Saturday, April 07, 2012

Swimming and poverty

A month ago, six African-American teenagers drowned in a single incident in Louisiana, prompting soul-searching about why so many young black Americans can't swim

reports BBC News. The article goes on to discuss the reason for black children's inability to swim, suggesting that poverty and historic segregation are to blame.

Which put me in mind of this passage from Bevis by Richard Jefferies (published in 1882):
For seventy years he had laboured in that place, and never once gone out of sight of the high Down yonder, and in all that seventy years no one till Bevis and Mark, and now their pupil Jack, had learned to swim. Bevis's Governor was out of the question, he had crossed the seas. But of the true country-folk, of all who dwelt round about these waters, not one had learned to swim. 
Very likely no one had learned since the Norman Conquest. When the forests were enclosed and the commonality forbidden to hunt, the spirit of enterprising exercise died out of them. Certainly it is a fact that until quite recently you might search a village from end to end and not find a swimmer; and most probably if you found one now he would be something of a traveller, and not a home-staying man.
I am not sure I believe the history here, though the parallels between black American slavery and the Norman yoke are enticing.

What I do believe is Jefferies' observations of life in 19th-century rural England. This is just the sort of unique insight - thrown out in an aside - that you get from his work.

1 comment:

Chris said...

A very interesting quote! Having researched the history of swimming in Britain I too found that the skill more or less die out due to religious and moral concerns... Hung Out to Dry, Swimming and British Culture.

Today we might think that as children are taught to swim they will be safe around water. Fewer children are to swim on a regular basis and of those that do attend swimming pools, very few can swim competently.

Our culture teaches children to stay clear of open water and this is all that separates us from such tragedy's.