The small lido where I swim during the summer months is unheated and, when I arrive, it is often empty. When I first used to get in I’d lower my torso into the water very gingerly and wince a bit, in a way that the Scouse side of my family would call “nesh”, but these days being semi-naked and immersed in cool water has become such a normal state for me I throw fuck to the wind and hurl myself right in, barely noticing the chill. I take a little while to get going, not just because I’m warming up but because my first couple of lengths necessitate several detours, as I rescue the handful of bumblebees that are invariably flailing about upside down on the pool’s surface. If the bees are near the edge of the pool I do this with a cupped hand beneath the water and a gentle scooping motion that I hope will not hurt the bee or result in a sting, but sometimes when the bee is more centrally located I will return to my clothespile and fetch one of my espadrilles, hold it aloft whilst swimming one-armed, then use it to lift the bee out of the water onto the concrete slabs at the side. If anyone in the flats near the pool is watching me perform this task from their window, it must look very strange. “This man is very committed to his latest piece of performance art,” I can imagine them thinking. “He believes he is all alone, unobserved, but he still goes through with it in such a serious manner. It is sad, yet kind of admirable.”
A lot of people might think it slightly unhygienic to swim around in the company of insects but I regularly push the envelope of my aquatic interspecies social life into much more perilous bacterial territory. Three weeks ago, on the hottest day of the year, I swam in the river Dart with my friends James, Bea, Monika and Helen. “Wow, this is amazing!” we said to each other as we bobbed about in water much warmer than the lido, the smell of a barbecue drifting over from the shore and an early evening sun winking through the boughs of the oaks overhanging the bank. Then we got out, towelled ourselves dry, and watched in silence as a jersey heifer lowered itself into the shallows and released a huge, hot jet of piss into an area only a few feet from where we had just been doing breaststroke.
I generally prefer to swim further upstream than this in the Dart, beyond the South Hams towns of Totnes and Buckfastleigh and their sewage plants, where it’s easier to convince yourself that the water is clear and pure and blank out the fact that there might be a decomposing ram wedged between two algae-shined rocks just seven or eight hundred yards around the corner. On Saturday, I traipsed a couple of miles north from the moor’s edge along rocky banks, past half a dozen canoeists, an elderly hippie couple sitting on the bank hand in hand and a lanky girl with a feedbucket calling sweetly to three ponies, until finally I was alone next to a deep clear pool of black-gold water. I stood on a natural granite platform around twenty feet above the pool’s surface and envisaged the hidden jagged underwater rock that would slice mercilessly through my thigh muscle, leaving me stranded and bleeding as the cold unforgiving moorland night thundered down. Then I thought “Ah, fuck it!” and jumped in anyway. In truth, I’d already done a reconnoitre of water depth and underwater rock location because, contrary to what some of my recent swimming missions might suggest from a distance, I largely enjoy my life and do not actually wish to die before my time.
The current in the pool was benign but when I swam up to the waterfall at the top end I realised that I was no longer moving forward and I got a sense of what a formidable monster its force could be on a harsher day after some customarily Devonian heavy rainfall. As I walked back to the car and dripped dry in the sun and breeze I felt a cold electricity in my fingertips and my entire body seemed to have a coating of dark magic renewal, as if it had found something in the water that reminded it what it really was, before all this distraction we tentatively call being a person. I returned home, faffed for a while in a delusional attempt to work, then got in the car and headed to the sea to swim some more. A mild but spectacular fret came in over the cliffs as I arrived, making the Gammon Head rock look like a smoky sea volcano from the finale of an epic fantasy HBO series. A sensible person might have turned back but I have done various bits of research into being a sensible person over the last couple of decades and decided it’s not for me.
Over the last few months I have become slightly addicted to swimming and nobody is more surprised about this than I am. The last time I was addicted to swimming was between the ages of six and nine, when, over summer weeks that take on a quality of endlessness in my memory, I would dive repeatedly into an Italian swimming pool under a fierce sun and transform with great alacrity into a small sinewy human brazil nut. My dad, reliving a Mediterannean childhood he’d never had, would dive beside me, no less boisterously, then play energetic games of table tennis against competitive Germans on the table behind the pool. These Italian holidays are such a large powerful part of me that, any time I’m now in the lido and I get water up my nose, I am dizzied by a time travel stronger than that evoked by any smell. With this arrives a dramatic feeling of ambivalence. On one hand, I have swimming pool water up my nose, which is always a bit of a wanker. On the other hand, it’s 1983, I am back in Tuscany, nobody’s ever expressed an emotion via a GIF, I’ve spent the morning listening to ‘Remain In Light’ by Talking Heads and I am about to eat earth’s greatest pizza for less than what you would now pay for a pencil. All people have years when they are more them than they are in other years and 1982, 1983 and 1984 were all years when I was very me. This is probably a big reason why I swim. I also like the way it has changed my body, without me having to go within a mile of a gym, which is something I would rather pan fry one of my own internal organs than do.
You have to be careful talking about this stuff, especially on the Internet. People on the Internet want to hear that you are abandoning your responsibilities to your body and bingeing on doughnuts and a six pack of extra strength budget lager. They do not want to hear that you are getting fitter than you have been for years, and they especially do not want to witness a blow-by-blow record of it. So I will try to leave it at this: I feel better as the skinny slightly wiry person I’ve been since swimming a lot than the slightly skinny not all that wiry person I was before. I don’t think it’s for everybody, and I don’t even find skinny slightly wiry people especially attractive, myself. Do whatever you want to do and don’t let a stranger dictate how you live your life. Eat some doughnuts, maybe? They’re nice.
I hesitate to call what I’ve been doing “wild swimming” because I’ve always thought that’s a bit like calling mowing “wild vacuuming” but I do sometimes call it “wild swimming” because lots of people do and joining in makes communication easier, and I think it would be extremely stubborn of me to completely boycott the term “wild swimming”. I posted a few photos on Twitter and Instagram of the swimming challenges I’ve set myself and they probably look far more spectacular and brave than they actually were. What I forgot when I did this was that my dad, who is always on a determined search for the cloud in every silver lining, stalks my social network accounts with the zeal of a private detective. Pretty soon, the emails started to roll in: three, sometimes four, every day. “TWO DIE IN RIPTIDE OFF THE COAST OF NORFOLK,” announced the subject heading of one. “SEARCH FOR CURLY-HAIRED MAN, 41, FEARED DROWNED, CONTINUES,” said another. After about fourteen links to modern news stories, the dates started to stretch back into the past. I think one was from the 1950s.
I admit, with hindsight, that the first swimming challenge I set myself was quite bold. I hadn’t even thought of setting myself swimming challenges before that. I was splashing about on my favourite cove in a dreamy way and as I was I got to thinking about the cove around the corner from it, which I had visited with my nan when I was little, and I thought it would be quite fun to swim around the corner to revisit it, so I set about doing just that. Swimming to this cove from my favourite cove didn’t seem a huge deal, as when you start you are close to the shore and the water is clear beneath you, but as I rounded the corner everything was very different: I was fairly far out in open water, the waves were bigger and stronger, and I got a small but genuine sense of what an unsympathetic bastard the sea could be. The swim was around a mile in total and I was tired when I returned to the beach of the original cove, so much so that I staggered a bit, like someone who’d escaped from a shipwreck. There was also the problem that I couldn’t see, due to the strength of all the salt water in my eyes, which probably made it look like I was crying, perhaps owing to having lost a loved one in the same shipwreck. When I fully regained my sight I noticed both of my kneecaps were streaming with blood. On the plus side, I knew that my hair would feel great in an hour or so in that cool crunchy way it does when you’ve been in the sea.
“YOUR KNEES WERE BLEEDING BECAUSE YOU SMASHED THEM AGAINST SOME ROCKS,” my dad told me later that week on the phone. “I ASKED MALCOLM AND HE TOLD ME. I SHOWED HIM YOUR PICTURE TOO AND HE SAYS YOU’RE AN IDIOT. HIS BROTHERS HAVE SWUM THE CHANNEL AND HE’S REALLY STRONG AND GOOD AT SWIMMING. HE’S 70 NOW BUT HE CAN STILL PICK ME UP AND TURN ME UPSIDE DOWN IN THE WATER AT THE LOCAL POOL. DON’T DO SWIMS LIKE THAT ON YOUR OWN. AND WATCH OUT FOR FOOKWITS, LOONIES AND JELLYFISH.”
My second swimming challenge – to cross the mouth of the River Erme, at Mothecombe – looked quite brave from my photo, but didn’t feel particularly brave to me. It was a first for me in that it involved swimming in the rain, which was much more pleasant than I expected. I’d watched the temperature gauge drop on the car I’d driven south west to the beach from home – 22 degrees, 21, 20, 19, 18 – and worried about getting a chill but the water was shallow and pleasant. Only when I crossed a little invisible barrier separating river mouth from sea did I notice a shift in temperature: a hint of something epically cold and devoid of remorse that you knew was not far away. As I swam, gentle inquisitive seaweed grabbed for my legs, like a thousand face flannels gone sentient. The sea was murkier than it had been ten miles away, at my favourite cove, but kinder. This is something I love about the south Devon coastline: its erratic shifts in personality, its high standards of experimental cliffing and inability to settle for the three or four types of flooring that many other coastlines do.
A couple of days after that a softish package arrived in the post and I opened it with fevered excitement, expecting it to be a Linda Ronstadt t-shirt I had ordered from the Internet. Instead, I found a fluorescent item: not, as I first assumed, a high visibility tabard, but something harder and more rubbery in character. “OPEN WATER SWIM BUOY,” announced its packaging, which also included a strap and buckle. “BE BRIGHT. BE SEEN.”
That afternoon an email popped through from my dad. “NOW FUCKING USE IT,” instructed the email.
It is curious how during a period of your life you will find yourself drawn to some music in what you believe is an entirely arbitrary way but later see a correlation between the character of the music and what you are doing in that period of your life. During my summer of outdoor swimming I have been listening obsessively to the first four albums by the Californian psychedelic rock band Spirit. I listened to these a fair bit during the late 90s, then moved on to Spirit’s less well-known, floatier mid-70s period, and had recently felt like I needed to give their early work more time. Spirit sold a fraction of the units that their jazz-tinged LA contemporaries The Doors did but they were a much braver band, although their bravery is far less showy so sometimes people don’t notice it, and their story is more tragic and weird. Another thing that makes Spirit cooler than the Doors is that they were a band formed by a teenager – the band’s songwriting mainstay Randy California – and his bald, middle-aged uncle. Jim Morrison, you sense, would have thought himself too cool to form a band with his bald, middle-aged uncle, which is of course one of the precise reasons he is in reality more uncool. Spirit are brilliant and weird and perfect for a green summer day and this is why I at present cannot stop listening to them.
But there is something very watery about Spirit, too: a bubbling quality to their far-out yet understated songs. “Water woman, water world/Think I’ll go down and drown myself/Water woman we’ll live on love/Swim to the bottom and never come up,” sings California’s co-frontman, Jay Ferguson, on their song Water Woman, from 1968. California was a strong, obsessive swimmer: an athletic hippie who, already a Hendrix-approved guitar prodigy, was only sixteen when Spirit recorded Water Woman and the other songs on their visionary debut album. In 1973 while living in West London, he infamously swam out into a choppy, violent Thames while tripping on LSD, as a crowd watched, fearful for his life. He made it back to the shore that time, but, swimming off the coast of Molokai in Hawaii in 1997, California and his twelve year-old son were caught in a riptide. His son, with his and a lifeguard’s help, survived, but California did not.
Last Friday I was walking to the pub listening to Spirit’s most famous song, ‘I Got A Line On You’. The track’s opening lines, sung and written by California, are: “Let me take you, baby, down to the river bed/ Got to tell you something’, go right to your head.” It was as I listened to these exact words that some teenagers called and waved to me from the riverbank. I removed my headphones to hear what they were saying. “This might sound like a strange question, but have you seen a naked boy running around by any chance?” they asked. I said that I had not. It didn’t, in all honesty, seem that strange a question in this area, where, on a warm day, skinny dippers are as rife as moorhens.
I did not give the question much more thought until my friend Sarah and I were walking back from the pub and saw men in orange jackets wading in the river, shining torches into the water. Five minutes later a police car stopped beside us and its driver made the same enquiry of us. The next morning I woke to the sound of circling helicopters. A sixteen year-old boy had been spotted on Friday evening, running towards the water, naked, under the influence of the legal high, N bomb, and nobody had seen him since. On Sunday his body was found in the river by divers.
Throughout most of July the stretch of the Dart between the moor and the estuary had seemed amazingly tranquil and shallow: the ethereal and unthreatening nature of most of the people in it only adding to the ethereal and unthreatening nature of the water. It looked for all the world like a place where nothing bad could ever happen. I challenged myself to swim from the mellow stretch of the river near Dartington Hall to the village of Staverton, just over a mile away, and gave up after progressing barely a quarter of the way, because for a while the river became so shallow that my chest and legs were in danger of scraping on the pebbles on the bottom. This was comical, but a river is not comical, or at least it is only comical in the way that all the most serious things are also comical. A river should also not be mistaken for being only one thing. It can be many things on the same day, and many, many more things over the course of a year. It should not on any count be fucked with, as something linking directly to The Mother Of All Things That Should Not Be Fucked With: the sea.
I was touched when I completed my first few swimming challenges and people expressed worry over me but I also chuckled inwardly. Sure, I was alone when I did them, but how could there be anything to worry about? I was, after all, me. I am outdoorsy, but I often feel that I define being so in a different way to many; I am not a daredevil or an adrenaline junkie. “Look at all the other risky, wild challenges properly adventurous people set themselves every day,” I thought. “Why focus on a frivolous not very brave person like me, with my silly half-adventures?” But if I am truly honest with myself, a small element of risk has been part of the driving force behind the swimming I have done this year. I have a positive view of risk and doing the opposite of what people tell me to do since I associate risk and doing the opposite of what people to tell me to do with all the most positive turning points in my life. Then there is the fact that by now I had hoped to complete at least one of the two books I am writing and, due to various factors – losing a vast chunk of one in a data disaster, trying to have a life, trying to make what I write better than what I’ve written before – have not done so and it has left me feeling dissatisfied with myself. I want the sense of achievement that goes with getting that writing out into the world. Deciding to do a small outdoor swimming task then completing the small outdoor swimming task has filled some of the holes where that sense of achievement should be.
I am avoiding the Dart at the moment: not because I am scared to swim in it, or don’t plan to again, but to avoid it seems respectful right now in view of what happened at the weekend. Part of this is perhaps out of respect for the river itself, too. Can you respect the landscape too much? I don’t think so. I love the landscape of Britain’s Deep South West so fervently that, in some ways, I have chosen it ahead of an arguably more straightforward life closer to many people I love. It is more life-enhancing than any other landscape I’ve lived amidst but I hear more stories of tragedy associated with it than in any other landscape I’ve lived amidst, and I cannot help but believe these two facts are inseparable. I think I have as much respect for this coastline, these rushing rivers, these hills, these moors, as it’s possible to have, but it turns out there is always more to be had. Perhaps that moment when I swam around the bend from my favourite cove, and an unsuspected tide did a sleepy quarter-roar at me like a grumpy lion rudely half-woken from an afternoon sleep and unseen rocks clawed at my knees, and maybe even that other moment when I went beyond the line of the bay at the mouth of the Erme and the temperature dramatically dropped with its slight suggestion of power and violence, were examples of me not having enough respect.
I’d had my eye on another swimming challenge last month: a slightly more ambitious one but one I still saw as very manageable. This was to swim around Burgh Island, a rocky mound just under three hundred yards off the south Devon coast, near Bigbury On Sea, with its own pub and art deco hotel. I chose a Saturday to do so, which wasn’t ideal, and, having found the main carpark at Bigbury full, left the car up the road in the memorably named Economy Beach Car Park. This cost me £4, although had only been £1 back in January, when it was the subject of possibly the most forlorn photograph I have ever taken of the British seaside. It is not just the ‘Economy Beach Car Park’ sign, the advertised £1 fee and the bleak hillside beyond that makes this photo, but the centrally framed bin and clump of pampas grass. “Hey! Married couples! Come and do your swinging here!” it seems to say. “But please take care to dispose of all rubbish afterwards.”
I walked down the hill to Bigbury Beach from the car park, then across the sand, dodging numerous sandcastles and selfie-takers, but by the time I’d waded out to the front of the island I was alone save for a rockpooling father and his two teenage sons. I removed my t-shirt and reached in my bag for the float my dad had bought me, but realised it was still in the car. I swam eighty yards through gaps in rocks in a pungent, fishy sea. The tide was coming in and the waves were medium-big but my front crawl felt strong and effortless and I could sense a solidity and surety to my shoulder muscles that I did not have last year. But as I rounded the corner to the back of the island I felt an abrupt solitude, and paused. I’d had a lacklustre morning of writing and I badly wanted to get around that bend, and that other bend beyond it, and feel the sense of accomplishment that went with it, but something was wrong.
Here I was again: frivolous me, a non-daredevil non-wetsuit-owning person in five quid Tesco trunks, but the water didn’t give a crud who I was, just like the water didn’t give a crud who Jeff Buckley was when he swam into the Mississippi in 1997, in an apparently frivolous mood, singing a Led Zeppelin song. What was the difference between being Randy California, the strong swimmer in the Pacific with his son, and Randy California, the tragic, drowned singer? What was the difference between being JG Farrell, the comic novelist, sitting on a rock on the Irish coast fishing, and JG Farrell, the tragic novelist dead before his time? The difference was a tiny moment. Terrible sea stuff didn’t just happen far out, in open water. My uncle Paul swam less far on the north Cornish coast than I was now and got swept away on the tide and would almost certainly not be still here now had a surfer not spotted him and come to his rescue.
I turned back. I walked across the beach and up the hill. I got in my car, painfully aware I had not wrung anywhere near my money’s worth out of the Economy Beach Car Park. I drove away. I went directly to the lido, which, like all lidos, was originally built to take the place of swimming in seas and rivers and lakes for several reasons, many of which are still valid. I swam forty six lengths. I didn’t feel closer to the earth or my primal self, but I felt pretty good. I noticed a bumblebee on the far side of the deep end. I must have missed it when I got in. I transferred it to dry land, where it shook itself and staggered away. It was a quite large and beautifully furry one – almost fluffy, in fact. It had probably been drawn to the water by the glint of the sun on the surface but it did not have a sense of its own limits.