February: A Personal Compendium

Any vaguely rigorous account of this, my most recent February, must be at least partly swimming-themed. Swimming dominates my thoughts right now. I do it almost every day and can feel it changing me – physically, but mentally too, more. But I’ve never been particularly adept at it, in any technical sense. I don’t even remember being taught to swim; only that my first school swimming was done in Radford in Nottingham, with an instructor independent of my school who had a reputation for being quite scary, and for flicking his bogeys into the pool. In February I had my first couple of swimming lessons with Charlie Loram, who I could never in a million years imagine flicking bogeys into a pool, and who teaches The Shaw Method: a style of swimming that uses elements of The Alexander Technique to create a more effortless stroke and a greater general sense of wellbeing. Charlie shot a video of me doing front crawl and what primarily emerged from this was solid evidence that in the water I am less dolphin, and more spaniel. I am not alone in this, apparently. In many other regions of the planet, humans adapt themselves to their environment. In Western society, by contrast, we have adapted our environment to us. This has plenty of downsides, one being that we don’t use our bodies as effectively as we could. With Charlie, I’m not just relearning how to swim; I’m unlearning decades of bad habits, bad posture, caused by too much time in cars, too much time in front of screens, too much time sitting in awkward positions. Why am I bothering? The answer is simple: I want to feel good. There are far more ways to feel good – outside the conventional, quick fix ways society tells us – than we realise. Swimming a lot, in my own slightly ungainly way, had already made me aware of this. Swimming under Charlie’s tutelage is making me realise it more acutely.

You could argue that I left it all a bit too late to do what I am doing now: the swimming, the healthy diet, the fresh air and walking, the view of my body as something that might benefit from being treated with a modicum of respect. I’m 43. All attempts to feel and look better must now naturally be set against the downhill physical slope that eventually leads to life’s off ramp. I sometimes am tempted to speculate about how different the years between 24 and 34 might have been for me if I’d exercised more and not shovelled so much rubbish into my body but that would be irrelevant, since the very fact that I didn’t exercise much between 24 and 34 and ate and drank a lot of rubbish is an intrinsic part of why I am getting so much pleasure out of doing the opposite now. Besides, I have always had a preference for going about matters the difficult way. Long cuts don’t get anywhere near enough credit in the age of the short cut, the age of the spurious “life hack”. Life cannot be hacked; not in any meaningful or lasting sense. I have been working hard at this. I swam a lot in summer, then I injured my back, then, when that was better, I swam more determinedly. In December, 50 lengths of a 25 metre pool felt like an achievement. Now, 50 feels like chickening out; 70 or 80 feels more like the mark. I’m talking about me here, not you. You should live your life exactly how you please and shouldn’t let any idiot on the Internet try to persuade you any different. I’m not pitting myself against others when I swim. If I look at my fellow swimmers and measure myself against them, my swimming deteriorates. But after I swim I am seeing what’s around me far more clearly. I’ve never taken mind-expanding drugs but when Aldous Huxley writes about the heightened perception, “the door in the wall”, created when experimenting with mescaline, I feel like as a swimmer I have a much better idea of what he is talking about than I would as a non-swimmer. Since swimming a lot – since not just swimming, but pushing myself as a swimmer, through the door where swimming becomes harder then much easier – I have felt like some vaseline has been wiped off my lens. There is so much I see in a way I have never quite done before: my own weaknesses and strengths, the true obscured agendas – positive and negative – behind the behaviour of others, the distinction between how I want to spend my time and how some intangible societal pressure has made me think I want to spend my time, the wonder of a wild acrobatic bird feasting on some seed you put out for it two minutes earlier, the undersong of woodland on a bright spring day, music.

I went to see Evan Dando, who was with his Lemonheads. They aren’t the people who used to be his Lemonheads, but I doubt anybody asked for their money back. Often the dust has to settle before you realise the full reality of how great a set of songs are, and that’s definitely the case with the ones Dando wrote over the ten year period beginning in 1992 for his albums Shame About Ray, Come On Feel The Lemonheads, Car Button Cloth and Baby I’m Bored. In the last thirteen years, he has only made two albums, both consisting entirely of his versions of other people’s songs. Witnessing the ease with which he played  tonight, and the joy – by halfway through – he was obviously experiencing from it, you could view this as slightly sad: Is he creatively died up? Does he miss the buzz that must come from plucking a riff like the central one in ‘Rudderless’ out of the clouds? But questions like this are probably our greed for more Evan disguised as concern for Evan himself. Maybe Evan wrote his songs at the time he wrote his songs, and maybe that’s fine, and they’re there forever in that time box, and maybe he’s very happy as he is right now. My companion for the evening pointed out how suprisingly imposing he is, particularly in the shoulders, considering how gentle-natured his creative output is. An at least partial explanation for this was found in the old Dando interviews I watched on youtube the following day. A 1990s TV presenter asks Evan why he goes to Australia so much. “I like to swim,” Evan replies.

A few years ago I had an extremely boring but significant dream. In the dream, I was with some close friends, flicking through some racks of vinyl in an unspecified record shop. Nothing else happened. The dream had a serene, aquatic quality, very ambient and undramatic. But what the dream made me realise, at a point when I was buying very few records, was that hunting for records makes me happy, even though it’s fairly pointless. The fact is, once you start looking hard into a lot of things that make you happy, you can easily construct the argument that they are fairly pointless too. Since that point I’ve not gone out of my way to stop myself buying records, and have mourned several that I sold in my 20s. But I think a record collection is allowed to be a constantly shapeshifting beast. I’m currently pruning mine, quite brutally, and it feels good. I love discovering new (usually old) records but I recognise that I sometimes try a little too hard to fall in love with a record, or keep it around based on a hypothetical scenario where something in the dimly glowing embers of our relationship catches and becomes an eternal flame (side note: I’m holding onto The Best Of The Bangles). I have decided that I am not obliged to keep a record on a retainer just because it is “quite nice”. I know what it feels like to look at a record and know that it is part of you and that you could never part with it. It’s what happens when I pull out the heavy first pressing of The Notorious Byrd Brothers that I received from my uncle in a swap in 1997. I love every second of every song on The Notorious Byrd Brothers. But I am keeping plenty of LPs which contain only one song I truly love – such as the album containing this freakishly mindblowing track from 1973 by German guitarist Paul Vincent. I have decided that my rules very much allow that. When you have listened to a lot of records, for a lot of years, a kind of honing organically happens, whether you’re pruning a collection or not: a more intense understanding of what you adore, a deeper honesty regarding what is vital. It’s happened to me recently with books, too. So long as the same finetuning doesn’t double as a situation where you’re closed off to change or a new kind of delight, I think it’s a positive process. Modern life is overwhelming. Culture is overwhelming, especially if you’re interested in a lot of different stuff from a lot of different places. There is endless very accessible good music and art and literature in the world. It’s unrealistic to strive to cram every bit of it into your house, even though at times it can be very tempting.

Everyone was called John this month. It’s like that, some months. I had lunch with my friend John, who isn’t driving at present, after suffering a mysterious blackout and crashing his car into a wall in late summer. When he opened his eyes after the blackout, the front half of the car was dangling precariously over a twelve foot precipice. “It was like the final scene in the Italian Job,” he said. An elderly pedestrian, who had witnessed the crash, scuttled over and sat in the back seat, behind John and John’s wife Polly, to help even the weight out until the rescue team arrived. I sold some records to my friend John in Bristol and accompanied him to a screening of a documentary about drugs which prompted me to read Aldous Huxley’s writing about drugs. My mum, visiting that week, told me about John, a family friend from Langley Mill in Derbyshire with a wrestling background, who recently witnessed a thug threatening a cafe owner in London with a knife, and calmly marched over and took the knife out of his hands. “I’ll tell you what knives are for: cutting bread,” he told the thug, then sat down and resumed eating his chips.

My house is in the sea. Some days this fact is more apparent than others. When it’s misty and you stand on one of the mumps in the land, above it all, you realise that it wasn’t all that long ago that these hills were islands and everything below was water. Sometimes people refer to the low bits as a place called Sedgemoor. It’s a particularly mid-Somersetian idea, this one of the moor as lowland, and – being a Dartmoor evangelist – I’m not sure I can consider it part of my religion. The most striking and famous of the hills is Glastonbury Tor: alleged birthplace of British Christianity and alleged deathplace of King Arthur and alleged place of many other alleged events. The contrast of all the low agricultural ground makes it look all the more otherworldly, sticking up towards the heavens, with its pointy finger church at the top.  I walked up there and a man was singing to himself in the church, in Latin. The sound echoed out, far down the hillside. On my descent, I followed a wild-looking, seaweed-haired woman with who held three full carrier bags and farted explosively with every other step. The farts also echoed out, far down the hillside, but not quite as far. You can’t see the tor from my house because the shoulder of another, more quotidian hill is in the way, but you can see it from virtually everywhere else within a ten mile radius. I have never witnessed it looking more astonishing and otherworldly than during one of the warmest evenings this month, as I drove through Pilton on my way back from the large Tesco in Shepton Mallet. With a massive falling sun behind it, the tor looked insanely high, far far higher than its actual 521 feet, and seemed to split the sky, as might a celestial pathway in a fantasy film. In Somerset and Dorset, more so than in other coastal counties, I always get the impression the sun takes its nightly rest in the sea, maybe a mile or two off the coast, not a far place, but not quite a place you could swim to. I chased the sun towards the sea over Pennard Hill, which was a risk, because sunset at this time of year is the time when the cows who live at the farm on the top of the hill get walked slowly to bed, and that can mean getting over the hill can take twenty minutes or so, but I was lucky: the cows weren’t quite on their way to bed yet, and I watched from a prime seat on top of a gate at the summit of the hill as the sun fell into the sea between Weston Super-Mare and Hinkley Point power station. After it had vanished, the world continued to glow mauve for several minutes, like it always seems to in Cormac McCarthy novels after a load of people have died.

An old man at the swimming pool with a strong Somerset accent was talking to another man with a slightly less strong Somerset accent and saying “Like you say…” a lot. West Country people often start a sentence with “Like you say…” It makes you assume they are referencing something you’ve said, when usually they aren’t at all – they could be talking about the specifics of the fire alarm drill at their workplace or Yeovil Football Club or any number of other topics you’ve never even discussed – but there’s nothing wrong with that: it’s friendly and inclusive and nice. When I first began to visit Devon a lot and met my then girlfriend’s dad, he spoke very quickly, and when talking to me started quite a few sentences with “Like you say…” but because he spoke at such a high speed, it was only later that I had time to analyse our conversation. “But I didn’t say any of that!” I would think.

My mum and dad’s cat Clifton Bridget returned, after a five day holiday prompted either by the unseasonably warm weather, or my mum and dad’s other cat George poncing about and giving her a hard time, or some combination of the two. Clifton Bridget – a mystery animal in innumerable ways – went for a lot of unannounced holidays summer and autumn too, leading my mum to spend hours searching for her, finding her at times in fields well over a mile from their house, chasing rabbits. This time, Clifton Bridget crash-landed on my mum’s pillow at five am, part-attired in moss. “I think a witch flew by and dropped her from her broomstick,” said my mum.

The sky is an unusual dark chemical blue this morning, like there’s something in it that shouldn’t rightfully be there, and by that I don’t mean the rain that has just begun to fall for the first time in almost a fortnight. As a sun worshipper, I’ve been enjoying the freakishly mild late winter weather but feeling ambivalent and surreal about it, too. There is a powerful sense of nature rubbing its eyes and waking up but in the way that you might wake up with the first daylight, only to realise it’s not daylight at all but a new streetlamp that has been installed needlessly by the council on the pavement outside your bedroom window. A honey bee flew into my living room. It seemed as surprised about it as me. Walking from Hamdon Hill to the village of Montacute I saw buff-tailed bumblebees, a cockchafer beetle and dozens of Red Admiral butterflies. What happens to them all in a couple of weeks, if we get a cold snap? Three weeks on from this point last year, chunks of snow straight from the devil’s freezer covered the South West. In the woods on Hamdon Hill yesterday, a tiny girl walked past me, alone, pulling a plastic crate on some rope, full of fluffy toys, talking to herself. It is only later that it occured to me she could have been a ghost. I pressed on, through the golden soil of Hamdon, above stone the same colour, which stonemasons say is as easy to cut as cheese. At the valley bottom, the houses of the village of Montacute are made of the same stone: perfect little cheese houses. A cat in the churchyard rolled on tombs, headbutted me passionately, begged me to take him home, using every bargaining technique in his arsenal, which was extensive. Whoever lives with this cat is lucky, but also must be constantly worried about its potential infidelity. I decided he was the best cat ever, but aren’t they all? Montacute is the perfect name for Montacute: a village somehow both sweet and haughty. The name in fact comes the abrupt conical hill above it – “mount acute” – which is crowned with an 18th Century Tower. I climbed the deserted tower’s stairs, which were covered in broken glass, to a prisonlike space entirely covered in the graffiti of Yeovil’s youth, creating a pleasing wallpaper whose aesthetic appeal is entirely democratic, nothing to do with the quality of any individual art. Pretty much all of Somerset was below, to the north, and it looked charmed in the thinning blue haze at the cusp of dusk, enhanced by the fact that from this distance you can’t pick out the badger and fox carcasses currently lining the A37 at sixteen yard intervals. When I returned to where I’d parked my car on the opposite side of the hill, the four other cars that had been next to it, at least two of which contained people listening to Radio One and eating sandwiches, had gone. All that was left was me, and a sheep.

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33 thoughts on “February: A Personal Compendium

  1. Loveliest phrase: “life’s off ramp,” makes death seem like a minor detour! Thanks for another wonderful read!

  2. “Long cuts don’t get anywhere near enough credit in the age of the short cut, the age of the spurious “life hack”. Life cannot be hacked: not in any meaningful or lasting sense.” Wise words. Wonderfully written piece. And yes, Roscoe was the attention-getter that started me reading it.

  3. Lovely! I do enjoy your compendium pieces – they remind me of the Jamboree Bags of my youth that were full of delights. Just like the contents of a Jamboree Bag this piece has sparkly sherbert flying saucer bits, softer white chocolate mouse bits, mouthwatering chewy bits (although yours have the added benefit of not pulling my fillings out) and all sorts of other treats. A really lovely way to spend a few minutes of a dark, windy, cold Saturday afternoon – thanks!

  4. I’m unlearning decades of bad habits, bad posture, caused by too much time in cars, too much time in front of screens, too much time sitting in awkward positions.

    When I read that it struck me that I was sitting in front of my screen, in an awkward position. Oh well, you get days like that! I did console myself with the thought that I’d spent an extra couple of hours this morning, walking dogs as a volunteer at my local canine rescue centre, when I don’t usually volunteer on a Saturday.
    Roscoe rocks! Ralph also rolls!?

  5. Think of this website as a bookstore. If you enjoyed this piece make sure to go to the ‘support Tom’ section and pay what you can!

  6. Really enjoy your writing, and I loved every word you wrote here – “I love discovering new (usually old) records” especially made me smile.

  7. Another amusing, evocative and thoughtful compendium, thank you. Montacute could be a good name for a cat. I currently have a plethora of Alan’s: a builder, a gardener, a handy man and a painter and decorator. I feel rather like the Victorian ladies you read about who call all their maid servants ‘Daisy’. ‘Less dolphin, more spaniel’ made me snort tea over the cat.

  8. This piece had me smiling from beginning to end. I’ll read it again soon and hope I get the same feeling! – thank you Tom

  9. Very enjoyable as ever Tom, and good to see a landscape I know well reflected through your prism.

  10. Tom 43 is young to me and I love your piece so evocative. We live in south Somerset not too far from Montacute and love the contrasts of Somerset topography and its fauna and flora.

  11. “All that was left was me, and a sheep.” The perfect end to a thoughtful February. Thanks for sharing.

  12. Lovely and yes swimming is great. I didn’t start back regularly until late 40s and love it but no indoor pools. Get outside next, in the sea or outdoor pool. It’s even better

    1. Only a very small percentage of my swimming over the course of a year is done indoors, and I avoid it if possible (see the other swimming pieces on this site).

  13. This is a lovely lunchtime read. I smiled throughout but your account of Clifton Bridget’s unexpected holidays made me laugh out loud. I really love your writing.

  14. It’s already been said but I’ve love to be 43 again! I used to swim a lot there is an outdoor pool not far from me and I enjoyed early evening swimming when it was dark enough to float and watch the stars!
    I find my peace in more sedate things now but totally appreciate the pleasure of the swim and conversely book collecting ?

  15. I read this on the bus into work this morning and for a few minutes was transported somewhere magical. It was quite a shock to get off the bus in Derby City Centre! Love these compendiums, Tom. Looking forward to the next one.

  16. So glad Clifton Bridget is home as someone who gets most of her exercise looking for three wayward cats who are so daft they fall off windowsills. The relief when they come through the catflap after an extended absence. Lovely piece of writing, you’ve got Montacute perfectly and now I’m homesick for Devon as well.

  17. Aah, I miss Somerset so much. We moved from Evercreech to Devon about a year ago and your talk of sunsets… well. In addition:
    Records! Hurrah; I just packed 1500 CDs into some soft wallets and got rid of the plastic cases, amazing myself at the arbitrary decisions concerning what should stay and what should go (of course I kept The Clash reissues ).
    And swimming; I have been considering lessons myself after a few attempts at refreshing my own stroke – fascinating to hear this ‘whole life’ approach. I will investigate this Charlie Loram and see if he has anyone he can recommend down ‘ere…
    Finally, 43!? Pah I scoff at your early forties timidity. I can see fifty without my glasses.

  18. Thank you Tom. I love the compendiums. Reading them is like sitting in the pub listening to a friend musing upon a number of topics that are alternately funny, thought provoking and surprising. Some of what you write is reassuring too; I can now stop worrying about one of my cats who is just like Ronald Searle’s cartoon cat, always startled by a gesture of affection. She will never be Infidelity Churchyard Cat, that’s certain.

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