Thursday, 24 February 2011

Week 3: Fuck the float

It was all going so well.

I found a pool, a great teacher and ace pool buddies. I even found a swimming outfit I like.

I got in the water.

I fucken swam!

My thighs became marvellous.

And then . . . disaster.

I went to the fucken pool for my fucken lesson and Andy - my trusted teacher who doesn't let me away with shit but knows my limitations - wasn't there. Instead there was a teacher I'd never even seen at the pool before. Lucy, she was called. My lovely chum Anne approached her and we explained that I'd been working with Andy, that I'd managed to swim the week before and that the thing I now needed to get to grips with was my breathing while I was swimming.

Cue a miserable hour thrashing up and down with a float. Back to school. She had another pal of mine, Martin, doing the same, although he was actually already able to swim from the beginning. The result was that we both spent more energy trying to navigate the fucking floats than we were able to spend thinking about our breathing. Meh! She turned Martin (an actual swimmer!) into my new Samina!

At one point the following exchange happened:

Her: You don't look very happy.
Me: I'm not! I hate this. I hate swimming and I hate being in the water!
Her: Why you doing it then?
Me: Because it's the one thing I've really tried at that I've not been able to do and I want to be able to do it.
Her: So you're stubborn.

Yes, thanks you fucking bastard. Never mind determined, never mind committed - just opt for the first negative adjective within reach of your tiny tiny brain.

Anyway, that was a shite lesson.

I got out in the end, pissed off and fed up and sick of the whole sorry fucking enterprise. At this, the new teacher panicked a bit and asked me if I'd swim a bit because she didn't want me to regress. I did it. Then the swimmer learners had a race. I won. Ha! Take that. Then I went to the steam room, which was lovely.

The new teacher said that she didn't want me coming back and telling Andy I hated it. Well, here's a thing - I won't be. I'm going to the Scottish Poetry Library for a book launch instead today. This week, swimming can go fuck itself. And then it can fuck itself a little bit more. And then it can fuck off. Possibly forever.

Thursday, 17 February 2011


Probably I should have tried to build a sense of drama before mentioning the fact that at my second lesson I actually swam! But I can't be fussed as it's Friday night and I've a take away from Silver Bowl winging its way to me!

I did it though; I swam roughly half the length of the pool, with no float and with my head in the water. I'm not going to pretend I enjoyed it - I didn't hate it either mind, but I'm still getting used to the breathing at the side and I managed to drink quite a lot of the pool water (urgh).

More exciting though was that I had a little trip to Sweden for a couple of days. [It was goddamn cold]. Stockholm is one of the reasons that I wanted to learn to swim. There's a lot of water around the city and Lena wanted me to learn in case I fall into the sea as we plan on spending a lot of time there. Thank god I didn't fall in - I think the cold would have killed me.

What was ace though was the food we ate in a quite famous restaurant in Gamla Stan called Den Gyldene Freden. The members of the Swedish Academy meet there every week for lunch and it's very highly regarded; I can understand why. The service was faultless, the house wine was not only drinkable but was actually tasty (!) and the food was superb. I ate the Baltic herring (in the photo) with seasoned cheese and potatoes followed by veal - yum! And our waiter looked like Jedward, but he wasn't even remotely annoying. Good Times!

Also I spoke actual Swedish to actual Swedes. Double win week!

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Week one: Not waving, or drowning, but something inbetween

There's a bajillion things it's probably unwise to inhale. I'm going to suggest that water should be toppermost on that list. It's a shame that I learned this the hard way - especially at the end of what had been a really brilliant first swimming lesson, that was as far removed as possible from the experience of school swimming lessons.

My second school-based experience of being 'poolside' took place at Lochgelly High School. It was a literal pool-side experience; I didn't even touch the water. I managed this by asking my mum to provide me with a variety of notes claiming menstruation, ear-ache, cholera, leprosy - you name it, I probably managed to get a note off my mum citing it. I don't think I even owned a swimming outfit by this time. Oddly, Lochgelly High School* was, years earlier, the location of my first ever swimming experience, and that experience probably contributed significantly to my overall fear of water.

Being as terror-filled as I was at the prospect of getting into the water, I took the only course of action I could think of; I walked right up to the edge of the pool and jumped in face first. No floats, no goggles, no nuffink. I didn't even know not to try to breathe in.

There were two pretty simple lessons to be learned from the consequences of this:
  1. Get swimming lessons - proper ones
Obviously, I learned neither of these things. I instead chose to believe that swimming and me just weren't meant to be and I spent most of my 20s taking the 'just jump in' approach to pretty much every thing I did. Bravo.

Anyway. Finally, after 31 years of being alive, I've (mostly) managed to stop and think before jumping into things, and I'm definitely over telling myself that swimming isn't my sport. I arrived at the lovely Glenogle Swim Centre for my lesson feeling more than a little bit nervous, and getting in the water wasn't exactly a fun moment. But it was nothing like the horrors of school swimming lessons. For a start there were people there who were different - different in that they were just there happy to be themselves. Lesbian peoples! Gay peoples! Bisexual peoples! Transgender peoples! Heck, maybe there were even a couple of straight people. It was a lovely accepting environment to be in. And then there was the teacher, Andy.

Andy was dead nice, but not so much that he was going to let me employ my tactic of face-not-in-water. Andy is very much a yes-face-in-water teacher. He was also good at giving me a simple wee task and then going away to help someone else for a while to let me try it out in my own embarrassing manner. There was no hectoring, no snarks, no having to be worried about showing yourself up or feeling self-conscious. In fact everyone was really supportive and looked out for each other. I'm not exactly the touchy-feeling type, but even I was able to appreciate being in such an environment.

We started with holding the side of the pool and kicking. This is very boring. I think Andy sensed this, as he soon told me it was time for face-in-water. Not at all boring and not at all fun the first few times you do it. It was also not something I managed to achieve with any grace at the start. I started to get good at it though - and after a remarkably short time, was even enjoying it. By the end of the lesson, I was *gasp* actually able to 'swim' half the length of the pool with a float and with my head in the water, only coming up when I needed air.

Sadly I sullied my excellent (even if I do say so myself) progress by becoming a little convinced towards the end of the lesson that I had actually turned into a fish or sumfink and stupidly took a big breath in, while my head was still in the water. In swimming terms, this equals #fail. I strongly advise against ever doing this - it really hurts and you might die. It's also really fucking embarassing.

Apart from that though it was aces. And meeting the ladies (Hello Meister!) in Nom De Plume for some nosh and beer afterwards was the best. Roll on next week. Roll on swimming the longest distance in the world. And roll on buying a maseeeev new pair of goggles.

* I also hated this school.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

The fear

At the age of 10 I did something that has only one explanation.

I was in the playground of my school, Meadowhead Junior School, in Blackburn, Lancashire. The playground was a concrete rectangle with three paths from it leading from it back up to the school building. We had to stay there during break times and were allowed onto the playing fields only on the two days of the year when the field was more grass than mud. I fucking hated it. I hated the school generally. The teachers were utterly cunty, openly bullying kids they didn't like - especially the Asian kids - and I hated the other pupils. I'd come from Scotland with a thick Fife accent, and I was a tiny, pale, shy scrap of a thing. That playground was the source of such torment. I was bullied relentlessly and I went home for lunch whenever I could to get away from it.

Despite this, I did something one day that I can only imagine must have terrified me at the time. I was watching a gang of these rotten kids play that game where they get in a circle around someone with no, or few friends, and push them between each other.

On this occasion they had picked Samina Hussein, an Asian girl who didn't have many allies mostly on the basis that the school was rotten with racism and there were only three Asian kids in total. No-one ever bothered to talk to them other than to abuse them in some way. Her brother didn't seem to be around, and she was (understandably) freaking out as they pushed her about. I walked over to the circle and gave the ring-leader a hard shove and pulled Samina away from them. Amazingly, this didn't result in both of us getting our heads kicked in. I think everyone was too taken aback.

It's tempting to think that I took the course of action that I did because of an innate sense of justice, and a stand against filthy attitudes that permeated those already ruined young brains. It wasn't though. It was about something much more personal to me. It was because Samina and I had a bond; we were the only two kids in our year who couldn't swim, and for one hour each week, we bobbed around in our local pool clutching at floats and trying to travel the 15 meters from one side of the shallow end to the other. It was woeful; we were pathetic. Both petrified, with one teacher for the two of us while the rest of the kids dived into the deep end to rescue bricks, and other feats of heroism. She and I never spoke - ever. If I was quiet, she was positively mute. I'm not sure I ever heard her speak even in class actually. But still we developed a bond through our miserable hour that we spent ever week, for two years. She was my only ally in a really weird silent way. It was because of swimming that I helped Samina Hussein that day. Or not swimming more like. So there. I intervened in a racist incident because of not swimming.

I did actually manage to complete those 15 meters once. It was hardly the stuff of elegance. I thrashed my way across the pool - the instructors seriously cheered. They were proper wow-ed. They were probably not surprised that I failed to manage it ever again. I didn't lose my fear and have it still. Age 31 I still can't swim and it remains the only thing I've ever put my mind to that I've failed at (except Maths, but you can't die by falling into Maths so I don't really care).

This year I'm going to change that. My local LGBT Centre for Health and Wellbeing has organised swimming sessions in the local pool; lessons in the shallow end and frollicks for those who've already earned their wings in the other bit that I don't like to think about too much. I've got me swimming outfit, me goggles and a posse of supportive friends who are all being very nice about the fact that I can't manage something that even babies can do.

I have six weeks. My target is to swim a length of the pool by the end of the six weeks. Ha! you're probably thinking. "Lol - one length?!" Seriously right - the length of a swimming pool is the longest distance in the world to me. I ran a marathon last year - that was hell. 26 miles of absolute fucking hell - but the length of a pool is more.

I'm gonna do it.