Landscape and Memory: Pool

In preparation for the ARENA masterclass with Robert Macfarlane I attended a couple of weeks ago, we were asked to write 'up to a page on landscape and memory for pre-circulation', using Macfarlane's writing as stimulus but drawing upon our own work and experience. This idea of landscape is intriguing to me in the context of my own research: is the pool, so contained, so visually repetitious, a landscape? It's perhaps more intuitive to envision my project as a form of architectural geography - the pool is a building, indoors, wholly man-made - but I'm also not convinced it's that simple. True it's not the Cairngorms, but the pool has depth. Anyhow I enjoyed this as an exercise; here's what I wrote:


Goleta, California, Christmas Eve. I’ve driven 45 minutes to have a swim, not in the glittering Pacific, which opens out along the edge of the 101, spilling over the edge of the horizon as I speed south, but in a pool, 25 metres long, divided into four narrow lanes. It’s 80 degrees out, a heat wave, a drought. The hills are already bleached gold, a sign of profound thirst, presaging summer wildfires.

When I arrive the pool is half in shadow, half in sun. Today there’s only one other swimmer plowing up and down, and as I approach I recognise the stroke of my 87-year-old grandmother, on one of her thrice-weekly swims. We share the pool for a while, until she gets out, and I have it all to myself, and I do a few lengths of backstroke, gazing up at the clear-blue sky. When I go back to England we’ll write to each other, as we do every month or so, about conditions at our respective pools. ‘Today the water was warm, the sky was full of interesting clouds and birds and the pool was empty except for one other swimmer, and I still remembered how to swim,’ she’ll say. ‘The temperature here is just above freezing and all the trees are bare. It’s actually very appealing to swim in the winter, when it’s too cold and dark to stay outside for very long,’ I’ll say.

Pools are reliably dull, at least at first glance. Everything is contained, controlled, regulated. Step into a pool in London or Los Angeles or wherever, and you’ll soon get the hang of things, settle into a rhythm. Maybe you’ll count lengths, or focus on a slight twinge in your shoulder, or sing little snippets of song to yourself as you swim. Maybe a single word or phrase, uttered by a companion the night before, will get lodged in your head, rolling through your mind: cremant du jura, cremant du jura, cremant du jura. A plaster floats by. A hint of mould in the grouting of the tiles. Sunken elastic hairbands make rings on the bottom of the pool. The landscape is both blank canvas and painting, mirror and window. As Thomas Van Leeuwen put it in his history of the private swimming pool, astutely observing how the architecture of the pool corresponds to its use: ‘While the pool allows, even invites, intellectual wanderings, at the same time it prevents the wanderer from losing his way…The container encloses but also retains, holds together, and keeps from spilling. While stirring the imagination, it also prevents it from rambling; the container both kindles and quenches.’ When I read that I think of the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan: ‘Place is security,’ he wrote, ‘space is freedom: we are attached to the one and long for the other.’

It’s a landscape that leaves a mark on you: the distinctive stroke of my grandmother, acquired after eighty years of practice. And yet the thing about water, or pool-water, anyhow, is that it’s impossible to leave a record of your own journey through it. How many hours, days, have I spent forging and re-forging the same path, up and down, in the very same lane? The water opens up to my body and swallows it, embraces it, but it doesn’t remember it: once the body’s left so too are all traces of its movement, the splashes and bubbles, eddies and swirls. The memory is in muscles, in heart.

Last week was full and good, bright skies, big clouds, sudden downpours, and a wild wind that seemed to temporarily blow doubt and mess from my thoughts. I’m sure I’ll write more about the individual components in due course, but for now, in the almost-immediacy of its aftermath:

First, on Tuesday, a talk at Landscape Surgery on my research. It occurs to me now that this was really the first time I’ve presented my research publicly in any form. I’ve spoken about writing and its relationship to place, and referenced in passing my own work, but here it was: a solid thirty or forty minutes of me on swimming pools and swimming bodies, on repetition and mundanity and the ugly-beauty of the watery world and what it might mean. (‘Thus the minuscule, a narrow gate, opens up an entire world,’ Bachelard wrote.)

I spoke mainly about the materialities of the pool, lingering on its more unsavoury elements: snot, spit, sweat, mould, mud, hair, floating plasters. This was a sort of expanded version of a paper I was due to give at the AAG annual conference last month. Someone else read that out on my behalf, for which I am grateful, but I was happy to have the opportunity to actually face an audience. And it went well, or well enough: I was worried that no one would have anything to say in response, or that in spite of my own love for it the subject matter would simply prove too dull to liven up, even with references to floating balls of snot and allusions to the weird intimacy of an environment characterised by the revelation of so much skin. But my talk was followed by what felt to me to be a very engaging discussion: people had ideas, questions, things to suggest. And so apart from the usefulness of the feedback I received, and the useful practice of thinking about and formulating responses, it was also generally heartening to know that this work can lead to such a discussion. 

I thought about this again on Wednesday, at a masterclass with Robert Macfarlane in Brighton (organised by ARENA - a joint, AHRC-funded initiative between the University of Brighton and RHUL). I’ve been so often preoccupied by the why of my research, the ‘what really matters?’, but in fact this is why, this is what matters. I like that my work can be captured, more or less, by a single word. ‘Pools,’ I can say, by way of introduction, and people have a sense of what this might mean: like the pool itself, the word both encloses and opens (it ‘invites intellectual wanderings’ whilst ‘at the same time it prevents the wanderer from losing his way,’ as Thomas Van Leeuwen puts it). And I like that so many people have some immediate, often visceral or emotive, response to the idea of the pool. They’re thrown back to childhood, or reminded of a passage in a novel they love, or they hate pools, or they can’t swim, or they get vertigo when they can see the bottom at the deep end, or they used to swim for a club and chlorine connotes competition, or their local pool is so dirty, or, or, or, or. Possibilities keep opening out: ‘maybe this isn’t really related to your research, but…’ And it always is, in a way. People have something to say, to feel, about the pool.

In this way my body, or the bodies of my research participants, is just a vehicle for the reader. A backdrop to project onto. No one can know what it’s like to be me in the water but they can know what it’s like to be them, and onto the idea of the pool is mapped both sets of bodily experiences. We talked about this, a little, throughout the day: what does the body know? How does it remember? How do we write about these things - under the surface, inscribed in muscle and bone or somewhere deeper, harder to understand - how do we find a language for this?


Speaking of language: there was a lot of talk at the masterclass about a perceived tension between forms of 'creative' and forms of ‘academic’ writing. I've been selfishly interested in this since I began my PhD; it's what I was trying to get at in this (dry, jargon-laden, paywalled) paper on 'the art of writing place', though I'm not sure I have yet found an approach to writing in either context which feels quite right, let alone found a way of writing in both contexts simultaneously. Macfarlane spoke at one point about 'forms of hospitality to the reader that academic writing doesn't necessarily extend,' and I like this way of thinking about the act of authoring: that you can choose to invite the reader in. 

With academic writing it's difficult: sometimes the point of it is to make you work. (But hospitable writing can make you work too, so this is not to say hospitable writing is necessarily easier on the author or the reader.) Sometimes the best way to describe things is through a shared disciplinary language, a rhythm of formalitySometimes, though, it comes from insecurity. I’m guilty of this: when I come across a concept about which I think others may know much more than I do, when I feel I’ve veered into territory I can’t feel firmly beneath my feet, I try to build a maze out of obfuscatory phrases, buzzwords, sentences so long they become ropes with which to tie the reader down. (Don't go exploring: stay on the path.) It happens most obviously when we try to condense: who ever, for example, fully understands abstracts? 

On the other hand there is a precision and a consideration to good academic writing that I believe everyone should strive for. As an editor I know this; when you're playing with someone else's text you really feel the weight of every word. As a writer it’s easier to forgo precision in favour of speed. When I write I often leave holes in the text, marked with parenthesis to mimic the shape of a gap: (()). Sometimes the hole is there to be filled by a paragraph, an entire segment of writing that I can sense but which I haven’t yet thought through. Other times, though - more often - it’s a single word or phrase, essential for rhythm or clarity, but still in the shadows. Academic writing constantly forces this kind of thoroughness: what does a word mean, what can a word mean, what has a word meant?

That afternoon, after the class, I went for a walk along the seafront. Brighton is not a place I know extremely well but I always find it easy to feel my way around. It’s a place I keep dipping into, a day here, an afternoon there, and every time I do I experience a sense of being righted. Perhaps it’s because of where I grew up; I find a coastline the most intuitive way to orient myself. I go there and I get my bearings and I come away again. Here in Oxford we have the river, which winds and slyly divides, and the frontier is not so obvious, but a coastline is definitive, it marks an end and a beginning. So I walked for awhile with the sea to my left; the wind was so fierce that it was blowing people backward and the gulls made no progress, suspended in currents of air, while the water rolled and roiled and the sun illuminated a haze on the horizon.


Anyway I think about all this in the context of what has been, PhD-wise, a fairly flat few months. A few weeks ago, trying to write some words I'd promised to get down, I felt almost fatally frustrated with the prospect of having to push forward like this, paralysed by the purposelessness of it. It seemed entirely possible that I would never make any progress again, and that any progress I had made previously was in fact illusory. Everyone feels that about big projects sometimes, I know this. Even last weekend: we dropped by the house of an old friend and had a gin and tonic while her two children sat at the table eating their tea, and she said, ‘how’s the PhD going?’ and I said it’s fine, it’s fine, it's better than last month when I felt like giving it up. And she laughed and said, oh, I feel like that every time I write anything - which was on the one hand extraordinary to me, because she is someone to whom I look up, a serious Oxbridge academic, and yet also entirely unsurprising, because of course we all feel at times like buffeted gulls.

So sometimes it's a month of nothing much, a month of headwinds: maybe I'll give up and go the other direction. And then sometimes it's a good week, and that’s a relief, but it doesn’t mean that everything will be different now. The work is still work. It's repetition and ritual, muscle and mould, a narrow gate.

On Goggles

Been thinking lately about goggles. Goggles as mask, as status symbol. As protection. Goggles as a way of seeing, but also a way of obscuring; goggles that fog, that leak, that let the outside in. Flipping through Leanne Shapton’s Swimming Studies, which I often do when I’m at an impasse with my own writing, I came across this passage:

“By 1988, when I was swimming seriously, minimal Swedish goggles had arrived in southern Ontario. These were molded plastic eyepiece that fit securely into the eye socket, without any rubber or foam lining the rims. […] There was a coach who sold Swedish goggles poolside at Ontario meets for $12. I bought two, a red pair and a brown pair that came, unassembled, in narrow ziplock bags. […] These goggles marked a step up in my swimming career, from okay to good. It was the beginning of my loyalty to equipment, to rituals and patterns. These goggles are a Masonic handshake. Even now, if I see other swimmers using them, I know they know.” (2012: 247-248)

It reminded me a little of the research participant who talked about the development of her identity as a swimmer, and the markers of this (relatively new) identity:

“I’ll find it impossible to swim without goggles and a hat. Even when I'm just going for a – you know, whatever, not really swimming. And that's a real shift to ‘becoming a swimmer!’, as opposed to being someone who swims sometimes.…[…] That’s been a profound change in my life over the last four years, three years, I suppose. That’s been the biggest thing that came out of swimming. People I've met recently think of me as sporty. Which is just hilarious!”

It reminded me too that everything we wear at the pool is saying something to someone. Saying something to ourselves: I am a serious swimmer, I sometimes imagine my own get-up is announcing, even though in the grand scheme of serious I’m not even on the scale. Still, I choose my costumes not only according to how they fit and how they feel but also according to how I think they will be perceived by others. I remember when I first started swimming regularly I would watch the fast-lane swimmers, the girls particularly, in their deliciously ugly suits: loud patterns, thin straps, open backs. It was like a uniform. 


A year or two ago I needed a new pair of goggles while I was in California, so I stopped by a speciality shop in Orange County and told the woman I needed a new pair of goggles but I could never find a pair I really loved. She asked me where I swam - outdoors, indoors? I said indoors, in England, where it’s dark half the time, and she handed me a pair of orange Speedos and promised they’d brighten up my swims. And she was right. They completely changed the tenor of the early-morning winter pool. Now I have to order them specially from the US, but it’s worth it.


From fieldnotes:

My goggles get hopelessly fogged now; during the warm up it felt a bit like swimming through a heavily-misted lake at morning, as if the fog was clinging to the water and I could almost discern shapes ahead of me – the swimmer in front, who disappeared entirely from view if she was more than five or ten metres ahead. It's truly like being in one’s own world. (June 2014)

For my last lap, I've noticed, I like to make sure my goggles are unfogged before beginning so there is always a sense of clarity at the end of the swim. (July 2014)

New goggles, fresh from America, so clear! A bit tight, as they always are before they form to your face, but so nice to actually see through the water. It won’t last, so I have to enjoy it while I can. Enjoyed the patterns of light on the floor of the pool, and noticing things – cracks in the tiles, things floating around, the bodies of swimmers several lanes to my right – that I wouldn’t otherwise have seen. Certainly a contrast to the fuzzy world of last week! (July 2014)

My goggles are exceptionally foggy – I found myself wondering if it’s to do with going in the evening, perhaps the air is warmer, steams them up more – and then ruminating a little on how I used to hate that but now I can sort of feel my way around. You just start to know your body in this space, in relation to other bodies. Almost intuitively. But there’s also something really special about that crystal-clear view of the pool, the way it opens up, seems to widen. (February 2015)

Notes on Ritual - I

From fieldnotes, Sunday 11th January 2015 — Short sweet swim in very warm water, almost bathlike. Overcast outside, everything cast in fuzzy grey. Quite a few of the weekday locals about in the changing room – I guess many of them come on Sundays too, and I can see why, because whenever I manage to pull myself away from bed and down to the pool it always feels like the best thing you could do with the dregs of a Sunday morning.

I came home and sat on the couch drinking coffee and reading Al Alvarez’s Pondlife. True it’s been edited and curated but you can tell he thinks in poetry, with clarity. He’s a local at his place, he knows people. It’s maybe easier as you get older – the body softens and so does the spirit, the resolve. He writes at one point about being in Italy and going for a swim in a pool near their house, and he is not particularly enamored of lap swimming, he writes about it differently than he does about the ponds, but so what, I thought, people have different rituals to do the same essential thing. I thought a lot about ritual, actually, or routine. The importance of it is almost more obvious when you’re talking about something like going down to a pond or a lake in deepest winter and plunging into the cold and swimming out 50 yards and then floating back. If it’s all warm water in a safe covered space - sets, distances, hours, exercise, fitness - then perhaps some of the importance of ritual for ritual’s sake is lost a little. You find meaning in improving times and distances, in the muscle you build, the hunger for breakfast. You complicate what should be simple. Just going doesn't seem to be enough, even though of course it is: at the end of the day that's all there is, really. Just going at all is a ritual, the only real ritual.

From fieldnotes, Friday 23rd May 2014 — There was a frail mist as I cycled home, and a heavy stream of traffic on the main road. As I waited to cross I wondered, and not for the first time, where the pool as a place ends; where the experience of “going to the pool” or “going for a swim” ends (not to mention begins) – was this, sitting here, leaning against my left foot, waiting for a break in traffic, part of the place, the pool? Sometimes it feels it is. Sometimes even when I’m home I’m still somehow in/of the pool: there’s the ritual of getting in, taking off my shoes, hanging up my coat, removing my wallet and phone and water bottle from my swim bag and placing them on my desk, going upstairs, hanging my wet towel, suit, cap, and goggles on the bannister, hanging my bag on the bedpost where it lives, taking off my watch and placing it on top of the dresser, going to the bathroom, going back downstairs – and only then are we back into domestic mode: doing dishes while the kettle boils, making coffee, eating breakfast. And even these domestic, land-based things are part of the larger routine, can feel either comfortingly or exhaustingly as if, even though they occur somewhere else, they are part of the pool somehow.

Call for Papers: Approaching Everyday Sport - RGS-IBG AC2015

Simon and I are organising a session for this year's RGS-IBG Annual Conference in Exeter; the following call for papers might be of interest to geographers, writers, sports sociologists and others. The deadline for submission of abstracts is the 10th of February:

Royal Geographical Society with IBG Annual Conference, University of Exeter, 2 – 4 September 2015

CFP: Approaching everyday sport: socio-cultural geographic perspectives on sport, exercise and fitness

Session Convenors: Miranda Ward (Royal Holloway, University of London) and Simon Cook (Royal Holloway, University of London)

Sponsor: Geographies of Health Research Group 

Does your work sit in the overlap?

This session seeks to bring together a diverse array of scholars whose work deals in some way with the place of sport in people’s everyday lives — work which could be said to fit into an emerging and mutable field of “everyday sports geography”. We are interested in what contemporary concepts, theories, and methods used in social and cultural geography can bring to the study of sport, and in exploring the potential for an expanded field of sports geography which takes into account the geographical and societal relevance of sport on a more mundane, individualised scale: the experiences and geographies of, for instance, runners on city streets or lap swimmers in the pool.  

We therefore invite papers that attend to, but are by no means limited to, the following themes:

  • Everyday geographies of sport, exercise and fitness; the place of sport in people’s everyday lives; the spaces and places of (everyday) sport 
  • Conceptualisations of and distinctions between sport, exercise and fitness
  • The relationship of sport, exercise and fitness to notions of health and wellbeing
  • Conceptualising the disciplinary standing of sports geography 
  • The value of social and cultural geographical approaches, theories, concepts and methods to the study of sport, exercise and fitness. 
  • The value of these insights to policy arenas such as sport and health policy 
  • Sporting bodies, and the experience and embodiment of sport
  • Emotions in sport, exercise and fitness 
  • Senses in sport, exercise and fitness 
  • Affect and materiality in sport, exercise and fitness
  • Technology in sport, exercise and fitness 
  • Representations and meanings of sport; sport in film, literature and media
  • The politics of everyday sport, exercise and fitness 
  • Sport and belonging; sport and citizenship; sport and identity
  • Methods of researching and writing sport, exercise and fitness 

If you would like to submit a paper, please send abstracts (c.250 words) to Miranda Ward ( and Simon Cook ( by Tuesday 10 February 2015. The intention is to run two sessions, with each paper occupying the usual 20 minute slot. 

Some notes after two months of not swimming

And so, after several years of doing it regularly, at least a few times a week, usually more, I didn’t swim for two months. I did this on the advice of doctors, and there wasn’t really any way it could have been avoided, and it wasn’t, in the grand scheme of things, an especially uncomfortable time: but still, it was sudden, and surprising, and with surprisingly wide-reaching ramifications.

Before I stopped, I was probably the fittest I’d ever been, except maybe the year I played volleyball in college, not only because of swimming but also because I was, in an admittedly lackadaisical way, training for a half marathon. So it was, at first, primarily a physical struggle. I did not sleep as well, eat as well, during this time of not swimming; I continued to run for a little while, and then, during a longer period of physical recovery, I walked - long, slow walks at the very edge of dusk, through parks and quiet suburban neighbourhoods. 

I was mostly, if I’m honest, uncomfortable with the idea of what would happen to my body if I couldn’t swim. It was accustomed to its morning exercise, and its abilities as well as its appearance reflected that. I didn’t want to un-do what I’d done to my body over the last few years and months. A large part of this is vanity: I liked the way my body looked, and I knew that it would start to look subtly different - even if just to me - with each day or week that passed without a swim. I tried to keep up a regular practice of writing fieldnotes, even though I was not really in the field anymore: you cannot go to the pool just to watch without attracting the wrong kind of attention, and I wouldn’t have wanted to anyway; as long as I didn’t have to see swimmers it was easy enough to pretend that swimming was only an abstract activity. So at one point I wrote in my hiatus fieldnotes: “I was looking through photos from the summer earlier this week and you can really actually see the muscles in my shoulders. Now, not so much. This bothers me more on a personal than a cosmetic level, but I also liked what the visual said to other people, or what I imagined it said, anyway.”

Gradually, though, the body, which is capable of almost alarming resilience sometimes, adjusts to whatever new routine it must; and so, towards the end, the whole thing became more of a mental struggle: I was angry or despairing because something had been so disrupted, because one of the things that would ordinarily have helped me cope with a difficult time had been forbidden; I did not know what to do with myself. I worried, too, that I would overcompensate - that in my effort to readjust to current circumstances, I would float too far the other way and become indifferent; that, even when I could swim again, I wouldn’t particularly want to.


From my fieldnotes, 21st November:

"I have grown patient by necessity. I take gentle walks. On Sunday I saw the girl with the pink cap in the pub, in my pub, my local. I mean, maybe her local too; I used to fairly often see her cycling down my road, so perhaps she lives nearby…It was funny to see her out of context and it reminded me, again, that these people are people outside the context of the pool. The same people but different people, too. As am I. So where does the other part go when it has no place to go?”

I guess the thing I felt about this really was that this was both a discomfiting and a soothing thing: that even something you think of as being so integral to your own self-identity isn’t necessarily, or always, essential to continue being. My life, after all, marched on and on during this time; I was busy, I had doctor’s appointments and meetings and deadlines, and I wrote and read, though maybe less than I should have, and had dinner with my partner and talked about what was going on his life, his work, and we planned our wedding a little, and dealt with the rats that had moved into our kitchen, and the broken boiler, and slept late on Saturday mornings because we could. It was not a great time, all in all, but it was still a period of time, and things were still fundamentally okay. And about this period of enforced, but also learned, patience, I also wrote:

"I occasionally check the tri club Facebook page, or see updates from an old swimming coach, and yes, I sometimes feel a little pang of – jealousy? Not quite the right word, but something like it; desire, perhaps? I look through the list of times from a 400m time trial, for instance, and wonder how much I, too, could have improved by now…But then the desire or whatever it is fades: I’m here now, and actually maybe I’m a little relieved that I’m not sweating away in a pool right now. On Wednesday nights, during the long club swims, I used to go up and down and up and down and up and down and think, quite often, that this was such a weird thing to be doing voluntarily, as an adult, on an evening. (When I was in high school and participation in sports was mandatory, I always used to think, why would you make yourself this uncomfortable if you didn’t have to?) It’s not that I don’t miss it, but I think I’ve effectively sequestered the part of me that actively misses it, turned it into something abstract. Anyway there’s plenty going on these days, physically, emotionally, and so there isn’t really that much space for my body or my mind to miss something else. The calendar is a kind of enemy: reminding me of things, the facts of things… the length of time for which, after years of regular practice, I have been, effectively, a non-swimmer…I think I place undue importance on getting the go-ahead to start swimming again, as if it will definitely mark the moment that everything else gets easier, too. When really – like all places, because this is just a place, a place in my life I’m at at the moment – it’s all just a process.”


Even our house was decorated differently; for so long my towel had its place on a particular section of banister upstairs, the swimsuit and goggles and cap and hair tie laid out carefully on the towel to dry, and that place on the bannister was empty for awhile.


The funny thing is now that I’m back into it, and have been for over a week, all that time out of the water, which seemed so prolonged at the time, seems to have shrunk in my memory. The calendar does not seem like an enemy but a record. True I am not very fit, and true I am probably not as efficient as I have been in the past, but it’s not as if I don’t know how to swim anymore. The first length after the two month hiatus was strange, disorienting; I was almost a little dizzy for a moment, though not unpleasantly so. But then I reached the wall and flipped and it felt like it always feels, more or less, which is to say, sometimes great, and sometimes a great struggle. I guess this is what they talk about when they talk about “muscle memory”, even though in this case some of the muscles had diminished or maybe disappeared completely.


From my fieldnotes, 7th December:

"A better swim today, felt more like the old habit. I still felt tired and out of shape at points but I also felt my form returning a little. It actually feels good to do hard work, even if my definition of hard work has shifted. Funny to think of fitness as potential: where does it go when you lose it? Because you don’t necessarily lose the potential. 

I’ve been thinking to a lot about this idea of recreation/re-creation, and it feels highly relevant in a way I maybe hadn’t been thinking about before: my body, in the Bale sense, was actually re-created by lack of exercise over the last few months (the thing he writes is that exercise done to “keep fit” is “used as a form of re-creation. The body is re-created so that it works better” (Bale 2003: 8)). And now I’m swimming again for recreation: and trying to let it be recreation in the conventional sense (a relaxed activity, done for pleasure), for as long as I can, because to enjoy it was always the main purpose, for me, and I sometimes lose sight of that. But the one thing I am trying to take from the experience of missing this from my life is that it’s a thing to be appreciated, not abused, and also that I do enjoy it but also that I enjoy other things. In a sense I was able to separate my identity a little from it: it’s nice to think that if instead of an evening swim I want to go for a walk and have a beer, that’s a thing I can do. Discipline is all well and good but only so long as I control the discipline, rather than being perpetually disciplined by my own practice. What a balance to strike! And on the other hand I do also want to swim for re-creation, to regain the fitness I had, the muscles, the ability.

So yes: it’s all a process of continual re(-)creation.”

Work cited:

Bale, J. (2003) Sports Geography, London: Routledge

The Why

Over the last few months, a few research participants have asked me variations of the same question, which is something like: What’s your research for? What do you hope it will change or inform?

It’s a good question, and one that, until recently, I hadn’t really given much thought to. On the one hand, I’m wary of overplaying the potential implications of my research, and it would be disingenuous for me to claim that I’m aiming to directly influence policy, or that I have some grand notion that my project is going to change the world. On the other hand, I do believe there’s value to what I’m doing beyond just the satisfaction of personal curiosity. 

To some extent the project is about highlighting the potential good that swimming can do (physically, emotionally, societally), and recognizing the importance of the pool as a site for this activity - particularly through an exploration of the extent to which specific material aspects of the pool environment may help or hinder regular participation. So I hope that the research may shed some light on how people are using and interacting with indoor pools, what about the pool environment is important to them and encourages or enables a regular practice and what about the environment is discomfiting or discouraging.

I’m also interested in the way people experience places via their bodies, and vice versa - the way they experience their bodies via certain places. So I think there’s also an opportunity here for the research to illuminate ways in which habitual lap swimming changes or brings to the fore people’s awareness of and attitude towards their own bodies. I’m thinking, for instance, of the participant who told me that she likes what swimming has done to her body both in terms of what it can do and also what it looks like; it took exercise, she said, for her to learn to love her body. So the value here may lie partly in using an exploration of people’s relationship to their swimming bodies as a way of exploring what facilitates comfort in/with one’s body more generally. The body, after all, is the home we cannot leave, and the pool provides a uniquely intimate and anonymous environment in which to exercise and experience this home.

Fundamentally, though, I’m just fascinated by swimming pools as places, particularly given how banal they often seem, how ugly and purely functional and even unwelcoming the architecture and environment can be. So the project is, at its heart, about not only valuing the place of the pool - which may be easily overlooked - but also about valuing other everyday places more generally: it’s great to write about grander landscapes, but I think it’s also important to pay attention to the kinds of smaller-scale places that people encounter repeatedly in their daily lives. 


There’s another, more personal, facet to this last point. A few months ago, I sat down to make some notes for myself about why I felt it was important to write about all this - the swimming pool, the swimming body. And the thing I kept coming back to was the significance of the pool in my own daily life, the way it’s become a central location in the geography of my everyday world.

I first started to notice this during a particularly difficult year. It didn’t seem overly difficult at the time: I was newly self-employed, and enjoying my giddy freedom, although at the edge of my mind, always, was a slight sense of panic: Where will my next paycheck come from? What’s going to happen? Meanwhile my partner was involved in starting a brand new business - always a stressful process, made more so in this case by a lack of funding. He was stretched thin and we were stretched thin. I fantasized about leaving - not him, but this situation, our life as it was. We could go elsewhere, do other things. It sounded simple - we had no ties, no mortgage, no children, no notice periods - but these things are never simple, and the truth was we were tied, in a way, to where we were, and the only way to get out of the slump was to stay and fight.

I was also working on my first book, a lonely process that no one could particularly help me through, because after all, at the end of the day, you have to do it yourself. Eventually I found regular work as a shop assistant. The job was poorly paid but really a saving grace; the money augmented my meagre freelance income enough to cover the rent, I loved the people I worked for and the five minute walk to to the shop and the simplicity of the act of being there. I folded tea towels and packaged shipments and made small talk with the people who, like tumbleweeds, occasionally blew in during the day. I knew I was restless, and winter was taking us in its wicked grip, rain beating against the windows and darkness falling early, but with the shop to mind I didn’t mind as much as I otherwise would have

It was during this time that the pool became a refuge, an escape. It took on greater importance than it ever had before, though I’d been swimming regularly for awhile now. I’d dabbled in taking it seriously before, but I had never needed it like I did now; before, it had just been something I did to stay fit, whereas now it felt like something I did to stay human. And now, too, I had the time. In fact I had the time and there was almost nothing else I could do with it: my pool membership was paid through the end of the year, but I had so little in my bank account that other amusements - eating out, going to the pub, the cinema, the theatre, another city - were mostly out of the question. The pool was the only place I regularly went, walking on dark, chilly evenings with music blaring in my ears. And it was really a place I went to be someone else - or rather, to be myself stripped down, without any markers of anxiety or uncertainty, to be myself the swimmer, who was competent and dedicated and who put in the hours, knew the place well. I was also improving - there were tangible measures of this, and tangible things I could do to facilitate the improvement, whereas with other things in my life - with freelance writing for example, writing generally - I mean, where do you even start?

I liked the innocent encounters with other bodies and other people, too; there were, after working in offices for years, not enough other people in my daily life, even in the shop, which often had no customers all day. I admired the sleekness of the more accomplished athletes, the tight bodies of the men and women who swam well. It seemed to me that this place was healthy, even if my dependence on it was not entirely, and that it was important to have somewhere like that to go.

And things are much different now, but I have never quite recovered from that particular sense of enchantment, which is why it matters so much still. Not just for the physical benefits, but because it’s a place I can go - like there are places in our imaginations - for that sense of deep-down comfort, that necessary re-grounding; like being a ship righted, a scale balanced.


The last post here was partly about the spaces between swims. Well, I’m in a space now, a prolonged, doctor-ordered space. She told me not to swim for at least another two weeks or so and then said, “I’m a swimmer too, I’d hate it if someone told me that.” This is the longest I’ve gone without a swim in - well, in years, probably, though I only started recording my swims a year ago, so I can only say for certain that it’s the longest I’ve gone without a swim in a year. It’s been two weeks and change, though it feels longer.

The thing I miss partly is the comfort of it, the grounded-ness I feel after even a frustrating morning swim, and partly the physical sensation. And the physical implications, too: I miss what it does to my body both in terms of how it feels and how it looks. My shoulders are weakening, and even if no one else can see that, I can. Swimming is a lot about vanity, for me, I guess. And I guess I feel disconnected a little from a part of myself. Not that I’m not still the same person or can’t be again but that for a while I and some other part of me are not quite coinciding.

The one sort of good thing about this situation is that you don’t really see people out swimming in the same way you see people out running or cycling, or even carrying yoga mats or wearing football boots and a layer of sweat. I had never really thought about this before, but the swimmer is almost completely invisible until she’s actually swimming: maybe she’s wearing a swimming costume underneath street clothes, or carrying a towel in her rucksack, but how would you know? And because the activity has, by definition, to be confined to a body of water, you never see a body out of water swimming. Which makes me think of that Miranda July story, where the narrator teaches people to swim on dry land, “because of course there are no bodies of water near Belvedere and no pools.”

"It actually takes a huge amount of upper-body strength to swim on land," July writes. 

So it’s not like I’m tormented by the sight of all the early morning or post-work swimmers as I’m wandering down the street to pick up groceries. I haven’t got a clue which of the other people I see are actually bracing themselves for the cold plunge, or luxuriating in the post-swim warmth that follows you around for awhile. Like the doctor: I would never have known, except for that she volunteered the information. Which in a way makes it weirder – like it doesn’t really exist, as an activity, like maybe I imagined its great importance, except that the importance is implied in its absence.

What is to swim?

From fieldnotes, recorded Monday 26th May whilst on holiday in Wales (I had brought Olivia Laing’s excellent 'To the River' to read, which is why it features so prominently):

Funny, too, the spaces between swims. Here I am, missing it. I brought my suit and my cap and my goggles, as I always do, although the likelihood of me finding anywhere suitable to swim is almost none. To be given the opportunity and caught unawares would be awful, and the kit takes up almost no space in a rucksack heavy with waterproof jackets and boots.

I’m itchy to move – just watched a cyclist glide downhill through our window – but also enjoying not moving, for a bit. Again I think that submersion is not the same thing as swimming, though these nature writer types – Laing included, lovely as her words are – seem always to equate the two: the silty river touching her scalp puts her in contact with water in the same way that my up-and-down-the-lanes routine does me, in a way, but it feels very different. I derive another, and perhaps inferior, sense of satisfaction from wild submersion; it’s holier on the surface, but also wholly on the surface - a flimsier kind of satisfaction, initially wonderful but ultimately less profound or layered. But then, perhaps the argument (if it’s coherent enough to be called that) goes that if the water is still the body must move; and if the water is moving the body must be still. There’s a kind of poetic science in that, I suppose. These wild “swimmers” are letting the water do the swimming.

…which I guess brings up the question: what is to swim? What is the act itself? I haven’t thought to define it – in my work or in my own head – but it’s now demanding to be defined. Deakin and Macfarlane and Laing swim in the wild, but sometimes they do so without swimming at all – they float, or sit and sink their legs into water, or tread water. So what makes it swimming, if not a state of mind? Surely the “pure” act of swimming – doing laps and laps of front crawl, for instance, where you’re isolated from everything but the water and the motions of your own body – is pure only partly because of the physical enactment; to swim is to enter a certain state of mind, to take yourself to a certain place, or be taken there – to be, as Thomas A P Van Leeuwen puts it, both freed and contained by the water, at least intellectually (“While stirring the imagination, it [the pool] also prevents it from rambling; the container both kindles and quenches”). Otherwise to wade out into the River Irfon, as we did last August, knee-deep, me in a bikini, pushing against the current, slipping against the rocks, to sit in the middle of the stream with ice-cold currents eddying around our bodies, to submerge our shoulders but go no further – or to tread water, silty-scalped – would not be to swim: but it is, it is. And what is the role of the pool in all this? The pool is a container; the pool is this idea manifested physically, structurally, architecturally - perhaps. It’s a metaphor – it’s the physical manifestation of a dream (and dreams and swimming come up so often – even Laing’s book, which is waterlogged, seems to reinforce this; ostensibly or partly about Virginia Woolf, who ended up waterlogged, whose writing is dreamy, sometimes indistinguishable from a watercolor dream) – or of an idea; it’s the banal representation of all this. Maybe! It’s easy to get bogged down in this when you’re thinking just of the water itself, not about its context - to be carried away on a current -

“Water,” writes Laing, “is sly; make no bones about it. It slips in anywhere, though the doors might be barred against it, and is most equitable, favouring neither sewers nor churches.” So it slips into your consciousness, too, with all of its mystical qualities, and maybe this is actually more palpable at moments like this, when submersion is impossible. Maybe partly what I am missing in this space between swims is my routine, the comfort of overhearing changing room conversations about gardening and kids and holidays in Cornwall, the physical challenge, the upkeep of fitness - but there’s also that element of swimming which is less to do with the pool environment and more to do with whatever it is that makes a quick dip in a frigid, shallow stream a fulfilling experience.

“Some things,” Laing also writes, “are drawn to water and behave differently when they are near it. I’ve watched mist gather on the surface of a stream where there is none elsewhere, and seen those little circling courts of flies that dance all evening above a single kink in a current. Voices travel further by water too, as if the air’s been pulled so taut it carries impressions that would elsewhere be too subtle to perceive.”

But now movement at last: the rain has let up and  we’re going to take the wolfhound for a walk in a nature reserve and look for a rare orchid that grows there.

What is the pool?

So where, I find myself wondering, does the pool “as a place” begin and end? Where are the lines around it? What does it contain and exclude?

This raises, or complicates, other questions. So, for instance: what is the difference between “the pool” and “a swim”? The pool implies stasis, stability – something that doesn’t move, something fixed, something that contains. A swim implies action, variation – something that is done, rather than something which exists, something that strains against containment. Its very nature is movement. But in my mind they’re muddled: when I say “I’m going for a swim” I mean “I’m going to the pool”; when I say, “I’m going to the pool” I mean “I’m going for a swim”, and I use these phrases interchangeably and really only in relation to each other. If I go to the lake, for instance, where I sometimes swim in the summer, I don’t say, would never say, “I’m going for a swim.” I say, “I’m going to the lake”. 

To me “a swim” has a very specific meaning, and a very specific place, both geographically and within the structure of my everyday life. In this sense “a swim” is part of the place of the pool; to swim laps is to be in place, even while you move. And the geographical relevance of the pool is not just related to the fact that the pool is itself a place, but also to the fact that the pool is in place, and if you swim there regularly enough, often enough, that place in its wider context becomes important. If I were to calculate how much time I spend at my pool versus how much time I spend in other parts of the city in which I live, I suspect I’d find that I spend more time at the pool than almost anywhere else except home: more time than I do at my local pub, at the grocery store or corner shop, than at friends’ houses, cafés, doctor’s waiting rooms, libraries, museums. It’s hard to deny that the pool is an important spot on my map of the city in which I live. In this way the pool-as-place becomes integral to my understanding of the city-as-place; in this way the pool-as-place – which is a site of many interactions, flows, encounters – is surely as material-rich as the streets a runner’s feet get to know so well, or the arcades the flaneur strolls. It’s a site of understanding, and in this regard movement plays some role; although one lacks the sense of “progress” achieved through, for instance, running or walking a certain distance through a city or in the countryside, one has still moved. Say I swim at least a mile most mornings; sure it’s a confined mile, achieved 25 metres at a time, but it’s a mile nonetheless, measured by time and bodily engagement. 

There is, on the other hand, also that more abstract place the swimmer goes to in his or her own head. This is a journey referenced by a number of other writers on the topic of swimming – Charles Sprawson, for instance, writes that: “Much of a swimmer’s training takes place inside his head immersed as he is in a continuous dream of a world under water” (1993: 17), and: “Swimming, like opium, can cause a sense of detachment from ordinary life. Memories, especially those of childhood, can be evoked with startling strength and in vivid and precise detail” (1993: 135). And the sociologist Susie Scott, writing about the swimming pool as negotiated order, suggests that: “The intoxicating smell of chlorine, babble of children’s voices and visual spectacle of azure blue combine as an assault on the senses, yet communicate an atmosphere of calm. These are the familiar signifiers of swimming as an institution, transporting us immediately into another world” (2009: 126).


So where does this place, this other world, end? What does it contain, or fail to contain? In a sense I can be said to be at the pool from the moment I decide to go for a swim; my house becomes part of the pool-place, as I, in an act of ritualistic, almost superstitious routine, take my nearly-dry swimsuit from where it hangs on the bannister and put it in the striped bag I carry to the pool. My route - whether I walk or cycle or even, as has happened once or twice, drive – is pretty fixed; there are a finite number of ways to arrive there, and I almost always take the most direct, which is about 15 minutes on foot or eight on a bike. And those minutes, too, are part of the swim, part of the pool. So its boundaries are mutable. They shift. They’re highly individualised – my pool, even if we go to the same pool, may be different than yours – but also variable, on that individual level, from day to day. Sometimes, when I am on autopilot, going through habitual motions I often fail to register, rolling along the same old streets on my creaky bicycle, the pool seems to be a chunk of time that begins when I first wake up and ends only after I’ve come home and hung up my wet things to dry and put my slippers on and washed last night’s dishes while I wait for the kettle to boil on the stove and made a pot of coffee and sat down at my desk. Other times, particularly when I am jostled out of my routine, I’m not really in the pool mindset until I find myself in the changing room, or at the water’s edge.

Either way the water itself marks a definite frontier. Deakin puts it this way: “Swimming is a rite of passage, a crossing of boundaries: the line of the shore, the bank of the river, the edge of the pool, the surface itself. When you enter the water, something like metamorphosis happens. Leaving behind the land, you go through the looking-glass surface and enter a new world” (2000: 3-4). In this sense the “place” of the pool is both external and internal, physical and experiential, enclosed (physically/architecturally) and open (mentally/experientially); it is both “the pool”, a building, a site, and “the pool”, a state of mind, a haunt, an hour, an abstraction, a physical action. Its beauty, then, may be in the way it balances all this, provides a site where one can find, or chase, a state of being which is neither fully one thing or the other; in water and air, floating but submerged. The body is cradled, though it flirts with discomfort: it’s contained, it can’t stray, it is – as far as the body ever can be, especially when it’s in a dangerous environment – safe, while the mind is free, to an extent, to wander.

I think of Yi-Fu Tuan: “Place is security, space is freedom: we are attached to the one and long for the other” (1977: 3). I think of the narrator of Alan Hollinghurst’s novel The Swimming Pool Library, doing his laps: “My mind would count its daily fifty lengths as automatically as a photocopier; and at the same time it would wander” (1998: 12). I think of Van Leeuwen, in his history of the private swimming pool, astutely observing how the architecture of the pool corresponds to its use: “While the pool allows, even invites, intellectual wanderings, at the same time it prevents the wanderer from losing his way. […] The container encloses but also retains, holds together, and keeps from spilling. While stirring the imagination, it also prevents it from rambling; the container both kindles and quenches” (1999: 7). 


We’re not just drawing lines around the pool; within it, too, are lines that contain. Lane lines, for instance. For awhile last year I was waking up or going to bed with a tender, pale bluish bruise on my left hand, in the fleshy spot between thumb and forefinger. I didn’t know what had caused it, I chalked it up to clumsiness. But then one day, while swimming, I suddenly understood: when I swim in lanes that go clockwise, I sometimes smack my left hand on the lane lines, as if I can’t quite gauge distance on my left side in this situation, and indeed I naturally prefer to swim counter-clockwise. And the fleshy spot between thumb and forefinger was where I was hitting the plastic lane lines, and the bruise was a marker of this: a mark of my accidental attempted transgression, my running up against a barrier and being unable to cross. So I am disciplined by the pool; perhaps when I am not disciplined enough on my own it intervenes, as it were, reminds me to pay more careful attention to my form, to the positioning of my body in place, to increase my spatial awareness – to temper my wandering thoughts, not let them wander so far that my body is tempted to follow them out into the ether. Preventing the wanderer from losing his way.

Works cited

Deakin, R. (2000), Waterlog, London: Vintage

Hollinghurst, A. (1998), The Swimming-Pool Library. London: Vintage

Scott, S. (2009), “Re-clothing the emperor: the swimming pool as a negotiated order.” Symbolic Interaction, 32: 2 pp 123-145

Sprawson, C. (1993) Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer as Hero. London: Vintage

Tuan, Y. (1977) Space and Place. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Van Leeuwen, T. A P (1999) The Springboard in the Pond: An Intimate History of the Swimming Pool. Cambridge: MIT Press

The Chlorine World

Smell in geographical experience is complex, including both immediate encounter with the environment and a kind of virtual encounter with places in the imagination when odour memories are excited by current place experiences. Olfaction seems to offer a time-space geography, both at the level of current durations of odours in space and in the lingering of odours in memories.

- Paul Rodaway, Sensuous Geographies (p 67)

Therefore, olfaction gives a distinctive sensuous experience of space and duration; past, present and potential spaces; and this is both physiologically grounded and culturally defined. Olfactory geographies are not merely ‘smell maps’ or even ‘smellscapes’, but complex emotional encounters with discrete olfactory events, odours passing through time as well as space. […] Olfactory experience is, however, not mere juxtaposition but always a relationship, chemical or mechanical, between that which (gives off) smells and the individual who smells (or sniffs). 

- Paul Rodaway, Sensuous Geographies (p 71)

I swim mainly in the mornings. It wasn’t always so, but for the last year my preferred routine has been: wake up between 7 and 8. Cycle to the pool. Swim for an hour, or three quarters of an hour if time is tight, which often it is. I’m never fully awake until I hit the water, and even then, a lot of the time, I’m on autopilot.

Later, at home, sometimes I will rest my chin in my hands, or rub my hands across my face if I am feeling weary or unsure about how to begin a task, and I will catch a whiff of something. It’s chlorine, but it’s chlorine mixed with, marked by, time; chlorine diluted by a few hours since my last immersion, diluted by the smell of the hand soap in the bathroom, the shampoo I used in my hair after my swim, the garlic I sliced at lunch. An imprecise mixture, an inconsistent potency, but the thing that’s consistent is the tone of the chlorine, which is muted and therefore somehow more evocative than if it was fresh - it is the fragility and fadedness of memory manifest in a smell.

It reminds me, first and most viscerally, of the pleasure of a swim: it grounds me, or waters me, in a way. It soothes. I tend not to think of the challenges or embarrassments or the frustrations of the particular morning’s swim, if there were any, which there often are; nor do I think of the specific satisfactions, the tiny victories, the marks of progress. The smell of the weakened, fading chlorine instead calls to mind a more general impression of swimming, which is strongly tied both to the necessity of it for physical and emotional maintenance as well as to the heady, extravagant kind of pleasure it stirs up.

But then, too, the smell reminds me of chlorine itself: which reminds me of my childhood.

Actually these memories are not always so plainly happy. They are tied to a nostalgia for childhood, yes, but also to feelings of fear and apprehension, sometimes dread: sitting in the car, on my way to the pool, wishing I was on my way elsewhere, driven by my mother, who never learned to swim at all and who provided guarded encouragement. She wanted me to swim, thought it imperative that I learn as early as possible, but she never could quite overcome her fearful awe of water, and I’m sure that fearful awe was palpable, and absorbed by me.

"Smell,” Paul Rodaway writes, “can evoke rich memories, but it can also evoke tantalisingly incomplete memories. Whilst place-specific memories are common, olfaction can also give us more abstract memories of kinds of relationship and emotion, but lacking in specific location or point in time […] Olfaction gives us not just a sensuous geography of places and spatial relationships, but also an emotional one of love and hate, pain and joy, attachment and alienation." (p 73)

The emotional geography of the pool, as written by all the variations of chlorine-smell – or perhaps I should say the olfactory geography of the pool, which is partially an emotional one – is indeed one of love and hate, pain and joy, attachment and alienation: exactly so. A complete relationship to place, like a complete relationship to a parent or a child or a lover, is coloured by various shades of all of these dual emotions. I put my hands to my face: I smell pleasures, I smell anxieties.

And of course smell does not, as Rodaway points out, always evoke specifics. These I generally have to dredge up, particularly with the memories from childhood, which are hazy to begin with and from which I am further distanced with every passing second. My childhood memories of chlorine are: hot, sickeningly bright California summer days, dry-as-bone hillsides andcold turquoise pools. Lessons during which I grew aware of myself, during which I was afraid, not of drowning, not of the deep end, but of my own bodily limitations. Discomfort at finding myself in an environment in which breath could not be drawn at will but had to be planned and executed precisely, an environment in which the effort I put in did not seem to match the results I got, the speed I attained. We swam mini races across the width of the pool. We put our faces in the water and blew bubbles. We held on to the side of the pool, or to floats, and we kicked kicked kicked. Instructors told us what to do and how to do it; I did not, could not, always comply. I swallowed water sometimes, came up spluttering. In the car, on the way home, I would be heavy and hungry and sleepy. Sunburn, the sting of chlorine in my eyes, the feel of it at the back of my throat. This was the taste of failure, or so I thought. 


Chlorine comes up in conversations about pools. One swimmer, on being asked what he likes about the pool, identifies a soothing sense of familiarity, rooted in childhood and evoked largely by – what else – the smell of chlorine. “The changing rooms of these pools always tend to be the same,” he says:

You know, obviously they’re all tiled, you’ve got your lockers in there that are in various…states, some of them working, some of them aren’t. Same kind of key system. So they’re all very familiar, cause they’re all same as they were when I was a kid. And there’s that certain smell to them as well - and it always does make, when you’re getting changed in there, it makes you feel like you’re a kid. […] And that, that all makes it very comfortable.

Often it’s one of the first things people mention: I like that pool because they don’t use so much chlorine! Or, I love swimming but I can’t stand the smell of chlorine. I guess because it is one of the most recognizable (chemical) components of the pool, one of the pool’s most distinctive features. What makes a pool? (Or: what makes a pool suitable for swimming laps?) Water, walls, chlorine. The basics.

It’s also very apparent. It’s in your face. It has a perceptible effect on your body, particularly your senses – your skin, your eyes, your nose. Sometimes it causes you to sneeze, or to wheeze, or to cough. It burns your eyes if there’s contact. It smells. It wreaks havoc on hair, or so I’m told; I remember childhood friends worrying their bright blonde hair would turn green from too much swimming over the summer. One swimmer I spoke to recently has had to give up swimming in pools entirely after developing an allergy to chlorine out of the blue; now she makes the trip out to the lake as often as she can while the weather’s still good, and worries about what she’ll do in winter when the cold and the dark sets in. Once, swimming with the city triathlon club, we almost had to cut a session short because the amount or type of chlorine in the pool was different than usual – there was more of it, or it was stronger somehow. First I noticed my throat was burning and then that my chest hurt, in a particular, hollow sort of way, not entirely unfamiliar, as when you have a bad dry cough or inhale poor, smoky air. I paused for a minute at the edge of the pool to reorient myself in this newly uncomfortable environment; all around me, I realized, swimmers were spluttering and coughing and suffering similarly. A girl the next lane over hopped out and crouched down in panic and retched fruitlessly. The coach, even on dry land, had moist red eyes. That’s the thing about chlorine: as well as serving as a kind of olfactory time-travel machine, it also aggravates the senses, assaults them. “I used to have a real problem with chlorine,” one swimmer tells me. “And breathing in chlorine. And that put me off swimming for awhile.” She describes a peculiar, swamp-like effect at her pool:

they’ve got these massive windows, so the sun shines on the swimming pool, which does something to the chlorine which creates this fug that just lies across the top. […] Especially if there’s been a hot day. Cause the atmosphere in the pool’s really hot, and the pool is actually quite hot, and yeah, it just creates this layer of gas. So of course as you’re swimming, you turn your head to breathe, and as a Tri club you get in there and mash up the water like there’s no tomorrow, and breathing - cause you’re not doing your normal lady-like breaststroke, nice breathing - a lot of people start coughing, sneezing, and spluttering halfway through a swim session.

So chlorine colours the experience of the pool, is fundamental to it. It cleanses the water, keeps it safe and clear, gives us peace of mind – but also, simultaneously, it pollutes the water, clouds our perception of the pool as a place. And when I get a whiff of it, the whiff is carrying all that weight and meaning.


To draw another connection:

Swimming is a form of correspondence - between body and world, self and environment, body and body. “A kind of communication between person and world.” Like drawing (“imagine you are running your hand over the surface…”). Like writing, even, which is a physical as well as an intellectual act. A form of labour: “in the ‘work’ of writing, the page becomes a personally invested space, a site to be both revered and feared, one of daily practice and struggle” (Dydia DeLyser and Harriet Hawkins, 2014, p 2). Here there’s a connection between the “work” of writing and the “work” of swimming, the work done in the pool and the daily practice and struggle there: the pool, like the page, becomes a site to be “both revered and feared”.

Writers often talk, sometimes a little preciously, about their “craft”, and about the individual, entirely necessary and highly variable, components of this craft - a particular chair or time of day, a certain soundtrack, a nap, a drink, a cat, an open window. 

Sometimes these things are spoken about in the same tone of reverence that something religious, otherworldly, or uncanny might be: as if there’s an element of witchcraft to writing. The novelist Roxana Robinson, in a piece for the New Yorker, presents her writing routine as something delicate, ritualistic, and not entirely within her control:

In the morning, I don’t talk to anyone, nor do I think about certain things.

I try to stay within certain confines. I imagine this as a narrow, shadowy corridor with dim bare walls. I’m moving down this corridor, getting to the place where I can write. […] I don’t read the paper or listen to the news. One glance at the headlines, the apprehension of the dire straits of the world, and it would all be over. The membrane will be pierced; it will shrivel and turn to damp shreds.

She concludes:

On a good day, I’m caught up by something larger than myself, held in the light by some celestial movement. For a brief charged time I may be irradiated, able to cast a shadow version of something I only imagine. The shadow will never be the bright true self that I know exists, but it will be as precise as I can make it, as real, as sharp, as beautiful. I will cast this shadow into the air, where it may never be seen, or where it may be seen at a great distance, and only by one person, someone I will never know. The point is to cast the shadow out into the air.

In spite of this ethereal inspiration, words are not disembodied. Think of the body writing - whether early in the morning, jolted awake by a cup of instant coffee, as in Robinson’s case, or past midnight, hunched over a laptop, bashing out a frenzied email, as in my case on so many evenings. As Catherine Brace and Adeline Johns-Putra have written: “in the performance and practice of writing, we glimpse a fusion of thought, action, body and text” (Brace and Johns-Putra, 2010, p 403). And this fusion creates space for engagement about not just the place being written about, but the place of the author, and the relationship between the two.


Last year I gave a presentation, alongside two colleagues, about writing and geography. A lot of this post is actually recycled material from my talk- material that’s taken on new meaning as my project has shifted and morphed. At the time the focus of my PhD was very different, and it’s possible, I realize now, that the talk was actually a first tentative step towards making this vital change.

But the point is this: during a frantic bout of email correspondence with my colleagues about how best to structure the two-hour long session, the word “practice” came up a lot. I suggested, for instance, that one of the questions we might want to pose to the audience was about how we “practice” writing, which in turn prompted a great question from one colleague about “the current ubiquitous use of the word ‘practice’. What does this word really mean?” she wrote -  “I personally find it very discomfiting to use a word that blurs earlier distinctions between ‘labour’, ‘work’, ‘craft’, ‘artistry’, and ‘rehearsal’?”

These questions made me think then, and continue to make me think, of sport and physical activity. In particular - of course! - I think of swimming, which has become integrally linked to writing for me in recent years, as if one activity offsets or enhances the other, and about the futility of swimming laps, which is akin to the futility of writing words.

Of course neither swimming nor writing is actually futile, but neither action is guaranteed to bring me any result other than the immediate result, which is a kind of satisfaction - and that has to be satisfaction enough, whatever else happens. Even when you feel you’ve made a breakthrough, there’s still someone next to you who’s faster, more efficient, more elegant; there’s still someone else whose words you admire much more than your own. 

I’ve quoted this frequently, but it bears repeating: the journalist Mark Rowlands, writing about running and identifying the feeling of “running simply to run” -

This experience is found in other sports too: an absorption in the deed and not the goal; the activity and not the outcome. This is play in its purest form.

Hence practice - that ubiquitous, sometimes discomfiting word - becomes a form of play. Perhaps. And perhaps playfulness with words can liven up text, breathe life into it, give it a kind of agency of its own.

Water drawing

To draw. To draw breath. To draw a line. To draw a connection.


When I was twelve a coach remarked I had a ‘feel’ for the water. After basking in the attention for a moment, I understood exactly what he meant. I still do. It’s a knowledge of watery space, being able to sense exactly where my body is and what it’s affecting, an animal empathy for contact with an element - the springing shudder a cat makes when you touch its back. When I’m dry I bump into things, stub toes, miss stairs. I prefer the horizontal, feet up, legs folded over armrests, head propped sideways on my elbow.

I don’t understand how to really draw until a teacher says, ‘Imagine you are running your hand over the surface of what you are drawing.’

- Leanne Shapton, Swimming Studies (pp 210-211)


Here, geography is understood as earth (geo-) drawing (-graphe), that is, a description of the earth and human experience of it, considering issues of orientation, spatial relationship and the character of places. 'Sensuous geography' therefore refers to a study of the geographical understanding which arises out of the stimulation of, or apprehension by, the senses. This is both an individual and a social geography, a physical and a cultural geography.

- Paul Rodaway, Sensuous Geographies (p 5)


I loved drills best, when I could feel the water in centimeters and so understood how tiny adjustments and angles added up and propelled my body more efficiently. We’d move slowly up and down the pool, sculling with only our hands and wrists, or swim backstroke pointing to the ceiling with one hand and pausing for the other hand to catch up. I liked the idea of bodies as hydrodynamic, the eddies and ripples, the repetition, the needlepoints of swimming.

- Leanne Shapton, Swimming Studies (p 9)


Touch literally concerns contact between person and world. It is participation, passive and active, and not mere juxtaposition. The haptic system gives us the ability to discriminate key characteristics of the environment and our place as a separate entity in that environment or world, but it is not just a physical relationship, it is also an emotional bond between ourself and our world. Touch is a kind of communication between person and world, a corporeal situation rather than a cognitive positioning. The gentle touch is always more effective than mere words. Touch is direct and intimate, and perhaps the most truthful sense.

- Paul Rodaway, Sensuous Geographies (p 44)


In water, most of the communication is physical. I like being so close to strangers’ bodies, seeing their clumsiness and vulnerability.

- Leanne Shapton, Swimming Studies (p 296)


To draw a connection: 

Swimming is a form of correspondence - between body and world, self and environment, body and body. “A kind of communication between person and world.” Like drawing (“imagine you are running your hand over the surface…”). Like writing, even, which is a physical as well as an intellectual act. A form of labour: “in the ‘work’ of writing, the page becomes a personally invested space, a site to be both revered and feared, one of daily practice and struggle” (Dydia DeLyser and Harriet Hawkins, 2014, p 2). Here, too, there’s a connection between the “work” of writing and the “work” of swimming, the work done in the pool and the daily practice and struggle there: the pool, like the page, becomes a site to be “both revered and feared”.


 ”Correspondence is neither given nor achieved, but always in the making […] Wherever you find them, humans are humaning. That is to say, they are corresponding – as letter writers do, scribing their thoughts and feelings, waiting for answers – living lives that weave around one another along ever-extending ways” (Tim Ingold, 2014, pp 389-390).

On the pool as container

I’ve been thinking lately of the pool as a site for encounters with - not mortality, exactly, but with something like it: encounters with my understanding of the limits of my own body. A site for developing a relationship with that understanding, either by directly changing the limits of the body or adjusting my expectations. Why is she swimming faster than me? Why can’t I do that? - thoughts that serve as a balance or a temper to the sort of smug feeling of knowing I’m faster than someone else in my lane, or in the lane over, or that I’m faster than I was yesterday, or last year. It’s a continually bolstering and humbling experience, being in the pool: I fluctuate between confidence and despair, and like waves contained in a pool, rolling across the surface, gentle, never breaking, symmetrical, the thoughts flow: I can, I can’t, I can, I can’t; I do, I don’t, I do, I don’t; I am, I’m not, I am, I’m not; I have control, I don’t have control, I have control, I don’t have control; I’m made for this, I’m not made for this, I’m made for this, I’m not made for this; I’m young, I’m old, I’m young, I’m old, I’m fast, I’m slow, I’m fast, I’m slow.

What the pool contains is the possibility for a measurement of worth, which is actually impossible to measure. Perhaps when we swim we are trying to measure ourselves, to quantify ourselves, to decide once and for all if we’re worthy, to see how we square up. The tame environment of the pool, then, is deceptive: true there are no dark fishy shapes swarming below us in the clear, chlorinated water; true there are no waves except those pushed towards us by other solipsistic swimmers; true there are no currents except the ones we create, no poison, no scrums, no unplumbed depths, but we are still doing a form of battle with something relatively elemental: the self, facing its self, saying, well, come on then, why can’t I do that? Could I do that if I tried harder? Am I just not built that way? Should I give up and go home? Should I do the brave thing: stay anyway, even if I’m never going to be able to do that? It’s a pretty pathetic form of bravery, but that doesn’t always make it any easier.

So there’s a wildness in the rigidity and discipline and structure of the pool. A lot of the experience of swimming in the pool has to do with boundaries, which reinforces this idea of the container, of something with edges, of something that has a within and an outside of. There’s a frontier of sorts. I’m not sure it’s always architecturally-based or physically evident - sometimes the experience of the pool begins elsewhere, sometimes the pool is porous, letting in thoughts from elsewhere and elsewhen, less a point on the map than a fuzzy-edged chunk of time - but certainly, somewhere along the way, you cross a line and enter the pool: whether it’s when you drop into the water and submerge your head, or when you cross the threshold of the leisure centre, or when you wake in the morning and think to yourself, sleepily, I’m going to the pool shortly, I mustn’t forget that I left my suit to dry on the edge of the bathtub last night.

Roger Deakin puts it this way: “Swimming is a rite of passage, a crossing of boundaries: the line of the shore, the bank of the river, the edge of the pool, the surface itself. When you enter the water, something like metamorphosis happens. Leaving behind the land, you go through the looking-glass surface and enter a new world.” In this sense the “place” of the pool is both external and internal, physical and experiential, enclosed (physically/architecturally) and open (mentally/experientially); it is both “the pool”, a building, a site, and “the pool”, a state of mind, a haunt, an hour, an abstraction, a physical action. Its beauty, then, may be in the way it balances all this, provides a site where one can find, or chase, a state of being which is neither fully one thing or the other; in water and air, floating but submerged. The body is cradled, though it flirts with discomfort: it’s contained, it can’t stray, it is - as far as the body ever can be, especially when it’s in a dangerous environment - safe, while the mind is free, to an extent, to wander - I think of the narrator of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming Pool Library, doing his laps: “My mind would count its daily fifty lengths as automatically as a photocopier; and at the same time it would wander”, and then Thomas A P Van Leeuwen, in his history of the private swimming pool, astutely observing how the architecture of the pool corresponds to its use: “While the pool allows, even invites, intellectual wanderings, at the same time it prevents the wanderer from losing his way. [..] The container encloses but also retains, holds together, and keeps from spilling. While stirring the imagination, it also prevents it from rambling; the container both kindles and quenches.”

And within the pool, too, are lines - so we’re not just drawing lines around it, but also within it. Lane lines, for instance. For awhile a year or two ago I was waking up or going to bed with a tender, pale bluish bruise on my left hand, in the fleshy spot between thumb and forefinger. I didn’t know what had caused it; I don’t bruise especially easily but I’m spatially unaware enough to crash into things on a regular basis without it being notable, and I chalked it up to clumsiness. But then one day, while swimming, I suddenly understood: when I swim in lanes that go clockwise, I sometimes smack my left hand on the lane lines, as if I can’t quite gauge distance on my left side in this situation, and indeed I naturally prefer to swim counter-clockwise. And the fleshy spot between thumb and forefinger was where I was hitting the plastic lane lines, and the bruise was a marker of this: a mark of my accidental attempted transgression, my running up against a barrier and being unable to cross. So I am disciplined by the pool; perhaps when I am not disciplined enough on my own it intervenes, as it were, reminds me to pay more careful attention to my form, to the positioning of my body in place, to increase my spatial awareness - to temper my wandering thoughts, not let them wander so far that my body is tempted to follow them out into the ether. Preventing the wanderer from losing his way.

On swimming and vulnerability

Lap swimming is an activity conducted within a regulatory system of rules and conventions (lane etiquette, uniform dress, constant surveillance by lifeguards and CCTV cameras) designed to protect participants, preserve order and anonymity. It’s also an instance of rigid discipline butting up against something wilder or undisciplined. Even in that ordered, controlled setting, the nearly-naked form of the swimmer, moving through the elemental form of water, calls to mind some baser state or instinct; as Roger Deakin puts it: “When you swim, you feel your body for what it mostly is – water – and it begins to move with the water around it. No wonder we feel such sympathy for beached whales; we are beached at birth ourselves. To swim is to experience how it was before you were born.”

Deakin was writing primarily about wild swimming, outdoors and in nature, but his sentiments can also, I think, be applied to the more confined environment of the pool; swimming in a pool, the researcher Thomas A P Van Leeuwen points out, is “a complex and curious activity, one that oscillates between joy and fear, between domination and submission”. It’s an activity uniquely suited to highlighting both the abilities and inabilities of the human body, for the swimmer is both transcending and slave to his own limitations, floating and breathing but constantly aware of the unnaturalness of swimming, the need, for instance, to move the mouth out of water in order to breathe, to move the body in such a particular way in order to float - these things require conscious effort, as if the body is overcoming a natural inclination to sink, to drown.

“Breathing is hampered as we swim,” writes Damon Young:

"water compresses the chest, making it more difficult to inhale… blood pools in the lungs, leaving less room for oxygen…in a matter of minutes we suffer what researchers call “inspiratory fatigue”…our muscles become weaker or slower, and have more trouble co-ordinating. And when swimming, we are also using more muscle groups…Stomach, chest, upper and lower back, shoulders, biceps and triceps, and the upper and lower legs, including the feet: all working in a co-ordinated and continuous way to keep the swimmer from stopping and sinking. Put simply, even the local pool can suggest danger, by highlighting the continual effort required simply to keep our head above water. Swimming, whether in salt water or chlorine, evokes the sublime by revealing just how vulnerable we are."