A Half-arsed Cultural Critic
Dips A Toe
Penguins do it, fish do it, even educated beavers do it. Let’s do it. Let’s Wild Swim. Every literary generation needs a subject and for ours – beset with a housing crisis, the death of liberalism and impending global ruin – the obvious subject was jumping in ponds. 90% of books published in the UK last year have the word ‘swimming’ in the title, and the 2020 Booker Prize will be the first to feature an underwater synchronised novel-writing contest. What the Spanish Civil War was to the Auden generation, so the Quaggy in Lewisham is to ours.
Ever alert to trends, this column squeezed itself into Speedos and water wings and toddled to its nearest watering hole, ready to immerse itself in the times.
When we arrived at our local lagoon, things were not as we’d hoped. The NO SWIMMING sign had been removed, replaced with one saying TUSSOCKS POND WELCOMES CAREFUL POETS, and try as we might, we couldn’t make out the water. There were queues of shivering and spindly essayists: a herd of memoirists had stumbled blindly into the sound sculptor’s enclosure, creating a fracas; and there was a skirmish brewing between Radio 4 and Sky Arts over by the bins. A former ice-cream van had been hastily repurposed as a high-end stationer selling Mont Blanc pens, creamy white notebooks, tote bags and Slush Puppies to line after line of goose-pimpled wordsmiths. Struggling through the mass of scribbling bodies we reached the water and found it crammed with fresh young bright young powerful young voices, up to their waists moleskins clutched to their damp chests as they rushed to put their insight to the page. From out of the melee voices could be heard intoning ‘stillness’, ‘the body’ and ‘fundamentally at one with the natural world’.
‘Please don’t make me go in there,’ begged one novelist. ‘It’s cold and I have a verruca. Can’t I just write a saga? People like sagas.’
‘People... like… swimming,’ said his agent, pulling a diamond studded revolver from her handbag (Osprey £145).
This wasn’t an exception. In recent months several budding authors have drowned after being forced into reservoirs and gullies by unscrupulous zeitgeist-aware publishers. At the furthest edge of the melee we stumbled across Photogenica Moneyshire, whose debut novel Migrant Song was a powerful fictionalisation of her move from Hackney to Margate. At the age of 22, Photogenica had the book scrum at her feet. But nemesis was to follow.
‘Vogue wanted to photograph me jumping in a river,’ she told us, through mouthfuls of cherry Slush Puppy. ‘That’s when I had to tell them I couldn’t swim.’ No longer the voice of her generation, Photogenica was made to return her prizes and write a personal apology note to the staff of The White Review. Now a broken husk in a cossie (Agent Provocateur, £225), she has no idea what to write next. ‘I tried just wandering about and including photos of De Beauvoir and Walter Benjamin but nobody wanted to know. I’m even considering getting into crofting. At this rate I’ll be reduced to writing a million-dollar TV show for Netflix and I’ll never be able to show my face in the LRB cakeshop again.’
In a neighbouring field we found Tom Marston, the northern writer, wearing a northern Peaky Blinders cap and a tasteful northern thong (La Perla, £95). ‘I remember when all you got here was old blokes fishing,’ he said. ‘Every so often they’d drag up a bloated three-week drowned corpse who’d jumped in ’cos of the shame of an out of wedlock birth. That was before the place was ruined.’ He spat, authentically and adjusted his high-end thong. ‘Yes, this area has proper changed since me and Vanessa moved into the old vicarage. You can’t move for personal essayists these days. People want to feel the, er, the autochthonous and chthonic power of the land. That’s what I reckon anyway. Cos of Brexit or something. You’ll mention my cap, will you? It’s important. Also, I’m not a Nazi. I’m definitely not a Nazi.’
As we left the pond, a pike was seen in the Faber section of the waters, causing an outbreak of free verse in the shallow area. And with floods set to devastate the country, we can guarantee the tables of Waterstones will be soggy for years to come. Writers will be making a splash, diving deep into the human soul, er, paddling (That’s enough swimming metaphors – ed.)
It’s going to be… wild.