For a number of reasons –too much grief in my life, too sedentary, too much television, too out of breath on the stairs– I have started swimming again. Ten minutes to the pool in the car if we time the traffic right, maybe twenty on the bike (out of breath before I start). Going away from town, against the flow. How appropriate. Not a plunge, but a slow ooh-ahh descent down galvanised steps into the steaming water. Tilt of the head as I adjust my goggles. Couple of deep breaths. Then in. Under.
It’s amazing, how it comes back. The last time my body performed swimming, without thinking or gratitude, was during the endless summer holidays, as a teenager. My sister’s school, a ten minute walk away from our house, would open up to families of the school and their friends, on a voucher system. Looking forward to a moment’s peace, my mother bought sheaves of them, like raffle tickets, knowing she had just won the main prize. We wrote messages to girls in the condensation which collected on the plastic corrugated windows. 25 metres, bright blue, with a roof which let in the sun. In, under, crawl, kick, breath, turn. I got to the point of going even when my siblings didn’t come with me. Length, length, length, length, length. Another. Another ten. Go on. You can do it. Fifty? Why not. I used to time myself on the clock above the entrance. These days I always lose count after first ten.
Back for another five? Quick, of crawl, or perhaps a length of back? My own school’s pool was a joke by comparison. Built no later than the 30’s, with a harsh, concrete surround, and a solitary, inflexible diving board, wooden huts for changing, where, inevitably, your towel or clothing could go flying out of the windows or onto the cracked felted roof, not quite out of reach. The public pool next to my aunt’s flat in Renens, Lausanne, was from another world. There was a turnstile, and changing rooms that gleamed. I set out to conquer its Olympic acreage at the same speed and was soon at sea. I was desperate to stay in it for the long haul. To do that, I learned, I would need to slow down, and stick to a rhythm. The thought occurred that I was better over shorter distances.
Even though it kills me, I still love backstroke the best. I swam for my house in it, which is not as clever as it sounds. A prefect shouted for volunteers, and because no one else’s hand shot up with mine, I was in. I remember staying competitive for the first length, then realising half-way through the next that my arms were made of lead. Our pool wasn’t wide enough for five lanes, so I was able to tell my parents without lying that I came fourth (not last, by about a minute). Short enough to swim a length under water, the blue riband event, much more difficult, was to dive from the deep end and float as far as possible without kicking or offering a stroke of any kind. Champion of this for several years running was a boy called Bill Stainthorpe. One of life’s natural prop forwards, his dive was more of a belly flop, scattering the judges. On the surface of the water that remained in the pool Bill floated, and floated, and went on floating, indiscernibly making progress down the length of the pool without moving a muscle till eventually his lungs gave up and he surfaced, grinning, to explosive applause. Like a lot of what went on at school, if you bothered to look over your shoulder at what people thought of you, reaching for your towel as they spun it over their heads, swimming equalled pain. But if you dived in anyway and just got on with it they left you alone. A lesson for life? In our final nights we snuck down there and went midnight skinny-dipping, lungs bursting with the effort of not laughing, desperate to be caught. Perhaps that was the more profound lesson.
The pool, as Billy Collins doesn’t quite say, steaming like a horse, in the early morning. The other day I had the whole place to myself for a couple of lengths, maybe more. I celebrated by trying one of butterfly, surely the most tortuous thing we’ve invented on or near the water. Like writing, the worst bit is starting. My wife and I will say to each other, ‘Are we going?’, as though needing the other’s acquiescence as proof of our own uncertainty. Until she says yes, I’m not really ready to go. I persuade myself that somewhere there is an email that needs replying to. Or an essay needs marking urgently. I need to remind myself that the day I sit at my desk preparing for Ofsted has more appeal than swimming in the open air I have started to negotiate like a condemned man.
Down, under, circle the arms, fling your legs back, and glide. When unconscious intention and bodily decision come together, there is nothing more delicious. That it might take twenty lengths to get there reminds me of another solitary, un-chatty activity where I move up and down in lines forgetting how much I have already accomplished, certain I will lose momentum at any moment. Swimming, even more than writing, helps me lose the day. That I sat pondering an email for an hour, or a sentence for longer. That my coffee went cold, my right hand clasped around it, without my noticing. That I went on sitting, forgetting to eat. It brings me back to my adolescent reading, ambitious, hopeful and shy, prepared to go it alone. Didn’t Benjamin Braddock do all of his best thinking at the bottom of a swimming pool? What better place to let out your fury, where no one can hear (or see) you? And wasn’t Orwell in love with swimming pools? How you could fall in love with, and be repelled by the flesh on view, all on the same afternoon? ‘The naked democracy of the swimming pools’. You could fall in love with worse. Later, reading Heaney’s ‘The Otter’ and Lawrence Sail’s ‘Seeing Through Water’, I learned that lust might be a bit more complex. Hockney knows it. Hollywood ditto. All that lemon light, blue refracting blue. How could you not love it?
Another? Then another? On chance meetings at the end of lanes my wife will look across at me and whisper ‘Another ten’, not pausing to hear me groan as she pushes off on her back. Kick, kick; length, length: out of breath. Like writing, anyone can do it: young, old, black, white, gay, straight, fat or toned. This is not for the special, just the alive. Like writing, it is a joy in and of itself, with no real point except to see where it might take you, which is always further than the imagined next length or line. Like writing, once you make a habit of it, it is hard to lose it, but easy at the same time to forget why, exactly, you showed up at this late and lonely hour, witnessed by nobody but a few other like-minded nutters practising their moonlit backstroke-butterfly. Unlike writing, it is not freely available to everyone, unless you live by a river or the sea. Like writing, it is bloody hard work, without real promise of reward, except that you briefly feel fantastic afterwards. (Dorothy Parker should have said: ‘I like having swum’.) Like writing, after the excitement of the initial plunge, comes the phase when you just hate it and long for it to end. What was it John Cheever wrote in ‘The Swimmer’? ‘The day was lovely, and that the world had been so generously supplied with water seemed like a clemency, a beneficence.’ When it is going well, writing is like that too: you could go on forever. It’s got serious: I’m thinking of buying a hat.