On Swimming as a Cultural Form

David Hockney, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), 1971

Bet you thought swimming was a form of exercise. That it is, and a good one too. It works all the muscles simultaneously, stretches heart and lungs and (poorly-executed dives aside) is impact-free. How it might be a form of cultural expression is less clear, but only according to how narrowly the term ‘culture’ is interpreted.

In Culture Shock, a recent paper from think tank Demos, author Samuel Jones dissects the meaning of the term ‘culture’, and argues for a re-evaluation of the state’s role in relation to it. The paper has been written at a time when the Department for Culture Media and Sport, already one of the smallest departments, is facing a severely curtailed budget, as well as a time of political upheaval: the new administration’s focus is on society by participation rather than dictation. In line with that, a more sophisticated (but less elitist) understanding of what we might mean by that word culture, and therefore what the supporting policy needs are, would be well-timed.

The debate here has often been reductive, simply arguing for and against ‘funding cuts for the arts’, wondering ‘will the philanthropists step in?’ etc. But we’re missing the much longer-term point. Culture, as a social continuum, is not something that will suddenly cease to exist if some of its institutions are no longer subsidized (although that would undoubtedly have an effect on some qualities of culture). A focus on the institutions is limiting and prescriptive. More than just visiting museums and art galleries; culture encompasses our common social practices, that by which we leave our mark for future generations to inherit and interpret.

That includes many varied things. It includes one of my friends’ participation in a netball league. It includes the hundreds of open-mic nights and backroom gigs I have attended in support of another. It includes the fact that I am enabled to write and publish this. All of the above make an interesting and telling historical tapestry of 21st century ‘culture’.

So back to swimming. What does it signify that today, in Britain, I would squeeze into 90 minutes in between work and whatever other activity I have planned for the evening, a regimented and solitary recital of lengths in my local, council-run swimming pool? The fact that I do so is motivated partially by the desire for self-improvement and anxiety about an otherwise sedentary day. And it is a solitary activity, but one nonetheless shared with other swimmers.

At another time, or in another place, partaking in an activity of central importance to a community, I might have spent an entire morning roving between rooms and pools of different temperatures, focussed partly on the corporeal, partly on the cerebral – perhaps talking with other bathers, or even playing chess. My goal may still have been the improvement of the mind and body, but in a much more approximate way, one that we might not even recognise today.

A different context again: I have a friend who lives by the mediterranean and swims every afternoon, following a hot and manic lunchtime bar-shift. The idea of swimming indoors in chlorinated water is bizarre, and untenable, to his mind. Not because it wouldn’t be exercise, but because it would signify some very different things. Swimming for him is rarely social, it is about a long-standing connection with the place he lives. I would be far too scared, but he has no qualms about duck-diving to the seaweedy depths, out of light and sight, and reappearing with some little artefact of marine life.

By comparison, my option, on the face of it, sounds dull and impoverished. But often when I’m ploughing up and down I hold many of these other possibilities in my head, not least because there is something about the insulating and introverting effect of being underwater, in a semi-weightless medium, that puts the mind to work in different ways. Imagination is integral to swimming, bodily and mental states are linked. For me, there is something of the romantic about it because of these connotations; it is a deeply significant activity. Wherever I am in the world, I’ll be the first into the water because the opportunity to swim represents the opportunity to tack on another layer to my own personal history. It is also often a re-enactment of something. There is an element of ritual: each new venturing into the sea represents a tiny re-conquering of some childhood fear.

Arguably I am lucky to be able to make some of these mental connections: not everyone has had the opportunity to visit Vals (the top trumps of spas). But the fascination with swimming all started with lessons at the local leisure centre, or playing mermaids with one of my friends on a Saturday afternoon, and perhaps a bit of basic primary school history (‘what the Romans did’).

I have also recently discovered I am not alone in taking swimming as more complex than pure exercise. This should be no great surprise, given the cultural significance of other sports – football being the obvious one. But the solitude of swimming renders it a slightly different psychological vehicle. It has in fact been the subject of psychoanalytical musing by greater thinkers than me, very neatly summarised in a recent Radio 3 feature on the meaning of swimming. This programme referenced a rather odd but intriguing film starring Burt Lancaster called ‘The Swimmer’, based on a short story of the same name. The story equates one man’s attempt to swim home, leapfrogging through the chain of backyard pools of his Californian neighbours, to his ultimate psychological unravelling.

The programme also discussed writers and poets, and such record holders as Martin ‘Big River Man’ Strel – who recently swam the length of the Amazon in 66 days; and long before him, Captain Matthew Webb, whose most daring stunt dive – into Niagara Falls – turned out to be his last. As with any physical feat, it is interesting to imagine what motivated these men. Is there any thread linking their exploits and what drives me to Kentish Town Baths on a Monday night?

Culture, then, is the things that we do and the values we attach to them. Cultures can be personal or collective. They are what makes life meaningful and hopefully more pleasant. I am not arguing that everyone should learn to swim (although it does come in useful). But, as with the fact that someone had the money and inclination to refurbish Kentish Town Baths, thus making them a pleasant and affordable place to swim, the role of the state and policy is in supporting our capabilities to participate in ways that we find meaningful. And that, far from being relegated to the underfunded DCMS, should be of concern to all government departments.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “On Swimming as a Cultural Form

  1. Jennie Inskip

    Hi Joss…. having just returned home from swimming I was delighted to return home and find your latest piece! Some of what you said sums up perfectly my thoughts/state of being whilst ploughing (well, maybe ‘ploughing is too strong a word here for me!) up and down. Oh, and by the way, I (not you!) am always the first in the pool/sea when away!

  2. Such a pleasure to read, but not sure that swimming is culture on the basis that it’s a shared activity. So is riding the rush-hour tube or exercising in a prison yard. Well, maybe it’s all culture. But I say to you, what about fish? They swim a lot! Now, is that their culture? ;) H

  3. Johann

    Dear Joss. Im an architectural student busy with my masters dissertation. The thesis deals with the act of swimming as a cultural form, closely related to memory and imagination. the radio 3 link is not available. Any other links relating to these subjects would be smashing. Really enjoyed your article though, you shall be quoted.

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