Updated: Apr 5, 2020
The loneliness of the social-distanced swimmer. I miss you all, and it’s only been a week or so. Pauline and I are nostalgic about the old times already. We were reminiscing about Helsinki, just three weekends ago, Saturday night at the sauna. Seemed strange then, seems a great idea now – a packed group of people in their togs, male and female, having a great primate-moment, giggling and chatting. We are walking to Day’s Lock, which is just outside Oxford, on the Thames. The day is the first cloudy one for days, the past few days of isolation and social distancing at home have been sugar-coated by the weather. Today it doesn’t rain, but the wind is big, and it feels good to have a little exposure to nature, beyond the trot around the village. No-one is giggling and chatting here, as we pass, at a social distance, various people walking their bit of local countryside, with dogs, with one other person. We saw three women, a mother and two late adolescent daughters looking distressed, eying us suspiciously – “we are practicing social distancing” explained the mother. The two daughters had runny eyes and red noses. It needed no explanation. We signalled that we were going to the lock. They were going in the other direction, and waited, a social distance away. People we passed were dogged, resigned, with dog, some, only two cheerful couples. Even the swans on the shore seemed to be keeping a social distance away from each other. One dog was trying to swim with the swans on the water – “we call him duck-dog” explained the cheery owner, two social distances away from me. He was the most serious swimmer today – the river was still fierce, the flood plains still emptying upstream. How quickly we seem to have forgotten the recent flooding in the UK. It offered great swimming over the Christmas period. Duck-dog is having a great time, and I envy him or her. At Day’s Lock we stop to watch the water going over the weir, crazy tumbling.
We look for a swim spot, for the little beach I remember from last time, when we swam, Jeremy, Alice, myself and others, from Clifton Hampden to Days Lock, five kilometres more or less, in cool April waters. We see it, now fenced off. We look for some way into the water that doesn’t involve plunging right in, and find a place close to the lock, by the reeds. This works. Much more of a dip than a swim, I feel self-conscious about swimming on the first Saturday of lock-down. Today’s headline is about the ’24 hour spike in coronavirus deaths in the UK’. My first reaction is irritation with the journalist that wrote that – a sharp increase is not a spike unless it is followed by a sharp decrease. I am irritated because the journalistic tendency to dramatise really isn’t needed. More people are getting ill, more people are dying and no-one can control it. That is almost not news any more, and some of the media turn to seeking blame. I know enough about the course of epidemics and the social effects and impacts they have, to see that the medical cases and the deaths are one thing, and the steady social strangulation as another thing that affects everyone. And also that it takes time, if the spread of virus is not arrested, for the statistically ‘excess’ morbidity and mortality to become a new norm. Meanwhile, the UK has a sense of being on a war-time footing, with talk of the ‘war against Covid-19’, and loose talk of rationing after days of pre-Christmas-like stock-piling of food.
The current war-like footing, against a disease pandemic not known since World War One, is one of the reasons I have chosen Day’s Lock as one of my local 65@65s. The link is the artist Paul Nash. I haven’t mentioned that nearby are Wittenham Clumps, two clumps of woodland on sister hills close-by Day’s Lock. When we swam from Clifton Hampden to Day’s Lock years ago, the Thames horse-shoes around Wittenham Clumps, and we got to see the clumps from various angles and perspective across the duration of the swim. Day’s Lock is the closest to the Clumps, and on that day they gave the end of the swim a unique beauty. Wittenham Clumps are a couple of hills set next to each other on an otherwise flat landscape – they can be seen for miles. On one of the hills, the lesser-prominent one, there is a hill fort, with ditches, the first of which is Bronze Age, around 5,000 years ago. Then more ditches were dug in the Iron Age, around 3,000 years ago. Then the Romans came and used it, developed it further, around 2,000 years ago. It feels old in a layer-cake kind of archaeological way. Years ago, we had the son of an old friend of ours visit from Australia. He was keen on everything, and one day we visited some of the very deeply prehistoric places in and around Oxfordshire, Wittenham Clumps being the least deep among them – Stone Henge, Wood Henge, Avebury all belonging to deeper ages beyond the Bronze – the Stone Age. I have a love of the Stone Age, imagining how life might have been. I have been privileged in my life to stay and do research among people who only recently left their own stone age, in remote Papua New Guinea. So I find it easy to slip into thinking about food and foraging, group size and religion, all in a past that only reveals itself through bones, stones and the landscape.
This is my frame of mind here at Wittenham Clumps today. There are places you can sense as having many ghosts, many visitors, many owners, even when now deserted, parkland, a place to go and walk, to look around. Wittenham Clumps is like this. Paul Nash had a minor obsession about this place; he painted the Clumps many times. At the retrospective at Tate Britain in 2016 there was a room dedicated to his Clumps paintings. Nash lived in Oxford, for a while on Banbury Road, and in normal times I would cycle past it every day, to and from work. Nash was an English surrealist and before that a war artist in 1917 and 18. This new world we are would be both surrealism and war art if it were not so real life. Nash was a war artist just prior to the start of great influenza pandemic that followed that war and killed over twenty million people world-wide. The consensus seems to be that the 1918-19 pandemic started in the trenches in Northern France and Belgium. The present pandemic, China. The methods of attempted control of the present pandemic - social isolation, quarantine, emergency hospitals, lock-down, seem similar to the previous pandemic. Some of these methods are actually medieval. The biology is of course a universe away from 1918-19. The structure of DNA is known; the structure and function of RNA clearly laid out. Viruses are understood from evolutionary, biological, medical and engineering perspectives. The tech is amazing – and the scientists working it are better educated and connected than ever, dedicated and working around the clock and around the world. This is not 1919, and it seems unlikely that twenty million people will die from Covid-19. We have to stay locked down, that is clear. But being a good Covid-19 citizen means I am limited in where I can swim. And I want to swim freely; I want life back to normal. I know it can’t happen for a while, but I would dearly love to swim with my good swim friends, who have their own versions of what is going on, their own situations and circumstances, who need to swim as much as, if not more than, I do. When I can’t swim in my body, I swim in my mind. Must not stop swimming.