Body/Language: Holly Dawson

Pool: Competition. Lido: Community. Pool: Doing. Lido: Being.’  This week’s guest writer ‘slipped into the deep end’ of Pells ‘like a letter into an envelope.’ And what a letter this is about the life of the mind and body, both…

I have tried to swim twice this month. I have also been trying to write. The two things most natural and dear to me have been notably distant. I suspect their absence is interlinked – writer’s block, swimmer’s block. They are off together in a corner sulking.

The first swimming attempt: a village pool. I get as far as the changing room. Try on two swimming costumes, look in the mirror and cry in the toilets. (I want to go back and leave a post-it note for others, saying: You are beautiful. You deserve to let yourself swim).

The second attempt: The Lewes indoor pool, new costume, a swimming hat. But where can I swim? It’s Saturday morning, a floating crèche. No lanes for adults. I can’t even clear a width.

And now, today, I’m at Pells, facing the mid-week summer-hinting blue. Slipping into the deep end like a letter into an envelope. It’s not even cold. I suddenly feel unpressured. I’m in a Louis Armstrong song now (We have all the time in the world…). An older lady with a steady elegant breaststroke, says Go first, I’m slow. I smile and decline. There’s no rush here.

I usually swim urgent and fast, a strong front crawl and a battle on each stroke. Always pushing, more laps, quicker lengths. Get my push-off to last beyond mid-pool. But that’s for indoor pools, with their tannoys, their chlorine, and good-looking swimmers. People who pout if you impede their speed. All this time, I have been mistaking breathlessness for achievement.

In Pells now, I dawdle. Switch strokes halfway. Scull on my back and take in the sky. Casually breaststroke, although I’m slow, and hear my old teacher barking about screwkicks. As I pootle, I think about language:

Pool: Fat / Lido: Strong

Pool: Perfection / Lido: Presence

Pool: Clamour / Lido: Calm

Pool: Judgement / Lido: Acceptance

Pool: Competition / Lido: Community

Pool: Doing / Lido: Being

Indoor pools make us machines. Swim with skill, in this place, at these times. Always swim in a clockwise direction. Lidos make us human. Feel the water on your skin. Smell the sky and watch the breeze. Acknowledge the existence of others. Every moment of this is real.

I wonder when indoor pools were built. Why didn’t we persevere with rivers. Something about land and industrialisation. Health and safety legislation. This most natural of acts, with its utero nostalgia, must be safe, clean, commoditised.

I swim gentle lengths, considering all this, and for the first time in ages a story comes. It arrives in a rush, rolling away with itself in my brain. I don’t want to stop swimming but I mustn’t lose this so I clamber out and get it all down in one frantic splurge. The sulking is over; my mind can make stories and my body can swim. Or my body makes stories and my mind now swims.

Later, I will read that swimming increases blood flow to your brain. That writing and swimming both light up the frontal lobe, and authors like Murakami and Vonnegut name swimming part of their writing day. Swimming can repair your brain after stress-related damage. A psychiatrist in America prescribes swimming instead of pills. But for now, I finish my scribbling and slip back in, with a sense of satiation, and belonging.

Fitzgerald famously said: All good writing is swimming underwater and holding your breath. Doesn’t that sound thrilling. I used to write like that. But it won’t get you many lengths. Today I see it differently: All good writing is ambling gently in real water, senses wide open, breathing deep.

Holly Dawson is a freelance writer, editor and communications consultant. She runs Lewes Short Story Club, and can be found on the first Sunday of every month at Waterstones, reading aloud and chatting about short fiction. Twitter: @hollyjdawson / Insta: @terrific_whistlers

2 thoughts on “Body/Language: Holly Dawson

  1. I love this. Especially Pool:Clamour/Lido:Calm. Even when lidos are hot day heaving, with all human life on show, there is an air of calm and contentment that I almost never experience at an indoor pool.

    Interestingly, though, some outdoor pools arose at least in part through a desire of benefactors to expand women’s rights. Rivers were swum in by men, almost exclusively, and at a time when there was little or no indoor sanitation. Some benefactors built outdoor pools to make that safer for the working class men but women were not allowed to swim in them. Some outdoor pools, like Greenback in Street, were built with an eye specifically to extend the opportunity to swim to women and children. And most other early outdoor pools gradually came to provide for women and children as well as the men. So they really did play a part in equal opportunity for women, and I love them all the more for that.

    As for why did we start to build indoor pools? I wish I knew – but I suspect that the reasoning can be summed up in one word: weather. The grand old lidos of the heyday, such as the beautifully titled (and beautifully, if not robustly, built) ‘Super Swimming Stadium’ of Morecambe and Portobello Pool in Edinburgh were designed to seat many, many spectators for diving shows, illuminations and other attractions. They knew that they wouldn’t make enough money just of swimming, given the British climate!

    Janet Smith, in Liquid Assets, dug up a fabulous quote from the then governor of the Bank of England, who opened the Super Swimming Stadium… ‘Bathing reduces rich and poor, high and low, to a common standard of enjoyment and health. When we get down to swimming, we get down to democracy.’

    And I agree with him.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for finding time to read Holly’s piece (I love it too) & for sharing some of the fascinating stuff you and Lido Girl@deliciousswim are finding out as you research your user guide to public access open air pools in the UK. Can’t think of a better subject to travel for for research, or a book I more want to get my hands on.


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