30 July 2016

Bodies of Water

It’s a Saturday. But I’m not working at the moment so everyday is a little like Saturday. Just that there are more people out and about on Saturdays. Do the things you enjoy, said the doctor. Make sure you maintain your interests. What do you do for fun? To relax? I couldn’t think of anything to say. Anything that I actively actually wanted to do. Which is funny, because all my life I’ve been one of those people who has been awed by pretty much everything. A terraced street, a foreign game, a three-minute pop song, a three-inch figurine, a three-hour drive. But:

I swim.

I said.

I make myself swim because I know I will feel better afterwards, and maybe, just maybe, I’ll have one of those streamlined moments. My swim coach Lido Mike in his Southwark-born-and-bred accent said, picture yourself: a streamlined vessel cutting through the water. And sometimes, just sometimes, I do. And the water in the lido is warm at the moment. 23 degrees. The lido I frequent is one of those brown brick utilitarian, drinkable pools, built by the LCC’s parks department architects, Rowbotham and Smithson, and opened in 1937. It’s subsequently been rather well augmented by an extra wing for fitness classes. I remember seeing it before that wing was built, wanting to be part of it, in a wonderful documentary – The Lido, by Lucy Blakstad – when I was in my teens. The film featured a lesbian wedding (before such things were legal. I considered placing that word – wedding – in inverted commas but really. Legal. I’ve lost any small amount of respect I still had for justice secretaries or attorney generals. A wedding is what a wedding does). In that film, the not-so-strange attractor of water to sexuality. The this-worldy lifting of your body that actually you know is light. That if you just remembered … remembered where your dorsal fins had been and how to carve and curve like you used to … .

And last night I was at Porchester baths (1929, and here, the pool is in the same building as the library) playing water polo with a bunch of beautiful gay men. I learnt to play water polo at Porchester, sitting in the balcony, behind cast iron railings, overlooking the pool, magnificent beneath the barrel-vaulted ceiling, trying hard to hear the senior members of the squad as they explained the principles of the positioning, the rules of the game, during my beginners intake three years ago. My team is London Orca. A mixed gay team associated with Out To Swim. It’s the only water polo team in London that trains beginners. I took up polo because I missed team sports. I’d injured my ankle two too many times on land, and a botched op finished my footballing career (the consultants Mr Singh and Mr Francis say it went well, but I beg to differ with my ruined post-tib, my reduced range, my trauma and nerve damage, my collapsing arch, and a low-level constant pain). So I went to the water. I’d always been there, but I did it like I do everything: whole-heartedly.

Tonight we’re in the University of London Union pool, in the basement of the 1957 Bloomsbury brown brick. I first came to this building during my undergrad years in the late 90s. I played doubles badminton with Yuzo, against Mitch and Flurina. I was the weakest of that foursome, and I’m one of the weaker polo players – I’m smaller than most of them and I’m new to the game and still building up my swimming stamina alongside lifelong talented (can I call them natural?) swimmers, but damn it, I try. I’ve backstroked hard under ceiling tiles that are ready to fall, and my eyes sting badly. But the water (I’ve got the palate) isn’t the worst in London. I reserve that honour for Porchester.

Next week we go to Amsterdam. We call it Champagne Water Polo. It’s a competitive, amateur tournament of European teams that alternate as hosts of two tournaments a year, alongside an annual jamboree in Paris, and whatever world championships might be happening in any given year: next year the Gay Games in Miami. Champagne Water Polo, because, like anything gay, the subculture of camaraderie, friendship and fun – we are actually family, often through necessity – is elevated to the overarching culture. So last night and this evening, there’re a lot of us in the pool preparing for Amsterdam.

I’m not working, but I’m working. Who isn’t in this business? We got into it because of our delight in it. We work on our own time, as well as working hard on what we’re paid for. If our knowledge isn’t worth remuneration, we give it because we want to. Our friends are also our colleagues. And we’re pretty badly paid as it goes. We complain about it, but we still do it. But, do the things you enjoy, the doctor said, and I wondered when I lost it. There’s the albatross of course. My much rewritten, postponed, deferred, grief-fucked, part-time PhD. An albatross’s wingspan is 2.9 – 3.3m according to Google. A swan’s is 2 – 2.8m (Whooper. A black swan maxes out at a humble 2m). And we all know what they can do to a man’s arm. Consider a girl’s spirit. Even a he-she like me. I’m finishing this chapter on docks. I saw a meme today that made me laugh – but might have made me cry too – about the band Muse: “the British have a habit of keeping things just because they never went away.” The docks, for example. The role of heritage in their survival is huge. And here we are, however many years after their closure, using them for leisure. I’ve swum in one: the swim leg of the London triathlon in the Victoria Dock. Then I found this film of the gala games of the dockers. Tough men in those one-piece swimsuits in the Surrey Docks. There’s even footage of them playing water polo in 1925. Men that worked hard, but not for love. But had these aquatic skills too. Watermen. I try to resist the romance of the water, but there’s something in it isn’t there? The power of your body finally at work for your own ends. The work of being out of your element, but so, so within it. From the work on the water: the fulfilment of the awful use of life that you didn’t design, but you have to – really have to – buy into, to the freedom to fight it, be in it, with it (even if the rules on the clock only give you thirty seconds on the ball; even if it’s a team game of so many people, so many minutes; even if it’s from here to there). We’re over mind/body dualism, I know. I’ve written it myself. But it’s my body now, reminding me I’ve a mind.

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