Ella Foote meets author Gillian Best for a swim and to talk about her new book, The Last Wave
“…but that was not the sea that had got into my bones. That was a picture postcard. What I knew was big and in constant motion, changing as and when its mood dictated. It was cold and wet and strong, a part of the world in a way that I was not, tucked up inside my one up one down house…”
A collection of pebbles, The White Horse pub, Shakespeare Beach and the numbingly cold sea are all ingredients of Gillian Best’s debut novel – The Last Wave. These ingredients will be more familiar to some swimmers than others, but mixed together with a blend of strong characters, challenging relationships, crumbling health themes and stubborn courage, they make this book an accessible and enjoyable read about one woman’s life goal to swim the English Channel.
“I would love to be able to swim the Channel, but I haven’t,” says Gillian, surprisingly, when we meet. “To be that strong and in good shape… but I get cold in an indoor heated pool after an hour!”
Gillian and I meet on a Saturday morning in Covent Garden. I had arrived just as London was waking up from the night before. We had planned to meet at Gillian’s favourite swimming spot, London Fields Lido, but plans were swiftly changed as we discovered it had closed temporarily for repair. So here we were at the Oasis Sports Centre, which boasts both an indoor and outdoor pool.
Cancer, dementia and the ocean
Out on the street, tourists wheel small suitcases in a disoriented fug, local baristas whoosh coffee into cups for hung-over Londoners, and in the middle of all this, Gillian and I slip into the outdoor pool and exchange swim stories. Despite not swimming the Channel and being a bigger fan of outdoor pools, Gillian’s novel is a familiar read to any swimmer who has been drawn to the shores of Dover. The story follows Martha, who learns to swim after falling into the sea at a young age and builds her life beside it. The tale is told through a variety of characters as they battle through family conflicts, cancer, dementia and, of course, the ocean.
A collection of pebbles
Although it felt really natural for Gillian to write about swimming, it wasn’t previously a topic she ever really talked about – rather, swimming was more something she always did. “None of my friends are swimmers, but everyone knows I swim. Writing this book was such a nice thing to be able to do – it was like I spent my whole life gearing up to talk about it. It was really enjoyable to write about swimming in this way.”
The book reads close to the rules of swimming the Channel and the Dover experience, but there are artistic differences throughout. Swimmers who make it to France are traditionally known for picking up pebbles and stuffing them into their swimsuit as a memento. Interestingly, Gillian’s story also incorporates the collection of pebbles, but instead they are collected before the swim.
I asked her if she knew about the tradition. “I completely made that up. How funny, I had no idea,” says Gillian. “I used to have this habit of collecting sea water whenever I went to the beach. I would keep these bottles in my apartment and then in the dead of winter when it was -40 degrees and blowing a blizzard (Gillian was born and grew up in Canada), I would open the bottles and smell them. Because once you have smelt that smell of the sea, you know it – it smells like home. I thought if you swam the Channel you would do something similar, to have a reminder.”
The pebbles are not the only tradition to appear in her tale. The White Horse pub, famous for having the signatures of successful Channel swimmers covering its walls, also features – but that’s by chance too.
Gillian explains: “I went down to Dover for a weekend when I was about half-way through writing the book. I was a bit stuck and remember thinking – okay it’s the right time to visit. It was early spring; sunny, but really hazy and it looked like the ferries were sailing out over the edge of the known world. I remember thinking – of course you would want to get in and swim that.
It was great to get a sense of the place. I had read about a description of the pebbles on the beach sounding like music – singing and the tinkling of a piano. I wanted to hear that. Dover hadn’t been how I expected it to be, a cute English town by the sea with great fish restaurants. Rather, it is a transient place. I met the publican [of the White Horse] and he explained how the swimmers would be at the beach the next weekend, but I didn’t actually talk to any swimmers in Dover. [My book] is fiction, and I had created this imaginary world and didn’t want to get wrapped up in it having to be accurate.”
Gillian did speak to one swimmer though: Channel swimmer Sal Minty-Gravett, who runs training camps in Jersey. “I asked her all these questions she wasn’t expecting,” says Gillian. “I think she thought I was going to ask about feeding and training schedules, but I kept asking her what it felt like. It was interesting to hear her talk about it and there was a lot of reverence for the Channel and for the water. This is exactly what I had wanted to hear and how I imagined it.”
The Old Man and the Sea
So why did the Channel capture Gillian’s imagination? “It started with a painting at a friend’s exhibition,” she explains. “I could see an old man standing on a cliff looking out to sea. It was really foggy and he has a three-legged dog and a piece of rope. I was explaining this to my friend and he said, ‘What does he do? What happens next?’ I thought about it and said ‘Well, obviously, he is looking for his wife and she is swimming.’ My friend then told me to write it down and so I did.”
After reading Gillian’s book, you are left with a sense that you could swim the Channel one day. “That would be great,” jokes Gillian. “Someone swimming the Channel because they read my book! But I hope whoever reads it feels satisfied, I want it to be a story that stays with you a little bit and I hope people enjoy my imaginary friends as much as I do!”