When I went away to boarding school I was pathetically unable to swim; as a result my first summer term became a living hell until I made good this deficiency. This was because all the Houses were in ardent competition to be top in getting their new boys through the aquatic proficiency test: retrieving a weighted wooden brick from the deep end, diving – “watch out! a faulty dive can split you in two!” – and all the rest of it. Well, obviously, I learned P.D.Q. – you do if you spend every afternoon in a cold and mossy outdoor pool, being yelled at by implacable prefects. I’d never been afraid of water; I simply had no idea of how swimming was done. (“How It’s Done” by Angela Talbot: some of my older readers may remember this excellent weekly magazine column?).
It really was too bad because for years at prep school we were always being carted off to the public baths in a Dormobile, an ex-army teacher in a maroon tracksuit at the wheel. Our lips were blue with terror because we were all petrified of the Ogre of the Pool, a burly old man ( I see now that he was probably about forty) who ran the place. The Ogre wore dirty waders and thick fish-lens spectacles: he always had a sodden ciggie stuck to his lower lip. He started shouting at us as soon as the reluctant crocodile of little boys pushed through the peeling swing doors from the pavement and were herded forward by teacher into a humid asphyxiating fog of chlorine, stale tobacco and mouldy bath towels. The smell of chlorine always prompts a Pavlovian flinching of my stomach, more than half a century later.
We had to take freezing showers under a tap before the Ogre drove us like darling Clementine’s ducklings into the water. After that everything went rather to pieces because nothing seemed to be organised. The non-swimmers tried to catch hold of the few crumbling polystyrene “floats”, and floundered about; or they clung to the rails from which desperate fingers were sometimes prised by force*.(Heart-rending shrieks). More proficient athletes brought their pyjamas to wear, in which to perform life-saving exercises: these manoeuvres diverted attention from the duffers who swayed to and fro at the shallow end, like jellyfish at the Codfish Ball. Or dying ducks in a thunderstorm as teacher’s favourite derogatory metaphor had it. We longed only to be ignored and all too often we got our wish: but we of course never learned to swim.
Soon we were back in the shower, dressed – never properly dried, though (“hurry! hurry!”) – and now, chittering like marmosets with relief, we were loaded back into the van. More funny smells in there, as you can imagine – a lot of damp and not very clean children herded together, all sucking boiled sweets and peppermints. For now an unexpected care in the community broke out and we were urged for our health’s sake to take plenty of sucrose to restore body temperature and energy. I daresay the sugar as well as the euphoria at having escaped the baths added to the invariable hysteria of those drives back to school. Even teacher smiled.
Funny thing is, once I finally got the knack, I loved swimming albeit using a clumsy dog paddle, or breast stroke with “a dreadful frog-like action”¤. For a while I couldn’t get enough of it: basic hydrotherapy, a return to the waters from which life on earth first emerged. And of course the human body is – what? – about 65% water in composition. No wonder so many of us have this craving to be in sight or hearing of living waters: sea, creek, waterfall or river. Swimming remains the only sort of formal exercise I really enjoy. Much later on I found a wonderful pool in Holborn, now long since gone: it was in the basement of the old YWCA building and anyone could use it on payment of .50p. It had a faint and pleasing resemblance to an Alma Tadema Roman pastiche. An attendant sat in a basket chair at the head of the bath to ensure decorum and fair play – “No ball games! No jumping! No splashing!”. Pretty empty it usually was, and quiet; used mainly by the more mature. The scent I always associate with the YWCA is (perhaps unexpectedly) Amouage’s gorgeous ‘Gold’ – Guy Robert’s Franco-Omani masterpiece – which had just then been released. I used to go swimming after work, coated and weighed down with ‘Gold’. I would do my first length and then, on the return trip down the pool, I’d run headlong into my own sillage of perfume, ample and billowing like a great sunset cloud, an electric storm of sweet shimmering incense, brooding above the tepid blue water. It fought with the chlorine fumes – and won, like St Michael degrading the Fallen Angels. ‘Am-waj = a wave’. How uncannily appropriate!”
*my mother remembered from her own schooldays a mistress who would stamp on the hands of any girl who tried to crawl out of the water before her time.
¤ Queen Victoria “Letters.