Kitty Blackadder

A Scottish blog about making art, too much eyeshadow and becoming a grown up.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Bookshelf: Hell and High Water, Sean Conway


I've been on a bit of a kick of late; adventuring vicariously through souls much more brave and driven than myself. In the last month or so I've read Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods, (again), and watched Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman take The Long Way Round. So when I came across Hell and High Water in the library a couple of weeks ago - I could resist picking it up. The story of a man attempting to swim the length of Britain? Heck yeah!

In the book, Sean Conway walks us through the journey from the it-very-almost-didn't-happen start, to the last stroke in the water... which of course, I don't want to spoil. He writes as I imagine, he speaks, or rather - he tells the story like you've just bumped into him down the pub, or the way he might tell it to his children, years from now - with absolute passion and enthusiasm. Initially I found the writing style a little jarring to read - it's a bit of a "and then we did this... and then this happened... and then...", and, it took me a little while to settle into the rhythm of it, but, once I did, I realised I wouldn't want the book written any other way. It's very clear that this has been written by Conway, the man who experienced it, and not by a publisher or a ghost writer. It;s very apparent that this is the honest account - the bits that are featured are the bits that mattered most to him, not the bits that would 'sell the book well', not necessarily anyway. And that is certainly refreshing. Soon I would completely zone out reading this book (lying in baths until they went cold, and nearly missing my Subway stop everyday on the way to work), I was so engrossed in what Conway was telling me, because really, that's how it felt - like a friend chatting away to you. I worry if I ever met him, I might behave absurdly over familiarly towards him, simply because I feel I know him so well now after reading this book. The book has an overall positive note and left me feeling motivated - but, there are also plenty of down moments, and real pain and upset; something that can be missing from a lot of adventure/challenge type books or TV shows. I don't mean the scenes you see where the adventurer has a tear up about missing home and the camera does that weird out of focus, zoom in thing, I mean real periods of doubt and darkness without a big budget safety net to bail them out.


Another thing I came to love about Conway was the ordinariness of him - and I don't mean that to be in any way belitting, clearly he is an incredible person who was attempting an utterly extraordinary feat - what I mean, is that he still seems like a relate-able person throughout it all. He doesn't write as though he knew what he was doing the whole time, he doesn't try to create the illusion that he is a highly skilled individual doing something only highly skilled individuals can do - there's no, don't try this at home folks, vibe about it. He makes jokes at his expense, he addresses issues that wouldn't generally come up in these types of stories (how do you go to the bathroom in a wetsuit...), and he really creates a dialogue with the reader that is inclusive and encouraging, rather than boastful or distancing. 

As for the actual subject of the book, swimming the length of Britain, I can't say I knew much about it, or really cared to before I started reading. Sure, I wanted to hear how Conway's journey got on, but I had no knowledge of how challenging it was, or what exactly was being achieved, or, really any idea of what it would involve. Fortunately, this isn't a book that languishes a lot of time or effort on the super technical stuff - it's all very readable and digestible. Brand names and makes and models of equipment aren't totted about, you don't need to have an interest in sailing, or swimming, or fitness to get something from this book. No, this is firmly about the man, and his team, and the experience.

I can honestly say I enjoyed this so much more than I thought I would; it's a cliche, but I laughed, I cried, I couldn't put the book down. It was inspirational and humbling, it was insightful and interesting - no, it's not a masterfully constructed narrative with deliberate, cliff hanger chapter endings built in, it's better, an honest account from a man who has experienced something most of us never will. It doesn't have frills and bells and whistles, because the journey didn't - it doesn't make light of the achievements made, but it also doesn't push them into the levels of awe-inspiring unacheivabilty that a lot of these kinds of books end up in. I walked away from this feeling pumped up, believing that if I wanted to do it, if I really wanted to swim Britain and would put in the work for it then I could... but erm, after reading some of the details of what was involved, I'm, um, not sure I'd like to thanks!  

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