Freelance life is not easy, finds journalist Joe Minihane. Following in the footsteps of the late nature writer Roger Deakin, he finds respite from anxieties in wild swimming. Floating chronicles Minihane’s travels around Britain, swimming in each of the locations from Deakin’s classic Waterlog. It’s a gentle, warm and life-affirming journey, celebrating the therapeutic joy found in swimming outdoors.
I could date the swell of anxiety I was struggling with almost to the day. When I was a postgraduate student, studying journalism and readying myself for the brave, terrifying world of career and adult life I made a pact with myself. By the time I was twenty-seven, I would be a freelance journalist. I would be my own boss, I would answer only to myself and my life would be perfect.
I achieved my goal six months after my twenty-seventh birthday, after five years of writing for magazines and websites about topics as diverse as poker, cars and technology, none of which held any particular appeal for me. On my first day working for myself I started work at ten in the morning and was in the pub by two. I thought that I had gamed the system, cheated my way out of a day-to-day existence of which I had grown weary. I looked at myself as a happy retiree, forty years ahead of schedule.
What I soon discovered was that I derived all my self-worth and my self-esteem from my work. I didn’t like the work I had to do to get paid. At first, hacking out news stories and writing puff pieces about everything from car adverts to an Asian tech company’s latest 3D telly didn’t matter, because I was my own boss and had time to do something new and exciting, whatever that was. But rather than seizing the opportunity to do something for myself, to take my career and my life in new and interesting directions, I froze. The boundaries between work and home had blurred to the point where I couldn’t separate them any more. I wanted to work for myself, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do beyond journalism. I’d never given it any thought.
My anxiety manifested itself as inertia. And inertia came through comparison. Comparison with peers, comparison with journalists, editors and writers that I believed I could never hope to be as good as. Social media is both your best friend and your worst enemy when you work from home and spend most of your time alone. I began to trawl news feeds and read articles I wished I had written and look at people I knew professionally on Facebook and Twitter with an endless sense of envy, coupled with the feeling that I could never, ever measure up.
In swimming, I found the only thing that truly broke me out of my anxious cycle for longer than a few moments. There was a long, deep burn of satisfaction and calm that followed in the wake of my bow wave. So I swam to fix myself, to cure myself and to make myself a better person in my own eyes. In the water there was nothing. My mind was empty and I floated without thinking. I could just be, without perceived judgement.
That first swimming summer was beginning to taper off, but my willingness to paddle on until the cloak of winter wrapped itself over London led me to investigate more about wild swimming and its benefits.
I began buying guidebooks and scouring the web for information on heated pools, hidden river swims and like-minded swimmers.
It was on one such search that I discovered the name of Roger Deakin. Deakin’s Waterlog kept cropping up again and again, mentioned as a hallowed text for those looking to eschew the echo chamber of the indoor pool for something more visceral. I tracked down a copy and devoured it in a two-day session, imagining myself swimming in all of the far-off destinations he visited: the sweeping bays of the Isles of Scilly; the roaring of the Gulf of Corryvreckan; and the moat (really two ponds) which ran along the back and front of Walnut Tree Farm, his Elizabethan farmhouse in Suffolk.
Deakin, it seemed, was the archetypal English eccentric. He appeared to care little for what others thought of him and ploughed a singular furrow, swimming in lakes, rivers, streams and canals which he saw as representing a Britain that was fast disappearing in the late 1990s. He was a zoologist, a natural historian educated at Cambridge and a man with a deep and intimate knowledge of the British countryside.
This much I garnered from the 330 pages of Waterlog. But as much as Roger’s evocative writing about place, I found his musings on how swimming could affect life profound and helpful.
‘You see and experience things when you’re swimming in a way that is completely different from any other,’ he wrote. ‘You are in nature, part and parcel of it, in a far more complete and intense way than on dry land, and your sense of the present is overwhelming.’
This was the same survival instinct I had felt deeply in Hampstead mixed pond.
But more than that, it was Roger’s insistence that ‘water has always held the magical power to cure. … I can dive in with a long face and what feels like a terminal case of depression, and come out a whistling idiot’, that hit me hardest. It was as if those lines were written directly for my benefit, almost twenty years after they had first been written in Roger’s creaking home. If I had been interested before, I was obsessed now. I took up the concept of wild swimming with a religious zeal.