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Sunday 3 December 2023 Dublin: 0°C
memory lane

'I can remember not being able to swim... The gush of panic at being out of my depth'

In this extract from Swell: A Waterbiography, Jenny Landreth recalls her childhood experience of swimming.

THE FOLLOWING PASSAGE is an extract from Swell: A Waterbiography by Jenny Landreth.

I can’t remember not being able to read, though as I was not some kind of infant genius, there was definitely a time.

Once you know how to read, it’s almost impossible to put yourself back in your own tiny shoes to when words were incomprehensible.

You can recreate some of the feeling by visiting a country where their letters don’t look like your letters and you’ve forgotten that phones can translate or that guidebooks are still a thing.

But even then it’s fleeting, and you know you can always point at pictures, that your thoughts continue to appear in recognisable forms and that sentences end with full stops. Once it’s there, it’s there.

But I can remember not being able to swim. I can recall the gush of panic at being out of my depth with no ability to save myself and, more prosaically, standing by the side of a pool staring at the water thinking, ‘That’s not for me.’

And while I now can swim, it’s a skill that doesn’t have quite the same sticking power as reading. Some years and lots of swimming miles later, I can still get to that same place of panic. Like one minute the skill was there, the next… gone.

And then the particular wave will break, the moment will pass, I’ll shove that feeling away and carry on. I can do it, after all.

I can remember not being able to swim, and I can remember learning, and who taught me.

It was a two-step process, and the first step was taken at Sparkhill Baths in Birmingham in about 1969 when I was eight. The teacher was my Aunty Mary, my father’s sister, a woman of indeterminate old age whose chin wobbled when she tried to suppress a laugh.

Nobody thought we ‘should’ learn to swim, there was no compunction, sports were not a thing our family did. We were more arts’n’crafts.

My mum certainly couldn’t swim and it remains a terrifying thought to her, though occasionally I’ve seen her try to get into the spirit and puff vertically across a pool in the hop-jump style of a nervous bird.

Apparently my dad could swim, but he’s not around to ask and none of his four daughters have any memories of him either taking us to the pool or joining us in the bitter sea on holidays (though there is one photo of him in shorts). I asked my mum once if Dad could swim and she said, ‘Yes, your father was an amazing swimmer, he swam for the school.’

But the information went no deeper than that, she had nothing else to add; my parents are of that generation that didn’t divulge, and he’d have put ‘being a good swimmer’ in the same category as ‘rescuing prisoners of war in Burma’ — personal information one shouldn’t discuss.

I think my father never took us swimming because he just didn’t get involved, a parenting technique I applaud. I am from the days before parental input was invented.

We weren’t hoiked around from lesson to lesson all weekend; if you wanted to learn a language, you borrowed a book in that language from the library and read it; if you wanted to go horse riding, you’d go and catch a horse and ride it yourself.

(Given that I’m talking about the urban Midlands [in the UK], that should have been really hard but actually I did do that, and so can ride.) An adult wouldn’t have done something because a child was interested in it; a child would have done something because an adult was interested in it. Fortunately for us, Aunty Mary liked to swim so we were taken along. She did us in batches, the older two first – I’m second in line – then the Little Ones, at her local pool.

Aunty Mary was a spinster from the days when that was a word; she was that family essential from all good 1950s domestic novels: the quirky aunt. She took us girls off in pairs to her tiny terraced house for funny sleepovers in funny beds. She had interesting collections in old boxes, little dolls that could break (oops), pyjama cases in the shape of dogs that she’d named (Pongo and Patch) and a funny sliding plastic door to her spare room that concertinaed back on itself.

We wished we had concertinaed plastic doors instead of the boring wooden ones. She had time to make excellent hot chocolate. She also made miniature gardens in biscuit tins, using shiny foil milk-bottle tops for ponds and bits of gravel for vast rockeries. She was inventive, available and inquisitive.

Mostly, with her wobbly chin and spinster status she seemed a bit odd, which in turn fascinated and slightly scared us. What Aunty Mary did was simple: she stepped into the space outside my mum’s comfort zone, and took us to the pool.

I was marched to Sparkhill with a costume rolled in a towel under my arm. No fancy swimming bag for me, no shower gel, goggles, nothing other than the absolute necessities.

We had what we needed and no more. The clothes I wore as a child were usually function over form and managed to be simultaneously too tight and shapeless.

For swimming we had what were essentially thick cotton bags with small elasticated holes for our legs that left harsh red rings on our thighs. A fanciful band of shirring at the top may have looked decorative but that too left its mark — a stinging indented pattern across my chest.

There was no similarity between adult and children’s costumes; bikinis were certainly not an option, they were for remote, glamorous people in magazines.

Swell, written by Jenny Landreth, published by Bloomsbury on 4th May. Enter SWELL18 at the Bloomsbury checkout online to receive 20% off, readers pay P&P, UK&IRE only.

The42 has just published its first book, Behind The Lines, a collection of some of the year’s best sports stories. Pick up your copy in Eason’s, or order it here today (€10):

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