These are my three scents – three smells that each conjure up vivid double memories of events widely separated in time and place.
Last week’s entry here about smell maps kept me thinking for days of specific scents and the meaning that they have for me. I started a page in my note-book and soon had a list of fifteen or so. These are not just smells I recognise, they are scents that, when I smell them, have the power to transport me in time and space to a moment, a place, a feeling.
I imagine everyone carries within them a little smell library that will work this same magic. In fact, I’m fairly sure the library is what Kate McLean was tapping into in her Paris exhibition (described last week). Everyone will have a different set of scents, of course, and even if you and I include the same smell in our libraries, the memories it conjures up will be unique to each of us. Scent memories are very personal.
I spent so much time playing around in my scent library, I decided I really had to write this week’s article about some of them.
To try to limit myself (you know how I can ramble on given half a chance) I decided to restrict myself to smells that have two attached memories, and because this blog is about travel, I have chosen three smells that link two completely different times and places.
This is neither the scent of a fresh apple, just bitten, nor is it the true smell of apple blossom. It is the artificial apple scent that was a popular ingredient in shampoo in the seventies. A shampoo my sister and many girls her age used.
I’m sure the chemists who created the scent wanted to imply apple, and it’s certainly true that it is reminiscent of apple, but when I smell apple blossom or bite into a crisp green apple those scents spark no vivid memory. It’s only on the nowadays rare occasions that I pick up on just this created “apple” scent that the magic works. I am fifteen or sixteen, drawn to girls but very self-conscious and awkward. I am sitting on the upper deck of a Brighton bus (I think it’s the number 2), behind a gang of girls giggling together in a cloud of Green Apple. One of the girls makes my heart turn over, but I can’t speak to her for fear of the others – or of how she would dismiss me.
Nowadays the smell has a double exposure. Not only do I find myself aged 16 in a Brighton bus, but I am also aged about 35 and in the audience at a performance by Jonas Gardell in Sundsvall’s Kulturmagasinet. Gardell has not yet reached his current Swedish “national treasure” status, but is already widely known for his books. As we don’t yet have a TV, I’ve never seen him before, but I’ve heard him on the radio and now I am delighting in my ability to follow his performance. My comprehension of spoken Swedish is better than I thought.
Gardell is reading from his notebooks, memories and ideas, stories and autobiographical snips, and suddenly he is talking about the scent of Green Apple. And there it is. I’m back in that damn bus again, but I’m also hearing Gardell’s voice – though I’ve no idea now what story he was telling or where the scent of Green Apple came into it.
The interesting thing is that, the second time around, I didn’t need actually to smell the scent – just hearing it described was enough.
About ten years ago now I was working at a school in Falköping, Ållebergsgymnasiet. We teachers started the school year with a “kick-off” that took place a few days before the school opened for the students. Many Swedish schools run something similar to help integrate new people and renew bonds between staff members. Perhaps it’s common elsewhere too.
On this occasion we were bussed around the area (which is largely agricultural) and got to visit various nature sites and farms. One of these was a farm for free range chickens – but free range in barns. It was not a delightful place. Although there was a lot of space overhead, the chickens were packed in together and filled the barn from one side to the other. I suppose it was a better option for them than cages, at least they could strut around and scratch the ground, but they were not outside.
The smell was overwhelming. On two counts.
First it was acrid, acid, eye watering and foul. But more than that, it was a smell I knew – had smelled before – though never as intensely.
I had to leave the guided tour and get outside to breath and as I leaned up against the wall of the barn in the sunlight, I was no longer a 47-year-old teacher in rural Sweden. I was six years old in the back alley behind our house in Tema, Ghana in 1963. The alley ran between the windowless, whitewashed, breezeblock huts that housed the African “boys” – the young men who served the (mostly white) engineers and their families, of which mine was one.
Most of the “boys” – who were actually in their twenties – were married and some had children. They kept chickens, that strutted and scratched and shat along the alley. And that was the smell and the memory that overwhelmed me suddenly in August 2005.
These two memories are closer together in time, but link Finland and Yorkshire.
It is 1984 and I am in the kitchen of our flat in Kouvola in south-eastern Finland. She who will eventually become Mrs SC is baking Mazarines. These Swedish cakes involve ground almonds and as we have to do everything properly, we are grinding the almonds in a manual grinder. (That’s my job.) I am stealing the occasional almond to sustain myself. I pick one from the small, separate bag. “Don’t!” she says. Too late. My mouth fills with the taste of bitter almond.
And instantly I am five years younger, just out of Leeds University with a BA in English literature and History, but not sure what I want to do next. I’m still living in the city, working as a labourer in a steel fabricating company. Today and all this week I’m working in a team with a welder, a young man, not much older than me. I’ve lost his name, but I can see his face now as clearly as if he sat opposite me.
We are out of doors, erecting a fire escape for a convent of Dominican nuns. The parts have all been fabricated in our workshops in the railway arches near Leeds Station and brought up here for us to put together. We’re putting the handrails up and my partner is arc welding the pieces together with me coming behind grinding down the excess. The smoke from the grinding process smells almost sweet, I think and I’m trying to place what I’m smelling.
“Almonds?” He asks.
“It’s cyanide,” he says with a grin. “Try not to breath it in.”
And back again five years later, the taste of a bitter almond in a Finnish kitchen brings back that week of work with sudden vividness. And ever since, the smell or taste of bitter almond reawakens both memories.
So, those were my three scents. What are yours?
The original pictures for all the illustrations (including the portait of Jonas Gardell) are Creative Commons licensed from Wikimedia Commons
The Ghana Christmas ball was the first Christmas present I remember receiving
I have not celebrated Christmas in the UK since 1983. I still get asked from time to time what Christmas is like in England – it happened again just recently – but after all this time it’s not as if I know what goes on nowadays, and how much do I really remember? Still, I have a stock answer. I say: “Christmas is too many people in too small a space for too long, stress, booze and at least one blazing argument.” Which sometimes gets a laugh or a smile. Less now than it used to – my delivery is slipping. (Or too many have heard it already.)
Still my stock answer felt true once upon a time, and it’s certainly the root reason why I’ve not been “home” for Christmas for 32 years.
And yet… thinking back now I wonder if that description – if it was ever completely true – wasn’t true for just a few years, just a few Christmases, when I was in my teens. Perhaps in the run up to the separation and through my parents’ protracted divorce proceedings?
Trying to remember the Christmases of my childhood, I can’t actually bring to mind anything that corresponds to my stock answer.
The first Christmas I remember was in Ghana when I was six. I don’t feel that the concept was new to me, so I must have then had memories of earlier Christmases, but now, looking back, this is the earliest I can recall.
We celebrated Christmas, my Mum and Dad, my sister and I, at the expats’ club. My engineer father was dressed as Father Christmas in a hooded coat and and a large false beard. Sweating like a pig (to use his own expression) he handed out presents to all the children. Although I’d been told it was Dad in the red hood and white whiskers, I wasn’t entirely convinced. He was giving a very jolly performance and seemed to be enjoying himself in the surging sea of reaching kids. Could this really be my father?
I look back now and see my six-year-old self on the edge of the crowd looking on with suspicion. I can’t escape the probability that I’m imposing a later perception of my father and our relationship on the scene, but the true memory I have remains. Father Christmas, large, red and white, seen over the heads and arms of the kids. Up close, I guess, I would have seen his eyes at least and smelled his smell (Old Spice covering sweat, cigarette smoke, whisky), but I have no memory of that.
I do remember my present was a brown football that I was only moderately pleased to get. I suppose that I’d wished for something else, though I can’t remember what.
The football may have been Dad’s choice, but my adult self doubts it. I imagine a job lot of toys, wrapped by the mothers and put in the sack for Father Christmas to pull out. Nothing with a specific child’s name on it. In this scenario, my getting the ball would be chance.
That seems harsh, now I think about it. In fact Dad might have chosen the ball for me in advance, if the opportunity presented itself at a moment when he was feeling generous. He might even, at the moment of picking gifts from the sack in Santa Clause mode, have recognised the ball for what it was in its wrapping paper disguise and taken it to give me. After all, a ball would have been the sort of gift he might choose.
I wonder now if my six-year-old self was already wary of ball games. I was certainly wary of them later on. I’m like my father physically in many ways. I’ve inherited his build, his walk, his hands and his hairline, but one thing he didn’t pass on was his ball sense. Dad was a natural ball player. Football, cricket, tennis, golf – you name the sport, he could play it. But probably because all ball games came so naturally to him, he was also hopeless at teaching others – me – how to play. He tried a little to begin with, but he failed. Catch was about the limit of what I was capable of, and even then I fumbled the ball more often than not. I was both a disappointment to him and a puzzle: How was it possible that a son of his was such a bad ball player?
My abiding memory of the Ghana Christmas ball is its colour. Brown. Like one of the hens that scratched in the dust around the homes of the African houseboys. I’m not sure when the ball went missing, but it was soon after we got home from the club that Christmas Day.
The children’s party was in the afternoon. The club house was decorated with strings of coloured Christmas tree lights and the shutters and curtains were closed against the sun, but I remember how bright the day was when we came outside. I guess there was to be an adult party there in the evening, but our parents took us home for supper and bed.
I may have played with the ball in the garden in the early evening after we got home. That was when it went missing. I lost it at some point, kicked it out of sight, looked for it, failed to find it, just as Mum called me in to supper. Did I worry about losing it and decide not to tell anyone?
Later, as the light was failing, I stood on the veranda, looked down into the shrubbery and saw what I thought was the ball, but I was in my pyjamas and now getting called to bed.
The following morning the ball wasn’t where I thought I’d seen it and I wondered if, in fact, what I’d seen was one of the hens. Or if one of the African kids on the street had found the ball and taken it.
I don’t remember any repercussions for having lost the ball. This supports my belief that Dad never chose it for me himself. If it had been a present he had particularly picked out he would – surely – have been cross with me. And I – surely – would have remembered.
And that’s it – the first Christmas I remember. Me looking from the sidelines, an unwanted gift, a loss, an uncertainty. But no fighting and no recriminations.
Walk down from the Brighton Clock Tower towards the sea and take the first left. You are on Duke Street and entering the older part of Brighton. Not quite the oldest part, that is in the Lanes, but this is the first extension of the old fishing village that developed in the late 1700s.
Walk on down Duke Street, noticing there is still one second-hand bookshop left – there used to be at least four, but it’s somehow comforting to see that one has hung on. You can see the “Victory” pub on the corner of Middle Street.
Turn right down Middle Street, ignore the entrance to Duke’s Lane. It’s just the same tourist trap it always used to be. (Though, if you like, take a photo of the figure of the Duke on the first floor balcony. Someone has a sense of humour.)
Middle Street has a kink in it as you pass the back wall of the infant school’s playground. Observe how the old Hippodrome is boarded up now and looks in need of serious redevelopment. Once an entertainment Mecca, now it’s just a waste of space. It probably has a preservation order on it but no one with the money who’s prepared to try a restoration. (Mind you, forty years ago it was still only a ghost of its former self. Bingo once weekly is all I remember.)
Here on the right is the narrow terraced house with the plaque to William Friese-Greene “the inventor of cinematography”. (The plaque lies.) Opposite is, now, the Coach House Restaurant. If they are open, go in and have a cup of coffee. If you can, sit in the front room, on the street, looking out onto Middle Street with Friese-Greene’s plaque in front of you and you’ll be in roughly the same place I occupied for a year during working hours between the summers of 1975 and 1976. If there’s no business in the restaurant (as there wasn’t the day I visited) you can engage the bored but patient young man who serves you with a story about what used to go on here, once upon a time.
When I left school and before I went off to university I took a year out. Nowadays I’m told this is standard practice and young people taking their gap year travel around the world, go on extreme journeys, get drunk (or high, or laid… or all three) in every continent they can and generally get all the adventurousness out of their systems before settling down to three, four or more years of serious academic study. At the tail end of the 70s it was more unusual, but I did know people who went to work on a kibbutz or spent a year teaching for Voluntary Service Overseas. Two years after me, my sister did voluntary work in Belfast with an organisation trying to bridge the gap between the warring communities there.
What I did was get a job.
It wasn’t entirely my own doing. My mother’s former boss, Mr Oliver, dabbled in antiques. Especially, he bought and occasionally sold antique clocks, and he’d previously given me a commission to research and write up an essay about the earliest clockmakers in Britain. Now he recommended me to one of his suppliers. Which was how I ended up working in an antiques shop on Middle Street.
Capewell Antiques was owned and operated by an unlikely business partnership. One partner was Nicholas Mann who specialised in grandfather clocks, Properly called longcase clocks, they are floor-standing clocks operated by weights and a pendulum. It was Nick who was Mr Oliver’s supplier. Nick was a stocky, cheerful, curly-haired man. He had an easy smile and calculating eyes. I guess now he was in his early thirties, though I’ve always been a poor judge of age.
Nick lived in Wales where he had storage and a workshop, and drove around the country buying longcase clocks and taking them home to fix up. He dealt in other clocks and some pieces of furniture as well, but longcase clocks were his main interest. Every so often he would load up a van in Wales and drive all the way down to Brighton with new stock. Brighton was a magnet for European and American dealers and collectors.
There were usually about 30 of Nick’s clocks in the shop at any one time and one of my jobs every morning was to do the rounds, winding them up and setting them working. Usually I then went around and stopped them all, because – take it from me – 30 longcase clocks all chiming at more or less the same time on the hour every hour (not to mention the ones that also chimed on the quarters) is enough to drive you insane.
The other partner was the eponymous Phillip Capewell.
I don’t know for sure how he came into possession of the shop that had his name on it. I can’t believe it was by his own efforts. I’ve a vague memory of someone telling me his mother bought it for him. Or perhaps he’d once been more successful. By the time I came on the scene though, he was certainly not doing enough business on his own to keep the shop stocked and open. We always carried more of Nick’s stock than Phil’s. Phil needed his partner.
I think Phil must have been about the same age as Nick and like Nick, he was short and stocky, but where you could sense Nick was muscled under his skin, Phil was just dough all the way to the bone. He had a round puffy face with small blue eyes and straight blond hair. His small, pudgy hands were adorned with antique gold rings. He always wore at least two and one was a seal ring, a ring inset with a red intaglio that would once have been pressed into hot wax to create a raised image.
I’d never before ‒ and never since ‒ come across anyone with Phil’s body language. He used gestures almost as if he’d learned them consciously, but then in the middle of use he would seem to get tired of them and abruptly do something unexpected. For example, he would sometimes hold his chin in one hand in an attitude of thought, but then he would suddenly and quite savagely use his fingers to pinch the corners of his mouth together so his lips pursed out. Other times he would hold the palm of his hand against his cheek, again as if thinking, then sharply wipe the hand down and flick the fingers off his chin. Sometimes he would rub his hands together as if in glee, but I never got the impression he was doing it because he actually felt pleasure, it always seemed as if he was putting it on.
I thought of Phil as, basically, a knocker boy with pretensions. He certainly had the gift of the gab. I never saw him actually knocking on the door to talk people into selling him things. By this stage in his life he was buying from the real knocker boys. But he always had a story about anything he was trying to sell – usually a story about the previous owner. “He was a colonel in the Royal Sussex,” he’d say (though I knew the object was something he’d picked up in a flea market a week before). Sometimes he liked to present himself as a go-between. He was selling for the owner: “She’s a lovely old lady who’s fallen on hard times, poor soul.”
His story-telling overflowed into the rest of his life too. Whatever happened to him got inflated into a story, and he was the hero who came out on top. After I’d worked in the shop a few weeks and witnessed some of the incidents that Phil then turned into stories, I got to the point of taking anything that he said had happened to him with a very large pinch of salt.
If Phil had been the only person putting goods into the shop it would not only have been rather bare, it would also not have been an antiques shop, except maybe six or eight weeks out of the year. Most of the stuff he had on sale was better described as second-hand or, if I’m being generous, “vintage”. According to some of his friends, who dropped into the shop looking for Phil but stayed to chat with me if he wasn’t there, any really valuable pieces he bought he’d store in his flat rather than bring to the shop. I suspect he wasn’t getting them quite legally.
Phil didn’t come from Brighton. I’m fairly sure he came from the West Midlands, but he worked on trying to get people to think he came from London, preferably the East End. He couldn’t do the accent, but he loved trying out rhyming slang and new expressions. Especially, he loved to use slang expressions to talk about the value of things that he bought and sold, and the money that he made.
Except he didn’t talk about money, he talked about dosh. Most of his dosh he kept in readies, in rolls of notes in his pocket.
“It cost me a monkey,” he’d say, “but it’s worth a grubby hand.” (Meaning he paid £500 for something he thought he could sell for £1000.)
“I can get a grand for that but I only paid a string of ponies.” (£1000 but he only paid £250 – which is 10 ponies, 10 times £25.)
“He said it was worth a long ’un but it wasn’t even nifty.” (Worth £100 but not worth £50.)
It was from Phil I learned that there are only five types of wood.
“There’s oak, oak is good. There’s beech, beech is good too, but not as good as oak. There’s pine, pine is crap. And there’s mahogany, mahogany’s good.” Anything else was “fruit wood”.
I got more nuanced information from Nick when he was in the shop.
“This is sycamore, American. Not maple, it’s too light. Lovely wood. Look how dense the grain is. See these flecks? Sort of freckles? That’s typical sycamore.”
Then I would tease Phil by asking him “What wood is this?”
“Beech,” he’d say.
“Nick says it’s sycamore.”
And he’d wipe his hand down his cheek and flick his fingers and say, “Could be,” and change the subject or tell me to make him some tea.
I wonder where they are now, forty years on. I can’t see Nick as a pensioner. I imagine him still buying and selling his clocks. Whenever I catch an episode of one of those British reality TV shows about antiques, I half expect Nick to turn up as a dealer or even – why not – an expert. But Phil I can easily picture on a golf course somewhere in Spain, betting on the next putt. I wonder if he’s still using the same half-cockney slang for money or if he’s picked up some new words. Does he call a euro a “eurinal”?
I fear it’s likely.
Coda I had written the above when I decided to go on line and see if I could track down Nick Mann or Phil Capewell, just to see if they’re still around and what became of them. I couldn’t find Nick. There are a surprisingly large number of people called Nicholas Mann, which is odd as it’s a schoolyard joke ‒ “Nicholas Mann’s a nickerless man!” You’d think parents would be more careful about the names they give their kids. However, Phillip Capewell was a different story.
Phil Capewell may or may not be playing golf in Spanish retirement just now, but in 2008 he was sent to prison for 5 years for receiving stolen antiques, at least according tothis blog article that reproduces a report from the Brighton Argus. That photo, there at the top ‒ a Sussex police mugshot ‒ that’s definitely Phil. A receiver of stolen goods and the beneficiary of violent crime. Although I can remember Phill passing at least one unsavoury comment about sex, I don’t know how much credence to give to the accusations of paedophilia in the follow-up information below the news report. Still, what a pitiful excuse for a life.
Last week I was visiting England, and I took the opportunity of spending a couple of days in Brighton and Hove. I took a lot of photos, so this week’s blog entry (late, I’m sorry) is partly an excuse to share some of them.
Brightonian, by the way, is the accepted adjective for residents of Brighton, but what is the equivalent for Hove? Hovian doesn’t seem right (although there is a local blog of that name). OxfordDictionaries.com tells me: “No exact match found for “Hovian” in British & World English. Did you mean Jovian?” Well, no, that would be someone from Jupiter, wouldn’t it? OK, how about Hover? The definition seems quite appropriate actually: “Remain poised uncertainly in one place or between two states”. That’s Hove.
When “Brighton and Hove” became a thing, many people of Hove feared their distinct urban identity would be swallowed up by Brighton. That does seem rather to have been borne out by events. Even though the new City Hall is what used to be Hove Town Hall, most people now talk about Brighton rather than Brighton-and-Hove. I can’t say it bothers me terribly, but I know Hove residents who are fighting a rearguard action in typically genteel style by, for example, refusing to address letters to the BN3 postcode area with any identifying name other than Hove.
If you ask someone from Hove if they come from Brighton they will probably say “Hove, actually”. In Hove that counts as a really witty put-down.
I grew up in Hove, first on the border with Portslade, later at the very end of Dyke Road Avenue, up in the hills, and the last school that I attended (the last of eight) was also in Hove — the Cardinal Newman Comprehensive School on the Upper Drive. (Yes, I worked my way through eight schools before going off to university. What of it?)
When I was a kid there was a descriptive phrase in circulation to mark the difference between Brighton and Hove. It was “yobs and snobs” – the Brighton kids were yobs and the Hove kids were snobs. I suppose this reflected a perception of a class difference between Brighton and Hove – Hove was more middle-class, more genteel; Brighton was a larger town with a greater variety of people and, I suppose, more workers of various sorts, though it was also much more vibrant and with a more interesting history as well as a more interesting current existence.
Or perhaps Brighton had more yobs coming down from London. It was certainly true that if you were standing anywhere on Queens Road at about 10 o’clock of a summer’s morning, you would see a tide of people emerge from Brighton railway station to sweep down Queens Road, past the Clock Tower and on to the seafront. The first cheap train from London came in at about ten – the first train for which you could buy a Cheap Day Return ticket – and so the first train that would bring holidaying Londoners to “London by the Sea”, as Brighton was also known.
Not that that meant the people of Hove were all so very much native residents. When I was a kid Hove was a popular place to commute to London from, and of course to retire to. My memory of Hove was of a place with a very high percentage of old people – many of them among the last generation of Imperial civil servants – who spent their days grumbling to one another about how the country had gone to the dogs.
I swore I would never be like that. Consequently (if I am to keep my oath) I can never return to Hove to live because there is a very real danger I would spend my time grumbling to other people of my age about how the country has gone to the dogs.
Although “gone to the dogs” is a bit of an overstatement. The truth is, things have changed – in some ways for the worse but in some ways for the better. That’s very obvious now, though it was less true the previous time I visited.
Fifteen years ago, when it became a city, Brighton and Hove had an unemployment rate over 10%. Even in the town centre, even in the flashy new shopping centre at Churchill Square (well, new and flashy when I was a boy), there seem to be more shops empty and abandoned than open, and among those that were open, charity shops seem to dominate. Now it’s obvious that the economy, if not the British economy then at least the economy of the Brighton and Hove area, is on the rise. There are still empty shops and derelict buildings, but by far the majority are open and doing business.
On the other hand there are large numbers of beggars and homeless people camping out in the doorways of the empty shops and in the shelters on the seafront and you cannot walk the streets without being petitioned: “Spare some change, gov?” And we’re not talking about EU beggars — Brighton’s beggars, the ones I saw last week, are largely white and clearly native speakers of English. (If nothing else, the “gov” is a giveaway.)
The weather was cold and damp while I was there, everyone I spoke to told me how I’d just missed the good weather, and I shivered to see the homeless in their torn sleeping bags, dirty blankets or cardboard and newspaper beds. I don’t usually give to beggars — I don’t usually carry change (I’ve been suedified – it’s all done with cards now), but I was on holiday and had cash for small purchases, so I gave some of it away.
If the majority of the shops 15 years ago seemed to be charity shops, now I was struck by the number of estate agents. Property prices are booming and property renovation is going on all over. There’s another reason why I could never move back — I don’t think I could afford it.
Brighton and Hove – especially Hove – was always, as I remember, a bastion of conservatism. Hove and Brighton Pavilion are the two Parliamentary constituencies that embrace central Brighton and Hove. Both returned Tory MPs one after another in all the election of the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s. Then in 1997 the total bankruptcy of the post-Thatcher Conservative Party was revealed when both Hove and Brighton Pavilion were captured by Labour.
I sat up all night at home in Sweden and watched the results come in and when Hove went Labour I knew I was witnessing something historic.
Labour held Brighton Pavilion till 2010 when they lost it again, but not to the Tories. In 2010 Brighton Pavilion returned Britain’s first Green MP, Caroline Lucas. A seat she held onto in the recent election now in May. Meanwhile, the Tories clawed Hove back in 2010, but in 2015 have lost it, again to Labour.
Meanwhile the Greens were in (minority) control of Brighton and Hove City council for four years between 2011 and 2015. You can see their legacy in all the cycle lanes and pedestrianised or part-pedestrianised streets.
But regardless of politics and economics, of poverty and affluence, the sea and the seafront (or the Front, as we call it) are much the same as ever. Even the wreck of the West Pier is still there, though looking smaller and tidier now the most dangerous bits of the structure have been removed. The Pier that Wouldn’t Die. A fire burned it out, then explosives failed to destroy it, then a salvage vessel failed to dismantle it. Storms have broken over it for years, but still it stands, a feature and photo opportunity that must be known around the world by now. (My local pride is showing I fear.)
I spent a full day in Brighton and walked along the Front, passed the Angel of Peace. (Who turns out to have nothing to do with a peace treaty between Brighton and Hove as I used to believe. I’m quite disappointed.) On to the beach and across the shingle, down to the breaking waves. Far out to sea the misty shapes of cargo vessels are following the mark of what Kipling called “the Channel’s leaden line” and eager dogs are chasing driftwood while sporty types jog along the promenade or run up and down the shingle banks between the beach and the prom.
As the rain that had held off for my walk started to fall I took myself into Hove Library. It was a pleasure to see the library is still in operation, and clearly well used, but it was also a relief to find the building hasn’t been replaced. I walked into the children’s section and my feet took me automatically to the wall where the good books used to be. No more, the tall book cases I remember have been switched for low ones displaying colourful covers instead of the rather drab institutional bindings the books used to have. But still, here was where I found the Moomins and the Railway Children and Dr Dolittle, where I explored Swallowdale and Coral Island and dived 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, where I stepped across the Wrinkle in Time or listened to the Wolves howling about Willoughby Chase. And then upstairs to the corner of the general library where they used to keep all the history books that were my salvation throughout my O and A Levels. This is a lot more as I remember it, though they have English Literature here now.
When one has read so much about libraries being forced to dumb down or give away or sell stock or simply close, it’s good to see that Hove still has the right idea.
And on that note, as I see I’m pushing 1750 words, I shall close this text that started out as just a vehicle for my photos. There may be more next week!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanch’d land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
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.
Oh, 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.
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.