A whale song to swimmers

Ella Foote meets writer Tanya Shadrick, writer in residence at Pells Pool, where she is writing a mile of longhand on pool-length scrolls

Writer Tanya Shadrick makes no claims on being a strong or experienced swimmer, but she knows a swimmer when she sees one and can tell if their stroke will be a dance with the water or a fight against it. “You don’t need to be a trained swimmer to be able to identify what a good stroke is, even if it isn’t what the latest or conventional advice is,” says Tanya. “They have just got rhythm. You know it when you see it, their body. It isn’t about their weight, shape or size – you can just see a swimmer. When I see some people I just know they are going to be beautiful in the water.”

Tanya is the writer in residence at Pells Pool in Sussex, the UK’s oldest freshwater lido. She is writing a mile of longhand on pool-length scrolls of paper. The project, A Wild Patience: Laps of Longhand, will be completed this year beside Lake Geneva while she is in residence at the Jan Michalski Foundation for Writing and Literature. Tanya did laps of longhand throughout the pool’s 2016 season and will need to complete 35 laps over five scrolls. This will be the equivalent of a novel. She writes on her website: “As with swum laps of the pool, I may only become capable of this length, this endurance, through regular, daily practice, and by paying no mind to how I feel about this: the boredom, my discomfort. I will show up, simply, and let the practice teach me.”

The work reflects Tanya’s memories and desires; the here and now as well as things she sees and is told daily as she sits beside the pool on her homemade stool and desk. “This is my daily office, I spend all day listening to the birds, the leaves and wind and the splashing soundtrack from the pool,” says Tanya. “It is a pretty cool office, the pool is important to a lot of people.” It is at Pells Pool where we meet. I am surprised at the expanse of it when I arrive – built to imperial dimensions of 50 yards by 25 yards, it twinkles in the early sunshine tempting me in. It is spring- fed, unheated and is part of life in the town of Lewes throughout the May to September season.

Being with Tanya at the water’s edge we dived deep into conversation about her project and recently published anthology, Watermarks: Writing by Lido Lovers & Wild Swimmers. We talked about her near-death experience, an arterial haemorrhage, which happened after the birth of her first child, and discussed her work as a hospice life-story scribe, listening to regrets and memories of those in their last days. She described how these experiences led her to the water, to write and swim at Pells Pool. “Nearly dying is an extraordinary experience. Suddenly I wanted to live a wilder life. But at the point of this revelation, I had just become a mother and I wasn’t going anywhere,” says Tanya. “So I said to myself, don’t forget this perspective, if you are lucky enough to almost die and then you don’t – shame on you if you forget what that felt like.”

Like all of us, Tanya got sucked back into work and motherhood and it took her being ill again to wake her up. “I loved my job at the university (of Sussex), I loved everyone there and it was my community. But I just kept thinking, you always wanted to be a writer,” says Tanya. “So I went back in time and I thought about the last time I truly felt at home in my skin. I am not talking about love, friendships, relationships, this was about me, my body – when was I most myself? I found myself at age nine, in the sea in Cornwall, soft fluff on my legs that went gold in the sun and tan lines made by my flip-flops. I thought so you want to be a writer and you want that relationship with yourself? Go sit by some water and write every day. Build up muscle, swim to build those muscles and write to build up other muscle. The two went really well together.” Publicly owning the writing was important to the craft. If someone writes enough they will be a writer. “If you want to learn to swim, there is a point when you have to get in a public pool and you won’t be very good,” says Tanya. “That is what writing is. You are not very good to begin with, there is a gap and you have to close the gap by actually doing it. I filled hundreds of tiny notebooks beside the water and swam laps up and down Pells Pool.” This dedication and drive is what led Tanya to the Wild Patience project, which is named to reflect her story of patience, which led her to this point. “Water gives you reason to get out and go places and I am now connected to a wider world of swimmers,” says Tanya.

Tanya Shadrick 2

Tanya at work in her office

Watermarks, launched in June, is exactly that, a connection of swimmers and the written word. The book is a celebration of the “life aquatic” – more than 50 poets and writers take you to water around the world and immerse you in their story. The book is already in its second edition after the first sold out before its official launch. It has been recommended by the Outdoor Swimming Society and is in the top 20 best-selling poetry anthologies on Amazon. “Wild Patience and Watermarks are a sort of whale song, or message in a bottle,” says Tanya. “It was me admitting that although I love and I am loved, there is still in me a yearning to be more silly, serious and with more people than my daily life before now would ever have allowed me to meet.”

The book is dedicated to Lynne Roper, a wild woman swimming. Lynne was a writer and vibrant member of the swimming community. She died from a brain tumour in August 2016, aged 55. She had a unique take on the world and voice within swimming; she was much loved and is sorely missed. Her work appears in Watermarks, the most beautiful descriptions of Sharrah on the River Dart throughout the seasons. “The art of living is to know when you have got enough, this is what Lynne and I completely agreed on,” says Tanya. “The real art is to recognise where you are privileged, the amount of freedom you can have in your life and how much you can give other people. Lynne was really generous in what she gave other people. She was a wild woman midwife, taking people into the water.”

Follow Tanya on social media and read more about her work at Pells Pool by visiting her website, tanyashadrick.com. Watermarks: Writing by Lido Lovers & Wild Swimmers is published by The Frogmore Press and available from Amazon, Waterstones, Telegraph Books and Foyles.

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