Swimming

So far this year I have swum 34 km – a little over 21 miles. Not bad, especially as (what with the move and various illnesses) I didn’t get in the water until April and I’ve been swimming on just 31 days.

Swimming is wonderful exercise. The closest thing to weightlessness on earth, and you can strike superhero poses: Spiderman poised on the side of the pool-building ready to leap into the abyss; Superman flying through the air-water, arm outstretched, as you launch yourself into a crawl. And after, I feel so virtuous. Tired and virtuous. As though there was something morally good about swimming that other forms of exercise lack.

I’ve been trying to remember when I first learned to swim, but I find it’s like trying to remember when I learned to read. I can remember a time before I could swim, as I can remember a time before I could read, and I can remember a time after I could swim, as I can remember a time after I learned to read, but the actual learning process is gone. I suppose this means it happened (in both cases) early on and quite without drama.

I grew up by the sea, but I doubt that I learned to swim in the cold waters of the English Channel off the shingle beaches of Brighton. I remember we splashed around there in the summers, my sister and I, when the family walked down to the beach for a picnic. How we dived through the green breakers and wound ribbon seaweed around our arms and lay on the pebbles and let the surf break over us, but swimming – not so much. Still, I was comfortable in the water.

I suppose I first got that comfort when I was about two years old and we lived in Qatar. Mum has stories about paddling in the warm sea and having little fish come and play around one’s legs, but I have no memory of that. When I was about six we lived in Ghana, and there I remember playing in the sea and in the water at the mouth of a river. The sea was rough, with currents and an undertow, and my sister was almost lost when she was taken by a current, but fortunately another bather, a strong swimmer, dived into the water and saved her.

At the river mouth there was a bathing beach and a lifeguard who sat in a chair on a stand, high up so he could look out over the beach and the water. He kept up a constant stream of shouted directions and instructions telling people not to swim there, to stop splashing, to swim closer to the shore. I remember I thought he was an entertainment in himself, but I don’t really remember swimming.

And another memory from Ghana is climbing down into a half-drained swimming pool and sitting in deckchairs by the water filling the deep end that was just about deep enough to play in. But still, no swimming.

Then when I was about 9 or 10 years old and we were back in England, I remember school trips to the King Alfred Swimming Baths on the Hove seafront. By that time I could swim, at least in the shallows, though I didn’t dare to swim out of my depth. But I remember I used to take myself down into the deep end, hanging onto the side of the pool and with my feet on the ledge about a metre down. One day, in order to get around some other boys who were in the way and having a fight, I stepped off the ledge and swam, and suddenly realised I was swimming in the deep water and was very surprised. So by then I could swim.

It’s odd, but I don’t remember ever being taught. I must have been, surely?

I can remember someone demonstrating a stroke – the breaststroke perhaps – fully dressed and lying on a table. Or am I just remembering a scene from a farce or a film? I remember laughter. But I can’t remember swimming in the water with a teacher walking alongside shouting instructions, shouting encouragement, as I see and hear now when I’m swimming in the pool and school classes come in.

Although I always enjoyed swimming, it was not something I kept up as an adult. It was an occasional pleasure. What was difficult about it – what is still to some extent difficult – is the business of getting to the pool and getting changed. The memories come back of those school trips to the King Alfred. The stripping naked along with all the other boys, the teasing and the bullying, the smell of chlorine and the slap of wet towels, the hurry and the anxiety. It still comes back, though now it no longer gets too much in the way.

So, as I say, I didn’t keep it up. Just now and again a dip in a pool, some strokes in a lake, splashing about in the sea. And then I waded into a depression and suddenly swimming became a way out.

Swimmer illustrationOh, I don’t want to pretend it was just swimming, and I don’t want to pretend that it was a quick fix, but the swimming definitely helped. In the water, in the pool, pushing my way through the water, pulling myself, kicking myself from one end to the other, counting lengths, counting strokes, holding my breath and counting, counting so it was difficult to think of anything else. Difficult to dwell on failure, or misery, or melancholy, or the black night of the soul, or whatever you want to call it. And so, in a sense, I swam out of my depression.

And along the way I learned a better breaststroke, I improved my crawl, I rediscovered my backstroke. You wouldn’t watch me now for style, or speed, or even stamina, but nevertheless, I swim. Though I certainly see faster, more stylish swimmers every time I’m in the pool, I also see people who are just as clumsy as me – more so even. And I’m back at the pool two or three days a week, month after month.

To be sure there have been breaks. Come winter I fall ill. I get out of the habit. I miss a week, and the week becomes a month, and the month becomes a season, and any excuse is good enough. But for 17 years now I’ve always managed to get myself back into the swim of it. I don’t think I’ve missed swimming for a continuous stretch of more than about six months in all that time.

And so, here in Brussels, in Uccle, at the Piscine de Longchamp. Once I got over the initial hurdle of learning what the pool required (Lycra swimming trunks and a swimming cap), how much it cost (€4 for a visitor but €3.30 for a resident with an ID card), what I needed to take with me (a €2 coin to use in the locker). Once I got used to swimming a 33 m length, and figured out when it was best to go to the pool to avoid the school kids. Once I’d dealt with all that, it was easy enough to get back in the water and swim.

Now, here at the end of September, I’m wondering how many more swimming days I’ll manage to get in before the inevitable winter flu breaks my rhythm and sneezes me out of the pool to shiver and drip and feel generally sorry for myself until the spring comes around and I convince myself to get back in the water. How many more swimming days? Fingers crossed, quite a few.


If you liked that you might also like The pleasures of a morning swim, Ten letters for swimmers or Ten things in a public swimmingpool.

The illustration was made on my Samsung Galaxy tablet using an app called Artflow. Tidied up afterwards and subtly improved in Gimp on my main computer.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

The Soundcloud audio recording includes ambient sounds I recorded at the Longchamp Swimmingpool last week as well as a few minutes of sounds from the repository at Freesound. The intial and concluding splash comes from Kayyy, the sound of waves breaking on a beach comes from jakobthiesen and the open air swimmingpool ambience comes from Oneirophile. My thanks to all three.

Details

Of all the cities that I have lived in, Brussels seems to have the most varied architecture, revealed not just in the shape of the buildings but in the details and decoration.

Before we moved here I had no unified image in my head of the city, though I had visited three or four different times when I had been involved in EU schools projects. Each of those visits must have been to a different quarter of the city because each was so different from the others. One visit must have been to the European quarter because I have memory of tall buildings sheathed in mirror glass, another must have been to a district where there was a strong French influence on the buildings – somewhere fairly central but not so modern. A third memory is of slabs of brutalist concrete, which I think now must have been the campus of the Free University of Brussels. My fourth visit must have taken place in December and coincided with the Christmas market in the Grand Place because I remember a freezing mist and lots of tawdry decorations.

House with balcony - ForestLiving here and walking the streets I’m beginning to get a better grasp of how Brussels has grown and developed. I think it must always have been a very wealthy place, but also a place of considerable individualism where the outward impression its citizens wanted – perhaps still want – to give to others has been important.

In Sweden architecture tends to be either very “classical” or very time specific. Classical means made from wood and painted in a narrow range of colours among which Falu red and yellow ochre predominate. This contrasts with the stone and later concrete buildings from the late 1800s onwards which tend to be much more influenced by international architectural trends. But one thing is very particularly Swedish – all buildings built at more or less the same time resemble one another closely. In more modern decades, whole quarters seem to have been built according to the same design even when erected by different builders. Swedes, it seems, do not wish to have their houses look different from their neighbours’.

Even in Britain, where you do see a deal more variety, and where people often pride themselves on making their gardens unique or painting their front doors and window frames a distinctive colour, it is still most common to see parades of houses that all look basically the same.

Not so in Brussels. Here it is much more often the rule that each house is designed and built independently of its neighbours, even when it shares dividing walls with them. It is unusual to see even two neighbouring houses that share a pattern. Many houses, even ones that look quite modest sport a stone inscribed with the name of an architect and the date of construction.

Wooden door in YxellYou’d think this would make for a confusion of styles, but in fact it seems to harmonise rather well. Possibly because all the houses in any given quarter are more or less the same height and have more or less the same frontage, possibly because even though different architects may have designed each house, they often follow a similar period style or – in the case of modern replacements – have been designed with sensitivity to the neighbouring styles. However, even ultra modern blocks filling gaps in the city’s streets often feel comfortable in their place. It’s only the huge residential blocks that have gone up in certain areas to accommodate diplomats and Eurocrats that seem out of place.

Fortunately these monster buildings do not make up more than a fraction of the Brussels housing stock, and it is the low rise townhouses that predominate in both wealthy and less well-off areas.

The architectural design of so many buildings is not only to be seen in the structure of the buildings, but also in the way they have been decorated. Even if I didn’t know that Wallonia used to be an important ironworking region, I would certainly be able to guess that somewhere around here there must have been a tradition of ironworking because of all the cast-iron features used to decorate Brussels houses. From the grills on the doors to the balcony balustrades, from the coal hole covers to the fan lights, the ironworking details are fascinating.

Visiting the Royal Museum of Fine Art and peering at the background details in many of the paintings, you get the impression that Belgians have always enjoyed focusing on funny little details.
Mary Magdalen and squirrel

Of course, funny little details and architectural flourishes make for a more interesting environment, but they aren’t necessarily either practical or ergonomic. I do sometimes feel it would be nice if Belgian architects (and indeed English architects) were to spend more time thinking about insulation, plumbing and heating – as their Swedish counterparts do. But you can’t have everything, I suppose.


This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

10 Things Out of Africa

Last week I read an article in The Guardian: 10 things Africa has given the world. It was disappointing. I appreciate that the list doesn’t claim to be the top 10 things Africa has given the world, but it’s hard to escape the idea that any list of items like this must be chosen for their significance. Anyway, the 10 things the article identifies include two vegetable products (shea butter and coffee), a dish (jollof rice), a word (ubuntu), a fast food chain (Nando’s), penis transplants (yes, really), jazz, modern art (because African art inspired Picasso), mathematics (because of two disputed archaeological discoveries) and mobile telephones (apparently because some of the rare earths used in mobile phones are mined in Africa).

Weak!

Here instead is my own top 10 of things I think Africa has given the world. Let’s start with…

1. The Human Race
2. Civilisation
3. Resources
4. The Scatterlings of Africa
5. Food and drink
6. Swahili
7. Inspiration
8. Beyond inspiration
9. Medicine
10. Hope

I know the Internet likes articles that list things: “The 20 cutest faces cats pull”, “5 ways to know you’re a jerk”, “10 things Africa has given the world”. I know this article doesn’t really fit the mould. Writing it has taken a lot longer than I expected. Writing it has also given me – I have to admit – more respect for people who do write those sort of articles. (Not a lot more respect, but some.)

I’m sure you could come up with another list, perhaps a better list. Feel challenged? Got to it!

Africa in the world - satelite image of the world globe showing Africa


This took me far too long to research and write, consequently no recording this week.

The illustration – a satelite image of Africa from NASA – is reproduced from the creative commons stock at Wikimedia. “Africa is front and center in this image of Earth taken by a NASA camera on the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) satellite. The image, taken July 6 2015 from a vantage point one million miles from Earth, was one of the first taken by NASA’s Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC). Central Europe is toward the top of the image with the Sahara Desert to the south, showing the Nile River flowing to the Mediterranean Sea through Egypt.”

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

The worst journey in the world

What is the worst journey you have ever made? Recent events, public and private, have got me thinking about my own worst journeys and the concept of a bad journey. (And I should point out that some of the following may not be for the squeamish — or for people eating a meal. For the same reason I shall eschew sound effects in the recording.)

In 1922 Apsley Cherry-Garrard published The Worst Journey in the World, a masterpiece of travel writing which I believe has never since been out of print. It is the account of the 1910-1913 Scott expedition to the Antarctic of which Cherry-Garrard was one of the survivors. That was a pretty dreadful journey, no question, but “the worst in the world”?

Good or bad, best or worst, these are subjective judgements. What’s good for you may not seem so great to me. What’s bad for me might seem a walk in the park next to Cherry-Garrard’s winter journey. I’ve not struggled through a screaming blizzard in the pitch black Antarctic night several tens of degrees below freezing in order to “acquire for science” (i.e. steal) some Emperor penguin eggs. I have not then failed to rescue my fellow explorers, leaving them to die of cold or starvation just a few kilometres away. I can agree, that must have been pretty bad. My worst journey doesn’t compare objectively, but it happened to me and subjectively it was so bad I still measure all my bad journeys against it.

It started well enough in the summer of 1995. The school year was over in Sweden and I’d been working in Poland, helping out on a training programme for Polish teachers of English, and was making my way back to England to visit my mother in Brighton. The weather was fine, the sun was warm and the fields and even the old industrial towns of Poland and eastern Germany were smiling. I took the train from Warsaw to Berlin where I broke my journey to be a tourist.

It was not quite five years since East and West had been reunited, just over five years since the fall of the Wall, and Berlin was filled both with reminders of the Cold War division and the rubble and reconstruction that was replacing them. I particularly remember taking the U-bahn to Potsdamer Platz (which had been one of the East German ghost stations), getting off and walking through what felt like a labyrinth of temporary passages and steps up to the surface to find myself in the middle of one massive building site. But I also walked through the Tiergarten, central Berlin’s fantastic park, and the summer sun filtered down through the leaves of the trees on the families spread on the grass with their one-time barbecues and picnic blankets and children playing. There was hope in the air.

That evening I ate a chicken dinner at a fast food restaurant near my hotel. As it happened, not a good choice. I wasn’t going to sleep long — my train was starting early — and I think being a bit nervous about missing the train kept me awake and interfered with any messages my stomach might have been sending me, because I don’t remember feeling sick until the train was underway.

It was one of those trains that pick up and drop off carriages en route. I think its final destination may have been Paris, but my carriage was going to the Hook of Holland where I had a ticket for the ferry to Harwich. It was a long journey through similar bucolic countryside and historic urban centres as the train from Warsaw, and all bathed in the same gentle June sunlight, but I was not in a state to enjoy it. Soon after we left Berlin my stomach started cramping and I found my way to the lavatory. This being a German train the lavatory was clean and functioning. I was to test it considerably during my journey, but it never failed me.

worst journey 2Although I started the journey in my seat, I ended it — certainly the last few hours — standing as close as possible to the lavatory, in the corridor by an open window, gulping fresh air and holding on to the wall hoping I wouldn’t fall, wouldn’t shit myself and that the train wouldn’t be delayed. I was so pleased when we arrived in Hook on time that I almost convinced myself I was feeling better and carried my bags from the station to the ferry terminal (not a great distance) with some confidence. After boarding the boat, however, I realised I was in a cold sweat and my legs were shaking. Seven hours at sea? I had my doubts.

I had recently agreed to my bank’s suggestion and invested in a Visa credit card. My first credit card. Oh, how I appreciated that! This was an afternoon crossing, so there were cabins available and I was able to book one — all for myself — and with a bathroom en suite. I spent the entire trip stripped to my underwear (when the fever was hot) or wrapped in a blanket (when the fever was cold), lying on the bunk or squatting on the toilet or (a new development) vomiting into the toilet bowl. To be honest, by now I really didn’t have much left in me to evacuate, but my body was determined to do its best.

It was now that I realised I was passing blood. I’m not sure when that started, but I remember observing it with a kind of detached resignation. I knew it wasn’t a good sign but I was beyond caring.

Before the ferry reached Harwich I took a shower, dressed and tried to make myself look as normal as possible. Importing a deadly pandemic virus into England? Me? Good heavens, no officer. Just a little under the weather.

But nobody was interested, so I boarded the London train. Where I was immediately reminded of the difference between German and British trains. This was at the very beginning of the disastrous privatisation programme that destroyed British Rail, but at this point the London-Harwich line was still part of the demoralised and deliberately underfunded though still state-owned Network South-East. The underfunding was reflected in the absence of electricity, water or toilet paper in the train’s lavatories. One of which I nevertheless took possession of.

Night was upon us. I have an abiding memory of the lights from one station after another strobing past through the frosted glass window and sporadically illuminating the interior of my smelly cell. I found hooks to hang my luggage on and I wiped off the toilet seat as best I could — it was fortunate I had packets of paper tissues bought on the boat. The toilet bowl, though encrusted, was empty. It was of the “not to be used while the train is standing still” variety — old-fashioned even in 1995 — the sort that opened to drop deposits on the tracks beneath. I locked the door, and I don’t remember anyone hammering to get in. So I coped, and the train eventually pulled into Liverpool Street station. Then all I had to do was get across London on the toilet-less Underground, catch a train to Brighton and finally take a taxi home to my mother’s. Two and a half hours, tops.

The following day Mum took me to visit her doctor who diagnosed dysentery, but not amoebic dysentery (which was good news). And then I was able to spend the next eight or so days recovering.

That was and remains my worst journey. I don’t think you’ll disagree with me that it was a pretty bad experience, but let’s reflect a little on what makes it nevertheless something less than a really bad journey; less than the worst journey in the world.

Although the journey itself was awful, much that surrounded it was rather good. It was a journey I had chosen to make, planned in comfort and organised myself. I was satisfied with my contribution in Poland, I enjoyed the journey from Warsaw, Berlin was interesting, I had tickets and credit to get me across Europe in relative comfort despite my illness, and a legal right to travel (despite my slightly feverish concern about being identified as the vector of a pandemic).

Above all, I had a home to run to and someone waiting for me who, while it might not have been the thing she most wanted to do, was still prepared to take me in, look after me and get me medical attention.

The Worst Journey?Apsley Cherry-Garrard had a worse time than me, no question. He ended up feeling at least partly responsible for the deaths of Scott and the other expedition members. Also those Emperor penguin eggs which it had been so important to collect that he’d given up more than three years of his life, turned out, when he returned, to be no longer of any scientific interest. Still, it was a journey he had wanted to take, he wasn’t forced to take it. The life he left behind he could pick up again when he returned and (as I think you can tell from his name) that life was not your common or garden lower class existence. (To be sure, the First World War came along and spoilt things, but that tragedy lies outside the scope of Cherry-Garrard’s journey, and outside the scope of point I’m trying to make.)

So let’s think of a journey that really could be described as the worst. Not only would the actual journey have to involve a series of horrible incidents, terrible travelling conditions, lack of water or food, exhaustion, illness and perhaps actual physical violence and/or convoluted bureaucratic hoop jumping. Not only would it involve surrendering yourself into the hands of strangers, perhaps professional smugglers, perhaps incompetent do-gooders, perhaps unscrupulous money grubbers. Not only would it have to have an element of moral peril: you yourself would have to put another person or people at risk, perhaps friends, perhaps relatives, perhaps the one person dearest of all.

More than this, the journey would have to be involuntary, not chosen for adventure but forced by circumstances, or chosen perhaps as the least worst of a series of bad options. And there would have to be an element of irony (this is a post-modern story it seems), so let’s imagine that journey’s end is in a country which is either directly or indirectly responsible for the circumstances at home precipitating your journey. And to add to the irony, let’s include the fact that all your life savings — a fraction of which would have bought you an airline ticket to fly you to your destination — must instead be spent on the journey you are taking by land and sea because the country to which you are fleeing (which may accept that you have a legitimate cause to seek asylum once you get there) has made it impossible for regular airlines to let you buy a ticket or board a plane so you could travel quickly and in safety.

And at the end, what? Not a homecoming. Not a welcome, not safety and security, but the coldness of strangers, hostility and mistrust — to such a degree that the dead lost along the way, the children drowned at sea, the mothers and fathers suffocated in the back of a lorry, the sisters crushed beneath the wheels of trains, the brothers frozen to death in the undercarriage of high flying passenger jets, all these seem to be happier for no longer having to suffer.

Now, that. That would be the worst journey in the world.

The worst of journeys


This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.