Thursday, 6 January 2022

Blessed - The Breakout Year of Rampaging Roy Slaven by John Doyle.


A wonderful piece of writing, this is a novel and memoir, narrated by a fictional creation of the author, who is the long-standing comedic alter ego of the author.

Most Australians will be familiar with the comedy genius of John Doyle as 'Rampaging' Roy Slaven and Grieg Pickhaver as HG Nelson. 

Doyle as Slaven takes us to Lithgow, their home town west of Sydney, in 1967. Roy and Doyle are classmates at the town's Catholic boys school, de la Salle College. (Lithgow is the finest locale in the world - you wouldn't want to be anywhere else - all other places within the boys' ken are "shit"). 

It is both a coming-of-age novel and a memoir - a year in which Roy's astounding (fictional) sporting career is emerging, and Doyle's writing, comedic and sports commentating skills, as well as his atheism, are taking shape.

It is by turns very very funny (I made my partner suffer through readings aloud several times), and very poignant. I developed a tear in my eyes a couple of times. More than anything else, it prefectly evokes an era when Catholics versus Publics was a standard part of small town (and suburban) life , when a woman was blamed for her husband absconding & divorce was a sin, when kids tore around with almost unfettered freedom, and priests and brothers were capricious, sometimes cruel, and sometimes great teachers (often by accident) by turn. It also has great affection for small town community life. It does not discount the darker sides of life such as domestic violence, deserted wives and outrageous pressure brought to bear by the church. 

There's also coal dust, and the local picture theatre and swimming pool. 

Doyle has inhabited Roy Slaven for so long that as he says in a short sentence towards the end, they need each other. Roy, who, of course, has been a champion at every sport to which he has turned, is nonetheless a modest chap, even rather surprised at his own prowess. More than anything else, he loves his Mum, who is starting to emerge as an independent woman, mainly due to an economic and social situation which makes her possible to improve circumstances for herself and her son through work opportunities. His observations of life in the Doyle household show us glimpses of John's autobiography, in particular his relationship with his sister who had autism - in the days before there was a ready diagnosis, or educational assistance (this aspect of Doyle's story he has told elsewhere - see the link in Comments). 

Doyle, via Roy, tells us two things about himself - he is compassionate and kind, and he is well aware that it is often hard to tell when he is being serious or satirical. 

Can't recommend it highly enough. 


The evocation of the scene at the local public pool : 

" The summer Dad left was dry and hot. Not much to do until the cricket restarted. I spent a lot of time at the pool. It was fairly new. There was a toddlers' pool with a fountain and an Olympic pool. It was set on a slope. Wide concrete paths bordered a luch lawn bordered by a few trees and a ten-feet high wire mesh fence. The cncrete was tesselated - light and dark. We'd lay on the light when it was hot and the dark when it was cool." (p 37)

"Dean and Doyle were interested in lifesaving. Weird. They would time themselves doing laps of freestyle, breaststroke, sidestroke and water sculling. They were planning to do the Bronze Medallion. Most of the time we filled our days by diving in and bobbing about, doing exotic dives and bombing people. Any girl was fair gameAnd we'd swim underwater. Dean and Doyle could do a lap and a half underwater in one breath....

"We'd lie on the concrete in our togs and chat. We all wore Speedos. The pool manager, Mr Mulcahey, put speakers in the pool shop by the entrance and the radio would be broadcast aross the whole area. " (p 38)

"Dean and Doyle were congratulated at assembly for being the first boys at the school to be qualified lifesavers. They'd successfully completed the Bronze medallion, which meant they had swum the distances in the required time and learnt the techniques of rescue and recovery. They bored us all with talk of the Silvester-Brosch method of resuscitation. And they wore a small black-and-white official lifesaving patch on their swimmers. They must have thught it looked 'cool'. It didn't. It made them look like crawlers and dicks.They were already planning to upgrade to the Bronze Cross, which would mean another patch on the Speedos. 
    I never saw them actually rescue anyone." (p 47)

"Back at the pool. The grassy area on the slope by the deep end was considered the Catholic area. The flat grass on the other side of the deep end was the Publics'. " (p 65)

"Our girls wore modest one-piece swimming costumes, Not so the Publics. We'd often stare across the pool at the bikini-clad girls with names like Vicki and Sharon and Julie." (p 66)

"Flynn had a real girlfriend. He said many of the Public girls were just like Vicki Westwood and he began to sit opposite us at the pool, with the Publics, and Dean thought he was probably in a state of mortal sin. Doyle thought it was possible. I wasn't sure. I couldn't see a real problem with it. 

" At one point Flynn and Vicki Westwood kissed. 

'Brazen' said Carmel.

Brewer and Brennan applauded. " (p 68)

"Ten minutes later, Doyle stands and asks if anyone is interested in wandering over to have a chat to Flynn. I stand. There are no other takers. 

Carmel is incensed. 'You are going to look ridiculous.'

Deirdre and Barbara wish us luck. 

We both leave our towels on the slope and head off around the deep end of the pool and enter Public territory. We are not heckled. We are ignored. Self-consciously, we stand over Flynn and Vicki Westwood. Vicki Westwood is talking to a friend called Janet. Flynn is sunbaking with his eyes closed. Vicki Westwood introduces us to Janet. They are friends of Jeff's. Roy and John. This is Janet.'

Flynn opens his eyes. 'What's going on?' he says. 

Doyle says, 'We felt like a walk.'

Janet asks Doyle about the patch on his costume. 

'It's a lifesaver's patch.'

'Are you a lifesaver?'

Doyle nods, sheepishly. 

'So, if I'm drowning, what are you going to do?'

'Umm...Swim to you, grab your arm and twist you around and take hold of you and sidestroke yu to the wall.' 

I say, 'That's just for starters. Don't get him onto Silvester-Brosch.' " (p 68-70)


"We stayed with Flynn and the Publics for about ten minutes before ambling back to our towels and our group. Janet was very chatty and funny. Just like Vicki Westwood. 

Doyle says, 'What an interesting experience. Janet and Vicki Westwood enjoy smut as much as we do. But to them it's not sinful. Not sinful at all.'

I nodded. He was right. 

Our group look at us closely  when we resettle. 

Carmel says, 'Well? What did you talk about?'

Doyle says, 'Sin, Carmel. We talked about sin.'

'Well you were in the right place.' " (p 70)

Tuesday, 4 January 2022

Splash! 10,000 Years of Swimming by Howard Means

Published by Allen and Unwin, London, 2020. 

Covers very similar territory to Strokes of Genius: A History of Swimming by Eric Chaline (Reaktion Books, London, 2017). Means references Chaline. 

Both cover the theory of "the aquatic ape" - the theory that at some time, human ancestors spent time as water-based mammals, and so swimming has some genetic component. Neither accepts it as it is still open to debate. 

Both books traverse the evidence for swimming in the Ancient World, and through the Middle Ages and Renaissance to the current day. Looks at changes in clothing worn for swimming, bathing boxes, competitive and recreational swimming. 

Means focuses a little more on the United State, Chaline on Europe. 

Neither spend any time considering the role of the public pool in Australia. For that I recommend the ABC TV documentary, The Pool, and Pool, a book which accompanied Australia's official entry at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2016. See also Swimming Australia One Hundred Years (University of NSW Press, 2008).

Stokes of Genius : A History of Swimming by Eric Chaline

Published by Reaktion Books, London, 2017.

Covers very similar territory to Splash! 10,000 Years of Swimming by Howard Means (Allen and Unwin, 2020). Means references Chaline. 

Both cover the theory of "the aquatic ape" - the theory that at some time, human ancestors spent time as water-based mammals, and so swimming has some genetic component. Neither accepts it as it is still open to debate. 

Both books traverse the evidence for swimming in the Ancient World, and through the Middle Ages and Renaissance to the current day. Looks at changes in clothing worn for swimming, bathing boxes, competitive and recreational swimming. 

Means focuses a little more on the United State, Chaline on Europe. 

Neither spend any time considering the role of the public pool in Australia. For that I recommend the ABC TV documentary, The Pool, and Pool, a book which accompanied Australia's official entry at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2016. See also Swimming Australia One Hundred Years (University of NSW Press, 2008).


Monday, 20 December 2021

Where We Swim: Explorations of nature, travel and family by Ingrid Horrocks


 At its best when talking about family connections and the spaces between us and bonds of love that hold us together. Not "just" a book about swimming. Opens with the author on a solitary journey, and intending to swim alone in various places and keep a Waterlog (like the late author of that wonderful book of that name, Roger Deacon). But it becomes so much more. I like the eclectic swimming places - and even the longing for a swim that cannot happen (in Medellin, Colombia, where someone pooing in the pool at a rented apartment keeps it closed). The "pool" in the Amazon River retreat is simply astounding. 

Horrocks also takes us deep into the global climate crisis and how we react while being middle class privileged folk. I was living in one of the areas of Australia burning in the summer of 2019, sending clouds of smoke across the Tasman. 

It finishes with the impact of Covid lockdown in New Zealand and how people gently connect with strangers when allowed back in the water. 


Wednesday, 1 December 2021

The Lido by Libby Page (Fiction), and some musings about lidos.

Win a copy of The Lido by Libby Page — it's set to make a splash this summer

Books look ahead 2018: What will you be reading this year? - BBC News

In British parlance, a lido (pronounced, weirdly, Lie-do, not as it is from the Italian word lee-do, meaning ), meaning shore, as in the Lido in Venice) is an unheated outdoor swimming pool. They are treasured parts of the communities in which they are located, and have come under increasing threat of closure over the past few decades as local governments seek to cut costs. [Another casualty of bean-counting removal of community facilities have been public libraries - which is also touched upon in this book. 

Libby Page is a journalist, and keen swimmer. This is her debut novel. It tells the story of two women who form an indelible friendship over the fight to save the un-fictitious Brockwell Lido. One is a lacking-in-confidence young journalist named Kate, whose physical appearance seems to be rather akin to that of Kate in the pic above! She is new to the Brixton area of London. She suffers panic attacks. Kate is living a lonely life in a dire share-house where no-one has any contact with anyone else. Kate meets Rosemary, an older woman in her late eighties, recently widowed, who has lived all her life in Brixton, and has  been swimming at the lido for 80 years. The lido played a large part in the love story between Rosemary and her late husband, George. 

I enjoyed the book, especially since I share many of the author's interests - swimming, saving swimming pools, libraries, cooking. 

I especially liked the depiction of the coming together to a diverse community and the tactics they used to save their pool....see my entries on Bexley Swimming Pool (linked below), which we managed to save. Like in the book, we had some great support from the local newspaper. Not QUITE so fortunate at Batemans Bay, where, despite some vigorous campaigning (see link)  we lost the outdoor 50m pool and are acquiring an indoor 25 metre pool....a regressive step in my opinion. 

Bexley pool battle ; 

The fight to save Bexley pool part 2 ;

2011 update ;

Open House Feb 2014 ;

Making submissions to Council ;

Last laps at the old pool ;

After seven years of fighting, a commencement of construction ceremony

Aerial shots of the development ;

We won! Bexley pool reopened

All my posts on Bexley Pool.

One of my favourite passages from the book describes the importance to community of such assets. 

" 'When the old library closed down no one realised the importance of what we were losing until it had gone. It was a place for learning and also a centre of our community. And it's the same with the lid. We all take it for granted and that is why it is so important. We rely on it being there for us. It is somewhere you can go for a moment to yourself, whatever your reason may be for needing that moment....

'The lido holds so many memories for us all. For children who have never been to the seaside it is their summers and their freedom. For parents it is the memory of seeing their child swim for the first time - that moment when you just have to let go and let them fly. And for me, well it is my life."

I do have to admire the cold-water swimmers of the UK. Such water temperatures as those described here, and in At The Pond which I recently read, would see me balk - possibly even in the "warm" months! I guess we are blessed in Australia. 

Another way we are blessed is that municipal pools here are plentiful. Sydney is blessed not only with dozens of 50 metre outdoor pools, but ocean and harbour pools as well. Our pools also most usually have plentiful grassed areas and facilities like barbecues are common. A friend visiting from the UK whom I took to Bexley Pool (pre-redevelopment) declared it "like a resort". Another woman I met swimming there, who migrated from China, said that her family spends thousands of dollars visiting resorts on their holidays, whereas she spends $5 going to the local pool! 

Libby Page's page. Author / Swimmer/ Optimist

In researching this post, I found this gorgeous art print of Brockwell Lido by Jenni Murphy. You can buy it from this page. 

Read more: 

BLU - Brockwell Lido Users group

A blog about swimming at the Brockwell Lido (Londonist)

Brockwell Swimmers -  a swimming club 

Saturday, 27 November 2021

At the Pond: Swimming at the Hampstead Ladies' Pool (Daunt Books, 2019)

Photo from 


I found this small volume of 14 essays utterly intriguing. 
Hampstead Heath in London contains three swimming ponds (and others for angling, model-boating etc; created when the Fleet River was damned in the 17th and 18th centuries as reservoirs for water supply to Hampstead and Highgate). The swimming ponds are one for women, one for men and one mixed. 
The writers who contributed include some well-knon, Like Margaret Drabble and Esther Freud, some not so well-known. It is divided into 4 sections, Winter, Spring, Summer, Autumn. Some swim year-round, some are summer-only. 
The Pond as it is known is legendary amongst certain Londoners. It is "wild swimming" in a huge city ... many describe the wildlife and the vegetation...moorhens, ducks, snakes, reeds and grasses etc. The temperature is never what I would call warm, and in winter there can be ice, and of course snow on the ground. There seems to be several hundred hearty souls who do swim year round. However, there also seems to be a sort of reverence, an elitist aura around them. One writer says "they know the lifeguards". 
Also intriguing are some of the "rules" and customs ... eg there can only be a certain ratio of swimmers to lifeguards, so on a hot summer's day you may have to wait to drop in down the metal railing. Imagine trying to impose that at one of Sydney's (un-lifeguarded) ocean pools!) 
Hampstead and Highgate are high-end London suburbs, nowadays often populated by the very wealthy, though they weren't always - they were arty and bohemian in the past. 
I couldn't help comparing the Pond's mores with those at Sydney's McIvers Baths - the Ladies' Pool at Coogee. Some seem similar - the older coterie of "gatekeepers", sticking within your own groups, the basic changerooms, topless sunbaking, but the convivility in the water, and the style of swimming seems a little more open at McIvers. As well, apart from a couple of essayists with southeast Asian heritage, there is know mention of it as a refuge for diverse cultural groups like Muslim women or nuns or others who want to swim in a women-only environment. 
There was a major controversy a couple of years ago, when the London Corporation, which manages the Pond said it was ok for transitioning or transitioned male to female Transgender users to officially use the pool (they had been anyway), with backlash from some. That seems to have settled down now. 
It probably helps to be a swimmer to enjoy the book, but I think it's also interesting in broader cultural terms as a slice of London life.

Here's the page of the Kenwood Ladies Pond Association, a voluntary group of women which cares about the Pond. There's new and info about current campaigns. There is a video called "City Swimmers" in the Gallery.

A story about closure due to sewerage leaks, and a protest against compulsory charges.

Here's some reviews of the book: 

By Natalie Xenos - click here.

By Rebecca Armstrong - click here.

You can easily search for more online. 

Film: Cloro (Italy, 2015)

Chlorine (2015 film) poster.jpg

When seventeen year old  Jenny's mother dies suddenly,  with her father being ill and a nine year old brother to care for, she must move to a mountain village away from the coast, where she is an aspiring synchronised swimmer. She feels isolated and embittered, but is determined to return to the life she longs for, and practices in the pool in the hotel where she works. 

A coming of age film from Italy; directed by Lamberto Sanfelice, starring Sara Serraiocco as Jenny. 

I saw this at the Italian Film Festival in Sydney 10 August 2015. 

Britannia Park, near Warburton, Victoria

Britannia Park in the Yarra Valley, Victoria, is a Girl Guides owned property. I went to some camps there when I was in Brownies, when we lived in Melbourne in the 1960s. Several years later (about 1976) I visited and discovered that they had built a pretty nifty swimming pool. 

I did a search today and found it referred to as "an old swimming pool full of goldfish....not for people to swim in any more."