65@65 Swim Lock-Down
This is a new world, somehow surreal and strange, new yet not new to the world. Surreal. With surrealism, dream-like states allow fish to fly, and birds to swim. But some birds do swim, as do some dogs and some cats. In this time-altered dream world, people on their daily exercise routine, in the village, in Oxford, look dazed, men half-shaven, startled eyed, eyes begging for social contact. And this is just the end of second week. Most of everyday life is in the deep freeze. My knee surgery is in the freezer, schools are in the freezer, and even the deep freeze at the supermarket today, empty, is in the deep freeze. I have cancelled trips, flights, concerts, opera, and have picked up the virtual world of movies and recordings. But even there, the recordings freeze after just so long of playing.
Last night the concert-freeze was a recording of the Berlin Philharmonic performing their annual May Day concert, in 2010 in Oxford, at the Sheldonian Theatre. But the Berlin Phil have a televised May Day concert every year, and 2010 they chose Oxford. Memories flooded in when I found the recording on the Berlin Phil website. I was fortunate to get a ticket for the rehearsal back in 2010. The rehearsal was a straight play-through of the concert – Wagner, Elgar, Brahms, Daniel Barenboim on the podium. I don’t know if you know the Sheldonian, but it is historic, Sir Christopher Wren the architect, and far too small for the Berlin Philharmonic. I have found that Germans generally melt into nostalgia when they talk about having visited Oxford, speaking in honey-tones about the honey-colour stonework which characterises the city. The rehearsal-afternoon was suitably improvised – the orchestra came in late because their bus was stuck in traffic on the Banbury Road, started late, took an extended break in the sunshine outside in their extended interval. I spoke with a couple of members of the orchestra in the interval, saw Barenboim at just a social distance away – ‘just cas’ (just casual) as my daughter might say. The two brass-players were thrilled to be in Oxford, looking up and down, side-to-side, laughing like young tourists, not like the engine-room of the most powerful orchestra on the planet. People were touching Barenboim’s back, arm, like they might a religious relic in a deep past age in a deep catholic country, looking like they might hope some type of magic would rub off . I felt the thrill of the moment; caught it in the palm of my hand and put it in a jar to savour later. Just last night, I opened the jar when I needed to taste something of the much bigger world.
The rehearsal was far from improvised – polished, electric, spine-tingling – the Berlin Phil like an over-powered BMW in fifth gear, powering, not in the outside lane of Brahm’s autobahn movement, but taking Brahms at high speed, accelerating, braking, then accelerating again, for a spin down an English country lane. And Barenboim, the driver, was enjoying himself, dancing, almost pirouetting, on the podium. Barenboim had been to Oxford many times, the last time to receive an honorary doctorate in 2007. I saw him from a distance that day at the Vice-Chancellor’s Garden Party. I have seen the Berlin Philharmonic several times across my life, and the free month’s subscription, the lock-down subscription, was something I seized on. I seized on the video recording of the 2010 May Day Concert with glee, with multi-layered memories. Memories too for Barenboim I am sure – Jacqueline Du Pre, his famously precocious and gifted cellist wife and partner in both life and in music was from Oxford, and he visited the city several times in his early adult life. Du Pre made the Elgar Cello Concerto her own, and Barenboim programmed this for the Oxford May Day Concert 2010. I was watching the recording in bed, the cello concerto dedicated to the turmoil and loss of World War One, the jar of memory open - me taking ladles of memory and devouring it on hot toast – escaping the present-day for a moment, despite the intensity of the cello solos. Then the jar of 2010 rehearsal-memory shut closed – the performance froze, like all the other things in everyday life.
It froze, not just the usual 30 seconds or a minute of band-width catch-up; it froze, I waited. It stayed frozen, and I waited. I waited, then decided – if everything so far is frozen, from everyday life to the replayed memory of May First 2010, then I could freeze my birthday too.
Winter this year wasn’t cold enough for the water to freeze, but disease has brought a longer-term freeze, of movement, mobility, of social life. The social life of swimming is one of the reasons for doing it – at the Serpentine, at Port Meadow, with the Thames Group across the length of this great river, in Copenhagen, down at the lake. I know some absolutely amazing people through swimming – all outdoor swim-people are amazing. Today I took part in the marvellous now-virtual Serpentine Choir – thank you Katherine for leading the choir and the sofa-bound Cselko family for leading the harmony-parts. I joined the virtual café with around twenty kindred swim-souls, and declared my birthday postponed until three months after lock-down is lifted. It is three months almost to the day to my birthday in July, and I have swum 52 of 65 swims. Four fifths; one fifth left in one quarter of time, once time starts again.
65@65 goes into the freezer today, and will stay there until the curfew is lifted, until social distancing stops being both noun and verb, until we can move freely again. There will be swimming, but more local and more intimate, lock-down swims. But in this new surreal world, I will stay at 65 years of age until the plague recedes and the government deems it safe to hug and smile and be happy again. And to swim in groups of more than two, and to share tea and cake and swim as far as we like in the places we like to swim at.
65@65 Lock-Down Swim - On Hardwick Pond
Today, work continues in a stutter-state of conference calls, Zoom, Skype, Team, Hang Out; I never thought I would have to sign up to so many different conferencing platforms. Out on the streets, the new rules make it difficult to communicate beyond shouting from one or two social distances away. Social life is both the virtual and the very local – nodding at neighbours on the street in the afternoon’s walk, smiling in the hope of a smile back (mostly, yes), standing a social distance apart outside the pharmacy, outside the store. Usually, laughter is infectious; not with the new rules of this new world. There is little laughter, perhaps because laughter is infectious, and infection is scary.
Swimming is still possible. The lake at Hardwick remains, at West Oxfordshire Sailing Club, and the current guidelines are helpful – do your physical activity according to the rules, do not dawdle. Pauline and I were there this morning, just a five kilometer cycle ride away – cycle there, swim, and cycle back – this is one unit of exercise, according to what the government suggests. We have been there, have been there again, will be there again, again, and hopefully again after that. The repetition makes it comfortable in a world made uncertain. The repetition brings nostalgia to mind – when the body can’t travel, the mind can. This time to Boston in the early 2000s. We were there as a family across a magical Summer, and a strong memory evoked by the lake at Hardwick is that of swimming in Walden Pond. We house swapped with people coming to Oxford, and we had the use of an old blue Volvo, very much like the old blue Volvo we left behind us. Every few days we packed the old Volvo with picnic stuff, an eskie on wheels no less, and drove to Walden Pond, near Concord Massachusetts.
Walden Pond for those that don’t know it, is in a nature reserve, with a car park and a short track through woodland down to a small sandy beach where kids can play, parents can hang out, and anyone can swim – within the buoyed area for kids, and anywhere in the pond for those that can and want to. A universe of activity bounded by the pond, its edge and the woodland surrounding it. There was, I recall, just one shop – the Thoreau Society Shop, close to the beach, selling books on philosophy. Just philosophy. No ice-cream, no burger bar, no soda, just philosophy. Henry Thoreau, philosopher, famously built his cabin here and lived ‘on Walden Pond’ for over a year, thinking, doing and writing, across the seasons. Henry Thoreau is in my mind as I return to the lake in Hardwick, On Hardwick Pond, as right now, April of the Covid-year 2020, domestic and intimate life takes precedence over outward-facing life, at least for now. Thoreau’s landmark book ‘Walden’ records his time when he stripped away the inessentials of life to concentrate on the important innermost things and thoughts, living on Walden Pond. Thoreau swam and dipped and washed in the pond regularly. In his words “I got up early and bathed in the pond; that was a religious exercise, and one of the best things which I did”. Pauline and I bathe in the Hardwick lake, and it is the best thing we do, even if we dare not call it religion.
Much as I would like to make it so, Hardwick Lake is not Walden Pond. The lake at Hardwick is close to Eynsham, my village, and close to Oxford, and is smaller than Walden Pond. It is not a deep glacial lake, but a former gravel pit. But I can’t help but romanticize it, especially now, in the Covid-present. Lake or pond? Such is the way of things in England and America. There was one Serpentine Zoom-café session when Bertie was explaining the Serpentine Swimming Club to someone at her (Covid19 front line) work. The Serpentine is closed for swimming for the foreseeable future, a huge loss to the community of swimmers there. Bertie’s account was of her reaction when her colleague said about the Serpentine “so it’s a pond”; “No! Its not a pond, it’s a lake!” was Bertie’s response. Naming is important – the titling of the Serpentine and Hardwick as lakes ennobles them for the noble act of swimming. It’s not just a matter of US – UK differences, in a ‘you-say, I-say, potato-tomato’ kind of way.
Walden Pond is about one and a half kilometers across while the lake at Hardwick is about one kilometer around – about half the size. But the size of the lake/pond isn’t as important as the experience of swimming. While it isn’t a religion, I believe you can come close to having a religious experience while swimming – usually induced by distance or the coldness of the water. But even without claiming religious experience, there are daily rewards to paying attention, small and big - the days and the seasons change, the temperature of the water varies, the weather can tumble from sun to rain in the course of a swim, and sometimes there is a rainbow. While my birthday is in the deep freeze, I will carry on swimming and post some thoughts and pictures as I do so, as 65@65 Lock-Down Swims, or waiting-for-better-days-swims. At least I can still swim, and I wish hearty mental support to those who, in the lock-down, can’t find water. We can all keep a look-out for rainbows and hopefully the world will de-frost before too long.
Thoreau’s words are helpful for me, even though I will never live a year in the woods by the lake / pond – “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation”.
65@65 Lock-Down Swim – My Dear Port Meadow
If I were writing a letter to my beloved outdoor swimming, it might start ‘My dear Port Meadow…’. It would be written long-hand, with fountain-pen, broad-nibbed, black ink, of the sort that takes on a sepia-tinge after a few years of aging. My dear Port Meadow, it was good to have seen you again today, the Thames / Isis that flows through you a little dark of mood, the paths be-puddled after a mornings’ heavy rain. There are a number of letters I can compose to my beloved swimming, and this is the first. It is now four weeks since covid-lock-down, and everyone is a little sombre, but people passing-by the Dodo tree, stray-cat academics with the dishevelled look that intellectuals affect, are smiling and encouraging of our swimming today, Pauline and myself. We cycled the seven kilometers from the village, our weekend ‘treat’, to go a little further, to buy fish at the fish supplier on the industrial estate, the best fish in Oxford, still open and doing good trade, to cycle past the orderly-distanced queue outside Waitrose on the Botley Road, up the nearby Binsey Lane and down a puddle-track to the Dodo tree – to my dear Port Meadow. The Dodo tree, I like to imagine, remembers Louis Caroll, and Alice, in Wonderland, forming in his mind. I like to remember the many swims, short and long, that have started and ended, or started, or ended, here. The Dodo Tree has an obliging seat, a flat surface where one of its big branches was cut, and some short branch-ends upon which to hang your coat, if there are not too many of you.
The river is calm, and warming up to a very refreshing temperature. We walked upstream to come down steadily; I couldn’t resist swimming across and standing on the opposite bank. It is such a silly satisfaction, to swim across to the other bank. A number of years ago, I took part in the swimming part of the Source to Sea River Relay, the totality of which involved taking a small bottle of River Thames water from the source to the sea (obviously) using a number of different water-borne means. The swimming stretch started in Benson, a little past schedule as the kayakers taking it from the previous stretch were delayed. I swam seven kilometers of this, much of the way to Goring, along a fabulous stretch of the Thames, in high Summer. Leslie and I walked back some of the way and we came close to where our cars were parked on the other side of the river, at Carmel College. We saw some walkers who informed us that the nearest bridge was way back at Cholsey, kilometers away. They looked surprised when we said we couldn’t be bothered with that, put our tops and shoes in our swim-bags, and just swam across the river to the car-park. Sorted. Easy.
For this Christmas past, I have another memory, this time of the Thames at Oxford in full-flow, when getting across felt like an achievement. At Port Meadow, the river was in full flood and the meadow was magical and every day was a unique swim-experience. Today, covid-lock-down-day, the Thames is easy to swim across, placid almost, now the floods have gone down, a piece of cake. We didn’t bring cake today, but it would have been that easy. Pauline brought porridge though, in a flask, with fresh apple in the bottom, nicely steamed by the hot oats by the time we came to eat it. We talked about porridge as the perfect swimming food – very sticky, it sticks to the stomach – we nodded knowingly, speaking with clear understanding of the folk-physiology of swimming. Today was a day in which nothing happened, a day in which I was happy to say that truly nothing happened and it was very pleasant, even the grey sky and especially the grey water in which it was reflected.
Then Neil turned up. On the opposite bank, on bicycle, at a distance, with his tell-tale big black swim bag. Waving furiously, we made contact. Shouting loudly, we asked of our respective health and well-being. Of our families. Of swimming past. Of swimming future, when we could all start from the same bank of the river and return there. It was deeply satisfying to see Neil on the other side – “I’m fine, I’ve got the river…” – Neil who has a strong sense of ownership of this stretch of the Thames. And if I owned it, I would give it to him, for his year-round devotion to Port Meadow swimming. Helen would get the stretch below Iffley Lock if I owned it and could give it to her, for three-years-plus of daily swimming, mostly there, in all weathers and seasons. Emma deserves a stretch of nearby river as well, for swimming every single day for well over a year. My dear Port Meadow must of necessity include all those who swim and have swum in her river – named Isis, Father Thames flowing through Oxford incognito. That is a lot of people, past and present, including good friends and Fellow Dodos, stray-cat academics, hippies and hipsters who swim-dip in Summer, some of the great and the good, and many quite normal-looking people. Neil had the grin of the Cheshire Cat as he made contact with water. As he disappeared into it, I could still see his grin. Nothing happened today, my dear Port Meadow, and it was all the more wonderful for that.
65@65 Lock-Down Swim - Figures of Eight at Swinford Bridge
I woke up this morning with the number 888 in my head. On Sunday 19th April, Pauline woke me with a cup of tea and “888”. I like numbers, and placing a number, finding a meaning for it, explaining it is a pointless activity that occupies that part of the brain when the rest of my brain is in neutral, idling in the car-park. “The number of deaths from Covid-19 yesterday” – Saturday, yesterday, the day when nothing happened, and I rejoiced. Well, something clearly happened to 888 people. My mind jumped to other numbers –999, emergency – 111 Covid-hot-line - the inverse of 999 for speed-dial to the devil. My son is praying for us, we are all praying, don’t let the devil prey. The 888 has to be de-fused somehow. With swimming there is always a way of bringing down the level of alarm and stress. The Thames, at Swinford Bridge. 888 – figures of eight through the three arches of Swinford Bridge that run over the Thames upstream of Oxford, just outside my village. I decided that this is what needs to be done, to appease my mind and body. This is not a novel idea for me – last Summer I did this a few times, swimming hard through the first arch, twisting round and being taken with the water through the middle arch, recovering and swimming hard through the third arch, twisting again in the other direction and being pushed through the middle arch again, then start all over with the first arch again. Repeat until bored. Usually this is best done early in the morning during the mid-week when there are few if any boats travelling this stretch of the river, when the traffic is that of the cars accelerating from the toll booth at the village end of the bridge. The toll at Eynsham Lock is an historical vestige from the sixteen hundreds, something that Charles the First bestowed on the bridge owners in perpetuity, by act of parliament. Five pence it costs, cars queuing to cross the bridge at rush hour back-up several hundred meters and you learn to be patient. But not today – it is virtually empty to traffic, and the toll collector has closed his booth, until the end of lock-down. The bridge is beautiful, built in 1769 of local limestone, and is a delight to swim under, especially when the traffic above is on the way to work and I have a little time to spend on this wonderfully pointless activity. Right now, in the covid-year, it doesn’t matter what time I get here, there is almost no road traffic and no river traffic at all. Figures of eight will be done, to settle and to calm.
The Thames at Swinford Bridge was my birthday swim last year, conjoint with Kristie. She is coming down here most days during these-lock-down-days, on her own, in need of her swim. She is a cheerful and happy soul with (usually) infectious laughter, and a determined and strong swimmer, right through winter. I saw her just a few days ago, striding with purpose along the road from village to river, towel and togs in hand. She too lives in Eynsham village. As of this moment, I can count four other regular outdoor swimmers who live within a couple of hundred meters of each other in the village. Kirstie and I spoke briefly, at a distance, of swimming, of people, or places, then wished each other the best – of health, of fortune, of well-being – smiling the tight-lipped smile that wants to be generous but can’t really be so today. ‘We will swim together again’ I say, “before long” she says. Today at Swinford Bridge, Pauline and I cycled down, then took the short path to the foot of the bridge. This is where it’s possible to slip in by climbing down on the roots of a tree, which offer Tolkein-like steps into the water. This is Tolkein-land, The Shire, as my daughter still calls it, where residents are fond of eating and merry-making. But not right now, not in the coronavirus year. I mark the need for Hobbit-ery by bringing a small piece of cake wrapped in a napkin, in my swim-bag. Unlike Tolkein’s hobbits, this Hobbit, me, likes swimming.
And swim I do, figure of eight, figure of eight, figure of eight, until the covid-death-curse is broken. I know it doesn’t work like that, and the heroes who are putting their lives at risk are doing the real work. Swinford Bridge is one of many bridges along the Thames, all beautiful in one way or another. Most are hundreds of years old, all are wonderful to swim under. When I was part of the Swim the Thames group, we had a rule of swimming butterfly under every bridge ‘lest we stir the goblins’. We did this in fun, but if you were to go back even just a hundred years, people took the river gods of the Thames seriously. Thames gods were known to the Romans, all the way up to the source. Doubtless Thames gods were known to people all the way back to the Paleolithic, to the origins of religion itself. Swimming fly seems a small price to pay for making sure what vestigial gods remain in the Thames of the modern world remain undisturbed.
I am hopeless at fly, but struggled along with the rest of the Swim the Thames group, getting water-logged towards the end of some of the bigger bridges closer to London. The M25 was the worst of these –the widest of the Thames bridges, two bridges in reality – and I thought I would drown at the end of it. Last October we swam from Runnymede to Truss’s Island, along the Thames, and Juliet had another take on what to do when swimming under bridges. She sings, with a beautiful voice. Echoed under a big enough bridge, she is almost a small choir unto herself. She sang under the M25 on that Runnymede swim, and her voice seemed to transform the concrete and brick supporting structure into a chapel. My memory of swimming under this particular bridge was acoustically changed forever. Back in the moment, swimming three sets of eight under the arches of Swinford Bridge requires continuous singing, difficult enough to do when swimming even in calm waters – have you tried it? I was not able to sing aloud in my figures of eight, but rather sang in my mind; a song recently added to the repertoire of the Serpentine Saturday Covid-19 Zoom Choir - Bill Withers’ ‘Lean on Me’… “Lean on me – When you’re not strong – And I’ll be your friend – I’ll help you – Carry on – For it won’t – Be long – Till I’m – Gonna need – Someone to lean on”. Sung for three figures of eight, followed by cake in a napkin, life somehow felt better.