Floating: A Life Regained by Joe Minihane – Review
By Barney Bardsley
In 1999 a book was published, called Waterlog. It quickly became a left-field success, setting the trend for a series of highly personal, passionate books, about the natural world and where we fit within it. It was written by Roger Deakin, a maverick and dashing environmentalist, who lived in an old, tumbledown Suffolk farmhouse, surrounded by a moat, in which he swam every day, weeds, rain, wind and winter be damned.
The moat became a talisman for Deakin: of the wild and wet outdoors, and of the capacity for nature to heal us, the deeper and more wholeheartedly we immerse ourselves in it. Unwilling to stay tethered to his own backyard, Deakin, inspired by John Cheever’s short story ‘The Swimmer’, and fuelled by his passion for year-round wild swimming, undertook a journey through the length and breadth of the British Isles, during which he swam in all the outdoor pools and rivers he could find, later documenting his experiences in a strange and compelling book. Waterlog was its name. In the years since its publication – and since Deakin’s untimely death from a brain tumour in 2006 – the book has become something of a cult classic for those who love the British countryside, and in particular the waterways, which run, like essential veins and capillaries, through its bodymass.
As a keen, but lily-livered swimmer, I lapped up Deakin’s powerful prose when his book appeared, and marvelled at his capacity for broaching the coldest and most unprepossessing stretches of water. He was a true adventurer, and reading his words, even from the warmth of a well-heated living room, was a bracing experience.
Deakin’s journey was a clarion call to other wild swimmers, keen to release whole stretches of water from petty Do Not Trespass rules and regulations, and swimming outdoors has certainly become more popular and more acceptable over the past two decades, due in no small part to Roger Deakin’s pioneering spirit.
Joe Minihane is the latest to follow in Deakin’s watery footsteps, and he, too, has committed his wild swimming journey to paper: a journey which pays open and unabashed tribute, throughout, to his ‘Waterlog’ hero and predecessor.
Floating disarms the reader from the outset, when Minihane confesses, in the book’s preface, to his feelings of failure and vulnerability. He determines to find a stronger, truer way of living, by immersing himself in outdoor waterways – by swimming himself better.
“Cold slap of wild rivers and pools against his anxious body”
He suffers from anxiety, self loathing and worry: a negative emotional spiral, compounded by his work as a freelance writer, which is an introspective and sometimes lonely occupation. But,“in swimming”, he writes, “I found the only thing that truly broke me out of my anxious cycle for more than a few minutes. There was a long, deep burn of satisfaction and calm that followed in the wake of my bow wave.”
Buoyed up by his new passion, he comes across the name of Roger Deakin, and is quickly entranced, as were so many, by his ‘Waterlog’ writings. Struck by Deakin’s insistence on the power of water to heal, Minihane undertakes his own “swimming cure”, over a two year span, visiting all the watery haunts that Deakin wrote about, and feeling, for himself, the cold slap of wild rivers and pools against his anxious body. He swims – and then writes – himself well.
“Every time I thought of or was near water, my mind was at peace, the river or the sea or the lido buoying me up without judgement, making everything simple. Helping me see the world anew.”
“A tactical error”
Everything about this young man – his struggles and his valiant quest to solve them – has the reader rooting for him. But he has made a tactical error in referencing Roger Deakin so heavily, throughout his own book. Deakin was a one-off, an impossible act to follow. And yet that is exactly what Minihane has tried to do here. Inevitably, he ends up reading like a pale imitation of his iconic hero, rather than offering us something original and new.
The parts of the book where he explores difficulty and diversion – the breaking of his wrist during his journey, and the inevitable introspection that follows; the illuminating visits to a therapist when his mood begins to darken – are the liveliest by far. Sadly, the least compelling entries are the descriptions of the wild swims themselves, all of which start to blur, one into the other, as the writing accumulates and the quest comes close to completion.
It is hard to write about the natural world in a way which brings it, singing, to life on the page. It was a gift Minihane’s hero, Roger Deakin, certainly possessed, but it is one that his courageous admirer is yet to fully master. I look forward to another nature book from him – one where he throws off all comparisons, and jumps in deep, to find his own hidden treasures. I don’t doubt, for a second, that they lie there, waiting to be revealed.
‘Floating – A Life Regained’ by Joe Minihane is published by Duckworth Overlook, £14.99 hardback