Tuesday, June 17, 2008

chlorine, bromine, resistence swimming

I've always been more of a splasher than a swimmer; when I was a kid I just couldn't get rid of the panic-tendency which meant that as soon as I put my head under I opened my mouth and gasped, getting a mouthful of salty (or chemical-flavoured) water for my troubles. I hated school swimming-lessons, hated every texture and fibre; lycra skull caps, goosebump-effect vinyl, hard towels and rubber locker-key bands. Snorting up water, particularly, wanting to retch.

I hated diving, racing, treading water. I hated getting out of my depth. I hated the coach-journey to the local grammar school, whose posh pool was rented out to the local comprehensives, but I liked the way we used to walk through their playground and sneer at the fact that they were playing cricket not football.

I hated too-tight inflatable arm-bands, compulsory showers. I never had a veruca. I skipped class the day they told us to bring our pyjamas.

Once, long after I'd dropped PE and stopped going swimming, my grandmother told me she hated Wednesdays, and when I asked why, she said "because you always go swimming on Wednesdays, and you hate it".

I do actually like swimming, so long as no-one is making me do it. But even then I lounge round the edge of the pool or, if I swim out to the centre, eschew straight lines in favour of broad arcs and slaloms.

Here's how I learned to swim: Not at school, I don't think, although my primary school did have a pool. I remember swimming for the first time in the sea on holiday with my parents, somewhere warm. I hadn't summoned up the courage to swim properly, so I used to play a game in the water instead, which consisted of walking out well within my depth and half-running, half-bouncing along the sea-floor, playing an imaginary, slow-motion game of football. I'd pass the ball, turn, and pound slowly through the water to my position by the goal, anticipating the cross, which I would meet with a diving header carefully calibrated to leave me back in the shallows, still dry from the neck up.

One day I was scooting along on my hands and knees where the water was warmest, and hence only a foot or two deep, when I looked up to find my father pointing his camera at me. On the rare days the photo album comes out, he always points out that was the day I learned to swim - he doesn't see how my arms are tense, supporting my weight and keeping me anchored. There wasn't a moment on that holiday when I decided to take the plunge, but I think my strides got longer and my body relaxed more, until it seemed I wasn't touching the floor at all any more.

And then I noticed I wasn't.

I suppose I always associate the ability to swim with the process of growing up; the inability to do so is something you throw off, like the inability to walk, or ride a bicycle. We get to the age of, I dunno, three or four or five or six, and learn how to be comfortable in the water. Then I read this weird thing in the Guardian today, an archived article from 1919, and it really surprised me and made me think, and the idea posited within - that we are an island people scared of water - really captured my imagination and made me think about the things we take for granted about modern Britain; including the ability to swim.

"At Ashton on Sunday a crowd stood on the banks of a canal and let a two-year-old child drown.

They even held back a spirited lad who was about to dive to the rescue, and delayed his effort until it was too late. The Coroner yesterday censured the crowd for their cowardice, but we doubt if he touched the root of the trouble.

It needs little or no courage to rescue a child from a canal. If courage were the only essential, no average British crowd would be found to lack it. But the prime factor in courage is confidence, and the paralysis that falls too often on the spectators of drowning accidents is born of a pitiful and needless fear of water.

We are an island people. None of us lives more than half a day's journey from the sea. Water is our natural element, our strength lies on it. Yet the majority of our whole population still dare not trust themselves in it."
The article goes on to declare support for the 1919 Education Act, which made special provision for a new subject; the teaching of swimming. All of a sudden I think back to my childhood swimming lessons and feel a touch of gratitude, rather than remembered horror.

1 comment:

WILL said...

What a lovely piece of writing Jon. It made me feel very nostalgic and warm i suppose is the best i can discribe. Thank you