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Swimming the Neighbourhood

One of the neighbourhood pools we kids frequented, circa 1961. That’s me in the water at the corner of the pool. My brother Ian far right.

Growing up in 1960s West Vancouver, backyard swimming pools were plentiful. My own family had a lush garden instead of a pool. Still, I remember at least six pools in our immediate vicinity. Another two lay on the other side of the creek at the end of the road, and my aunt and uncle had an elegant kidney-shaped pool a 15 minute drive away, two-thirds of the way to Horseshoe Bay.

And on a few occasions, we joined the mayhem at the Ambleside public pool, alas, no longer in existence nor dictating all those rules and pool behaviour guidelines.

All summer long, when we weren’t swimming at Dundarave Beach at the bottom of the hill, we kids stayed busy procuring neighbourhood invitations for an afternoon swim. Sometimes we’d run to the following invitation, wet from the last pool, with towels over our backs, goggles and swim fins in tow.

Lemonade and G&Ts, poolside

In those days, West Van was more a middle-class suburb than an enclave for the wealthy, as it is today. Still, grown-ups lounged by their pools, sipping lemonade or gin and tonics, smoking, reading novels or The Vancouver Sun. A transistor radio might have been playing Perry Como or a Vancouver Mounties baseball broadcast.

A summer’s day that included at least one swim was close to perfection for us kids. Two or three swims were even closer. And we’d fall into bed at the end of the day, squeaky clean and tired and wonder where the next day’s swims would be. The summer was endless, and we were filled with a sense of bounty and gratitude for all the swimming pools nearby. Never mind the beaches (including Ambleside and Sandy Cove).

With a cartographer’s eye

Neddy Merrill, the protagonist in John Cheever’s short story “The Swimmer,” would have also appreciated the bounty of swimming pools.

The day was lovely, and that he lived in a world so generously supplied with water seemed like a clemency, a beneficence. His heart was high …

From “The Swimmer” by John Cheever

Neddy Merrill is no kid, though he perceives himself as younger than his years. He belongs to a suburban neighbourhood just outside New York City. At a Sunday afternoon pool party, he realizes he could make the trip home, eight miles away, in nothing but his bathing suit, skittering across roads, jumping hedges and using the swimming pools of a long string of neighbours.

In his mind, he saw, with a cartographer’s eye, a string of swimming pools, a quasi-subterranean stream that curved across the county. He had made a discovery, a contribution to modern geography; he would name the stream Lucinda after his wife. He was not a practical joker, nor was he a fool, but he was determinedly original and had a vague and modest idea of himself as a legendary figure. The day was beautiful, and it seemed to him that a long swim might enlarge and celebrate its beauty.

From “The Swimmer” by John Cheever

A succession of pools

And thus begins the odyssey of Neddy Merrill, swimming a succession of pools on the way to his house in the “Bullet Park” neighbourhood. Never mind that his sparkling idea could have been alcohol inspired or that most people he encounters are three sheets to the wind themselves.

John Cheever

“The Swimmer” first ran in The New Yorker magazine on July 18, 1964, and received much critical praise. The story and the collection it finally appeared in earned Cheever a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, and a National Book Critics Circle.

You can read “The Swimmer” online at the New Yorker website. And if you wish, you can listen to the Irish writer, Anne Enright, read the story. There is also a YouTube recording of Cheever himself reading his story, but it’s not as graceful as Enright’s version. Finally, you can buy or rent a 1968 film adaptation on YouTube of “The Swimmer” starring Burt Lancaster. Here is the trailer for the film.

Ned Merrill’s journey is fun at first. He barges through the Westerhazy’s hedge into the Graham’s yard, where Mrs. Graham offers him a drink. Across a few other yards and swims, he encounters a party of socialites at the Bunkers’ pool. Ned feels a “passing affection for the scene, a tenderness for the gathering as if it was something he might touch.”

Dark clouds and thunder

But soon, the clouds darken. There is thunder and a downpour, and Ned has to wait out the storm in an empty gazebo. He gets cold and decides he needs another drink — whisky — to warm himself up. Some neighbours don’t appreciate him showing up, clad only in his bathing suit, to use their pool or cadge a drink.

Ned’s grand scheme fully sours, and he finds himself in a bit of a fix at the end. It’s dark; he’s cold, exhausted and lost in the figurative sense.

I’m not going to divulge any spoilers. You’ll have to read it to find out what happens.

“The Swimmer” is one of my favourite pieces of short fiction. Cheever makes every detail seem alive, meticulously drawn. It’s full of humour and pathos.

First impressions can be deceiving

It appeals to me because I’m a swimmer, yes, but also because Ned’s idea — to swim his way home through the county swimming pools — is genius, whimsical, and legendary! But as is often the case, first impressions can be deceiving, like being in a dream and discovering you’re naked in a room of fully clothed people.

Roger Deakin, the British author of another favourite of mine, Waterlog, took inspiration from the Cheever story and made his own aquatic journey swimming the seas, rivers, ponds and lakes of England, Scotland and Wales. 1

Deakins’ odyssey was successful and made for a great story. But it was fuelled by journalism and narrative instead of alcohol in Neddy Merrill’s case.

Cedars beside an azure swimming pool

“The Swimmer” also resembles the swimming pool culture of 1960s West Vancouver that our family was a part of. The homes were newer than Cheever’s portrayal; our street had been created only a few years before. The lots were still being cleared; there was a touch of the wild.

I have an image of one neighbour, also named Morton, with a light azure swimming pool bordered with towering cedars and firs. It seemed a mirage, the sight of Mrs. Morton on her chaise longue, a book on her lap beside the still pool, and those green trees, like the pillars of a cathedral, reaching into the sky. The mood was sober, hushed. Swimming there was never the usual rowdy kid experience.

But children are acutely aware of the people in their neighbourhood, the geography, the mood and the atmosphere. At least, they used to be. We roamed our small world with utter freedom and knew the houses, families, cars, pets, which places were friendly, and those to be avoided — as if the whole place was our very own home.

And in the summers, we knew each swimming pool and would have welcomed the suggestion of swimming every one. From one end of the neighbourhood to the other. What could go wrong?


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It’s been a long time since I baked with Einkorn flour, the most ancient of the ancient grains. It’s called “Farro Piccolo” in Italian, or ‘little farro’. A later variety of Einkorn is called “Farro Grande” (large farro)… otherwise known as Spelt. (Einkorn left, Spelt right) Here endeth the lesson. 
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  1. In February 2020, I referred to the Deakin book along with a short summary of it in a post called Subversive Swimming.

2 thoughts on “Swimming the Neighbourhood

  1. Swimming – great summer topic. Richard and I both grew up with swimming pools in Ontario, land of swimming pools. My father built our pool and I spent many birthdays celebrating with backyard parties, in particular my 16th birthday was most memorable because my first boyfriend attended. Oh that puppy love and pools! Brings back great memories. Thanks for your as always well written blog about neighbourhood swimming. I’ll be sure to read your recommends. Thank you.

    1. Thanks for sharing your own memories, Anne. Interesting to compare the Ontario experience with the Wild West!

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