31 July 2021

At the Pond: Swimming at the Hampstead Ladies' Pond by Various

 We've reached the midway point of summer but the 12C I woke up this morning belies the season.  It would seem that we've swapped climates with the West Coast of Canada where they are literally on fire.  Here in Ontario the lawns are lush and green with mushrooms springing up everywhere.  As someone who crept out from under the shade umbrella on Day Nine of a trip to Mexico years ago, a cooler summer suits me.  My one request of Mother Nature would be to please allow at least three days in a row without rain.  Friends and neighbours growing zucchini have run out of people willing to take any more off their hands.

As for books, after reading an article in the TLS about E M Delafield and her Provincial Lady series I dug out my copy of the first in that venture.  It's a 1930 edition bought on Charing Cross Road with illustrations not included in the beautiful edition Virago reissued several years ago.  What started as a quick browse ended with the need for a bookmark and several days of squirreling away to read a few more entries.  Has it really been twelve years since I last read this book?!

I returned to Selected Diaries to read Woolf's entries from 1923 to 1931.  Virginia and Leonard have signed a ten year lease on their home in Tavistock Square, and the author has finished Mrs Dalloway.  In an ongoing drama, Nelly has downed her kitchen implements and given notice for the 165th time, and Virginia has piqued my interest in Edith Sitwell.  Diary entries for the first couple of months of each year most certainly reveal a pattern of Seasonal Affective Disorder.  In February (1927) Virginia has her long hair cut short in the style of the day.  Very happy with the result she reports no change in the front but behind I'm like the rump of a partridge.  With menopause on the horizon Virginia goes back and forth about her childfree marriage, in turns happy to enjoy Vanessa's children but envious of Vanessa's state of motherhood.   Virginia's income level soars during these years (the salary almost of a Cabinet Minister) with the ever increasing success of her writing....they have purchased a car and Virginia has learned to drive.  Additions have been added to Monks House in Rodmell and Virginia thrills at watching a ham cook on a new oil stove.

As for At the Pond this is the second enjoyable collection of essays published by Daunt Books I've read this summer.  Fourteen authors share their thoughts and experiences surrounding visits to this traditional pond that proudly admits women only.  The essays are divided by season, chillingly beginning with Winter.  The image of people in early novels breaking ice in a wash basin for a bit of water to splash on their face sends a shudder so I can't begin to fathom jumping into a frigid pond.  Lou Stoppard writes that she is able to mute that feeling of a thousand stabbing pins....it's not something I can ever imagine inflicting upon myself but I do admire those with a passion for it.

Writers contributing to this collection vary from the familiar such as Margaret Drabble and Esther Freud to the majority that I, up until now, knew nothing about.   Nell Frizzell's essay was particularly interesting, she began training to be a lifeguard at the pond when she was eight weeks pregnant and battling morning sickness...

Towards the end of that pregnant summer one of the carp, an older lady we christened Carole, came up to the surface.  She was probably ill, moving towards the end of her life with a flash of fame; literally a moment in the sun.  Swimmers were terrified.  There were screams, cries, yelps for help.  People confused Carole with a snake, a shark, an old car tyre, an abandoned motorbike - even a dead body.  Looking at her bloated, ungainly progress across the Pond, and feeling my own girth spread ever thicker, I felt a certain sympathy.  

I loved Frizzell's writing, and that a group of women would gift a carp with a vintage name and glamorize it further by adding an 'e'.

The uplifting theme of peace while basking in sun and water as a way of combating the relentless pace of London, heartbreak and feelings of loneliness provides a message of hope.  In some of the essays, whole lives are succinctly laid out within a few pages, such as Nina Mingya Powles' story of growing up in Malaysia and her close ties to her grandmother, memories of visiting a beach in New Zealand with her mother, and living in a flat near the pond so close to the rail tracks the room shakes with each passing train.  Powles beautifully conveys how the sensation of being in water unites....

It has no distinction past and present tense, nor between singular and plural; as a result it contains all the places I call home, as well as all my memories and all my names.  I float, I strain, I swim.

And Deborah Maggoch made me laugh out loud when she ponders men and a certain characteristic while at the Mixed Pond....why do men splutter and grunt like walruses when they swim, and splash water everywhere even when they're doing the crawl?  Quite.  As someone with a policy of not getting wet in public I stay away from pools but walked past a community pool for almost two decades on my way to work at a branch library.  You make a very valid point, Deborah!

One essay in particular stood out for descriptions of the pond's history, Dido Elizabeth Belle, Keats, and that Primrose Hill was a flat section of land until excavated to create a plague pit.   After reading a few pages of carefully researched history, a single line merges into a personal anecdote....

I don't swim at the Ladies' Pond  any more because it is too painful to do so.  It's not just the memory of being caught sunbathing topless there by my headmistress (she was unfazed, I was drowning in shame), it's that my body wasn't comfortable with being assigned female then, and it isn't now.

SO Mayer very eloquently reminds us that while celebrating a place that is exclusively for women, it can also loom large as a place of trepidation.

I very much hope Daunt Books continue to publish more of these essay collections; they're excellent!

Image credit here


  1. The cover for At The Pond has called to me so often! And what a wonderful sequence of reading to it - Woolf and the Provincial Lady.

    1. The team at Daunt Books have packaged this series so well, haven't they. As for the edition of PL I'm reading...it was bought at Any Amount of Books when I first met you, Rachel and Mary! The cover is faded and the pages smell like an old bookshop, in the best possible way. I wonder who owned it first?

    2. Oh wonderful! what a lovely day that was

  2. This sounds like an engaging essay collection. I am reading Mrs. Dalloway now, for the first time.

    1. I hope you enjoy Mrs Dalloway! This is a wonderful podcast by Penguin with Alexandra Harris as a guest, taking the route Mrs Dalloway walked while buying the flowers for her party....