Wednesday, 30 May 2012

With the onset of unexpected hot weather comes the over riding disappointment that I am not anywhere, not even close, not anywhere near the sea.

In London I didn't feel so landlocked safe in the knowledge that breaking out of the city confines was easy and quick. Finding the coast was but an hour away. I'll be lucky if it's three from here. And although I hated summer in London, in that city, with all its hot antagonism gathering sweaty patches at the back of my knees, you could, almost smell the sea from certain places.

And here I am now trying to organise travel to a wedding in Poole, and back to my main priority- a swim in the sea. And to watch some friends get married. I try to work out if I can leave Birmingham at 6am, get to Poole for 10 am, swim in the sea, not drown and make it to the wedding turned out and coiffured for 2pm. It is unlikely. Something to do with peninsula's,  bank holiday sunshine and bottle neck to the beach.

I walk to water, as I do, from my flat where I've been cooped up working. Narrowing my eyes at the bright rays and thinking of a litany of excuses for not going in the sunshine. The main ones being, I don't like the heat, not if I'm not in the water, I don't like the sun, if I can't see the sea.

And I hold in frustration the cold winter weather whose clinging currents stopped me from swimming properly in the sea just a few weeks ago; High winds, high(ish) waters and a sinking sense of disappointment in myself that I am not as fearless as I once was.

This with age, with my age alongside, a crashing sense of helplessness as your body starts to visibly demonstrate the signs of ageing (not so bad, I know I'm still young, but the elasticity of my skin has greatly diminished and I can see the effects of a late night written across my face-my body not reacting as quickly as it used to, to three days of vegetable consumption and an increase in exercise. The knowledge that this is just the beginning, warning signs, while I'm still young enough to realise). And along with all of that comes a fear, a loss of the blind belief in immortality, that happened to me in youth. A very real sense that things (tides, waves, currents) are more powerful that me. That danger, death, drowning is imminent.

It's a wave away, a paddle too deep, a lone swimmer too far.

I never used to believe this, my own prophecy, but now I've started to believe my own dramatic whispers that I'd make as a teenager.

'I've always known I'd die drowning'

Two or so weeks ago I howled at the sea on Brighton Beach, in the cold and wet, not knowing which wet was sea water and what was rain. I justified my weakness for not really swimming into old words humour and creating a character from the sea. Foiled by the sea.

 But I was scared.

I didn't test my depths. I didn't test her depths. Didn't hold that faith that I feel in my stomach that...she wouldn't take me than.

I swam for a moment until I became scared by the crashing waves that seem so monstrous and tall when you are in their swell. The kind of waves I long for, the kind of waves I dream about.  But on a cold wet day in on Brighton Beach, not ones that I trust.

And I don't know when I will swim in salty water again. If I'd just been a little braver, a little more wild, a little bit more in love with the sea, like I say, like I write, like I tell people I am; then I would have swam.

Or it was common sense that comes from the wrong side of 30 (right side of 30?). Or my companion in this escapade telling me only I knew if the conditions were ok. And I didn't. I didn't know. I'm not experienced enough, I haven't spent enough time. I live in the midlands.

So I sit and write about raging seas while looking at the placed mud coloured canal. (I used to believe that when taking the train past Bournville that the canal was made of chocolate, as part of Cadbury's world, I believed that until quite an inappropriately late age).

And still, if that's the water that there is, all that is available, all I want to do is cover myself in it. Can feel summer sweat closely around me. An impulse, an unthought through want to jump in before...the reality of four foot bottom of mud and bones and duck poo.

But for a second, feel water covering my head, my mouth, cooling my bones.

I've been taking a lot more baths than I used to. Deeper than I used to. Here in Birmingham.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

An excerpt from something. At some point.

For the first time in my life I'm as far away from the sea as I have ever been. 174 miles east to the see, 110 miles west to the coast, 300 miles north to the wild sea's of Scotland, 192 miles south to edge of the channel. But I am the closest I have ever been to water. Stagnant, still, free from flowing water but 100 or so metres from me.  A canal, dark, green, black with promises of canine bodies, shopping trollies, faces below the surface. It lies still. I could give it all up live a life rolled in salt and sand, surely if I really loved her, I would. Surely if I really wanted to I would. Surely there would be no guilt, no excuse about swimming. The sun brings out a longing for salt on the wind, and calls from gulls, wind whipping sand, the dirty cold.

My eyes dull, my skin aches at the end to end tiles of the pool. Gulls cries around hear and carried on winds of false promise that you are not as far inland as you'd thought. If I zoom out of myself, a google map of imagination, I can see, physically see, how far away I am. I lick my lips, in a hope for salt.

I listen to a book of the week on Radio 4, A Coastal Memoir by Tim Winton. An Australian who really knows his seas. Blue seas, white beaches, stuff of fantasy and snap shot memories to me. I am entranced by his words, by his writing of the sea, by  his passion in trying to retain, some part of how the sea should be. Our waters, here in the British Isles dull in comparison. No threat of a fin, no dart of rainbow fish and strange creature.

And the tap in my bath is dripping constantly. A reminder that I need to contact the landlord, a reminder of the wasting of water, a pool of water building up in the bottom of my bath.

My finger itch to write, and my arms itch to swim, and my head longs to calm, and my body wants to move. I could cry with disappointment that this won't be in open water. I imagine myself on holiday, somewhere hot, somewhere foreign, somewhere unspoilt, I see myself swimming every day in the morning as the sun rises, shaking off the night before. The only one there. I worry about my lungs filling with salty water, about not caring if I'm up or down. Of my body floating. And swelling. Gulls pecking out my glassed out eyes. Seaweed in my hair.

Mosley Baths

'There are good ships and bad ships and the difference between them has nothing to do with being seaworthy. If I was fanciful I might say some had souls. There are ships built to withstand the worst the almighty can throw at them yet they go down with hardly a murmur, and there are other frailer craft, who having battled the winds and lost masts , yards and canvas, still born safe home to harbour. With experience a man can tell the one from the other the moment he steps aboard, neither from look nor feel, from some fathoms deep within himself.'

'The Birthday Boys' Beryl Bainbridge p 46, Petty Officer Evans.

My first trip to Mosley Baths, a mythical place, the subject of campaign and demonstration- one of the oldest baths in the country. Closed for months since I moved to this land locked city half on it's promise.

It's a walk, a bus ride away, excitement more than the travel to Solihull.

Turrets of excitement, separate entrances, for men, for women, for classes etched in stone above arched wooden doors. Beautiful edwardian splendour in the middle of a city known for industrialism.

I've passed that wooden door solid its impenetrability, sign keeping out the enquiries, almost everyday on the way to the city centre. Ear to the ground for internet rumours waiting for it to open.

Then with no fanfare, no announcement, one day the sign was gone and the door was open. A chance to swim in historical depths.

Into old beauty, cracked tiles and history, confused signs and cordoned off areas. I pay for my swim through a window slot to a friendly women. None of the shiny glass, gum chewing teenagers, bored look in their eye that I've come to expect from Solihull.

I make a few wrong turns, locked doors, promise behind them, the splash of anticipation, the echo of the pool and then...

Profound disappointment. She's a small one.

A tin tub, a bath, almost the size of a children's pool where I cut my swimming teeth learning my crawl. It's no 25 metre, it's not even my old favourite Maze Hill in Greenwich it's statue at 22 metres. She's a 17 stroke, 18 stroke length, finish before I've even started type pool. 
There's just communal showers, cubicles on the side, one ladies toilet in the corner. I don't want to return to Solihull swimming, to mis-placed lane rage and swim confusion. 
I start panicking into plan B before I dip my toe in; Coventry or worse begin to wonder just how long that pool is at LA Fitness on the high street. 
I'll give it a go, I'm here now paid my entry. Chipped tiles, arched windows, a floor that 1000 vurruca's have touched. For over 100 years. 
The life guard sullen teenagers here. How long is the pool I ask politely-unlike me I'm not prone to talking to clothed strangers while in my cossie. Usually. With a smile, he answers 21 metres, that's just minus one from Maze Hill, the only place I've swam 3 miles in one go. 
'Approximately' He says with another wide smile. 
'I won't hold you too it'. 
Two people in the fast lane. (And it's named a redeeming feature which already blows Solihull out of the water, despite it's lacking of length). 
I get in and it is, pleasant. The people in the fast lane let me past, now problems, smiles in fact. Friendly, polite. Not too busy, something. Something lovely about swimming there, trying to take in the ageing scenery. 
I do two miles (or there abouts my on the spot, on swim maths isn't a strong point-around 73 lengths, I think in waterlogged addition) and it's easy, glide through water, almost (almost not, really almost) like the pleasure that I feel in the sea, smiling underwater. Wash away my thoughts. And while it's true that I reach the end before I know it, something about it, about this pool, seems right. Its all wrong, it's too short, but there's a pleasure in it I haven't felt for a while. I end nearly with a lane to myself lapping a man with easy effort. Worried that I don't want to seem rude. Not ignoring the unknown etiquette of how the lanes are run. 

There are just showers on the side, open to all, and as I walk across, everyone says 'Morning' like we're not really not wearing anything. A man talks to me while we shower tells me a story. 

'Everyday for 18 months I've walked past that shut door. I used to swim here everyday, every morning five days a week. Would walk here in my shorts, and flip flops, come rain or shine, but that door it was never open. And then! That door was open, and I'm back here again, so happy, so happy. You know you get to know the faces here, it's all friendly, same faces in the morning. So I shower here get ready and straight to work. And people, at work they ask me...what are you on? Swimming, I say..' He smiles at me through the water pouring down in our communal shower. 

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Solihull Swim

I could of course witter on about not having swam/written the blog/eaten too much/ smoked too much but I think that theme is getting a little tired. I could give excuses that both lie to myself and whoever I think I'm writing this blog for; perhaps myself two years ago when I was slightly more serious about swimming the channel.

To recap: I now live In Birmingham, the most landlocked city in the country, a move that is not obviously conducive to sea swimming. I miss the pools I swam in London and out of some sense of respect, a want not to taint their memory, fear of the unknown (I also had a runny nose, pieces of paper to move, face book to check etc etc) hadn't actually managed a swim in Birmingham.

There is a pool near me. Walking Distance but every time I think about it, I get a rising fury, a frustration that I can barley contain. It's a leisure pool. Some sort of S shaped, island bent, with water the temperature of a tepid bath. To try and do a 25 metre length you have to swim in a curve past neatly coiffured ladies where no hair on their head will get wet. It's warmth makes me think I'm swimming in other people's urine. I like my water cold, so I have to move to keep warm. I cannot count the amount of time I've wasted wondering why you wouldn't build a normal swimming pool. Just an oblong, 25 metres long, about 16 metres wide. So this aside, but still playing a a tune of fury in the back of my head I set my alarm for 6.20am to travel 20 minutes on a bus to Solihull Pool.

A little note- I've been feeling a tiredness that I haven't felt for a while, it's a slowness in my body. A reluctance to achieve anything other than sitting, or lieing, a low ebb that hits me for a nap in the afternoon at 3pm, 4pm, 5pm then stops me sleeping during the night, so that my vision seems slightly blurred, fogged over, fluff rattling between my ears. Too many late nights, and not keeping my feet on the ground. Pull my head from the clouds.  I know that if I leave swimming one more week (It's been three weeks, last time was in Deptford a fond farewell to pool I loved, in between being one foot in London, one hand in Birmingham), I'll tip over edge where I won't go back, and each thought of exercise, each tiny step will be met with an excuse of other stuff happening. I have to swim or I might not catch myself again.

I'm worried, anxious about the size of the pool, the changing facilitates, the quality of the swimmers, the price of the pool. In London between the two pools that I frequented,  I knew my times, the ebb and flow of the tides of people, learnt to read the rhythms of the swimmers, when it was busy, when the professionals came, who to avoid, what lane was mine. Judging my timings so I would get at least one  moment of still when it's only you and perhaps one other in the pool. Now I'm treading water to see what lies in my new local(ish) pool.

I tell myself that people probably swim in Birmingham less, in Solihull less, there's probably not as much of a culture for exercise. I still obviously have that one foot in London and the superiority complex that comes from living in the Capital's glass walls.

I'm in for the Sunriser Session. £4.10 for a swim, glass wall over looks the pool. It's busy, five, six, seven people to every lane. I'm not even sure it's actually 25 metres long. I take a deep breath and...

Mixed changing rooms, maze like in their lay out but individual showers. It's a locker type affair no towel by the poolside here. Strap on the wrist, which I think slows me down. I'm aiming to do two miles- 130 lengths, think that I'll falter at 100. Seems like months, not weeks. I'll probably start with the medium lane, don't think I can aim that fast, that high.

7.15am Poolside I go. Scan the lanes, take an aim, look for the signs. Look for the signs. There's no slow lane. There's no medium lane, there's no fast lane. There's no system. There's no system.

There's people swimming full pelt front crawl in between no head wet swimmers. Heart sinks, I'll sink.  I get in what seems to be ,on judgement, the faster lane, although in between tiny tight wearing short men, there's a flailing back stroker who's swimming like he's drowning. It's like rush hour, I gage the etiquette and decide to go straight in for over taking. It's a baptism of speed. I'm in between being insensed by slow swimmers and speeded up by the snapping of water dogs at my heels.

And I can't even get the furies, full of tutts at the leisurely crawlers because there is no system. It's not their fault there is no minimum speed.

I'm not at my best and I'm struggling at no system no sense, acknowledging that I like my rules. There's a couple of the familiers; the speeding men in tight trunks, speeding their way and stopping every few lengths. The dogged distancers (a category I'm usually part of) never stopping, just pacing, going the distance. But there is not the fine tuned Iron men that I've come to recognise from Deptford, the hard core, fin lined, hard lined swimmers who are all blur of cap and goggles. It's a little more like dogems at the fair. A man under takes me. He undertakes me and then swims directly towards me as he's just done a U turn. I'm not a driver, but I'm pretty sure this kind of manoeuvre is frowned upon, nigh on dangerous in a car. Now I'm all for letting people over take, I quite like a bit of encouragement of speed but this shows complete disregard for lane etiquette. Or politeness. Or safety. Or anyone else. I consider punching him in the balls.

I enjoy my rage, have a couple of pauses one at the 30 length mark (100 more to do) another at the 60 mark (nearly 1 mile, nearly half way there) and then people start to filter out of the pool...for a while it's me and couple of other's in the lane, no more stopping and starting or panic swimming. I keep lapping an older man who is swimming gracefully and slowly on. Drifting like he was born in the water. A basking shark, but with socks on. I assume their swim socks. Veroca deterrents.

My googles steam over, my pace evens out and I drift into my thoughts. Enjoying the ache in my arms. All the thoughts that keep me up, all the thoughts that make shadows in my bed, wash behind me, stroke by stroke. This is optimum time, around 8am. I'm waiting for the schools to come for the lanes to get smaller, for the next surge to come. But for twenty or so minutes it's the perfect swim conditions.

Then a rise and swell of a large pair of shorts, billowing like sea weed announce the arrival of the amateur swimmers. Dog paddling. Hand throwing. There's legs all around me, glimpses of white and pink. The last ten lengths powered by thoughts of breakfast...Reach my hand out for the side that one last time, head up goggles off and the pool is full again. This time it's like being in the film Cocoon. The lane is full with breast stroke and gental. And I leave the pool. Catch a bus, caught myself, 20 minutes back home.