, a twenty-five-year-old elephant, who was recently cheered on to victory by crowds lining the banks of the Moon River, to the north-east of Bangkok. He beat the other elephants by swimming 260 yards over the river and back again in just over 2 minutes. He then narrowly outpaced two students in a one-way swim across the river.
Resolutions for 2008: more wild swimming; more close observation of animals in the wild; write a magical book myself, or at least as magical as I can manage!


  1. being a huge sebald junky, i don't think i can refuse this recommendation (& yr favorite book of the year! high praise.) i love the anecdotal narratives, especially if such a narrative involves hai pok, the incredible swimming elephant.

  2. I love Waterlog. Wildwood, his posthumous sequel (?) is also excellent, and has a Sebald connection as Deakin visits Michael Hamburger to talk about his apple collection. I actually bought 'Waterlog - Journeys around an Exhibition' at the Tate Britain today. The exhbition was based on Sebald's 'Rings of Saturn'.