Swim­ming with Seals

The Guardian - Review - - Non-fiction - Rose Ge­orge

by Vic­to­ria Whit­worth (£7.99, Head of Zeus)

Vic­to­ria Whit­worth, a medieval his­to­rian, swam first with the Po­lar Bears cold-wa­ter swim­ming club of Orkney, but her re­newal comes from re­turn­ing again and again to the cold sea, and go­ing in alone and then not be­ing alone. Her com­pan­ions are the seals and se­abirds, but also the waves, and the peo­ple of the past. She writes beau­ti­fully of selkies and mer­maids; of Hans Chris­tian An­der­sen’s “The Lit­tle Mer­maid”, not a sweet ro­mance but the bru­tal­i­sa­tion of a young fe­male whose voice is cut from her – as if the loss of her tail, and walk­ing on feet that feel like ra­zors, is not enough. Plan­tar fasci­itis, a pain­ful foot con­di­tion, pushed Whit­worth to swim, but so did a troubled marriage. It is a push that be­comes a pull, with swim af­ter swim, in colder and colder wa­ter. Af­ter a few weeks, she is stand­ing taller, her body un­crum­pling. “Longdis­used nerves and mus­cles stretch and furl in the dark, reach­ing af­ter sun­light, oxy­gen, wa­ter.” She re­alises that “I do not know any­one who has started sea swim­ming and then given it up.”

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