I am not in the athletic sense a keen swimmer, but I am a devoted one. On hot days in the Oxford summer my husband and I usually manage to slip into the Thames a mile or two above Oxford, where the hay in the water meadows is still owned and cut on the medieval strip system. The art is to draw no attention to oneself but to cruise quietly by the reeds like a water rat: seeing and unseen from that angle, one can hear the sedge warblers’ mysterious little melodies, and sometimes a cuckoo flies cuckooing over our heads, or a kingfisher flashes past. Very poetical. And how much more so than a swimming pool, which is just a machine for exercising in.

I fancy Mr. Sprawson would agree with me about this. Packed with fascinating tales of swimming exploits in history and literature, and with accounts of immersion in lochs, fjords, straits, and torrents all over the world, his splendid and wholly original book is as zestful as a plunge in champagne. Alan Ross published the short piece with which it began in his London Magazine; and Mr. Sprawson called on me and on other writers to see if we had anything interesting to tell him about our swimming experiences. His own stories, and those of his friends and family, turn out to be far more interesting. Tutored by the captain of a Turkish pilot tug, he learned how to swim the Hellespont, making allowance for tide and currents, and on his final successful crossing he was accompanied by his daughter. Rather unfairly, I thought, the Turkish skipper gave her a little medal and certificate, while her father had to be content with his own personal sense of achievement. While the experience of total immersion should be, like baptism, a rite of joyful equality, it must be admitted that to be young and blonde and beautiful is just as much of a social advantage in the water as it is everywhere else.

Having graduated in the Bosphorus, like Byron, Mr. Sprawson went on to tackle the Tagus estuary at Lisbon, a much more demanding swim as it turned out, and one endangered by giant tankers as well as unpredictable tides. Normally he is not fussy, as I am not myself, about the quality of the water he swims in; although all bathers would of course prefer a green pure foaming element to a stagnant one. But the pollution in the Lisbon estuary was too much for him, and together with the tides and the tankers it forced him to abandon the swim. No less than the hero on dry land, the hero in the water can be as distinguished by glorious failure as by success. Unguided by Hero’s torch, Leander failed to make it one night across the Hellespont; and his distraught inamorata is said to have plunged in to share his fate. Women can be heroes in the water as much as men; but I like to think we would not make so much fuss about it as Byron for instance did: swimming for him was the chief expression of a male chauvinist persona.

However keen and dedicated, and famous throughout Europe for their prowess in the water—George Borrow and the poet Swinburne were both ecstatic and indefatigable swimmers—the English always remained amateurs of the sport. Early this century their exploits were easily overtaken by the Germans and the Japanese, who trained themselves scientifically and moved methodically through the water to get the best results. Speed became the criterion; and in diving, height. The swallow dive was invented, and made famous in Leni Riefenstahl’s films of the Olympic Games. Before that, in 1914, photographed in her film A Daughter of the Gods, Annette Kellermann had set a world high-dive record when she escaped from her prison tower by plunging a hundred feet into the sea in a perfect swallow dive. One may doubt if Leander’s Hero, dutifully waiting for her lover every night beside the signal flame, could have achieved anything like that, but it would have been child’s play to Esther Williams, the swimming star and a movie heroine of my early youth.

All this and much more we learn from Mr. Sprawson’s pages; and his presentation is as stirring as the facts he gives us. Did you know that the world high-dive record is still held by Alick Wickham, a Solomon Islander, who in 1918 dived 205 feet 9 inches from a platform on a cliff above the Yarra River in South Australia? He was offered a hundred pounds for the feat, so it was a professional affair; and he was not so much bothered by the height or water depth as by the chances of hitting the opposite bank. He was successful, however, although the many bathing costumes he wore for protection were ripped off by the impact, and he lay in a coma for a week. Less hazardous, one hopes, were the film exploits a few years later of Jane and Tarzan. Then, as Mr. Sprawson writes, “musicals were full of girls swallow diving from the tops of waterfalls. Jane swallow dived from out of the trees into the arms of Tarzan. Weissmuller himself was an immaculate swallow diver, as photographs show, but he preferred to take part in competitions where the result was not dependent on the whims of judges.”


Earlier there were no judges, even when the English Channel was swum for the first time in August 1875 by Captain Matthew Webb, a Shropshire man celebrated in some lively verses by our former Poet Laureate, John Betjeman. Oddly enough, Webb was a friend and employee of the poet W.B. Yeats’s grandfather, who owned a number of merchant ships, and who “thought so little of danger,” as his more timorous grandson wistfully remarked, “that he had jumped overboard in the Bay of Biscay after an old hat.” Webb despised racing: in the water he was slow but sure. The journalist who accompanied his Channel swim grew tired of watching his “slow, methodical, but perfect breaststroke, and the magnificent sweep of his ponderous legs.” (I would maintain that the breaststroke is by far the most natural as well as the most comfortable way to enjoy the water; and Mr. Sprawson informs me that when the swimming craze took off in England, quite early in the last century, frogs were kept in tubs beside the new municipal swimming pools as a means of instruction.)

Technically, in fact, Webb was not the first man to swim the channel: he was preceded by an enterprising American, a coast guard named Boynton, who performed the feat in a rubber suit and assisted by a paddle. This equipment—an early instance of Yankee know-how—he continued to use when he and Webb took part in endurance races which the latter nonetheless managed to win, swimming continuously for six days, fourteen hours a day. He became totally committed to the deeps, and resigning command of his ship performed feat after feat of endurance swimming, always in need of money, of which he only earned modest amounts. He married and had children but continued to swim. Like Peleus, the father of Achilles, who begat his famous son on Thetis the sea goddess, he became totally committed to the new style of heroism. Such epic marine immersions aged his once magnificent body, but like all classic heroes he could not stop. He knew where his fate must lie; he arranged to swim through the whirlpool below Niagara Falls, a feat never previously attempted. Like a warrior in the Iliad putting on his armor, Webb wore the red silk costume made famous by his Channel swim. He dived from the boat and swam through “the savage green boiling water that seemed piled up in the centre like some glacier.” He was never seen alive again.

Rupert Brooke visited Niagara some years later, and viewed the scene, as Mr. Sprawson observes, “with a swimmer’s eye.” “Close in its bands of rock the river surges tumultuously forward,” Brooke wrote, “writhing and leaping as if inspired by a demon…. Its motion continually suggests muscular action. The power manifest in these rapids moves one with a different sense of awe and terror from that of the Falls. Here the inhuman life and strength are spontaneous, active, almost resolute; masculine vigour compared with the passive gigantic power, female, helpless and overwhelming, of the Falls. A place of fear.” He might well say so. Brooke’s division of water into two manifestations—male and female—suggests the division in his own nature. He had an obsessive longing to plunge into water wherever he found it, at Granchester, Swanage, or Tahiti; but this very longing reveals an inhibition, was perhaps a substitute for the human sexual relations about which he seems to have been extremely coy, in spite of bathing in the nude near Cambridge with Virginia Woolf and other young ladies in the same state.

Daring was not enough however, “It may be there is a herb growing at the bottom of the river just above the pool at Granchester,” he wrote to his friend Geoffrey Keynes (later to become a well-known Blake scholar), “and that if I dive and find it and bring it up—it will heal me.” What of? One fascination of swimming is that the swimmer may feel himself cured of all ailments and dissatisfactions, as of all other longings. The waters of death have gone over my head, as the Bible says. Swimming, like dying, seems to solve all problems: and you remain alive. At least two English novelists, I note with interest—Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh—once swam out to sea with the intention of never coming back. They did of course—Waugh, as he says, because he found himself surrounded by jellyfish. But a poet of an earlier generation, John Davidson, who entered the sea near Penzance with the same intention, held to his purpose.


Heroism with Brooke, like the outbreak of the Great War, was purification, a lustral rite; soldiers would go into action “like swimmers into cleanness leaping.” That of course was before the days of extensive water pollution. Today the tranquil Sargasso Sea is said to be full of plastic shopping bags, drifting indestructibly forever. I believe a submarine camera even spotted one hooked on to the dock of the sunken German battleship Bismarck, four miles down in an Atlantic deep. Like the mass of astronauts’ boot-prints once seen by television viewers on the white face of the moon, such facts do nothing for Brooke’s image of the swimmer or soldier entering a new element, the hero exploring an untouched and pristine dimension. Sprawson calls the doomed campaign of Gallipoli in 1915 “a swimmers’ war,” and includes among his many memorable photos one of two naked Australian cavalrymen leading their mounts into the blue Aegean.

Yet in our technological times “full fathom five” is not what it was. The imagination no longer responds to Shakespeare’s idea of a “sea-change,” although I was greatly touched by the comment of that obviously veteran performer, Annette Kellermann, who still had an innocent eye and mind of the wonders of the great deep. “I am sure no adventurer nor discoverer ever lived who could not swim. Swimming cultivates imagination; the man with the most is he who can swim his solitary course night or day and forget a black earth full of people that push. This love of the unknown is the greatest of all the joys which swimming has for me. I am still looking for my chest of gold in a cool dripping sea cave—or mermaid combing her long green hair.”

I should like to know more about the once famous Miss Kellermann than even Mr. Sprawson is able to tell me. Nearly paralyzed by polio when she was a child in Australia, she discovered like Byron that limbs which served ill on dry land “found their true congenial element in the water.” She became the youngest champion swimmer and diver of Australia, and was brought to Europe aged fourteen by her father, where crowds came to watch her marathon swims in the Thames and Seine, and in a twenty-two-mile race along the Danube, where she beat the Austrian lady champion, Baroness Isa Cescu. Later in America she made a sensational career in early films, but Sprawson notes that “beneath all this unrelenting exhibitionism she retained throughout her life an essentially romantic attitude towards swimming.”

Perhaps Esther Williams, who scorned to wear a bikini, did so too. Bikinis were for girls who sat about and showed off on dry land. Miss Kellermann invented and wore the first sensible one-piece bathing suit, and a splendid photo shows her at the age of sixty sporting in it underwater like a seal. “Just wear a smile and a Jantzen” as the ad had it, but the Jantzen girl did dive and swim. It was a long way from the early bathing machines at Brighton, where excited gentlemen used to watch the ladies emerge wearing voluminous cotton garments, which turned nearly transparent when wet and molded themselves closely to the female form.

Not sex but romance should excite the swimmer, as Miss Kellermann implied. The deeps are infinitely more seductive than a topless beach, where the once excited gentlemen today pick their way indifferently among scrawny brown thighs. But it is interesting that women, even women champions, see the water in terms of romance, while men often find it a heroic challenge. A friend of the author and great swimmer Paddy Leigh-Fermor set off from Cape Kythira to Avgo Island, a tricky and dangerous swim. A storm blew up and he never returned. He had begun the journey in the evening, after reading Sir Thomas Browne on the shore all day: books and bathing have a close affinity, for the imagination transforms both, though here again romance and the heroic play separate roles. It was a challenge for Leander to reach Hero, but for her a pledge of love.

The novel is often drawn to swimming, as Mr. Sprawson shows. His title is taken from a story by Tennessee Williams about a Negro masseur who seems to incarnate the power of water. Water is also a kind of go-between. I remember in L.P. Hartley’s novel with that title (they also made a good film of it) there is a memorable scene in which the young ladies at an Edwardian country-house party go swimming in their long bathing dresses in a weedy Norfolk lake, watched wistfully by the young boy who has no costume with him, and so cannot join them. He is doomed to remain the go-between, without ever plunging into this mysterious and wonderful new element. The very thought of water can be inspirational to the novelist: the imagination of dipping into it can set him free from writer’s block. Referring to me rather flatteringly as “one of the last of the English river swimmers” Mr. Sprawson comments on the frequent water scenes in my novels, and the translation of lyrical memory into fiction. Memory makes art, but it is also a humbler affair. My husband and I used to swim in a swift but shallow canal when staying with friends in Provence, and ventured along its course when it tunneled briefly through a maquis-covered hillside. In the novel Nuns and Soldiers that swim became an altogether more dramatic affair.

John Cheever’s story “The Swimmer” appears to show the converse of such experience. Its hero decides to “swim home” through the pools of all his suburban neighbors; but the experience is a disillusioning and even a disgusting one, for the bright blue water smells of chlorine; the parties grouped around it are mostly drunk; and at a public pool he is jostled by the crowds and finally ordered out of the water because he lacks an identification disk. Even when others are involved a swim should never be organized collectively, nor should it be too competitive. The author has a chilling little anecdote about Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald taking a midnight dip in the Mediterranean. Fine: but Zelda dared her husband to dive in after her from higher and higher rocks, and when a friend remonstrated with her remarked that she didn’t “believe in conservation.” But conservation—of places and waters, of sensation and recollection—is what swimming is all about.

The philosophers have tended to agree. I doubt Nietzsche or Kierkegaard often felt the urge to immerse themselves in river or ocean, but it seems that G.E. Moore, the Cambridge philosopher and friend of Rupert Brooke and the Bloomsbury circle, used to plunge ritualistically into any pools he found on his long moorland hikes. His colleague Wittgenstein regularly swam, as Brooke had done, in Byron’s pool above Grantchester; and in one of his notebooks he made the homely but profound observation that “just as one’s body has a natural tendency towards the surface and one has to make an exertion to get to the bottom—so it is with thinking.” All rational philosophers have felt something like that, and mystics too. Yet it is equally true that the ease with which we move in the water is an index of the simplicity which great thinkers have always demonstrated and mastered. I suspect that Plato was a great swimmer. About Aristotle I am not so sure.

This Issue

March 4, 1993