Updated: Aug 31, 2020
This is the closest I will get to swimming in Paris this year –standing next to Seurat’s painting ‘The Bathers as Asnieres’. There are good places and good people in Paris who swim outdoors, in open water, and I had hoped to make one of my 65 swims there. Covid-19 and my knee operation did for that, for this year. I was in the National Gallery in London, giving special attention to this painting, and to Monet’s painting of bathers at Grenouillere. Both places, Asnieres and Grenouillere were western suburbs of Paris in what were then less fashionable, close to or surrounded by factories and the working classes. They are both now absorbed by greater central Paris. This prepared me, unexpectedly, for the next swim, which I would do after leaving the National Gallery – at the Royal Victoria Docks. A western industrialised suburban of London undergoing rapid urban development from brown field across the past three decades, now part of greater central London. This post-industrial landscape, with tower blocks, parks and landscaping, still has some brown-field sites scattered around, something that became clear to me from the air later, when I took the cable-car from the Docks to the Millenium Dome, on the other side of the River Thames, to meet with my son for dinner. The Thames here is broad and brown as it approaches its end towards the ocean, still 50 kilometers away. Once my mind had been prepared by the Impressionist's bathers at the National Gallery, I filtered what I saw at the Royal Victoria Docks swimming venue, having crossed to the most eastern part of London from the centre.
My first experience of swimming at the Royal Victoria Docks was doing the London Mile, now many years ago. I have swum it several times, but that first time I was raising money for a leukemia charity. My son, the one I was going to see tonight, was ill with this disease, and our lives as a family had been turned upside down by it. When chronic disease strikes you have little choice but to follow the rules set by the medical profession. The limited space for self-agency lies in things like raising money for an appropriate charity or institution; so it was with me, raising money for a leukemia charity. I cried but twice when my son contracted leukemia – very soon after we knew and we knew the implications, which for a teenage boy are hard to take. I cried again at the Great London Swim, months later. This was the first time I swam at one of these events, and I didn’t know what to expect – these swims were popular, increasingly so, so it was easy to find the destination, once of public transport – just follow the swimmers. I was a wet-suiter then, and I think the organisers demanded that wet suits be worn at that time. Once ready, dressed and zipped up, there was a walk of around 300 meters to the start-point. I went alone, and I don't know how this happened - somehow got talking to two women who were also raising funds for cancer research, who had cancer in their families. I cried, we all cried, let it out, hugged, promised to each other this would be the best swim ever, that things would work out. As we walked to the start, when we got into the water to warm up we looked to each other, hard into the eyes, Scandinavian-style, deep into the soul. We promised each other - to be strong, to swim for those that matter. Well-wishing for the swim ahead, just a mile, then we somehow gave up our individuality and swam together, looked out for each other, until we got separated about two thirds of the way round. In the pumped-up atmosphere of the swim, with music pounding, being pep-talked into the water, this was indeed the best swim ever. I, we, were not competing for a time, but for something much more important. For one mile, we had our purpose back. I said goodbye to them at the end; I didn’t ask their names (it didn’t seem important), and I have never met them again, but I remember the swim well, with its bitter-sweetness, and still salute them for their strength and resilience.
All this, the London Swim when my son had leukemia, came out unexpectedly when I was talking with a swimmer, on this sunny day at the Victoria Docks late August 2020, queuing to be registered and signed up for swimming. I talked to him of the nostalgia that has attached itself to many of the 65 swims I am doing, and this particular swim today. He had simply asked why I was swimming here, in the eastern waters of London, and he got it all. At the very least he was polite to listen, and he wished me well. Nostalgia is the wrong word for the swim this particular afternoon, but the memory of that first swim was strong. The sense of joy was strong, to be back here on a sunny afternoon, in warm water, swimming skins (in swimmer terminology, without a wetsuit), in no hurry and taking in the monumental urban landscape of Canary Wharf as I went around. In memory of a difficult time in the life of my son and my family, I was pleased with the swim now – someone bumped into me, a wetsuited man in his late twenties, and he apologized. I just said to him that I was having fun today, and I was. My thoughts turned from memory to supper - in Greenwich with my son. I would take the cable car across the River Thames I decided, to continue the fun – I have never taken the cable car before.
The swimming scene at Royal Victoria Docks was very mellow that day – the swimmers were mostly younger wetsuit warriors, not as intense and targeted on the swim as they can be. There were almost as many in skins, all happy. There never used to be regular swimming here, but the annual Great London Swims put the Docks on the swimming-scape. The case for regular swimming was made and won, and the National Open Water Coaching Association (NOWCA) made this another regular venue for outdoor swimming in London. The staff here were relaxed and friendly, competent and efficient, making the experience here far more pleasant than I had expected. So much has developed in this little corner of East London, lawns, open spaces, water-side views and walks, cafes and restaurants. Mostly younger adults enjoying the sun, stretching and exercising, walking and running, swimming and water-boarding, the place has energy, even while the pandemic is dampening all enthusiasm. Getting onto the cable car and rising into the sky I looked down and across to where I had been, to the swimming venue and the adjacent café, to the many people making this a wonderful place to enjoy the tail-end of this summer. I promised myself that I would be back on another day, for another swim, for another relaxed coffee by the water.