Updated: Apr 30
Alex Foster spent the winter months of 2019-2020 learning about winter swimming and cold water immersion at the Serpentine Swimming Club, in Hyde Park, London, and this is the story of his quest. The fruit of his immersive analysis is his MPhil thesis in Medical Anthropology and is available on this website.
Alex is an accomplished swimmer, but had never before tried swimming through winter. Why did he do it? Coming to Anthropology at the University of Oxford his concern was less about the individual experience (although very important) than about the collective swimming knowledge and practice of a community that engages in diverse activities, but is most importantly defined by open water swimming of several kinds. Alex has written an anthropology of this swimming club as a community of practice, and he focused on winter swimming and cold water immersion. Now, as all winter swimmers know, you can’t just drop yourself into sub-five degree water in January and expect to be able to swim much, or at all. Without adapting to it gradually across at least several months, without understanding how your own body responds to cold water immersion, without taking on advice, you won’t be able to do it at all well. Or at all - jumping into very cold water in January without preparation can be dangerous. Alex was interested in how winter swimming is learned and understood at a club where winter swimming is a norm for many people. He watched, he listened, he talked with people, shared breakfast with them, but above all, he learned the practice on his own flesh. After reading the anthropological literature appropriate to this topic and upon entering a cycle of thinking, analysis, discussion and writing, a thesis was submitted, one that gained a distinction (no easy thing at Oxford).
When I interviewed Alex for this podcast, I discovered that of the music that he associated with swimming, Don McLean’s ‘Vincent’ was high on his list, as well as Bach’s Goldberg Variations. The latter chimed with me - when I take on a new graduate student, I encourage them early on to listen to the Goldberg Variations. Why? Because multiple metaphors within the work can help anchor them as they work through a difficult research problem. The lone pianist (or lone scholar) venturing forth through single line and harmony, to complexity, through many variations and approaches before coming to resolution. Or something like that. As well as the excitement of the journey. I didn’t introduce Alex to the Goldbergs because he didn’t seem to need them. Turns out he already had them. Alex is very able in research, in scholarship, and is a very likable and affable human being.
Communities of practice are usually not as simple as they might seem from surface observation, partly because anything involving groups of people is complicated. It can involve history, traditions, implicit values, and distinct ways of doing things. So Alex found with the Serpentine Swimming Club. He couldn’t have succeeded if he had not immersed himself in the practices of the club. He became a member during the summer, and was asked repeatedly by other members if he was going to swim through winter. Indeed he did, and I hope he earned some respect for that. In turn, the Serpentine Swimming Club inspires great loyalty, and Alex deeply respects that. His commitment to winter swimming became evident at Oxford when I heard reports in deepest winter from other graduate students that they had seen Alex swimming in the Thames at Port Meadow. Again.
He finished his fieldwork before the big changes of 2020 happened – COVID-19 and the club’s responses to it, and the plans for the changing room. There was both high passion and deep discussion among many Serpentine members about the plans for the new changing room. There were divided opinions too, which I think reflects how much members care about the club. Bach’s Goldberg Variations offer another parallel to Alex’s work and the circumstances at the club when he conducted fieldwork there. Alex sent me a link to the version of the Goldbergs he prefers – the one recorded by Glenn Gould in 1981, and the one I have a copy of at home. I bought mine in New York in 1990 and still have it. Gould recorded it in the CBS studio at 207 East 30th Street, an old Presbyterian church. The recording is an introspective exploration of the work to my mind, much like a scholar grappling with understanding and with meaning. Gould was trying to understand Bach through the practice of playing the work. This version of the Goldbergs was the very last recording ever to be made at this studio - it was demolished soon after. Nothing stands still in New York, of course, not even in response to a sentimental call to preserve this the studio. The studio where Gould’s 1955 version of the Goldbergs was also recorded. Where Miles Davis ‘Kind of Blue’ was recorded, and where Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk, Dave Brubeck, Charles Mingus and Billie Holliday had also recorded. Where Vladimir Horowitz, Igor Stravinski and Leonard Bernstein had also, also, recorded. Where Terry Riley and Jon Cale had also, also, also recorded. And many others had also, also, also, also recorded. The ghosts of that studio are still said to walk. The Serpentine Swimming Club changing room closed soon after Alex finished his fieldwork, a space that had seen many members, many heroes sung and unsung. Will its ghosts still walk after the old changing room (the last of several in the club’s history) is gone?
I don’t think Alex was too involved by these events while studying the Serpentine Swimming Club, perhaps wisely so. This allowed him to focus on what is most important to the club and its identity - the practice of swimming, and winter swimming in particular. The thesis is the first in Anthropology to offer insights into these things, and I hope you enjoy both the podcast with Alex and his thesis.
Don McLean’s ‘Vincent’, covered by James Blake –
Glenn Gould and Bach’s Goldberg Variations (1981 recording, remastered) -
First three images courtesy of Alex Foster