Swimming is one of my favourite pastimes for many reasons. It keeps me fit, it gives me precious private space and it acts as a sort of punctuation to articulate the day. There is always before and after a swim. Sometimes, especially in winter, it takes me a while to convince myself that I must go for a swim. If it’s cold outside, the prospect of walking down to the baths, getting changed and diving into the water is not terribly appealing. But I know from experience that it is a question of managing perception, as the water temperature, whatever the outside air temperature, is fairly constant, between 26 and 28 degrees Centigrade, winter or summer alike. After the first surprise of immersion, your body adjusts to the water temperature and by the end of a kilometre, 50 lengths of a 25 metre pool or only 20 of a rarer 50 metre Olympic pool, the mind has completely forgotten about the initial perceived difficulties.
In my imagination swimming reconnects me to the primal life form that crawled out of the swamp millennia ago, the faint cross-shaped patterns of the vellus hair on my upper arms suggest the paddling fins of my prehistoric ancestors, genetic tattoos of our fishy forebears. Swimming reminds me, however, that I don’t have gills and need to raise my head out of the water to breathe in fresh air. Inhaling and exhaling carefully produce a yoga-like attention to the breath, which is always calming. When I learnt to swim the crawl, after decades of breast and backstroke, my instructor told me to imagine that my body was encased in an invisible sheath and that I should attempt to keep inside it as I took each coordinated stroke, to keep my arms close to my torso and my legs as serpentine as possible. He also told me to point my fingers to the front of the pool and my toes to the back, stretching in both directions at the same time. It works wonders on the spine and was confirmed as beneficial by a more recent yoga teacher, whose exercises I have now incorporated into my swimming routine.
During the forty-odd minutes it takes me to swim a kilometre, space-time is all my own and throughout the almost weightless progression through the invisible water, thoughts churn and coagulate, and ebb and flow until they seem to bubble and evaporate into the nothingness whence they came.
Swimming regularly is like a surrogate religion or rather a surrogate religious practice, creating a structure, like a ritual, which allows you to follow, mindfully or mindlessly, the same set of movements, gestures and behaviour wherever you are. Swimming pools become like chapels or churches, places of worship, each with their local differences, styles, practices and customs, but all with the same central liturgy of diving, plunging, arm and leg strokes and their clergy of life-guards, pool attendants and receptionists. Praise the pool!
This was my first homework exercise for the Narrative Non-Fiction Writing course I’m doing at City University run by the fabulous Peter Forbes.