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Synchronised swimming may come in for a bit of gentle mockery, but displays of aquatic feats and ability are nothing new.  “How to swim” by Harry Austin [1914.6.780] is so much more than just a guide to doing the breast stroke.  Austin was the superintendent of Beckenham Swimming Baths for some years after its opening in 1901 and took an active role on the committee, teaching swimming and coaching the water polo team, as well as orchestrating displays of ornamental swimming.   His wife, incidentally, became the first lady president of the Amateur Swimming Association in 1952.

Apparatus for supporting pupils in use at Beckenham swimming baths

Austin’s book does begin with a general introduction to swimming and its history; going on to describe how to learn to swim and how to execute the different strokes, diving, life-saving and floating, but what caught my attention were the sections on various tricks and displays that could be performed.  Some of these were requirements for attaining the Royal Life-Saving Society’s certificates and no doubt served to promote agility and proficiency in the water, but I can’t see too much of a practical purpose for  learning how to smoke underwater.

However, there are, apparently, two way of doing it.  One can sit on the bottom in shallow water with a clay pipe, well alight, and keeping the bowl of the pipe above water, blow bubbles and smoke at short intervals.  Alternatively, put the lighted end of a cigar in your mouth (being careful not to burn your tongue, I assume) and blow gently through it whilst swimming just below the surface.  One finishes by flourishing the cigar to show that it is still alight.  I feel the proprietors of swimming baths nowadays would take a dim view of anyone attempting this trick.

Spinning, or, The washing tub

Probably they wouldn’t like you eating underwater either: a small orange or banana is most suitable, apparently. “Pull some of the skin off the fruit and let it float up, break off pieces to be eaten and push them through the lips until all are consumed, then come up slowly and without a gasp.”

Perhaps some team swimming then?  Two or three swimmers can combine to emulate a steam tug, or a crocodile and then race against each other.  Or attach a swimmer to a land-based “fisherman” with a line and the one can attempt to draw the other to the side of the pool.  Mounted wrestling?  This requires two men standing in the water, each with another man on his shoulders and the two riders attempt to unseat each other.

For a trick that “never fails to provoke laughter when neatly done” you could get together with some friends and demonstrate the Monkey-on-a-stick.  Essentially this involves crouching under water and then periodically leaping straight up with your arms by your side.  I suspect this is harder than it sounds, especially when it comes to remembering to time your breathing while you are clear of the water.

Writing underwater

Finally, if you really want to make yourself look silly, how about Swimming like a duck?  “Balance on the breast, cross the ankles and bend the knees so that the feet come out of the water behind, to imitate the duck’s tail.  Propel by sculling with the hands under the hips.”

On the positive side, I suspect this last feat is the only one of the above that wouldn’t get you peremptorily thrown out…

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