Land-locked in a Lock-down (and probably kidding myself I’m brave enough anyway), this is the book I needed to read this week. It is such a joyous collection about the impact of swimming outdoors – and about the body – that I’m going to be pushing it at friends at every opportunity. And next time I get the chance, I’m going to damn well get in that water.
The book is divided into the seasons and we’re given accounts of what it feels like to swim in the depth of winter, ‘A small chalk board outside the lifeguards’ station advertises the temperature: six degree in November, maybe three or four in December, a noteworthy one in January’, and what the pool is like in the height of summer. Here the pond’s regulars are joined by what Esther Freud describes as ‘fair-weather swimmers’ (she herself was one for many years before she felt the need to push into the colder months after a difficult summer). What comes out of so many of the accounts is the blazing sense of well-being, of freedom, that swimming throughout the year gives these writers.
‘… we congratulate ourselves and remind each other to wipe the mud beards off our chins. And we need to be reminded because when you rise up out of the velvety water you feel so powerfully beautiful that it’s possible to forget to look in a mirror for the rest of the day.’
And that sense of elemental power comes through repeatedly too. When the women’s pool is briefly closed for maintenance (the building of new changing rooms), she swims in the mixed and men’s pools. As Freud waits to get in, she comments,
‘‘Everything today will be easier after this,’ I said one particularly bracing morning. And a man waiting by the diving board grinned. ‘Everything in life.’’
This collection doesn’t just cover the effects of swimming outdoors; the Pond and its swimmers are placed very much in the social and political landscape. A place with ‘Ladies’ in its title is inevitably going to be part of debates about gender identity. In the notes at the back it is stated clearly that ‘Transgender women are welcome at the Pond’, although there has been opposition to this stance from some members in the past. So Meyor’s brilliant essay on identity ranges widely through the history of the local area, taking in Gerald Manley Hopkins and his poem ‘The Leaden Echo and The Golden Echo’, and the life of Dido Elisabeth Belle who was brought up in nearby Kenwood House, before coming back to their key point:
‘Swimming is a dip into ritual time, the time of repetition, of the elemental; but also a reminder of historical time: its continuities, and how its cautionary tales continue to make us cautious; of being different; of being hybrid; of not conforming. We keep ourselves in reserve, as I have been doing from the Pond. But I know I am not alone: there are many trans and non-binary people who swim, and have swum, in the Ladies’ Pond. Their molecules and their courage are already coursing through the water like minerals, feeding the daffodils – those golden narcissi – that grow in such abundance around Kenwood House in spring, hidden springs surfacing.’
‘The Lifeguard’s Perspective’, by Nell Frizzell, shows us the swimmers from a different angle. A swimmer-turned-lifeguard, Frizzell shows us the more prosaic side of the Pond as the lifeguards ‘observe the wildlife [the giant carp called Carole would scare the hell out of me too], the mischief and human drama that unfolds across this tiny and yet enormous pond’. She also tells us about the women she watches:
‘I saw women stripped bare by the cold and the wet. I became able to spot the grief-stricken, the ill, the heartbroken. I would see them transformed, sometimes. I saw the pure, buoyant joy of a physically disabled woman who swan the entire length of the Pond without anyone noticing.’
I confess I got a bit choked up there. This is clearly a special and unique place, and this collection of essays is even more than the sum of its already-brilliant parts, making it unquestionably one of my favourite reads of the year. 2021 is the year I am getting back in the water.