Updated: Sep 3, 2020
“As long as I gaze on Waterloo Sunset, I am in paradise” – this Kinks song from my early adolescence, was running through my head. David Bowie did a cover of this, and I was mind-flipping from Kinks to Bowie and back again. Bowie does the better riff, but it is Ray Davies vision of London. I was rushing as I could to get to Hampton Court to swim with Juliet Turnbull and her pod of six for her FIGS swim (Friday I Go Swimming), and I didn’t need an iPod – the Kinks-Bowie sunset mash was happening in my head. I had been through Waterloo train station twice today already, to attend a funeral in Wimbledon, and now again to swim-rendezvous at Hampton Court. It wasn’t yet sunset but would be by the time we finished the swim, from a beach downstream of Hampton Court Bridge and Hampton Court Palace, and it would be night by the time I came back to Waterloo Station again. Gazing from the train at my imagined Waterloo sunset, Monet’s riverscapes of the Thames gave the visual back-drop to the music - autumnal skies like fire, in red and orange and gold. Ray Davies of the Kinks saw several Waterloo sunsets from his sick-bed in St Thomas’ Hospital as a child, saw the Thames daily from the Waterloo train, met his first girlfriend along the Embankment at Waterloo. For me the connection was less romantic, perhaps more exotic – I saw my Waterloo sunsets from my sick bed at the same hospital, when I had malaria upon return from Papua New Guinea in 1981. I had stopped my antimalarial medication after coming to the UK and slipped into malarious fever every 48 hours. One of these fevers happened at work, and I was taken to hospital after I slumped down on my desk one late afternoon. My boss at the British Council, Dr Penny Aspden, knew malaria when she saw it, having worked in India for many years, and she called the ambulance which took me to the nearest hospital, St Thomas’, across the River Thames from the Houses of Parliament. I was in a deep fever when my first Waterloo sunset appeared to me as a livid hallucination as I lay in my hospital bed. Malarial fever gives the most outrageous dreams, and I thought it was one of those until the next evening, when I was less feverish and I saw my next Waterloo sunset, the Houses of Parliament in silhouette against red, pink and gold.
I was wishing for one of these paradise Waterloo sunsets in real life tonight, while on the Waterloo train to Hampton Court, remembering malaria, The Kinks, Bowie and Monet (who painted several Waterloo sunsets of his own when he exiled himself in London in 1970 to 1871, and on subsequent visits to London). I regret that it wasn’t to be – there was too much cloud but at least no rain, after the past days of summer storms – but the evening offered many good things. Arriving at Hampton Court train station and hurried via a busy road to a turn-off and a footpath that led to a very calming river scene, down by the Thames. The busy modern world just disappeared, as it is so often with outdoor swimming - you turn off down a track to a river – and find the water. People were there by a small beach, changing, coming out of the water. There was Juliet, ready in her recycled plastic-water-bottle fabric togs, smiling. This was a regular swimming spot for the people of this locality, with multiple small beaches along the Thames - I have swum here before, but really I just swam through with noticing what a lovely local swimming area this was – wooded, with trees hanging over the river, very pretty. Hampton Court Palace was upstream and the plan was to swim toward it and beyond it as far as possible toward Hampton Court Bridge before it started to get dark. I met Peter and Allison, and we swam together. Peter was wearing a mermaid-tail, who once he got his fin going, raced ahead of us. Allison and Juliet were stronger swimmers than me but they took account of my new knee, and we swam together, chatting. The river was flowing faster than at any time across the summer – the rain-storms of previous days were now running in the river. We came to Hampton Court Palace, to the right (I felt like a tourist), and agreed that this was amazing. Allison felt that it was especially so because King Henry the Eighth lived at this very grand palace, 500 years ago or so.
It was an evening of mental time-travel – now to Tudor England and Henry the Eighth. He is known in the popular imagination as the king who married six times and broke with Catholicism. I think of him as a revolutionary who shaped the fractal island of Britain and its brother island Ireland in ways that continue to the present day. To try to understand why most Scottish and Irish people hate the English, Henry the Eighth is a good starting point. He changed made England a protestant country, gave himself and his ancestors a God-given right to rule, and imposed his rule on Ireland. The God-given right to rule took hundreds of years to overturn, the Irish got back (most of) their country only in the twentieth century, while the English still look upon Catholics with suspicion. I wonder briefly as I swim, how many of the political changes underway now, with Brexit and Covid-19, will stick for nearly so long as Henry the Eighth in politics and the English imagination. Certainly, both of these have divided the United Kingdom. But more importantly, here in the Hampton Court water, did Henry the Eighth swim? Are we sharing something of his divine right to swim right now, in the water? I chose to think so – Alison was smiling broadly, so she was sensing something of Henry the Eighth, I thought. It was certainly possible - he was an accomplished athlete in his youth. He also knew the River Thames, from Hampton Court to Westminster, to Greenwich, as well as upstream perhaps as far as Oxford.
Here in the water the sun is going down, into twilight, and Waterloo Sunset floods into my mind again. Juliet smiles and says how happy she is, as we start to go downstream from Hampton Court Palace – “I am in paradise” goes the song. It’s a Friday night swim, without socialising but with wishes-well for the evening, for the weekend. A kind of end-of-the day swim to pull the knots of the week out of the hair, pleasant, happy, each individual with their own trajectory but companionable. I am very content. Juliet gets my stuff from her boat so that she can go back to her houseboat on the river, downstream. My good funeral clothes. I laugh with Alison while we change at a bench nearby – my good white shirt has buttons and my fingers are quite stiff and I struggle to do them up. A sin among outdoor swimmers is to wear a shirt, for this very reason – wear a tee shirt, a loose top, something you can throw on easily, to make it easy to make the transition from cold water to dry land. Peter had a great swim, with his fin, and Alison was Friday-night happy. Such lovely people, I hope to see them again before long. Juliet, thank you for inviting me to your swim-bubble tonight!
Images in the water courtesy of Juliet Turnbull