The title of this post would not be out of place in ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue’s‘ newspaper headline round.* While I would not dare to place my comic talent, such as it is, on a par with Barry Cryer et al., the echo is deliberate. This is a post inspired by Victoria Whitworth’s book Swimming with Seals and Gary Budden’s ‘Landscape Punk’. It’s a little story about a little swim on a little beach in a small part of Cornwall.
I have a medievalist friend who is an intrepid and habitual cold-water swimmer. It is a lifeline for her and facebook posts about her swims are a wondrous read. She has recently written a book about swimming, about life, about place, grief, and the past and it is bloody brilliant. It is also a joy, a challenge and sadness. Her reflections are separated by the descriptions of her swims, which I often envy: an utterly ridiculous emotion as I am not a strong enough swimmer for the waters she frequents and I hate getting my ears wet. Yet I love to be in the sea when I can, even for just a paddle.
Last week, for the first time in ages, I swam. It had been a hot and humid week involving travelling to or through London three days on the trot and so I had been fantasising about a refreshing swim in Cornwall for days. As I battled through the last of the marking, the heat of the tube, the inevitable stationary train, cool seawater was uppermost in my mind with a side of clotted cream and scones.
Somewhat later than anticipated the morning after a very late arrival in Cornwall, swimming cossie** under my clothes and a ridiculous over-sized sunhat on my head, we headed to the beach, headless of the bank holiday weekend and, in my case, determined to swim regardless of the number of people in evidence. As it turned out there was hardly anyone there and for my first swim, I was the only person in the water.
I cannot be a spontaneous swimmer. There is a part of me that longs to be the woman who can just run into the sea in her bra and knickers (matching set optional) and not give a damn. But I am pale-skinned and freckled, so venturing in to the sea requires a sensible costume and the application of much factor 50. I also wear water shoes having grown up with dire warnings of weaver fish lurking just beneath the sand in warm weather. I just know the one time I throw caution to the wind and forgo the factor 50 and footwear, I will tread on a weaver and spend the next month indoors with acute sunburn.
The sea was a lovely temperature for a swim: nicely, but not overly cold. I say I swam, but flailed around and generally enjoyed being in the water would be a far better description. For the sea-goddesses, whose books are a joyous counterpoint to the ‘heroic-man-strides-across-the-landscape’ genre of writing, swimming isn’t merely an activity or exercise, but a discipline of both mind and body. Swims engender profound meditations on relationships, between past and present selves, professional and personal identities, place and people. For me it is enough to extract myself from a particularly obstinate piece of seaweed while maintaining a semblance of dignity.
As it was a blazing hot day and the tide was on the ebb, the water soon became much warmer than I’m used to and so rather confused, I got out (also I’d forgotten to remove my sunglasses). Having dried myself off (necessitating the application of yet more factor 50), I headed back into the sea and swam out a little further. Although the beach is sheltered, there was quite a strong swell and I bobbed up and down like an unsteady cork. I floated, essayed a few strokes and became distracted by bits of plastic. My swim became a harvest of crisp packets, plastic bags and other undesirable wrappings. The obstinate seaweed attacked again.
The beach had by now been treated to the application of sunblock over my defiantly un-beach-ready body, the sight of my legs (so pale, they glow) and now a spectacle of a middle-aged woman in a sensible swimming costume performing minor acts of environmentalism. I emerged from the sea triumphant with arms full of plastic and marched up the bin just off the beach to deposit my offerings where elderly American ramblers stared at me in utter incredulity. Perhaps I had seaweed in my hair.
I reflect that there is nothing in the sea goddesses’ writing about such things. But it’s ok so long as someone picks up the plastic.
*Especially piss-takes of the Independent
**Islamic swimwear has a definite appeal.