the life aquatic fran bigman
Different Strokes Splash! 10,000 Years of Swimming
By Howard Means (Allen & Unwin 328pp £16.99)
Why We Swim By Bonnie Tsui (Rider 288pp £16.99)
Lido: A Dip into Outdoor Swimming Pools – the History,
Design and People Behind Them
By Christopher Beanland
(Batsford 208pp £20)
Tinside Lido, Plymouth, built in 1935
Until I read Howard Means’s Splash! and Bonnie Tsui’s Why We Swim, my main encounter with the history of the sport had been a Victorian-inspired swimming gala organised by members of my local team at north London’s Parliament Hill Lido. We competed in novelty races that predated the streamlining of swimming into a competitive sport, swimming upright holding umbrellas in one race, wearing blindfolds in another. We jumped into the pool in vintage dresses to see what it was like to swim hampered by heavy fabrics.
I learned much from both books. The first-known depictions of swimming are pictographs made eight thousand years ago on the walls of the so-called Cave of the Swimmers in the middle of the Sahara, where there were once deep-
water lakes. The ancient Greeks often triumphed in battle due to their swimming prowess. After the fall of the Roman Empire, swimming all but vanished from Europe for over a thousand years – it was thought unhealthy and even a sign of witchcraft. Benjamin Franklin and Lord Byron helped repopularise swimming, and as it became popular over the 19th century, when the first public pools were built in Britain (in 1828) and the USA (in 1868), swimmers in those countries stubbornly stuck to breaststroke, snubbing the front crawl of indigenous peoples in the Americas and the South Pacific as uncivilised. In 1875, Matthew Webb, a Royal Navy captain, made the first successful cross-Channel swim; he drowned eight years later while trying to swim across the Niagara River. In 1926, New
Yorker Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to make the Channel crossing and the first to use crawl, which allowed her to finish in fourteen and a half hours, two hours faster than the record. The developer of the butterfly kick was a physicist who later worked on the Manhattan Project. An American freestyle swimmer who competed in the first modern Olympic Games in 1896 jumped in and right back out again, complaining that the water was too cold. Chairman Mao was a swimmer.
I learned more about a history I already knew something of: racial segregation of swimming places in the USA. The black community of 1940s Washington, DC had access to only five pools; white residents could choose from fifty. At a ‘wadein’ for civil rights at Biloxi Beach on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, a white mob attacked the demonstrators. Many of the public pools built in the 1920s and 1930s were shuttered when whites refused integration and joined segregated country clubs or built their own backyard pools. In America today, black children drown at a rate five times that of white children.
Means’s book is largely a compendium of such facts, written in a breezy style and illustrated with charming images from swimming history, including a woodcut of a man proceeding through the water with his left hand holding his right ankle, apparently to ease cramp, from Everard Digby’s 1587 guide De Arte Natandi, or The Art of Swimming. After being stripped of his Cambridge fellowship for allegedly being a Catholic sympathiser, Digby had taken up the equally unpopular cause of swimming. The manual, Means points out with editorialising comments (‘really! and why?’), also includes instructions for ‘playing above the water with one foot’, for paring your toenails while lying on your back in the water and ‘for showing four parts of your body above the water at once’. Splash! contains many anecdotes, including a few drawn from the author’s own life: he includes a photo of his grandfather on the New Jersey shore from 1914 and one of himself in 1961 competing in a high-school swim meet to show changes in swimsuit design over the intervening fifty years. While entertaining and informative, in the end the book is choppy, never sticking with a story long enough to gain any glide.
Literary Review | july / august 2020 12