Caught by the River

At the Pond

9th June 2019

At the Pond: Swimming at the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond, soon to be published by Daunt Books, is a collection of essays capturing the pond from the perspective of fourteen contemporary writers. Jenny Landreth reviews.

There is a reason that areas of water are called bodies. Without wishing to sound like an advert for homeopathy, bodies contain memories, and water contains memories. At The Pond is a collection of memories about a particular and venerable body – the Kenwood Ladies’ Pond on Hampstead Heath.  Each piece is autobiographical (if I was smug, I’d say ‘waterbiographical’, because I’m so pleased with myself for that phrase), and the writers a mix of young and old, much like the swimmers at the ponds. Everything reflects. Sometimes that mix in a collection can feel like publishers bartering with readers, but here, for every writer I already liked (Nell Frizzell, Jessica J. Lee, Leanne Shapton), I was rewarded with a great new-to-me find (Amy Key, Ava Wong Davies, Sharlene Teo). Each of the stories is like a swim – none will be regretted, and none can be ‘wrong’. 

There’s a school of swimming writing that I just don’t get on with. That over-lyrical, exclusively introspective, hard-to-grab writing…it’s not for me. I’m happy to report that this collection has none of that; perhaps the editor shares my sensibilities. That’s not to say it has no poetry – it has lots, because being on Hampstead Heath and in that water with all its meaning, poetry would be hard to avoid.  But these are condensed pieces, and in their dense form there’s no room for anything extraneous or wafty. There’s a ringing clarity, like the most purposeful swim. And also, there’s the kind of poetry I love, found in prosaic things like bus routes and mobile phones and in the way old cucumber goes mushy inside its shrink wrap. The book’s writers might repeat the words ‘magical’ and ‘miracle’ like a chime, but they are strongly rooted in real life. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this is what immersion in cold dark water does for story. It’s hard to avoid metaphors about ripples. Everything reflects, again. 

At The Pond is divided into seasons, starting with the bleakest winter, when the water is at its most shocking. It’s bold to start here, readers and swimmers not yet acclimatised. There’s practical info in these first stories, but introspection too, which is, after all, what swimming forces us to do.  What surprised me, given that, was how I kept finding myself in other people’s reflections. When Esther Freud, in the opening piece, wrote ‘for now at least you don’t have to go in again’, I got the flash of recognition, a delighted ‘I feel that!’ (It is ridiculous, isn’t it, getting a sense of relief when you’ve finished doing the thing you’ve entirely chosen to do.) Lou Stoppard describing herself in her swimsuit as ‘choreographing nonchalance’ – that’s me, with my humble-brags about not being wet-suited. Sophie Mackintosh, addicted to her phone – yup.  Deborah Moggach declaring ‘that pond saved my sanity’ – hello again. In so many of the stories, there I was. If we find ourselves through the act of swimming, we can also find ourselves in the writing about swimming, it turns out. 

When I’m 80 I’ll still be looking for myself in the water, and in the writing. The octogenarians are definitely still there at the pond, they form a continuum in this book. Everyone notices the strength of their bodies, everyone aspires (OK, I aspire) to be one of these ‘shining older women’. There’s so much of the body here; one of the commonly-expressed ideas is how the dark water obscures it, and, unfailingly, what a relief that is. It’s a funny thing, that where we are most visible in our near-nudity, and most physical in our activity, we can also take great pleasure in becoming unseen, untethered. ‘In water, I felt more expert in my body’ writes Amy Key. But it is not, for everybody, pain-free. There is heartbreak, and there is loss. Some of it oblique – Moggach’s description of her chaotic North London home reminded me of the late and much-missed Michele Hanson. In Nina Mingya Powles’ story there are remembered anxieties about blood in the water. Sometimes it is bluntly stated pain, like for So Mayer, who no longer swims at the Ladies’ Pond. ‘There are many trans and non-binary people who swim and have swum at the Ladies’ Pond’ they write. ‘Their molecules and their courage are already coursing through the water like minerals’. We’ve circled back to what water contains, again. So writes ‘I know I am not alone’, and I hope that means they have found somewhere to be, if it is not here.

The links are not merely seasonal. Where to be, where is home – those ideas link Nell Frizell to Sharlene Teo. ‘Smell’ links Leanne Shapton to Eli Goldstone, who describes the water as ‘soupy and menstrual’ which, yeah, if that puts you off, maybe this place is not right for you. And there’s one recurring question – ‘why am I doing this?’  Esther Freud asks that, then answers herself five lines down. ‘I felt, for a moment, happy’. And that, in its perfect simplicity, is enough. 

Is one allowed to have favourites? I think so; these are not my children, after all. The pieces I liked best were the sparser ones that were more about heartbreak than romance. In fact, there’s not much romance at all, given the ‘magic’ of the site. This feels exactly, precisely right. Any romance there is, is of a different sort. People’s relationships with their own bodies, their selves, with the trees that surround the pond, with the thrill of being daring, of sneaking in to the ponds after dark. There’s lots of wit and perspicacity. There’s cool honesty, insight and warmth, even in the coldest months. ‘If men could see this, they would correctly call it paradise’ writes Lou Stoppard. 

It struck me as clever and appropriate, what Daunt have done: produced a thing about a thing which is a perfect accompaniment to doing the thing. For completion, this should be read near water.  


At the Pond is published on 20 June, priced £9.99. You can order a copy here.