It is 5,300 miles from the South End Rowing Club of San Francisco in Suffolk, England. But it was at the Rowing Club that Pete Mulvihill, co-owner of San Francisco’s Green Apple Books and intrepid open-water swimmer, first heard about Suffolk author Roger Deakin’s cult aquatic classic, “Waterlog.”
“I went online and bought a copy from a UK dealer,” recalls Mulvihill, “because it had never been published here.” He read “Waterlog”. He liked it. A few weeks later, he was in a phone conversation with Craig Popelars, publisher of Tin House books in Portland, Oregon, and another swimmer. Read “Waterlog,” Mulvihill advised. Popelars did it. He passed the book on to others at Tin House. “And,” says Popelars, “we just fell in love with it.”
All of this explains why a 22-year-old, extremely British book is now coming to America. The Tin House edition of “Waterlog” includes an introduction by Bay Area writer Bonnie Tsui, author of “Why We Swim,” and an afterword by prominent British writer Robert Macfarlane.
“A real Renaissance man,” says San Francisco poet August Kleinzahler, who first met Deakin in London in the early 2000s. Born in 1943, Deakin studied at Cambridge and then pursued a successful career in advertising, with detours into documentary filmmaking, music promotion and – a lasting passion – environmental activism. But in his 50s, he found himself at the bottom, battered by a breakup, missing his son who had moved to Australia. Inspiration came from an American literary source: John Cheever’s short story “The Swimmer,” in which protagonist Ned Merrill paddles from pool to pool through the leafy suburbs of New York. Deakin would do better at Ned Merrill. He would swim all over Britain.
“Waterlog” follows this obsessive but endearing quest. Deakin begins by swimming in the moat of his 16th-century Sussex farmhouse. Then it’s to the Isles of Scilly, Hampshire, Kent. He swims the English Channel, the North Sea, the River Test and the Great Ouse, where he meets Sid Merry, one of Britain’s declining eel trapper groups. There are digressions into the swimming life of George Orwell and the architectural elegance of Penguin Pond at London Zoo.
“Deakin’s curiosity was so vast,” says Bonnie Tsui, who first encountered “Waterlog” while researching “Why We Swim”. “It was all about the physical experience of the place, but also so curious about the history and the culture.”
For Tsui, “Waterlog” reinforces the bonds she feels between swimming and writing. Swimming, she says, “calms my mind as I sit down and write. Or it can be the time when I am actively reflecting on what I am writing.
Tsui isn’t alone – a surprising number of Bay Area writers are serious swimmers. Novelist Andrew Sean Greer credits his Swims at the Bay for helping him “get to the other side” of his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “Less.” “I was worried and struggled with the book and … swam out of it.” China Beach is poet and translator Denise Newman’s favorite swimming spot. “Swimming, especially swimming in cold water,” Newman says, “is similar to writing in that it is lonely and calls for total presence. Water is very similar to the language of the poet; you have to work against it and at the same time have confidence that it will hold and that there will be enough words for all thoughts and feelings. And the University of San Francisco swimming pool inspired Kleinzahler’s poem ‘The Swimmer’, which ends with ‘there is nothing, nothing at all in the world, but water’.
“Waterlog” was a huge hit in Britain, making the author famous as the avatar of British “wild swimming” – swim wherever you want. But Deakin didn’t have long to enjoy his triumph. He died of a brain tumor in 2006. His other two books, “Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees” and “Notes From Walnut Tree Farm” were published posthumously.
The publisher of Tin House Popelars hopes “Waterlog” will inspire some of the same dedication in America as in Britain. “Sometimes,” he says, “you just have to cut your head as a publisher and just say, ‘This is something we would be very proud to publish.’ “
In fact, Green Apple’s Popelars and Mulvihill did more than cringe for “Waterlog” – they dove into cold water for it. Earlier this month, the couple celebrated the book’s publication with a Deakin-inspired, 600-mile swim road trip jumping through lakes and rivers from Portland south to San Francisco. How was it? “We think Roger would have been proud of us,” says Mulvihill. “He was right – there is something that alters the mind about being immersed in the natural world. Wild swimming is both an escape and a homecoming.
“Waterlog: a swimmer’s journey through Great Britain”
By Roger Deakin
(Tin house; 370 pages; $ 27.95)
Celebration of the American publication “Waterlog”: Virtual conversation between publisher Craig Popelars, Green Apple Books co-owner Pete Mulvilhill and author Bonnie Tsui. 6 p.m. Tuesday, May 25. Free. Hosted by Green Apple Books via Zoom. www.greenapplebooks.com