Old enemy of mine

Never learned to swim?!” they all gasp, groping around for something on which to steady themselves.

Honestly, they act as if I’d never tasted milk or witnessed a hairbrush.

I never learned to swim, okay?! Like those who live with the outsider burden of having never seen Gremlins or King Ralph, swimming, for me, simply never came up.

I don’t know why it’s so remarkable. There are many other things I can do which are seldom celebrated. Sleeping, eating, swearing. The list is endless.

Alas swimming — along with figure-skating, ventriloquism and javelin — is a life skill it never occurred to me to master.

And I stand by those sarcastic comparisons, madam. Imagine you woke up one morning and everyone had gone javelin crazy and couldn’t believe you weren’t in on it. It’s all well and good, you might think, but what’s it got to do with me? In Cricklewood. That’s how swimming looks to me.

I grew up in Dudley, which, in Britain, is about as far as you can get from the sea. It’s the windowless office of the nation. I’d cite this as the reason for my never having learned, but everyone in Dudley was mad about swimming. Family legend has it that my six-year-old grandfather learned to swim in a local carp pond, so excited was he to master the backstroke. My father, if he is to be believed, learned in a bucket of turps.

But even now I find myself wondering why any youngster from Dudley, a place which hasn’t seen ocean since the Cretaceous era, would get the idea that he must learn to swim. How could it serve one’s Dudley life? I suppose it might be a handy way to get to work in the morning: front-crawling up the canal to Birmingham.

While the other children were out learning to swim in those chlorine-perfumed, wedge-shaped bacteria troughs they call public baths, I must was in my mum’s living room eating jam sandwiches and watching horror movies taped off BBC2: something I do not regret. You should hear my Vincent Price impression. “They swim… the mark of Satan is upon them.” et cetera.

Swimming. It has nothing to do with me. But maybe I should make it to do with me, you may object. That’s what everyone else does. They live in cities, miles away from the sea or a great lake or even a decent pond, but they still find ways to submerge themselves, as if they have some primal need to reconnect with their jellyfish ancestry.

In one part of the city, we go to pains to pour cement into any hint of concavity lest a puddle form there. In another, we dig a pit and fill it with water so people can come and wallow in it. It seems there’s quite the industry in digging holes and filling them up. It’s about time someone looked into that.*

(*On a similar note, have you ever noticed how bottled water in Birmingham tends to come from the Scottish Highlands, but the bottled water in Edinburgh tends to come from Shropshire? It can only be down to a lust for the exotic and it’s lead to a whole industry in water-swapping. Further evidence that water makes people crazy and is best avoided.)

Safety was always the reason cited when I was a child to get to a pool and learn to swim. There was a fear among adults that children would wander off and be found face-down in a waterlogged quarry. Why did they think we’d be drawn to such places? If I wandered off anywhere, you’d find me at the cinema. They have a pick ‘n’ mix there and hardly any drowning opportunities.

“You can drown in a glass of water,” was always the stern claim when they told you about water safety. To which I respond, “That may be. But how will backstroke help me there?”

Health. That’s the new reason. Swim! Swim! Swim for health! In the city. Yet there are many other ways to keep fit that don’t necessarily require speedos. Running from hoodlums, for example.

Health? Safety? Nostalgia for trilobites? I remain unconvinced. Water thinks it’s such a big shot with its two hydrogens for every oxygen. Bah, I say. It is nothing to me. You know what I do to water? I drink it. Take that, water. See how I consume you, old enemy of mine? You are nothing. You’re a jellyfish less the 2% solidity.

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