A Boy in the Water

14th November, 2018

Written by Tom Gregory, reviewed by Lexi Earl

I read The Boy in the Water with a smile on my face and a twinge in my heart. It is not often that a story written by an adult so acutely captures a young child’s voice but Tom Gregory does it wonderfully. A Boy in the Water is Tom’s autobiographical tale of his Channel swim in September of 1988, aged 11 and 333 days. The book leads us through his journey from doggy-paddling eight-year-old to Channel record breaker at aged 11. Interspersed with this journey is the story of the Channel swim itself, from 4.30am off the coast of Northern France to 3.15pm near the Dover cliffs. The narrative voice perfectly captures that prepubescent age of wonder and excitement, when the adult world is still secretive and mysterious, but childhood is being shaken off like selkie skin.

We experience Tom’s first immersion in cold water, at Dover Harbour with his new-found Eltham Swimming Club companions:

The shock of the cold made my feet hurt. Fearful of being last I took a big step forwards only to find the stones had vanished beneath me and so I tipped forwards into the deep water. My body convulsed and my lungs filled up in one huge involuntary gasp. Pain gripped my body and there was a moment of panic” (p.39).

Who has not felt all those emotions when out swimming with friends and companions? The fear of being last into the water, or worse, of not having the courage to get in at all; the shock of the cold, the pain… And then afterwards, the sheer elation:

Then the pain vanished. It was replaced by something far better, like being supercharged with electricity, and I no longer felt cold. I danced quickly up the beach…” (p.40).

Channel swimming is a solitary affair, just swimmer and boat for hours on end. No contact with anyone. Mostly no one else in the water either. It is the swimmer and their internal voice ploughing through. But the importance of other people in making the swim even possible, is the core of this book. The community of swimmers – from his fellow swim team members (mostly older and therefore friends and mentors both); his family, and especially Anna, his sister; to the man who made this conceivable, let alone possible:  coach John Bullet, feature large throughout Tom’s journey. But it is John Bullet in particular who holds the most attention. Tom’s reverence for John grows and grows through the book. It is a story of their relationship, that mixture of coach and mentor, father-figure and inspiration to Tom’s swimmer, faithful and believing, willing and mouldable. John is the ever-present watchful overseer, the motivator, the encourager, the one who gets Tom to the beach at Dover. Yet John remains an elusive, adult figure. The book, written from the child’s perspective, writes John as he would’ve been, an unknowable mystery who is nevertheless an important friend and confidante.

I thoroughly enjoyed all the food stories peppered throughout the book. Getting ready for a Channel swim includes putting on weight in order to withstand the long immersion in cold water, and so food appears everywhere (but particularly towards the end as the training ramps up preparation). There is tinned ravioli, mash and marrowfat peas on swim camp in the Lake District; the tea, chocolates and penny sweets at Eltham lido in the summer; the jam sandwich (Roberts’s strawberry on thick white bread) and chocolate digestives thrown into the water mid-swim, and tomato soup drunk somewhere in the Channel. Best perhaps, is the description of a breakfast Tom has with John, in a Little Chef near Dover.

The Little Chef-branded plates arrived, identically loaded with a full English, just as the photo on the menu has promised. Mavis brought the toast, pre-buttered, and finally the tea, in two stubby silver teapots that dribbled when tipped over the white cup and saucer. […] I only took sugar in tea during a long cold swim, like John. This was the Little Chef routine: logo propaganda and cloned conformity on a plate. It was a drill of repetition and regularity, designed to generate trust, to keep the customer coming back. It resembled the relationship that emerged between John and me” (p.135-6).

A Boy in the Water is a truly wonderful read of resilience, determination and courage. Whether you are interested in what it takes to be a Channel swimmer, or love a sport memoir, or simply like stories of our different experiences in the water, this book will win your heart.