The Story of Swimming

Susie Parr

Jean Perraton, RALSA President and author of Swimming against the Stream, writes:

The Story of Swimming is a lovely book – engagingly written, lavishly illustrated, and beautifully printed – the ideal Christmas present for the enthusiastic swimmer. Susie Parr has cast her net widely to tell us about armour-clad Roman soldiers and heroic Norsemen, mysterious Selkies and Finfolk, drowning witches and cold-water physicians, dippers and bathing belles, swimming regulations and instruction manuals, bawdy ditties and lyrical poems, and a colourful array of contemporary wild swimmers – all skilfully woven into her analysis of changing social and economic conditions and changing attitudes towards swimming – as well as her own vivid descriptions of swims and swimming places. The book is a joy to look at as well as a joy to read, for Susie has been generous in giving us copious illustrations, early woodcuts and engravings, paintings and cartoons, posters and postcards and, of course, many fine photographs by her husband. Martin Parr, who doesn’t swim, provides a somewhat more detached view of swimmers, sunbathers and watery places.

In such a wide-ranging coverage it might seem churlish to suggest some gaps, but two stand out for me. First, I would like more generous referencing to help me explore further some of the intriguing information Susie has uncovered, and an index to help find it again. Second, in her typology of contemporary swimmers, I would expect to read about Yakov Lev and his campaigning work. It was Yakov who led the long battle to re-establish swimming at Hatchmere Lake and who now, with Pete Roberts who does feature in the book, maintains a constant vigilance as, from time to time, this victory is threatened. The battle for Hatchmere led Yakov, with Rob Fryer, to set up RALSA where, as secretary and web-master, he took on the Environment Agency and the Health and Safety Executive, securing significant changes in their policies on swimming in lakes and rivers. I can understand how Susie came to miss him, for this determined campaigner shuns the limelight, but Yakov deserves a prominent slot in the Story of Swimming.

Having said that – this is a splendid book for swimming enthusiasts to read, enjoy and to dip into from time to time like their favourite swimming hole.