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Updated: Jun 17, 2020

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.

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