Blessay 11: Swimming Away

To swim is to renew and acknowledge our beginnings. We evolved out of the oceans. And our life, before birth, is in the amniotic fluid of the womb. I sense a primal connection each time I move through a swimming pool, lake or ocean. That’s not to say that non-swimmers can’t know that as well. Yet to swim is to physically touch the watery starting point.

As a boy I struggled to learn to swim and didn’t quite get there. My swimming instructor couldn’t persuade me to even achieve a dog paddle. Swimming was mysteriously dropped from the school timetable, leaving me both relieved and frustrated. Any motivation to continue didn’t come from my parents, as they’d never learnt to swim.

Between the age of twelve to fifteen I read books where heroic boys and men swam. Swiss Family Robinson, Robinson Crusoe and Huckleberry Finn had islands you swam towards or a ‘swimming hole’ you jumped into. I wanted to laze in the idylls of Johann David Vyss, Mark Twain and Daniel Defoe. Yet to build a tree house you first had to be able to swim to the wrecked ship, make a raft and bring it ashore. I could do none of those things. So I read many books and stayed dry.

At twenty-two I went abroad for the first time. Italy – Venice. I camped near the Lido. One afternoon my girlfriend and I went into the Mediterranean. She swam whilst I paddled and waded. The sea hadn’t the stench of Venetian canal water. Yet in my mind it contained a whiff of chlorine; reminding me of Liverpool’s Lodge Lane swimming pool. But there was no bar to hold onto. Frustrated I returned to the shore. Back home, my resolve to swim was akin to an earlier (now accomplished) need to lose my virginity. I paid for six swimming lessons, quickly mastered the basic strokes and completed my first full length of the pool.I rate learning to swim as profound an achievement as learning to walk. Water quickly became my home as much as the land. Of course I walk and run more than I swim. Swimming’s not an everyday habit but a thrice-weekly ritual.

Some works of art, featuring swimming, fascinate me. Jean Vigo’s Taris (an amazing, poetically filmed short film about an Olympic swimmer), references to swimming in Walt Whitman’s erotically charged poem, The Sleepers, John Cheever’s short story The Swimmer and Vaughan Williams’ haunting piano piece A Lake in the Mountains (That swimming connection being my real swim, many years ago, in a lake in the mountains, in the Brecon Beacons. I was alone and it was a hot day with a clear sky. Moving gently through the lake I felt an intimate bond with the landscape around me. For half an hour I swam back and forth in a state of bliss.) But words and images can’t adequately convey the effects of swimming, with its constant watery temptation to close your eyes; be submerged by origins, safely dream of beginnings and swim away.

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