The skinny on Skinny-dipping

Rupert Brooke in Granchester (with soft collar)

Rupert Brooke in Granchester (with soft collar)

On Thursday evening I joined Channel 4 colleagues at The Courthouse Hotel [formerly the Marylebone Magistrates Court, was glad to see cells have been imaginatively retained] opposite Carnaby Street (a resonant area for me as just round the corner from my very first workplace, Solus in Marshall Street, Soho, whose attic contained hidden gems like footage of Jimi Hendrix at the Isle of Wight and James Baldwin in Paris) to view as it was broadcast a programme I had (deliberately) only seen as raw footage – Alone in the Wild. Since the beginning of July we have been publishing online the rushes of the show as they came out of the wilderness of the Yukon, where cameraman/film-maker Ed Wardle was living and recording his experiences himself, completely alone in the wild. My part of the cross-platform commission also involved publishing daily out-going only short messages from the wild via Twitter, which were subsequently used to punctuate the three films in the series. [Next one is this Thursday at 9pm on C4]

One scene in Episode 1 saw Ed delighting in a skinny-dip in the lake where he had made camp, frolicking like a child, immersing himself with joy in the place he shared with a stately moose and grayling destined for his frying pan.

I’ve been equally struck recently by accounts of poet Rupert Brooke’s skinny-dipping activities in Granchester, a place made magical for me after a lone moonlit cycle-ride to there in the middle of one Romantic night. In particular, accounts of ‘The Midnight Swim’ when this proto-hippy young poet shared the waters of Byron’s Pool with the unstable, radical woman of letters Virginia Stephens, later Woolf, who finished her life alone in the underwater wild of a Sussex river.

It was 1911. They were both single. Rupert was 24, Virginia was 29. It was the year Poems 1911 was published (clue in the title), Brooke’s one and only volume of poems to appear during his actual lifetime. (Woolf’s first novel appeared four years later.)

Christopher Hassall describes the incident in his biography of Brooke (Rupert Brooke: a Biography 1964):

“It was the end of August. Virginia Stephen arrived at the Old Vicarage and occupied Ka’s bed on the other side of the house. The garden room was strewn with scraps of Strindberg, pages of Bland Vassen and fragments of verse. Probably the guest had brought with her an early chapter of The Voyage Out to revise while Brooke was reading or writing stretched out on the grass. One warm night there was a clear sky and a moon and they walked out to the shadowy waters of Byron’s Pool. “Let’s go swimming, quite naked,” Brooke said, and they did.”

Brooke mentions in his well known poem The Old Vicarage, Granchester this pool where his poetic forebear Byron swam when no-one was about:

Still in the dawn waters cool
His ghostly Lordship swims his pool

The painter Augustus John, who lived nearby with a caravan load of hot women and brown children, was also a naked frequenter of the pool, as was the philosopher Wittgenstein.

The Midnight Swim is also fictionalised and extrapolated upon in Jill Dawson’s recent novel The Great Lover which I read on holiday this August (exactly 98 years after the skinny-dip in question), kindly given to me by Aysha Rafaele (a fellow C4 Commissioning Editor from Documentaries) who spotted it in the Richard & Judy Book Club pile.

So any action between the two of them, both swingers-both-ways? Rupert, I get the impression, was more inclined to the hetero. Virginia must be well documented but I’m not sure exactly how her bi was balanced. Lytton Strachey had proposed to her two years earlier but they both realised, in the cool light of day the next morning, it wouldn’t work out. I don’t think any one knows or ever said quite what occurred, which leaves it as a lovely little mystery…

The Midnight Swim wasn’t their first watery encounter. In April 1899 (Rupert was 11, Virginia was 17) the Brookes went to St. Ives on holiday, where Leslie Stephen was also vacationing with his family. The two of them played together by the sea.

Yeats called Brooke “the handsomest young man in England”. By the year of The Midnight Swim, Brooke was secretly engaged or attached in some fashion to Noel Olivier, a fascinating character in her own right (Rupert was 24, Noel was 19) here’s her Wikipedia entry.

I had a go recently at drafting a Wikipedia entry for her sister Brynhild who seemed a promising character, the most beautiful of the Olivier sisters, but there’s very little to go on. This is what I have so far:

”’Brynhild Olivier”’ (1886 – 13th January 1935) was a member of [[Rupert Brooke]]’s circle before the First World War and associated with the [[Bloomsbury Group]]. She was the fourth daughter of [[Sydney Haldane Olivier]], 1st Baron Olivier, and Margaret Cox; she was sister of Margery, Daphne and [[Noel Olivier|Noel]].

She married art historian [[A. E. Popham]] (Arthur Ewart Hugh Popham, known as Hugh) in 1912 (becoming Brynhild Popham). Hugh Popham was a friend of Rupert Brooke. They were divorced in 1924. She married [[F. R. N. Sherrard]] in 1924 (becoming Brynhild Sherrard).

She was the mother of [[Anne Olivier Popham]], who became the wife of art historian and writer [[Quentin Bell]]. She was also the mother of the poet, translator and theologian [[Philip Sherrard|Philip Owen Arnould Sherrard]] (born 23 September 1922, Oxford).

Brynhild was the first of the four Olivier sisters the poet Rupert Brooke met. Although she was reputedly the most beautiful, it was her sister Noel Olivier for whom Brooke fell.

She was first cousin of the actor [[Laurence Olivier]].

If there’s anyone out there in internetland who knows anything more about Brynhild (Bryn) Olivier, please do let me know via comments or however so I can get enough substance in the article to make it acceptable for Wikipedia – i.e. more information on what she achieved in her adult life.

Rupert and Noel met in 1908 when he was 20 and she a 15-year-old schoolgirl at the then fashionable, progressive Bedales in Petersfield. Noel’s father was Lord Sydney Olivier (uncle of dear, dear Larry), a prominent Fabian and high-ranking civil servant, serving in his time as Governor of Jamaica and Secretary of State for India.

Bedales was something of a centre for getting your kit off. Various members of Brooke’s circle had been there, the first co-ed public school, which encouraged a passion for the open air and healthy outdoor games. Nude swimming and sunbathing (segregated) made it on to the curriculum (hoorah!). The Sun Bathing Society’s Annual Summer Conference was held there in 1931 and naturists used the Bedales grounds out of term in the wake of their starting to organise in Britain during the previous decade.

Noel went on to have a long and interesting career as a doctor, politically active in a way reflecting her Fabian roots. Rupert had a short one as an early crash-and-burn teen hero, paving the way for everyone from James Dean to (fellow Cantabrian) Nick Drake to River (appropriately enough) Phoenix. He didn’t quite make 28. He cast himself as a Neo-Pagan (becoming a central figure of an eponymous group of writers and artists) and Virginia confirmed this: “He was consciously and definitely pagan.” They were the original Teddy Boys, the reckless youth of the Edwardian era, rebelling against the constraints of stiff-collared Victorian ways.

Embodying the Neo-Pagan ideals of youth, comradeship and the Simple Life, Brooke revelled in going barefoot and skinny-dipping: “Two miles from Cambridge up the river I wander about barefoot and almost naked. I live on honey, eggs and milk.” (letter to Noel Olivier, summer 1909). A bit of Romantic exaggeration of course, but Rupert certainly enjoyed casting off a few layers.

This summer I had the Simple Pleasure of bathing in Lough Hyne, just outside of Baltimore (the one in West Cork as opposed to The Wire one). It is pretty much unique as a salt-water lake, quite the place to go if you want to hang with a goby, shanny, blenny, three-spined stickleback or clingfish. Its salty water reminded me of another top bathing experience – the Blue Hole, East of Port Antonio, Jamaica (aka the Blue Lagoon since Brooke Shields skinny-dipped there in 1980, directed by Randal Kleiser, who I had a ridiculous phonecall with when I was working at Solus – for some unaccountable reason I turned momentarily into The Player, luckily old Randy couldn’t see the tenderfoot at the other end of the transatlantic line). The Blue Hole is a mixed salt and fresh water lagoon, fed by cold underground springs. When you swim you have the unique experience of one stroke warm, next stroke cool, warm, cool, warm, cool, warm, cool. Divers and scientists say it has a depth of about 180 feet. Local islanders say it is bottomless and a monsterous creature lives down below. The mixture of intense physical pleasure and underlying anxiety of the sheer extent and unknowableness of Nature is an experience common to skinny-dippers the world wide.



23 comments so far

  1. practicalpsychologist on

    And let me re-assure you Arkangel that Bedales remained ‘a centre for getting your kit off’ in 1984.

    A lovely piece this. I have become interested in a slightly later period mostly through the diaries of James Lee-Milne (a marvel) and Chips Channon but also ‘Portrait of a Marriage’ and others of its ilk.

    Spent a lot of the summer ‘skinny-dipping’ in France just before bed. Late at night, 11pm, millions of stars,fueled by vin rose. Joy.

  2. practicalpsychologist on

    Typo – should be James Lees-Milne

  3. ArkAngel on

    What’s your experience of Bedales in 1984 – pray, do tell 😉

    And fill us in a bit on Lees-Milne and Chips Channon – ring only the vaguest bells for me…

    Where was your Pool in France? right by your house?

  4. heather on

    What was Randal complaining about? A director of a B movie has nothing to get uppity about.

  5. ArkAngel on

    He wasn’t complaining, I was being a (young, inexperienced) arse. Let’s give Randal his due – he brought us The Word in Grease.

  6. practicalpsychologist on

    The three greatest diarists of the 20th century to my mind are Lees-Milne, Chips Channon and Alan Clark – in that order.

    Co-incidentally the first and the last have biographies being published this month. And they knew each other – mostly because of Kenneth ‘Civilisation’ Clark. Lees-Milne joined the National Trust in the 1930’s (getting the job through his then lover Harold Nicholson whose wife Vita Sackville-West later had an affair with James Lees-Milne’s wife) and is the man chiefly responsible for saving country houses. He operated in the higher echelons of ‘society’ though not quite as high as Conservative MP Chips Channon. I blogged on Channon in 1997:

    ‘Every year I read the ‘Chips’ Channon diaries. For readers who don’t know him, he was a major light on the London aristocratic social scene in the 1930’s and 40’s and he chronicles an age that does not exist anymore. This was a world of country house weekends, London balls, bibelots, champagne and excess – the world of Emerald Cunard and Diana Cooper. He was an MP for 25 years, though did nothing of any significance there. The gift he had was to be able to gossip, absorb and digest acute observations and then write them in his diaries. I can best describe them as ‘discretely indiscreet’. Perhaps the best thing about him – and one of the key reasons for his lack of political success – was his backing of wrong horses. Munich, Chamberlain, Butler and so on. He did grow to love Churchill but was well aware of Churchillian weaknesses which we tend to have forgotten in his recent (and of course wholly justified) deification.’ Chips Channon’s account of the appeaser’s point of view in 1939 is one the best I have read and it is easy to forget that this was the prevailing view from 1933 right up to Czechoslovakia.

    Channon and Lee-Milne were bisexual and promiscuous. They were also indiscreet as well as frighteningly snobbish (Channon observes of a Duke ‘having a real fear of the untitled’). It is said that when the full version of Channon’s diaries can be published in 2017 – he stipulated a 60 year wait in his will – that we will not see the 20th Century and it’s leading characters in the same way. I will be first in line for my copy.

    You may well have heard of his son Paul Channon who died recently. He was a Tory MP and Minister during the Thatcher years (inheriting his father’s seat) and father of Olivia Channon whose death from a heroin overdose was well chronicled by the tabs in the late 1980’s.

    If you enjoy excellent writing, superb observation combined with gossip then I recommend them both highly.

  7. practicalpsychologist on

    The pool was in my garden and is mine. 8 metres x 4 metres so you can stretch out. It is coming back to England pump, filter et al. though I have no idea where I am going to put it. Perhaps to be sold.

    Bedales – it was a ‘friend’. Woodland romp.

  8. ArkAngel on

    PP, you’ve sold me on Chips – I’m just reading Waugh’s Men at Arms and CC’s diary sounds the perfect follow-up.

    Pools you can transport between countries are not quite the full monty for the kind of intense existential experience I had in mind – but they’re plenty fun, not least when buzzed&naked.

  9. practicalpsychologist on

    I ought to warn you Arkangel that he was mildly anti-semitic in that early 20th century way that existed among the upper classes during that period. One does wonder what isn’t in there (perhaps some extremism) given that he wrote 3 million words. The editor Robert Rhodes James has been critisized for playing down Chips’ homosexuality as he did in his historical biographies (Rosebery for example) although in Chips’ case this may be because of the wishes of his son.

    Despite all of this they are a superb read.

    Just finishing the final part of Lees-Milne’s last diaries. One of the few invited to Betjeman’s funeral as they had been close friends for 50 years. Interesting to me to read things like this though I suspect not to most!

  10. Anna Malinovska on

    More information on Bryn Olivier may be obtained from Nigel Jones’ Biography: RUPERT BROOKE Life, Death & Myth
    pub 1999 2nd edition pub 2003.

  11. ArkAngel on

    Anna, thanks a million for that tip, will check it out

  12. Charlotte on

    hello hello from across the pond. Please enlighten me on this small bit of language difficulty — “getting your kit off ” — sounds lovely, whatever it is.

  13. ArkAngel on

    Now you point it out I guess that is quite English English. It means ‘take your clothes off’ and these days the phrase has a bit of a laddish feel to it. The school Bedales had connections with the English naturist movement in the first decades of the 20C. Is there a US equivalent phrase?

  14. George Mannix on

    I worked (for my sins) on Blue Lagoon 2, a dreadful attempt to transmute original crud into…what I’m not sure. We shot the film, following the footsteps of the first film, in Fiji. Randy visited during the shoot. Embarrassingly, people bowed and at scraped at this senior suntanned vampire from the Hollywood hills. Euw.

  15. ArkAngel on

    Lucky old you – Milla Jovovich (was rather taken with her in the Fifth Element). Any juicy stories from the set?

  16. Kate on

    There are fairly detailed biographies of all the Olivier sisters in Paul Delaney’s ‘The Neo-Pagans: friendship and love in the Rupert Brooke circle’. None of them had terribly pleasant lives in their later years, especially Bryn; her daughter, Anne Olivier Popham, married Vanessa Bell’s son (and Virginia Woolf’s nephew) Quentin, and assisted with the editing of several volumes of Virginia’s letters.

  17. ArkAngel on

    Kate, many thanks – will have a read now. Have you taught or studied this subject?

  18. ArkAngel on

    Kate, managed to get a good ex-library copy for the bargain sum of £2.81 from good old Amazon and have had a read. I have now had another stab at the Wikipedia article:

  19. ArkAngel on

    The Wikipedia article I initiated finally took root at and includes a reference to “wild swimming” which was a euphemism the Olivier sisters used for skinny dipping

  20. theluckhabit on

    I think ‘wild swimming’ as a phrase (and activity) is back in fashion. It was very interesting reading back these comments as I am just re-reading Chips Channon’s diaries. There is a degree of comparison to be made between how people are feeling now (COVID) and at the declaration of war. Let’s hope this one doesn’t last 6 years! I may work my way back through the Lees-Milne dairies after Chips.

    • ArkAngel on

      Wild swimming for them meant naked whereas these days it’s a bit broader than that, mainly to do with the nature of the waterway

  21. theluckhabit on

    ‘All I want is an oval library with doors leading into a rose garden, by the sea’ Chips Channon, 15 July 1940. Sounds good!

    • ArkAngel on

      My fantasy perfectly captured! thanks

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