Friday, November 23, 2007

The swimming pool library

A lovely passage from the introduction to Charles Strawson's Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer as Hero, which I haven't yet finished but which may possibly be my new favorite book about swimming:
[T]he seeds of this book were sown in the four years I worked lecturing on 'classical culture' in an Arab university. I had applied for the post after noticing an advertisement worded in Latin in the personal column of The Times, while working as a swimming pool attendant in some old Victorian baths in Paddington, so dismal and dirty that no one ever came. In Arabia, as in the Paddington baths, the only form of amusement was reading, so in the long afternoons, while the whole town was sleeping, I devoured book after book among the shadows of the courtyard of our mud house in the Arab quarter, then again late into the night among the stars on our crenellated rooftop. As there was nothing else to do I made extensive notes on everything I read. The heat, the parched atmosphere and the non-existence of pools made me acutely sensitive to the slightest trace of water, any passing reference to swimming. Looking through these tattered notes now I see that on page 180 of Hemingway's The Sun also Rises some character 'swam with his eyes open and it was green and dark', that Sinclair Lewis' Babbitt was 'one of the best swimmers in the class', and when he took a bath 'the shadows of the air bubbles clinging to the hairs were reproduced as strange jungle mosses'. I remember still the mesmeric effect of Coleridge's lines describing a rock pool below a waterfall, where the water regrouped continuously in 'obstinate resurrection' to form the shape of a rose. In the strange, unnatural climate in which I existed all such details struck me as extraordinarily significant. Paragraphs would be devoted to the relevance of fountains in Nathaniel Hawthorne, the varying depths of the sea in Melville, the fish in Thoreau's Walden pond, the shark in American literature. Novels and poetry seemed to revolve around water and swimming, in a way that was quite out of proportion to the author's intentions. I can sympathise now, in confessing to the crazed irrelevancy of these notes, with a certain nineteenth-century chronicler of early swimming, who devoted his whole life to a history of the subject and in his journeys through England and France in search of books always felt 'ashamed in asking librarians, with much hesitation, if they had any books on swimming'.

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