The middle-aged man as a hero

The middle-aged man as a hero

This memoir takes an unflattering look at a man and his midlife crisis. Darrel Bristow-Bovey is getting older and he decides to write about his haphazardly way of dealing with the harsh reality of life as a middle-aged man..

Darrel sets himself a task and finds a topic for his book: He will try to follow in the wake of Lord Byron and the Greek hero Leander and swim across the Hellespont in Turkey. He just needs to learn how to swim a little bit better. Needless to say the ensuing journey is witty and strangely enough has the ability to actually tempt the reader into following in Lord Byrons footsteps.

The Dardanelles is the long channel of water that runs between the Black Sea and the Aegean. The ancient Greeks called it the Hellespont, or “Sea of Helle”, because that’s where Helle drowned. Helle and her twin brother Phrixus, in the usual complicated story of step-motherly resentment that the ancient Greeks liked to tell each other as bedtime tales, were to be sacrificed by their dad’s new wife Ino, but their real mom sent a flying golden ram to save them. All went well but these were the days before seatbelts were standard on flying golden rams. Helle fell off, landed in the Dardanelles and drowned. It’s one of the recurring themes in stories of the Dardanelles: people are always drowning there.

(In case you’re worrying, Phrixus made it safely to Colchis, where he — a little ungratefully — sheared the flying ram and gave the golden fleece to the king as a gift. Later Jason and his Argonauts came rowing up the Hellespont on a quest to find it. History doesn’t record how old Jason was, but I’m guessing forty-two, going on forty-three.)

p. 97

It is not easy being old, tired and lazy, when you still feel like a young man at heart. Thus, the book consigns itself to a new genre, the ‘coming-of-middle-age’ tale, where we get to read about some 40-somethings adventure doing something slightly dangerous and supposedly learns something about himself (it’s always men isn’t it?) along the way.

As genre fiction goes, there are certain rules to uphold and Darrel Bristow-Bovey does so with amble panache. His writing is witty and unforced although he does tend to write a little bit convoluted (just think of the sentence in parenthesis above), but he also manages to get some insightful historic facts squeezed in among the jokes. Here is what he tells us about the Hellespont:

The Hellespont was an ancient symbol of separation. To cross it with intent was to invade another hemisphere and violate the natural order and it was always punished by the gods. When Xerxes came marching westwards out of Persia to invade the Greeks in 480 8c — thus setting in motion a chain of events that would lead to Thermopylae and the movie 300 and ultimately Zack Snyder becoming the Batman v. Superman director — he crossed the Hellespont by creating a bridge of boats tied bow to stern. When a storm destroyed the bridge, he had the water whipped 300 times and shackles thrown into the waves to enslave the strait. Thus chastened, the Dardanelles suffered him to build a second bridge and march across a million men, the greatest army ever seen.

A hundred and fifty years later Alexander the Great marched the other way and did the same thing, only without the whipping and the shackles. Crossing the Hellespont was like crossing the Rubicon, only before the Rubicon was invented and fifteen times wider. Once you crossed it, a/ed jacta est: you couldn’t change your mind. Xerxes came back from Greece humbled with his army shattered and in revolt. Alexander never came back. He died in Asia without ever reaching the Hellespont again, and his empire fell apart before his body was properly cool.

p. 98

‘One Midlife Crisis and a Speedo’ is a fun read with a few bits of swimming thrown in – but clearly, swimming is not his main focus. If he makes it across the Hellespont or not is not the point – it is all about the journey… and if you want to know the ending, you have to grab a copy and read it for yourself 😉

One Midlife Crisis and a Speedo by Darrel Bristow-Bovey

Paperback, 168 pages, published 2014 by Zebra Press


A swimmer and swimming aficionado. I love everything related to the manifestation of swimming references in popular culture and litterature througout history.

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