Wild Water Swimming

Occasionally these blogs devote themselves to environmental issues, though not in the usual polemic sense. Rather, they turn out to be ecological as a by product of reminiscence. Those blue remembered hills and meadows. It is only when a news headline catches the eye that I am forced to think (with a gulp) that, indeed, nothing is as it was and I am now rapidly becoming a living memoir of what used to be. Even at their most mundane, conversations can home in on life as was. I enjoyed a London party on Saturday night, a small gathering of artists and designers where strawberries in jelly raised the observation of how we used to pour Carnation Cream over it as the proper topping. Indeed, being a northern boy, jelly used to be attended by brown bread and butter, too.

Well, if Sunday High Tea was jelly and Carnation Cream, Saturdays and the remaining part of Sundays (if visitors weren’t in the front room and I wasn’t being forced to be present) would be spent doing boys’ things. This might involve damning a stream like Just William, setting a trap for the farmer (digging a pit and covering it with sticks and grasses) or fearless walks across the sewage pits. These were deep and foul smelling receptacles of fetid liquid, open to the air, formed by concrete grids. The walks were for the foolhardy, as they measured maybe a foot across and, I imagine, methane mists hung over them on still days.

I am a strangely unfortunate being because my elder sister died in a drowning accident, aged six, before I was born, in India. She preceded me through life as a maturing girl and then young woman, remembered my mother on what would have been her birthday. “Little Margaret would have been twenty today..” All the way through adulthood. My ghostly sister is still a few years ahead of me, calling…

Anyway, I saw the news story about wild water swimming. Some unfortunate boy drowned in a gravel pit while out swimming with his pals. The story flagged up modern concern about ‘wild’ water, naming dangers such as weeds, hidden underwater obstacles, currents and the like. The people being filmed to illustrate this pursuit wore bathing caps and trundled around a lake doing prim breast strokes, with a disgruntled duck watching them, nearby,. Hardly wild and hardly a newsworthy tale.

I’ve always swum better than most but never as well as my younger sister who was effortless and did well in national championships. I was good enough, though, to swim natural waters wherever I have found myself, including the Mississipi, The Volga, The Thames, The Seine and a number of other rivers, fast flowing, cascading, erupting and fierce. At one time, recently, I thought I ought to dip in all the ‘capital rivers’ of the world and write a book about it called something like The Big River Library before I realised that I had enough to do in this life to finish the trilogy I have begun. But it gave me a plot line for one of its stories. The hero will swim fabled wild water in search of his dead sister but not as the media could ever know it and the event will be placed in an epoch thousands of years before sewage farms and bathing caps.

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