I'm a strong swimmer, in that I have stamina: I keep going and going. However I am not fast. If I were to compete in a race, I'd cut a woeful figure. Primarily this is because I only do breast stroke. I love breast stroke. Though I've changed my technique over the last few months - improving it, finessing - my love for the essential way my body moves through the water remains the same. Slow and smooth, it allows me space and time to bring my mind into regulation with my body. Dare I say it, it is meditative.
Lately, however, I've had to face a fact - I can't get by anymore without a good front crawl technique. Recently I was reminded of this when I rang up Brighton Swimming Club to join their sea-swimming group. Talking to their head, Fiona, about my swimming abilities, everything was going well - she even proposed we 'test the waters' together with a swim around Brighton Pier. A couple of months ago I swam easily the around the West Pier so I knew this would be no problem. But then I told her that I don't do front crawl. Silence. We can't accept you unless you can do, well, at least sixty lengths of it. So there it was - my dreams of sea swimming daily, pier to pier, dashed. I know it makes sense. Any sea swimming club needs its members to be able to shift into front crawl when waves become unruly, when the current tugs in unfavourable directions. Breast stroke is never going to get you to shore in a storm. Sometimes it's wild out there, and Brighton Swimming Club swims every day, all weathers. How naive could I be? Perhaps it can be your winter project? Fiona suggested tentatively. I'm sure you'll be up to sixty by new year.
Fiona hasn't seen my front crawl. Essentially, it resembles someone drowning. However I took the bull by the horns and two weeks ago I had my first swimming lesson. James, a young instructor, began the lesson by saying, Let's see what you can do - go on, do a length, any stroke. I breast stroked up and down the end lane of Kind Alfred's, calm and swift. Then he asked me to show him my front crawl. I managed quarter of a length before sinking - mouth full of chlorine, lungs full of water. We tried me using a float. Then turning just to one side. Half an hour sped by. What I learnt is that I know virtually nothing about how to do the front crawl and that learning in the King Alfred pool is a horrible, humiliating experience - lifeguards gathering at the poolside to witness my failure.
So I've taken to teaching myself, with a little help from a friend. I do my regular sixty lengths of breast stroke, and then try out half a length here, quarter of a length there. I've even tried in the sea. It's hard. My body is a jingle jangle of movements, desperate to come together: feet, behind, head, mouth, elbow, fingers. Sometimes one or more of them does, and then I'm off, tasting the freedom of what it might be like to really be able to swim this way. However mainly I thrash about in the water, swallowing too much of it - panicking, exhausted.
But I'm determined. I will learn. I have until April. I taste the desire for it, to change my stroke and experience the water in a different way - to speed gracefully through open water.
I know little about the swimming technique known as Total Immersion. However, slowly I am taking in more information through watching videos and reading online. It's pretty attractive to me. What is appealing is how this technique goes directly against so many of the strategies I've seen in swimming up to now - where it is about speed, strength and pushing oneself. I've witnessed so many swimmers in the pool thrashing about, pushing themselves against the water, powering themselves up and down the Fast Lane. This is the opposite with an emphasis on relaxing and working with the water.
I'm keen to learn more. I've noted that they run swimming 'holidays' where you learn this technique 'in depth', as it were. However, seeing as they are at £300-£500 a go, for now I'll have to satisfy myself with watching YouTube videos and trying to follow their advice once I'm in the pool. Click the link above for a nice account of someone's experience of Total Immersion.
Just when we thought summer was a distant, drab memory, it returned this weekend, in a blaze of heat and blue sky. In fact, this was what made it so special - everyone had started gritting their teeth for the onset of cold, turning their heating on, getting out the Ugg boots, and then, BAM! we were hit with a glorious sunny weekend. And so the beach, from Brighton Pier to the end of Hove, was rammed with locals and holiday makers, day-trippers... who cares, none of us did; all in it together, sharing the joy, filling every possible space of that stony beach - dogs, barbeques, toddlers, all squeezed in together in one (slightly dangerous) mush.
Usually I'd take exception to this. I hate crowded beaches. I tend to think I own the stretch from the start of Hove Lawns to its end, and woe betide anyone who dare befriend me/ talk loudly next to me/set up a stinky barbeque in front of me and then proceed to sing Bob Dylan songs to an out-of-tune guitar. But all of these sat fine with me, because Sunday was the last perfect day of summer. I swam to exhaustion, and then I swam some more. Then I lay in my bikini until the sun turned cherry above me.
I see it all around me in the dull splash, the curved arm, the pointed toe. Amidst black, insect-eye goggles and red rubber cap (talcummed and pulled apart, ready for the swim). Amongst those in and out breathes, plunging hands; knees raised towards chests. Amidst all this oh-so-god-forsaken unsexy behaviour, underneath that water: wet tongues of desire, the cuff of repulsion. Two teenage boys, willow-thin, chase each other up and down the Medium Lane. I wonder if they are considering the twenty-year-old woman in front of me; if they swim behind her just so they can watch her part her legs as she breast-strokes towards the deep-end. Glimpsing the soft inner flesh of her thighs, a ripple of buttocks in the water.
A man with curly, silver hair and a lard fat belly sits alone in the kiddie's pool. The children have all gone. I noticed him earlier, watching me as I stood up in the shallow end to adjust my bikini top. I note his saggy, checked pants; surrounded by blue mist and1970's orange tiles. A water slide, in chipped turquoise, looms behind him. Is it hard to be a sixty-something-year-old man amongst the young, and occasionally, beautiful? Watching bits and pieces wobbling, opening and closing? I shiver as another man glides past me, his arm raised into a perfect arc, his fingers piercing the water's surface like an arrow. I chug along beside him, feeling blessed by the elegance of his movements. He is a perfect machine.
Sixty-something and saggy - that's no perfect machine. I wonder if I've got this old man all wrong. If I project my own sexual predatoriness onto his pink, spreading body. Teenage girls, limbs like HB pencils, breasts almost alive in their bikinis, run along the poolside. Do we all cruise youth and beauty, if only for a few seconds? For enough time for us to get our hit?
In the Slow Lane, an old lady sails past me like a sack of flour. I see plump thighs, fat breasts floating on the water as she feigns backstroke. She's hardly moving. Her white hair is scraped back under a rose-studded rubber cap. Fat hands; rouged cheeks. She lifts her hand up in the air and it sails backwards. She is a Queen greeting her subjects.
Above me, a high ceiling is intersected with gleaming orange tiles, and all around, potted palms. Below I think I see something floating - some object I don't recognise: white and puffy. I try to wipe the image from my mind. Instead, I survey a clutch of thirty-something men in the shallow end, and wonder who they are behind their dark goggles. They all look so serious - like they mean business. It's hard not to look that way in goggles. Do I look like I mean business? Do I mean business? My arms already ache and I've only done twenty lengths. This isn't like me. I have a tenth of my usual strength. Is it because I had a hard day at work, or have I lost 'it'? Six months ago I'd have swum twice this and not given it a second thought. Tonight my breathing resembles a pensioner's, and I have to pause at the side of the pool after every six or so lengths. But I am happy. I am back where I belong. Public swimming pools are wonderful places; I cannot escape humanity here. Intimacy is foisted upon me even as I try to maintain my own space, and my own schedule. A man's hand strokes my leg as he passes by me the other way. I realise that I like some men looking at me. With others I try to make my goggles as intimidating as possible. Oh, the harshness of it all.
Now I'm home. My skin is hot. I'm bundled in my pink towel robe, knees up in bed, notebook on knees, writing this. My eyes hurt; I cannot write anymore. So tired. My body is happy for me; it says "I knew the water would save you from yourself". I need saving from myself sometimes. So tired. Words drift off like old pensioners on their backs, their red lipsticked mouths catching the electric light on the water. Floating sacks of flour, drifting down the Slow Lane.
Black sand in between bony toes. A kestrel circling the bay. My own nakedness against the wave. How it slapped my shoulder hard. A boy with a toy gun, another
with a stone. Him reading on the shore. Crying quietly in the back of the
car, to a folk tune I’d usually skip over. Chairlifts – how we flew
across treetops, descending the cliff.
A rock: blood on my
thigh, purple dashes on both palms. Not caring how I looked in a
bikini. Surf like gnashing teeth. Doggy paddling over
rocks. Staring down at seaweed, salt stinging my left eye. Forgetting my age. Shadows cast from a stone, how it
blocked the sun. The darkness inside the cave gobbling me up. Taking terrible photographs. A Fab ice lolly. Salt on my lips all day. Imagining a person sea-swimming until their breath ran out, and wondering if, one day, that person might be me. Light blinding me, my from-the-sales Gap sunglasses too loose. A tall cross dedicated to a poet. Cuts and ear infections. Gashes. Wounds. Hitchhiking to Newport. Clotted cream scones and Assam. A blown out tyre. Darkness. Headlights. Cocteau Twins on my headphones.
I met my friend today, alongside her new, and not so little, puppy. We walked towards Hove lagoon, a pink ball squeaking every step of the way, until we found a dog-friendly stretch of beach. The weather has changed in the last few days. On Friday night I camped out by Balcombe Lake, and it was only by keeping every part of myself (face included) inside my four-season sleeping bag that I could stay warm. I slept little, however, ducks quacking all through the night (who'd have believed that mallards could be so noisy?), and squirming in my 'two-man' tent that closely resembled a coffin. However, I woke up to this. The photo doesn't really do it justice. Mist rolling in at 6.45am is a beautiful thing.
This morning was drizzly and grey, promising little. However, as my friend and I sat down behind a groyne on the beach, the sun felt hot and the sea, dazzling. She stood up, and, waving her arms around in circles, told me about a Tibetan nun she'd met in India, and how the nun had once described compassion as being like the sheen of sunshine on crashing sea waves. I stripped off my dress and leggings, unhooked my bra and ran into the water in my knickers. It wasn't particularly cold. However, probably because we were right next to the groyne, the force of the waves immediately knocked me back onto the shingle.
Consequently I didn't get very far into the sea, each wave hitting another wave that had bounced off the concrete groyne. and knocking me over, time and again. It was fun, but it made me aware how strong the waves can be. In the Isle of Wight I'd jumped wave after wave, all above head height, but was able to ride them; we were in tune somehow. Today, I had no chance. I ended up sitting amongst the pebbles and letting the surf roll over me (and even then the current was strong.) Afterwards I leaned against the groyne and dried out. I wasn't cold at all. It was probably my warmest dip of the summer.
My outdoor swimming days are numbered. It's a bit sad that my desire for outdoor swimming has escalated as the temperature drops daily. Each dip in the sea is a bonus. I bought this book the other day, but it looks like I'll be keeping it for next year. At least that'll give me more time to forge friendships with other swimmers, preferably ones who are braver at wild swimming than I am. There's nothing like a friend egging you on to get you into that freezing water.
This film, starring Burt Lancaster, is based on a short story by American writer, John Cheever, and is about a man who, one mid-summer's day, decides to get home by swimming across all the pools in the county.
The story is highly praised for its blend of realism and surrealism, its use of myth and symbolism, and it is an exploration of suburban America, especially the relationship between wealth and happiness. Personally, I just quite like the idea of watching Burt Lancaster running in some tiny shorts.
The summer my Mum had her last stroke I spent dragging my blue and white dinghy
to the seafront, eating hot pizza from the diner, rubbing salt into my skin. My
dinghy had become almost a minor celebrity amongst friends. We held beach
parties where the dinghy was wrenched across pebbles as guest of honour. We
went racing up the Adur in it. We huddled on Hove beach in the breezy evenings
comparing sea-faring stories, and drinking beer.
the waves I’d watch Brighton dissolve into a spray of lights, sunshine bouncing
off Sussex Heights. The Palace Pier was a blue and white haze, its tiny cable
cars rotating in a clear sky. Inside, however, I felt more like the West Pier –
a blackened edifice crumbling slowly into the sea, inhabited only by starlings,
cockles climbing over my limbs. I’d sail out in the dinghy as far as I could
go, until everything went silent and I felt the yellow buoy slippery under my
hand. I came to long for this silence once back on land again. I rowed to
forget myself, to forget what lay back at the shore. The last thing I wanted to
remember was what was happening to Mum.
One afternoon I went out in the dinghy with a friend – a clear spring day; the
hottest April in Britain for years. My friend took control of the oars as I
sank back against black rubber, warming my face in the sun. We were the only
people in the water. Soon we were going round in circles. The oars flapped like
broken wings, the current suddenly against us. After ten minutes of spinning in
circles and panicking, my friend regained control and we slunk back towards the
shore. However in the distance, a lifeboat was already sailing towards us, a
noisy helicopter circled overhead.
These were clumsy days. I
grabbed life where I could and fell through its cracks again and again.
Thirty-three and sailing about in dinghies; almost thirty-four years-old and
finally learning how to ride a bicycle again. I flew over the handlebars on the
cycle path along Hove Lawns one bright September morning, the sea to my left,
trapped under a tangle of metal; saved by three old ladies with purple rinses.
To some I was practically middle-aged. But I felt like a toddler with a cut
knee, wailing for my mother.
My vision of life felt crooked, bent out of shape. A part of me couldn't see
the point when all it came down to in the end was one plastic tube, a
ventilating machine and your own flesh and blood too terrified to look you in
the eye. So instead I swam.
was nothing more to be done for Mum to try and make her better, no more hoping,
no more reassuring words. The grueling years of listening to her say, "If
only I could just get up and walk to the television set, if I could just drive
to the Post Office, if I could just make myself a sandwich; if I could just
have your father back home again" finally were over.
wheelchair stood empty in the back of her bathroom. The hoist now hung limp
above her bed. She was far away in another bedroom, attached to drips and
machines, staring out of a window at robins that hopped about the bird-table
and pansies sprouting up from the ground. Which was the bird and which the
flower, I was never certain she knew.
Losing her speech had left her to a silent fate, a whiteness of language, the
two sides of her brain in eerie silence. She couldn’t ask for anything she
wanted. Maybe I hoped that finally the ghosts had left her.
I do believe that at times
during that summer, Hove seafront saved me. Whether crashing bicycles or adrift
at sea, lifeboat men booming laughter in my direction, there I was in the midst
of life, in the belly of colour, light, sound. Some nights as I cycled home,
I’d hear nothing but my own wheels on the tarmac, the sea stretching out before
me like a beaten sheet of metal – the moon, luminous, wandering.
The ideals of my twenties left me crashing and burning
in my thirties. I’d become so tired of the endless bullshit, the friends who
sharpened their knives, the disappointing lovers. How many men would pass
through my eyes before they’d finally grow dark and tired, before I could no
longer see, before the mechanisms of sex ground to a halt somewhere between my
vulva and my upper ribcage? Before all I wanted became too much, too impossible,
dreaming even higher, craving even more until I was nauseous – an excess of
life in the bloodstream, mainlining experience but unable to deal with its
didn’t realise it then, but those long summer months of survival down at the
beach, flitting from England to Wales and back again as I visited Mum in
hospital, were the preparation for a major change in my life. My ideals had
swum away; no religion was going to prevent me from being alone, and no lover
either. The only thing that closed the gap inside of me was writing. It was
then that I understood the world again; it presented itself to me in colours. I
staked my game on it, put in all my chips. And it was worth it for those brief
seconds when the sky was luminous again and I was permitted to walk on the
inside of language. I saw my mother lying unmoving before me on her white,
sheeted bed, and by putting pen to paper I could articulate my love for her
more clearly than ever. In those moments I was content.
The idea for this blog came to me whilst breast-stroking up and down my friend's pool (the one in photos in another post) - condensation dripping onto my nose from the plastic roof, my goggles making frightening white marks in the skin around my eyes. I wanted to keep a record of my swimming experiences and more importantly, write my thoughts and feelings around them. A few weeks before, I'd decided (this time in the slow lane of Hove's King Alfred Centre pool) to write a memoir about my mother, told through my love for swimming. Though this has changed a little recently, it struck me that by keeping a swimming blog, I could keep ideas for the book bubbling away. Also, frankly, it would be pleasurable to write.
Though as a child I loved swimming, spending countless holidays running in and out of the sea, jumping off concrete into emerald pools and rolling in sand on foreign beaches, between the ages of fifteen and thirty-three I swam only two or three times, tops. Yet only weeks after Mum's final stroke, in that hot traumatic summer of '06, I found myself regularly splashing about in the sea off the coast of Brighton.
I love swimming in wild places – lakes and rivers – but I also love the tang of chlorine and rubber flip flops in the air at swimming pools. I like simply being near water - on cliff tops, peering over the edge to the drop below. However, my favourite place to be is the sea. Nowhere calms and exhilarates me as sea-swimming does. There is no high like that of breast-stroking towards an infinite horizon. I fantasise of one day swimming the Channel. So I want you to come with me as I delve deeper into myths and dreams of the sea, of swimming and of swimmers, and as I explore new swimming holes, and marvel at the creatures under the water we so rarely pay attention to.
We all deal with grief differently, but I never expected swimming to have such soul-soothing powers. These days I believe in the redemptive power of water (after all we use it to bless and baptise). Though I do like swimming out to where the water is deep, I don't have a death wish. In fact I have a life wish. Putting it simply, I love being in water. I'd like to share this love with you.