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65@65 You Can't Lock Down the Moon

As lock-down eases, somewhat uneasily, there was a moonlight swim locally. With Kristie, Judy, Jeremy, and Pauline, in a new-rules group of six of less, distanced socially. The full moon emerges briefly, huge pink flower-moon, before disappearing behind cloud only to re-emerge later, towards the end of the swim, throwing down its ladder on the water. All very evocative, very wonderful, very Edvard Munch mid-summer light on the water. With the lake water at twenty degrees plus, it ends up like bathing in moonlight, reminding me of many moonlight swims in many places. The full moon comes around every month, Covid-19 or no. You can’t lock down the moon.


After a day of Zoom and Team calls in front of the screen, I haven’t quite made the switch to nature from the virtual. Seeing real people I haven’t seen in a while is very exciting – I rejoice in their three-dimensionality. If I were a dog I would be sniffing their bums with glee. Seeing the moon emerge makes me think of the artist Nam June Paik, who had an exhibition at Tate Modern before lockdown. He does stuff with old televisions and much more, and foreshadowed the age of virtual communication we are in now. I am minded of his ‘The Moon is the Oldest TV' – a dark room with TV screens showing the moon at different phases, eerie TV light, like, but not-like moonlight. You can see I am having trouble with reality. While Warhol said in the future everyone would be famous for 15 minutes (his is the exhibition currently locked down in Tate Modern; I’m much less of a fan), Paik said that in the future everyone would have their own TV show. Paik’s prediction comes closer than Warhol's, what with YouTube, social media and everything going around in these days – especially in lockdown. I am completely unexceptional - we are all on Zoom-TV at the moment, or Skype, or Teams, or something else. So I thought of all the digital images I have of the moon, and the very many more on the web. Paik also coined the term “electronic superhighway” for the digital-into-real place we are in now – lockdown makes everyone a motorist on this. I have come to the lake to escape the superhighway tonight – hopefully to the full shining moon. The cloud makes it disappointing so far, but the forecast is for a clear night, so let’s hope it clears before we finish swimming.

I desperately want to de-centre from all the digital exposure across the week. When in doubt, invent a ritual – I thought about this on the way to the lake tonight. When the daylight drops away, the swim is about seeing the moon, bathing in the moonlight, but also seeing the unseeable. This can’t be done without some mental exercise, some tuning in, some cutting out of noise, some zen of some kind. It comes to me through music, of a kind – I love John Cage’s music for prepared piano. He found the links between his music, poetry, visual art, film and other media. He composed the infamous 4’33” in the 1950s, a piece in which the musicians are requested not to play their instruments. Rather, the audience becomes very mindful of the sounds around them and within their bodies. I once saw it performed, and it works, creating a mindful pause and opportunity to dig into yourself, if only briefly. Mindfulness is all the thing now, usually without John Cage. Cage sought the silence of a mind at peace with itself, and found it in zen buddhism.

John Cage will be my zen master tonight – I will get in the water and swim in silence for precisely 4 minutes and 33 seconds, in homage to Cage’s 4:33, but also to tune into the sounds around and within me. The shape I choose to swim is a zen circle – drawing the zen circle represents a moment when the mind is free to let the body and spirit create. My circle is hugely imperfect, and is done in less than Cage-music time. I am not sure what I have created beyond a moment in time when I cause the water to move in a slightly different way. But it is freeing of the mind, as everyone else swimming tonight swims into the darkening distance. “I will do better next time” I tell myself. When I was in Japan in 1994 on a Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science Fellowship at the University of Tokyo, I was charged with tutoring two Master’s students. They were very talented and worked very hard but any critique of their work resulted in a bowing of the head and “I will work harder” – frustrating because they were already working hard enough. I loved Japan and I loved swimming there, usually in the University pool, but sometimes outdoors. Japanese swimmers, I remember from the pool, were impressively strong and not shy of working themselves hard. Right now I am patently aware that my mind is in Japan when it should be in zen – how to focus, to un-mind?


John Cage’s poetry comes to mind, and I recite ‘I have nothing to say / and I am saying it / and that is poetry’ mindfully while swimming trying to un-mind. Another – 'There is poetry / as soon as we / realise that we / possess nothing' – while swimming in a line, out into the darkness away from the moon. I reflect on the darkness and think upon moonlight – reflecting the sun and shining up the earth with borrowed light. I hope we get some tonight. Another John Cage poem – ‘Be open to whatever come next’. Caught in a John Cage cage in the lake, waiting for the moonlight. Cage again – 'Things - Art - Same Things from another point of view'. Swimming in a straight line across the lake – thinking of Paik’s 'Zen for Head', a zen line painted straight by Paik in black ink using his neck tie as brush, and his head, dipped in a bucket of ink, as the ink well. Rather than dipping my head in black ink tonight, I prefer to dip my body in lake water. Dipping and swimming in a straight line, I have caught up with Jeremy. We chat and watch the moon shadows of Judy and Kristie, who are swimming ahead. Swimming back, the moon makes a glorious showing, out from the low cloud and into the clear bright night sky. It has all been worth it, as we climb the moon's silver ladder just thrown down for us. Tonight, John Cage and Nam June Paik brought zen to the moonswim; it would have been wonderful however it unfurled, but the moon-show was spectacular. Approaching shore I finally get a short zen moment as I muse that, in the water right now, the very right-now, I possess nothing and have everything.

Lock Down Swimming – Bubbles on the Water

There are more bubbles on the water than ever before. This is a good thing – under Covid-19 guidelines, there is a new verb – ‘to bubble’. As in ‘I am bubbling with…’ Six together can form a bubble, and can swim in their own bubble. Kate Paterson tells me that current guidelines allow people to swim in groups of six but social distancing of two meters is required within the bubble unless the bubble is also the household. It's fine to change who is in the group of six at any time, except bubbles set up for people who live alone or with children only, whereby the bubble has to remain constant. I wonder how Parliament is getting on with following the bubble rules. I have heard a lot about ‘The Whitehall bubble’ in recent months. For the people I know at Westminster, this is a bad thing. A previous government was concerned about ‘de-siloing’; the public servants I know don’t go as far as proposing ‘de-bubbling’, but they are concerned about the Whitehall bubble, which is about separation from reality. While Whitehall has its bubble and people are forming and reforming bubbles and taking their bubbles into the water, I am in a bubble of my own, my self-isolation bubble. I was recalled for surgery just last week, the surgery that Covid-19 disrupted. I had my pre-op assessment just the day before lock down, and anticipated my surgery to be kicked into touch, way down the pitch. When I got a phone call to say I had won a prize in the Nuffield Orthopedic Centre Surgery Lottery – a knee replacement under Professor Andrew Price. Then the pre-op assessment, again. Then self-isolation before and after the surgery – my own personal bubble. I can still swim, in my own bubble, early in the morning, six am or earlier, just without people around. Not even Pauline enters my bubble. This changes swimming yet again, what can and can’t I do? Stay away from people, don’t touch surfaces, use hand-gel more than ever, and shower well after swimming. Keep my kit separate from everyone, don’t let anyone else touch it, keep the bike and the gloves and the helmet separate from everyone. New rules, new swimming ways, I am never too old to learn.

Down at Hardwick Lake yesterday, the families, household swimming and kayaking bubbles, were joyous, noisy and laughter-filled. Bubbles blown up and kept bouyant with laughing-gas. I am minded of the Paul Simon song ‘Boy in the Bubble’ and its insistent beat of important-sounding stream-of-consciousness words and terms that tumble and turn. I feel like I should be that boy, feel that the past months have involved being in just so many bubbles outdoors, avoiding each individual bubble, crossing the road, doing the Covid Dance, in fear that personal bubbles burst and we all fall down, a-tishoo, a-tishoo, with the plague. Now we can bubble together, says the government. But I don’t trust it. When do bubbles on the ocean aggregate to make froth, and when does froth blow across the seaweed and disperse?

The Graceland album of Paul Simon was the sound track to my first year in my first academic post at the University of Cambridge. It was nonsensical Africanism which helped burst the bubble of the Africanist anthropologists who were so insistent that proper fieldwork could only be carried out in Africa. They almost persuaded me, but as ever, I found my own way with fieldwork, at the time Papua New Guinea, soon to be Nepal, then Sarawak, then the Cook Islands. Somehow I didn’t have the instinct for working in Africa, and I trust my instinct. The real boy in the bubble was immuno-compromised and shielded from the natural world of bacteria, parasites and viruses. The bubbles we have been asked to create are social ones, which did pretty well the same thing with Covid-19 – the infection rates in the UK fell fast, overnight, when the order to be socially distanced was announced. Not announced fast enough, with the knowledge of what happened in China and Italy, to stop around 20,000 needless deaths. Now it is a verb - to bubble - as in ‘I am bubbling with my neighbours’. It’s tricky, at a time when the people are being encouraged to coalesce their bubbles, to be in a bubble of my own. Like Ugo di Pietra’s ‘Uomouovasfera’, the futuristic personal-bubbles of 1960s artist-interventions, to be placed at the heart of hyper-modern cities to allow people to escape their immediately-hostile environments. I felt that the earliest weeks of lock-down were much less immediately-hostile, less stressful, at least with the staying-at-home of so many aggressive-sounding motor vehicles. Now they are back, and I find them smelly, ugly and noisy - how could we ever have allowed motor cars to dominate our landscapes? This is but one side of easing lock-down, which is turning out to be a lot more complicated than setting it up.

And as with easing lock-down, it is tricky to know when to ease the 65@65 swims. There have been several false dawns, as at the Serpentine Swimming Club, which opened and then closed again after a rush in demand for outdoor swimming took place during a particularly warm public holiday weekend. The Outdoor Swimming Society has urged caution, and some but far from all the National Open Water Coaching Association venues reopened, in a very regulated way. The bubbles on the water suggest it should be happening, but with the up-coming surgery, I swim but swim within a bubble of one.

65@65 Unlocked – Mid-Summer Morning Swim #53, Devil's Quoits, Oxfordshire

As with lock down, there is not a right time to unlock. An epidemiologist at Harvard recently compared epidemics with house fires –the flames that engulf and devour accelerate and rage quickly, while the embers that have the potential to start a new fire take a long time to go out. In the UK it feels to me like we are at the early ember stage of Covid-19, so unlocking the 65@65 is to be done within the guidelines – stay apart, social distancing, do not share cake, use hand gel, wash your hands for at least twenty seconds. All this was obeyed on mid-summer morning, as we met in separate cars at a lay-by, in anticipation of a swim, but looking like people in search of a rave. Or of druids in search of a henge before sunrise. My alarm went off at 3.45, enough time to make a flask of tea; I threw on my dry robe over a tee shirt and togs and got in the car. Kristie and Judy were already there at the lay-by when I got there, just a few minutes drive from home (I apologise for using the car – it was twilight, my brain still in bed and my body saying ‘why?’. I chose the line of least resistance, wouldn’t you? They were excited and waiting. Christa wasn’t coming, although she and Kristie had scouted the swim a few days before, in the pouring rain, in search of places to get in. Today, now, the sky was slightly cloudy, if still twi-lit. we greeted and waited, me the only one in a dry-robe, the closest-dressed to druid. Jeremy soon came, and we drove in convoy to the henge – the Devil’s Quoits, not far away, down a winding road next to the tip and the recycling place – Dix Pit. The scene was set, an odd scene – to a car-park opposite the recycling, down a track which opened up to the henge, behind which, the land-fill site. I hadn’t seen such industrial waste-land pit swimming since Berlin a few years ago. But industrial waste-land pit-swimming next to a henge – that was new. And on the day of the summer solstice, the longest day, at sunrise, when the sun gleamed above the horizon, that was new and worthy of reopening the 65@65 – 65 swims at the age of 65 years.

We found the Devils Quoits easily – a Neolithic site of some importance, back in the day – the day being around four and a half thousand years ago. Why ‘Devils’ Quoits?’ – it comes from a myth of formation, literally, how a place came to be. I heard a lot of those when I did fieldwork in Papua New Guinea, totally fantastical, even the people telling the myths didn’t really believe them, although it was important to them to remember. As it is in West Oxfordshire – I was talking to my daughter Lexa about the swim, and it happened so that her friends living locally to Devil’s Quoits knew the myth, even now. The myth, in short - the devil was playing a game of quoits one Sunday (how, you ask, does the devil know about quoits?), and along came God, who told him off for quoiting on day of rest. The devil threw a paddy, a wobbly, a temper-tantrum and tossed his quoits away like a toddler. One landed here where we stand now. My nerdy side makes me want to work out how tall this devil would have been, in this medieval myth. I have seen wall paintings of the devil from this time in Italian cathedrals, and he can be huge, and totally frightening. So I looked it up. If a quoit is generally 19 centimeters across, and an adult man is 170cm tall, then a quoit is one nineth of a person. Going to Google Earth, I measure the henge at Devils Quoits to be 79 meters in diameter. Using a scaling factor of nine, that would make the devil around 700 meters tall, or the size of a small mountain. This was an extraordinary feat of the medieval imagination. Not far away from here there is the Uffington white horse, and chalk figure carved into the Ridgeway over a hundred meters long between 2,500 and 4,000 years ago. The names, the monumental earth works show an ability to think and act big back in the day – this is nothing new.

If you scratch the surface, people’s deep ancestry often shows itself in stories, songs, place-names and local words, even in the heart of the modern world, even now. ‘What, no druids?’ – Kristie was the first to express a very gentle dismay – mid-summer’s day, and no druids. Jeremy was a little surprised too – according to him, Covid-19 precautions had seen the closure from public assembly of some of the major henges – Stonehenge, the Rollright Stones, Avebury, Glastonbury – this mid-summer’s morning. It was possible that the Devil’s Quoits would be a popular place to observe the rising sun today if you were a druid or a Watcher of the Old Ways. But apparently not so. I checked online later – apparently this year it was going to be an online summer solstice, a camera observing the rising of the sun, and broadcasting to all those worshippers and onlookers being told to stay away today. We had observed the rising sun with cameras too.

We did swim, after much distraction by the henge. in the adjacent pond / ex-gravel pit. Undressed and scrambling into the water, we were joyous and socially distanced. We swam as a pod to the island at the far edge, and then around it. The smell of landfill wafted across from time to time, and Kristie commented that it was like swimming in cabbage-water, such was its green-hue. ‘But cabbage water is good’ she qualified immediately. Kristie is one of the very-most positive jump-for-joy people I know. Jeremy and Judy too, but a bit less jumpy-uppy. The pond was shallow (I scraped my knees on the bottom, stood up in places) and the water was warm. The swim was memorable - Kristies idea of swim-henging on mid-summer’s morning was stroke of genius - the sunrise, the odd juxtaposition of unlikely things, the joyous company (as ever with these lovely people), and picnic breakfast within the henge after. At which Kristie’s home-baked blueberry muffins were, I swear, the very best ever made since prehistory.


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