On swimming

On swimming

Summer in London is languishing under a white cotton sheet, sipping warm water from the glass by the bed. Writhing through sleepless nights, with windows wide open and street noise roaring into the room. An oppressive heat fuelled by pollution. Summer is a dull headache, insect bites and sunburn. Heat rash. Wearing the same loose-flowing jumpsuit three days running because it’s the only thing that keeps you cool. Dehydration no matter how much water you drink. Summer is sitting inside with the curtains closed.

The tube is hell. The central line is a furnace packed with sweating bodies in fainting heat. Irritation at being looked at as you walk down the street, your legs inspected by men wandering around shirtless and sunburnt. The office which has no air conditioning heats up like a greenhouse, fans churning fruitlessly.

On these hot days I long for water to cover me and steal the stickiness away. The thing to do when it’s too hot to stay in the house is to choose a place to swim. The only time I wished I lived in north London is on burning days, when the Ladies’ Pond at Hampstead Heath is the most sensible place to be – but the hour-long journey in the heat is unappealing. This time, my local leisure centre will have to do.

Over the past few years I have developed a taste for wild swimming, away from the bustle of a chlorinated pool crammed with children or lane-hoggers. I’m not yet a hardened swimmer like Jessica J. Lee whose recent book Turning describes swimming in German lakes all year round, even in midwinter when she has to chip away the ice from the surface. My dips tend to be in the summer season.

There is something deeply thrilling about jumping into an unknown body of water. I get a buzz from surrendering myself. Seas, lakes, and rivers all offer a different sensation: the exciting crash of waves in buoyant seawater, the unfamiliar stillness and unnerving depth of a cold lake, the freshness of a flowing river.

A hot day without a dip feels wasted. I’m gripped by a feeling of emptiness and disappointment at having failed in my mission to plunge into a new pool. I long to leave London and run into a lake somewhere quiet. What is it about water? It has an endless appeal to the imagination, its scale and possibility stretches below and beyond us, irresistible.

I was born in a town on the north-east coast of England and took my first steps on holiday at a beach in Fort William. When we moved away to a city, my parents had my bedroom walls painted with a sea scene, complete with sand and shells. When I said I missed the sea, my dad would hold a conch to my ear and tell me to listen to the waves.

I recently read a beautiful piece in The Guardian by writer and daily recreational swimmer Philip Hoare, who is haunted by Shakespeare’s words from The Tempest, sung by the spirit Ariel: ‘Of his bones are coral made; / Those are pearls that were his eyes, / Nothing of him that doth fade / But doth suffer a sea-change / into something rich and strange’. I too was proccupied with the wonders of the water depths.

At school, I performed the role of a spirit in a production of The Tempest, and later composed a song to Ariel’s words for my GCSE Music coursework. I was bewitched by the romantic potential of water, even in death. In Shakespeare’s song, the body of a drowned sailor does not fade, but is transformed into something beautiful and unusual. And so I became aware of the power that water holds over the collective imagination. It wasn’t just me who was under its spell.

***

I thought I’d end this post by recommending some related reading for those who need some watery words to distract from the summer heat (although, as I write this it is admittedly raining – finally):

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot
Turning: A Swimming Memoir by Jessica J Lee
Leviathan by Philip Hoare
The Waves by Virginia Woolf

 

On London Bridge

On London Bridge

Stretching from London Bridge down to Forest Hill, Crystal Palace and Lewisham, south east London is a sprawling section of the capital city, rich and full of life. Cultures and communities converge. Delicious food abounds. I love this part of London. It’s my home. When I see the news notifications popping up on my phone on Saturday night, I feel sick. London Bridge is being attacked. Innocent diners, partiers, tourists and theatregoers are fleeing from Borough market, terrified. A pub I had spent many nights in as an undergraduate is being evacuated. People are being ushered down towards Elephant and Castle. I am tucked up in bed, watching events unfold on my phone, powerless to protect those people. A cacophony of sirens whirrs outside our window.

The next day, I hear interviews with bystanders on the radio. People who haven’t slept, who are distraught and haven’t had time to process the tragedy, are being interviewed on national television. Recently, some of those affected by past terror attacks have spoken out about the traumatic impact that intrusive journalists can have. One woman revealed the relentless tactics employed to contact her – hacking social media accounts, calling her parents and turning up at her house. I want the camera crews to leave London in peace. Let these people comfort each other. Let them grieve. Leave them be.

These events are horrific but they are still uncommon. The people who want to commit harm are few, although many voices will try to make you believe otherwise. I feel guilty about being scared and sad on Sunday morning. I wasn’t there at the scene, I tell myself, I don’t have any friends who were injured. I have no right to be upset.

Londoners are tough. We are determined to have a normal Sunday. We go to the pub. We do the laundry. I read on social media that neighbours in my area offered their homes to those fleeing the attack the previous night. The New York Times reports that Britain is ‘reeling’ from the recent terror attacks and a backlash emerges on Twitter as people across the country share mundane details about their Sundays, from taking out the recycling to live-tweeting The Archers omnibus. We are carrying on as normal, they say.

I take the tube on Monday morning, hyperaware that the commuter hour on the Northern line doesn’t feel as busy as usual. I listen more acutely, noticing that no one is talking. No one ever talks on the tube, I remind myself. As I walk home from the station after work, I see a group of women dancing in Burgess Park. I’ve noticed them before with their boombox, dancing together unashamedly, their children hanging around waiting for them. They are brazenly facing the rain, arms raised as if in praise. I love them. I nearly stop to tell them so but I don’t want to interrupt. Instead I watch for a moment, my hair dripping. Then I continue home, rain running down my face.

On Audiences

On Audiences

When we enter a space that has been designated for traditional performance, a concert hall or theatre, a room with a stage, we enter into an unwritten contract that determines how we behave as an audience. There may be announcements asking us to switch off mobile phones – this is always communicated clearly in a cinema environment – but often there is not. We are expected to be attentive listeners, quiet observers, dark-room dwellers observing the action, but this is not always overtly communicated to us. It is an expectation acknowledged through the behaviour of the majority. It is demonstrated by the layout of space itself, by the dimming of the lights, by the quiet hush that quickly sweeps the room, but it is not always announced.

A site such as the Barbican is used for multi-disciplinary performances but no matter what you are watching, the understanding is that you will be a respectful observer. At a recent concert, this behavioural contract was flouted by the woman sitting directly in front of me. She had her mobile phone out repeatedly during the concert, casually scrolling through Facebook, even pausing to take a selfie as the lights dimmed for the start of the second half. This woman wasn’t talking, she was listening and applauding politely when everyone else did. I was enraged by the light from her phone and by her inability to switch off from her digital device for 5 minutes to enjoy the performance by the Academy of Ancient Music.

After the concert, I began to question my own irritation at the woman and her mobile phone. I recalled that there had been no announcement before the concert that devices should be switched off. I tried to think of a reasonable explanation as to why she might think this was acceptable. Perhaps she wasn’t aware of the expectation that one should have a phone switched off during a concert. Perhaps she hadn’t twigged that the gradiated auditorium seating layout meant that the people sitting behind could fully see the illuminated screen of her phone. I wanted to lean forward and tap her on the shoulder, silently gesturing her to put her phone away, but I didn’t. Inhibited by my own social anxiety, and the withering look of my boyfriend who would have been mortified if I had made a scene, I instead fumed internally, occasionally venting my frustration with a shake of the head.

The disruption reminded me of a performance I had been ushering several years ago while I was a student, at an off-west end theatre in east London. The play was a two-hander consisting almost entirely of monologues. Unbeknownst to me, an audience member in the middle of the balcony was using an iPad throughout the performance, their face illuminated by the blue light of the screen. Midway through the performance, the lead actor who was in the middle of a ten-minute monologue suddenly stopped speaking. Breaking character, he looked straight up at the balcony and angrily demanded, “Why are you using your iPad? You’ve had it out for the whole performance and it’s really distracting”. My stomach dropped. The worst had happened. I had failed to notice the distraction this audience member was causing and the actor had taken things in to his own hands, ruining the performance. I watched in disbelief as the audience member calmly replied, “I’m making notes”. The actor was furious. “Make notes in a notebook. You can’t have an iPad out during a play. I’m not continuing until you put it away”.

I was amazed that someone would have the gumption to use a device during a play to begin with, let alone to defend themselves to an actor onstage who had sabotaged his own performance to get your attention and ask you to stop. I imagine I would be incredibly embarrassed, mumble a quiet apology and put the iPad away in my bag. I would then have spent the next several weeks obsessing over the incident. However, this audience member was defiant and protective over their right to make notes, if they wished, using whatever means was easiest for them.

Looking back on it now, I’m not sure whose behaviour was worse, the audience member or the actor. The actor’s job was to perform his part with conviction. The iPad light may have been distracting, but most professionals would ignore it, continue with their performance and rant about it in the pub afterwards. After all, there were bright stage lights shining directly in his face, illuminating him; surely he could have ignored the smaller blue light from the balcony. Perhaps the theatre needed to be more explicit in their notice that not only mobile phones but all electronic devices must be switched off during the performance. I felt certain that if questioned after the show, this person would have defended themselves with “I wasn’t told I couldn’t have it out”.

The refusal to conform to the expected audience behaviours is a fascinating kind of rebellion. It is not criminal; it is irritating. It is not violent; it is disruptive. And it is only through these kind of incidents that I have really become aware of the rigid conventions that govern an audience’s behaviour. I have realised that my attitude to conventional performance is conservative; people should behave as expected, they should conform, they should not question or disrupt the order. One thing is certain, those who are delivering the performance must be immune to these kind of minor disruptions. Perhaps it should be down to other audience members to police them. In which case, I have always failed at my job.

On Lists

In an interview with Der Spiegel in 2009, novelist Umberto Eco referred to lists as ‘the origin of culture’. He argues, ‘What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible’. Eco points out that cultural history is comprised of lists – dictionaries, museum catalogues, encyclopedias. He adds that novels are full of lists. Culture is made up of lists and so too are our everyday lives. We write lists to make life comprehensible, to create order in a world full of chaos.

I am made and marred by lists. I write lists when I’m feeling optimistic. Lists seem tangible; a clear delineation of what needs achieving. The lists I write range from the simple – send an email – to the ambitious – clean the whole house, write an essay, do a job application. I write lists so that I don’t forget to do things but also so that I can have the satisfaction of ticking them off, however small. I love the feeling of reaching the end of the day, all my tasks completed and a deserved gin and tonic in hand. But this doesn’t always happen.

The mistake I make is overestimating what can be achieved in a day. At work, I write a list of everything that needs doing in a week and feel disappointed when there are still 10 items unfinished by the end of Monday. I put ‘clean the house’ at the top of the list forgetting that this will take half a day, leaving little time for me to finish the article I am writing. I fail to acknowledge that the completion of certain tasks invariably depends on others; waiting for sign-off on a piece of copy or an email response to a reference request.

I have discovered that my personal sense of success is in direct correlation with my list-dictated productivity. I become frustrated if things are perpetually unfinished. Regular chores are a constant battle – as soon as they are ticked off, there is more to do. I have spoken to others who experience similar anxious sensations about productivity and needing to have a measure for their personal success on a day-to-day basis.

My solution is this: make achievable lists. It sounds simple but I am still working it out. Think realistically about how much time something will take and ensure you have allowed space in your day for it to take that long. When it is clear that the day is full, draw a line. Anything else that needs doing can wait until tomorrow. Next, prioritise. An application deadline the next day is more urgent than cleaning the bathroom. Accept that you may not have time to clean the bathroom for a few days. Do not punish yourself for this. You could even, god forbid, ask someone else to clean the bathroom this week.

I recently saw an anti-capitalist lovenote emblazoned with the message: You are worth so much more than your productivity. Remember this slogan. Print it out and put it above your desk if you have to. Sure, make a list if it helps you but don’t let it dictate your day. Feel free to stray away from the list; adapt it as the day goes on, cross off things that aren’t important or scrap it entirely. After all, the best days are those when you have space to be impulsive.

On Walls

On Walls

It is 2017 and Donald Trump is planning to build a wall on the US/Mexican border. This was one of the key policies on which he was elected as President. It has become synonymous with his politics; a politics of division, of separation and of distrust. On Friday, thousands of protestors joined hands along the border to protest the plan, forming a human barrier of almost 1.5km.

Back in 1989, Germany rejoiced as the wall that had divided the country physically, socially, economically and politically for the last 40 years was torn down. Back when I was an A-Level student studying German politics, I was astounded as I learnt of the post-war history of this nation. I couldn’t believe there had been a physical wall dividing this country, separating families and friends. It sounded like the plot of a dystopian novel, not the recent history of a European nation. But then, it’s not all that surprising given that physical and imagined walls are what divide our world.

Borders, fences and walls are all symbolic of the dark side of human nature that strives to shut out the world and divide land, people and property. As Donald Trump shouts about the wall he will build to stop Mexicans from illegally entering the US, I think of the late director Derek Jarman writing of his garden in Dungeness: ‘There are no walls or fences. My garden’s boundaries are the horizon’. I wish the rest of our world was like Jarman’s borderless garden, which thrived despite it’s inhospitable location on the harsh Kent coastline.

On Films

On Films

I have recently discovered, rather late into my twenties, the truly cathartic power of the cinema. There is something about the anonymity of the darkened auditorium and the shared experience with strangers and friends which makes it a good place to face your demons. Last night I went to see German writer and director Maren Ade’s new film Toni Erdmann, which was highly recommended by a film-buff friend. It is undeniably brilliant; an excruciating black comedy (which German directors are so skilled at) about the difficulty of communicating with your family. I won’t go into the detail of the plot here; Peter Bradshaw has written a fantastic review in The Guardian which says everything you need to know.

This film had an emotional impact because it deals with situations which feel uncomfortably close to my own life. But this certainly isn’t unique to me. Who hasn’t had to face up to a difficult relationship with a parent, an uncomfortable sexual encounter or the death of a pet? These are ordinary life experiences played out on a big screen but dealt with intimately, in what Bradshaw aptly calls ‘excruciatingly understated tragedy’. Yes, Toni Erdmann made me cry in a primal Where the Wild Things Are way but it also made me laugh loudly and it turned out this was just what I needed.

This is the fourth film I have watched in recent weeks. Manchester by the Sea was impressive and mesmerising in its slow-burning, gut-wrenching unravelling of past tragedy but lacked the nuance, subtlety and skill of Toni Erdmann. La La Land was mildly entertaining but too predictable and sickly sweet for me. However, there is another film that I thought matched Toni Erdmann for its charm and poetic beauty. Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson is a beautiful film which draws its inspiration from the American poet William Carlos Williams and the imagist movement.

In this film, like in Williams’s poetry, patterns occur as images are repeated. A waterfall. A pair of twins.

The central character is named Paterson and lives in a town called Paterson; the town which Williams was from and which he used as the name for a collection of poetry. Paterson is a bus driver who spends his lunch break writing poetry in a notebook. He observes the daily rhythm of the city, he hears snippets of conversations, he returns home to his eccentric wife and her dreams. The film is punctuated by Paterson reading aloud poems that he has written.

According to Ezra Pound, the key features of imagist poetry are:
I. Direct treatment of the “thing,” whether subjective or objective.

II. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.

III. As regarding rhythm: to compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of the metronome.

It is refreshing to watch a film that responds to poetic ideas in such a determined way, combining and contrasting art forms. If you haven’t been to the cinema recently and are feeling disenchanted with the world, I would urge you to go. Ignore the news and switch off your phone. For a few hours, sit in the dark, be absorbed and transported, laugh, cry and remember that humans are still capable of making something beautiful.