REVIEW by Jane MacNamee

NWR Issue r28

Floating: A Return to Waterlog

by Joe Minihane

Roger Deakin’s Waterlog, A Swimmer’s Journey through Britain, an enchanting account of his swimming journey through Britain, has been an irresistible invitation to the water’s edge since its first publication in 1999.

As we are made up mostly of water, Deakin suggests that we have a strong natural affinity with it. As a symbolic rite of passage, a crossing of boundaries, we are drawn intuitively to get in and swim, entering ‘a new world, in which survival, not ambition or desire, is the dominant aim.’ Joe Minihane is hooked instantly. Finding Waterlog and fleeting moments of joy whilst swimming in the mixed pond at Hampstead Heath one summer in 2010, are turning points in his angst-ridden life. ‘Years of anxiety,’ he writes, ‘had made me an expert at making imaginary mountains out of non-existent molehills. “What ifs?” were my forte.’

The opening pages of Floating are a heartfelt account of the painful symptoms snapping at the author’s heels most aggressively in the past year since he left his job as a journalist to go freelance: insomnia, obsessive worrying and low self-esteem compounded by a sense of isolation and failure. Added to that is the guilt he feels for his self-absorption when he has such a loving and supportive partner, Keeley, at home.

He wants to try (too hard at times) to change, and finds a glimmer of hope in Deakin’s Waterlog, which sparks the idea to re-enact the journey, twenty years on. It will test his physical stamina, take him on long distances from the Isles of Scilly to Jura and at the same time, teach him to be still, to float. He believes that floating or the ability to live in the moment, together with his adoptive mentor’s conviction that ‘natural water has always had the magical power to cure,’ hold the keys to his freedom from the misery of debilitating anxiety and ‘burgeoning depression’.

His story, part homage to Roger Deakin, is primarily a journey of self-discovery, using Waterlog as his conduit, and abandoning any hope of ever comprehending an OS map. Unlike his predecessor’s cartographic enthusiasm and naturalist’s wide-eyed excitement at discovering something new, Minihane’s chronic anxiety immediately sabotages any chance of personal liberation. It turns an adventure into a goal, targeted ‘just so’ through a series of colour-coded spreadsheets and uncomfortably tight deadlines. His initial approach, typical of the tick-box generation, only serves to heighten his anxiety, curbs spontaneity and leads him occasionally into churlish rants about Deakin’s ‘romantic mindset’ when he finds places that do not quite match up to Waterlog’s impression.

Reminding himself that he is not following a guidebook or an environmental manifesto, but one man’s idiosyncratic journey, he turns back to the matter in hand: learning to let go of interminable worry and face up to his fears. Given the scale of the problem, extending back to his childhood, his frankness and determination to persist even when terrified, is both laudable and endearing. Like his friends and family, the reader is there in spirit at the shoreline, cheering him on when he strikes out bravely beyond the safer swimming spots bound by the M25. We celebrate with him as he dives into Britain’s frequently icy seas, rivers and lakes, to re-surface ‘skin alight’ in a rush of adrenalin, exuberant and free.

The pivotal moment when he breaks his wrist and is temporarily unable to swim, puts his anxiety into sharper focus. Acknowledging that he needs more than the quick fix of swimming or a book, he seeks professional help. Therapy does not cure him (he frets throughout about what he will do when the swimming journey is over) but alleviates the anxiety by his acceptance of it. He starts to live more fully in the present and recognises that nurturing close friendships is one of the most significant changes he can make as he emerges from the ‘lonely shell’ of his solitary working life.

The times he spends sharing his adventure with friends and family are some of the richest and most joyful episodes in the book, forging real and meaningful connections, some new, others rekindled, and all in the common spirit of the ‘swimming revolution’ Deakin dreamt of. And, of course, the benign presence of Deakin is there throughout, felt most profoundly in Parliament Hill Lido when Minihane experiences the same ‘state of grace’ in a solo swim, or in the magic of Llyn Cwm Bychan in north Wales and finally, in the moat at Deakin’s Walnut Tree Farm in Suffolk, where he lived and swam up until his all too early death in 2006.

It was Deakin who said before he set out in the 1990s, that more of us are living in a world which is signposted and officially interpreted, ‘turning the reality of things into a virtual reality’. It is why, he continued, swimming, walking and cycling would always be subversive activities, ‘breaking free of the official version of things.’ Having grown up with ‘virtual reality’ framed by social media, Minihane lacks Deakin’s natural confidence and familiarity with life ‘off the beaten track’ or his ‘insouciant trespassing bug’, but he is bold enough to test the boundaries. Inspired by limitless possibilities, he resolves to continue on his own version of the ‘watery pilgrimage’, long after the actual swimming journey has come to an end, learning above all to simply be himself: ‘I would swim on and follow Roger, not because I wanted to emulate him, not because of any vain hope it might cure me, but because I loved it.’

Reference: Roger Deakin, Waterlog, A Swimmer’s Journey through Britain (Chatto & Windus, 1999).

Jane MacNamee is a freelance writer and editor living in Aberystwyth. She has written articles and book reviews, on nature, landscape, food and travel, for a variety of publications, including New Welsh Review, Resurgence & Ecologist, The Great Outdoors, BBC History, BBC Countryfile and LandScape. She is currently working on her first book.


previous review: Salacia, The Museum of Truth & Ling di Long
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