JOE KENELM reviews the essay collection At the Pond: Swimming at the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond by Esther Freud, Margaret Drabble, and Sophie Mackintosh. 

‘When I tell people I love swimming in the Ladies’ Pond there are two reactions,’ writes Deborah Moggach in At the Pond, a collection of 14 essays by Daunt Books on the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond.The first: “Ugh, isn’t it muddy/dangerous/cold?” The other is, ‘How wonderful, lucky old you.”’ It is a good observation. Members of the Serpentine Swimming Club are frequently subject to long and mystified stares, bemused exclamation, or even incredulous photography. On the other hand, I was recently addressed as I changed out of my bathing suit by a passing jogger—‘So you can swim in there?’ On being assured that was indeed the case, he promptly took off his shirt and barrelled into the green water.

In At the Pond, the treatment of the Kenwood Ladies’ Pond is as diverse as the essayists’ degree of comfort in the water. Nina Mingya Powles remembers her nomadic childhood, asking ‘where is the place your body is anchored? Which body of water is yours?’ Though it crops up only briefly in the essay, the Ladies’ Pond, ‘a sacred part of many women’s lives’, becomes a part of Powles’s as well. It anchors her, even as the action of moving with the water becomes a shifting prism through which to consider her own past: she gives a copy of her first poetry book to her Chinese grandmother, who ‘mouths the title slowly…“Drift,” she said, “What is drift?”’ Many of the essays drift, moving on or close to the surface of the water. Like Powles, the writers struggle to ‘see more than a few inches underwater.’ The tragedies, traumas, and joys of urban life play out upon the glassy surface. Sharlene Teo, ‘preoccupied to the point of anguish with trying to stay in England,’ clambers out of the pond ‘ungracefully’, ‘in a hurry’, eager to find her way home. She skates over the pond, as if it wears its winter covering of ice.

When the green depths of the water do well up in the essayists’ imagination, they are often profoundly anaesthetising. Amy Key, approaching her fortieth birthday, promises herself she would swim in every body of water she encounters during that year. In a pool in Thailand, she has ‘one of those moments of thought that you feel might change you forever: I would never be loved in the body I am in by someone I could trust with it.’ But at the Ladies’ Pond she experiences the ‘lush minerality of the water, the tender weediness I swam toward, the ducklings skirting the edge’. Key arrives at a clarity and wholeness of experience which she has otherwise strived for in vain. ‘This,’ she writes simply, ‘was pleasure.’ Likewise, as Ava Wong Davies swims, she does not think about anything ‘aside from the water on [her] skin.’ Later, at home, she ignores the pre-wedding busyness and dreams of the ‘mud rising between her toes’. Her recently-ended relationship is, finally, parenthesised: a grammatical and hierarchical deferral of her trauma to the palliative sensations of the pond: ‘(I can still feel the stone in my chest but I think it’s OK that it’s there)’.

In her wonderful essay, Jessica J. Lee describes a mottled slice of oak trunk which sat beside the pond at one time. ‘Dendrochronology,’ writes Lee, ‘is a method of dating trees by their rings, of matching the circular bands of a tree’s growth with the steady unfurling of time, year on year.’ External conditions such as storms and droughts are rendered in the tones and width of the bands in the wood; as are certain historical events, the ‘spoils of war written into the wood, bomb explosions marking scorched rings into the timeline.’ The piece of oak signifies differently for the various women at the pond; they run their fingernails over the rings, “This was the year I was evacuated during the Blitz,” one surmised…“This was the year I first came to the pond,” said another’. Mapping her experiences of swimming onto the rings in the heartwood, each stroke Lee makes in the water is marked by waves ‘written concentric on the pond…radiating towards the shore.’ Here, and in the collection as a whole, the Ladies’ Pond is figured as a series of myriad, rippling presences. The pond has a unique signification for each writer, and every disturbance of the water demands its very own dendrochronology.

Nell Frizzell’s essay opens with her sitting on her lifeguard’s canoe. ‘I look down at the shallow waters and see a shoal of roach flit past; their red fins and tail frills a thrill against the silt pond floor.’ It is one of the collection’s only accounts of life within the pond. Pike, crayfish, carp, water snakes, slow worms, ‘swimming about’, writes Frizzell in suggestive mock-outrage, ‘like they own the place.’ Conversely, Lou Stoppard recalls how New Yorkers react to the pond: ‘Are there eels? Fish? they ask. Yes, you reply. So it’s really just a pond, they say, keen for evidence of a bottom’. They gauge depth and grasp for something to call it, to know it by — an impulse shared by many of the essayists in this collection. Resisting this pond-knowable, Frizzell effects a memorable, and beautiful, inversion: ‘we’re not swimmers anymore, but astronauts; star sailors. We are floating through a silky, thick black as bottomless as the night sky.’

In The Living Mountain, Nan Shepherd figures a painting as the underside of ‘covering ice on a frozen burn.’ The ‘lovely pattern of fluted indentations…arched and chiselled,’ is the ‘obverse of the water’s surface’. The ice-painting is a cast of the water-landscape. Crests are seen as clefts, troughs are molded into peaks, and, in turn, the hardened ice channels the undulations on the surface of the water: a contrapuntal interaction of subject and form. The front cover of the collection features a watercolour of the pond, the reflections of the enshrouding trees and shrubbery stretching down into the water. Speaking to the difficulty of reflections on the pond (of all kinds), it is not immediately clear where the water ends and the trees begin. Something like this underpins a passage from The White Peacock by D.H. Lawrence, quoted by Stoppard in her essay: 

The water was icily cold, and for a moment deprived me of my senses. When I began to swim, soon the water was buoyant. And I was sensible of nothing but the vigorous action of poetry. 

‘To swim’, writes Stoppard, ‘is to meditate — that’s what he’s saying.’ To meditate, yes, but also to mediate. As the narrator swims, the water becomes buoyant. Both water and swimmer are transformed: a shimmering copresence, nothing short of poetry.

“At the Pond: Swimming at the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond” was published by Daunt Books on 20 June 2019.

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