I went to the launch of this book a couple of weeks ago and was very impressed by Victoria Whitworth's presentation and the range of topics she covered in her talk. The book, which had its beginnings in a series of Facebook posts, is even more amazing.
Victoria Whitworth moved up to Orkney and found herself becoming more and more drawn to swimming in the sea, first with a group of local people (who call themselves the Polar Bears) and then increasingly by herself. She swims most days in all weathers. The book centres on her swimming experiences but expands to take in many other issues and topics without at any time becoming self indulgent or pretentious. Although the book is beautifully written, I never felt that the author was straining for self conscious poetic prose as some nature writers seem to do.
I am not a strong swimmer and would never be drawn to actually swimming in the northern seas in midwinter wearing nothing but a swimsuit. But Whitworth makes this experience appealing even to me! She is very aware of all the nature around her and is particularly drawn to the seals:
...there was a seal between me and the beach, maybe four yards from me. Usually they look startled and splash off, but this one - a small common seal - just swam steadily, watching me - I could count every whisker, see the whites of its eyes. Then it dived and surfaced a bit further away with a friend. They stayed about 30 feet away the whole time I was in the water, tracking my zigzags, watching me with hopeful puppy eyes. Young ones I think. Very curious as to what I was up to. The eider (duck)s kept up their gossipy chorus of disapproval throughout.
She talks about how swimming helped her cope with the death of her mother and the failure of her own marriage. She talks about church history (her own academic interest) and her not quite successful attempt to convert to Catholicism. She talks about the ancient history of the Orkney Islands, the ecology of the ocean, her childhood in Kenya and the connections between grief and depression. She mentions a lot of old poetry, particularly the long poem The Wanderer, written by an unknown poet, which she uses as a measure of people's evolving relationship with the sea. All the various themes are woven in together beautifully and make this a kaleidoscopic book that will probably turn out to be worth reading several times. As she says in the closing line of the book: Sea swimming, like having a finger on the pulse of the world.
Swimming with Seals by Victoria Whitworth published by Head of Zeus.
(It shouldn't be necessary to add that swimming in the cold northern seas is something not to be undertaken lightly, you need to be a strong swimmer and to understand the currents and sea floor of the beaches you swim on. Start by finding a group to swim with).