There is something pure and empowering about swimming. It’s no coincidence that most religions have purification rituals involving immersion in water. Is it taking things too far to suggest the redemptive feeling of moving about freely in liquid stems from some deeply lodged memory of being ensconced in the amniotic sac, or the genes we have inherited from our coelacanth-like ancestors? Yes, to be honest, and why intellectualise something that is inherently visceral?
This book of ‘before and after’ shots of clothed and swimsuited-up devotees of London Fields Lido is pleasingly devoid of psychobabble, or indeed babble of any kind. What it is full of is photographer Madeleine Waller’s excellent portraits, some of which are on show at this much loved outdoor pool. These images, particularly the ones that show steam rising off the water as it does on cold mornings, possess a raw power.
In his introduction to this book – a typically lovingly produced hardback offering from small publishers Hoxton Mini Press – Robert Crampton highlights the “sheer beauty of the environment that open-air swimming can provide”.
“Like cyclists,” he writes, “swimmers are, whatever their competence (slow, medium or fast lane), essentially united by the vulnerability of their shared near-nakedness.”
Sure, lack of clothes equals vulnerability, but I’ve come across pensioners who swim in the lido every day and who look like they have discovered the fount of eternal youth. This book contains photos of swimmers fresh out of the pool and standing in the freezing snow, glaring defiantly in the face of the bitterly cold weather.
I’m far from a regular at the lido, but I have occasionally swum there in the deep midwinter, and I can confidently proclaim that the combination of swimming and bracingly cold weather leaves one feeling virtually invincible. As you haul yourself out of the water, you hardly feel vulnerable. Rather, you feel capable of conquering the world.