My mother never learned to swim. When she visited us in Spain, we took her for a walk around the beach, she was in her late 70s, a leisurely walk of around an hour, but she was quite capable of it.
We got to one of the local streams, and she refused to cross it. It was slightly more full than on the pic I have linked to, but still, it was doable and we would both have taken her across. It wasn’t exactly waist high. So we had to turn around and go back the same way. She was too frightened.
But 30 or 40 years before, she had made sure I could swim. Because she couldn’t.
I’d gone to one of the local swimming baths. They were baths in those days rather than pools. They also had turkish baths, invariably for men, in the days before saunas became popular.
My cousin was an extremely good swimmer and had trained with Eileen Fenton. Who, you ask?
22 August 1950
• Hassan Abdel Rehim (Egypt) won the first Daily Mail cross channel race(men) – France to England August 22, 1950. The women’s race was won by Eileen Fenton (Dewsbury, England).
WELCOME HOME EILEEN FENTON
[Click on the image for the link, it is worth it for the incredible crowds, the very old-fashioned British voice, and the rather nice image of Dewsbury Town Hall]
Meanwhile, my rather sporty cousin took me to the baths and told me to make friends with the water. I was confused by that. I thought I was going to learn to swim. Not throw water in each other’s faces. Might have been a good tactic for some. Didn’t work for me.
Next up. Mr Grimes. He looked exceedingly old to me when I was seven or eight, but even back then I’m sure he had retired from his official teaching position and was just doing private coaching. I had one to one lessons. Five shillings an hour or something like that on a Tuesday afternoon. Maybe it was 2/6 but my mother paid extra. My mother would pick me up from school at 3.30pm and drive to the baths about eight miles away (I went to a school in a different town).
Mr Grimes had a very large stomach and waddled down the side of the baths. He looked like a beached whale. He dived into the water and was the epitomy of elegance.
The swimming baths were those olde worlde ones with cubicles on the side with swingy doors. I went in, took off my clothes and left them on the bench (no-one stole anything back then), put on my swimsuit and entered the shallow end. These were of course the First Class swimming baths. The Second Class ones (where I later went with some local pals) had communal changing rooms! The horror.
Mr Grimes used the life-saving technique of teaching me to swim by holding me under the chin. I didn’t like to take my foot off the bottom of the pool but gradually we entered deeper waters. I didn’t have any choice. I don’t know when I was swimming on my own because he always left his hand under my chin. It just wasn’t touching. My first length was a moment of glory.
So I could swim. Or so I thought.
At senior school (ie 11+), Mondays were swimming days, or maybe it was a different day, but anyway, swimming was part of the curriculum.
We were divided neatly into those who could swim, those who couldn’t, and those who were shit hot.
I put my hand up for the could swim group.
This was the girl who had swum a length, thinking Mr Grimes had supported her all the way and was now asked to swim six breadths/widths with a load of noisy splashy overconfident girls all in two seconds flat, or so it felt.
I was consigned to the non-swimmers group.
I spent the whole term/year/whatever it was holding the wall and learning how to move my legs to swim breast stroke, or standing against the wall doing arm stroke, or going across the pool with a float. I am still griped about it.
Meanwhile the real swimmers raced up and down the pool or jumped/dived off the springboard and top board. I gazed at them enviously and slunk into the depths of zilch confidence. Oh to have been able to say, ‘I CAN swim, but I need more practice in the swimming group, not to be dumped with the non-swimmers and waste my time.’ Perhaps I was a good statistic. Maybe I was recorded as a new swimmer? A success for the sports teachers? Most of the non-swimmers didn’t learn to swim.
A few years later I went on holiday with a schoolfriend and her family to somewhere near Nice, the name of which escapes me these days. It was two weeks in a rented caravan. Me, Nicky, Nicky’s younger sister Susie and Susie’s friend Claire. Claire swam like a fish. I liked Claire. I spent more time with Claire than sulky Nicky. Nicky was interested in boys. Claire and I were interested in swimming or going out and walking or something. The boys were OK, but a minor interest.
One day, we were in the pool with a group of young people we had met and I realised my swimming was crap as I flustered around out of my depth panicking. I decided to do something about it.
When I returned home I started visiting the local swimming pool. No longer the same two tier baths from my olden days but a brand shiny new thing. Missed the chance to be included in competitions apparently because they measured it in yards not meters. So it was 33 yards. Not 33 metres. Older pools were 25 yards and a mile was 72 lengths.
I started swimming the distance. I was often first in the water when the pool opened. The staff knew me. I got the ASA badges (Amateur Swimming Association). Technically you were meant to say, ‘I’m going to go for this many lengths today’, and the attendant would count your lengths.
‘How many lengths did you do today?’
‘Fifty, 70, a hundred, not sure,’ I’d reply.
‘Don’t forget to apply for your badge then,’ they said.
A bit like Freshly Pressed, I never did wear them though. But I was hellish pleased when I completed my one mile.
Meanwhile, if I went in the evening, yes, the speed swimmers came back to haunt me. The Eileen Fenton class no less. (She took a local class of serious swimmers). Some of my school friends were in it. I said hello and quickly scarpered leaving them to thrash up and down the pool in a way I’ve never been able to achieve.
But armed with a bit more confidence after my distance badges, I took some different water classes at university. Diving – where – sadly, we had someone who appeared to be the French champion, I soon lost interest in that one. But life-saving was good. Except the tutor seemed more interested in my body than teaching so that one went by the board too.
I did pick it up later and got my bronze medallion. I did personal survival too. A bit like the length swimming, the class was meant to be going for bronze but we all passed for silver anyway. Never went for gold.
What happened after all that though?
When I travelled to Sydney I met a county swimmer and we regularly went to Bondi Junction RSL club where they had a brill pool and we could get in free with our Brit passport. Nice. There was no competition. Gillian just swam a shit load faster than me, but hey, we both liked swimming.
Back in the UK, I seemed to find work with pools nearby. Good one. And there was always a colleague to go with me at lunchtime. Some were slower or poorer than me, others were better. At my last job I used to swim with a woman who was brought up in Australia and seriously left me behind. Our pool was just over the road at a local school where I negotiated a deal for us to use it at lunch breaks. An hour’s lunch break? You can crack off a fair amount of lengths in that time. Forget the stress of the office and just count the lengths. Seriously good.
I’ve never done swimming for speed. I do the distance. A bit like walking. You just keep going. And although I learned to swim breast stroke and back stroke, I later taught myself back crawl and front crawl.
I liked back crawl. I liked to consider myself elegant as I arched my arms through the water and powered away with my legs. And being vain, I liked to stand at the side of the pool for a while before I dived in. Pretty much like most men do. Difficult now with crappier eyesight than ever. Can’t even see where the water starts.
Front crawl was something else though. Do you keep your head underwater for six or eight strokes and quickly come up for air, or do you splash from side to side? I went for the underwater number as I thought it was more aerodynamic. Butterfly? I’ve done that too, but you really need to be Arnie.
I’ve never swum in Gib although roughseas has dabbled in the Med. It didn’t happen last year. Maybe this year? At least the sea is free.
But thanks Mum, you did well taking me to Tuesday afternoon swimming lessons.