Being a non-swimmer

The warm sunshine has brought out a plethora of paddling pools. The sound of laughter and splashes can be heard from many quarters. I think I could manage a paddling pool, but nothing any deeper.

At the age of thirty-eight, I learned to swim a few strokes. In hotel pools and in holiday rental cottage pools, I began to manage a few widths, though would never swim in a part of a pool where I could not touch the ground with my feet.

Were I to be asked now, I would say that I was a non-swimmer. If I fell into a river, or from a boat at sea, I should almost certainly drown.

Being a non-swimmer started at an early age.

There was the swimming pool at High Ham Primary School which never failed to induce feelings of fear.  The pool was filled with a hosepipe and depended upon liberal doses of chlorine for its water purification. For a frail, asthmatic child, who struggled to breathe and whose eyes were stung, it was an experience to be avoided as much as possible. However, as far as our teacher was concerned, going into the swimming pool was not an option; everyone was expected to attempt to learn so as to gain a certificate for being able to swim 25 yards.

At Elmhurst Grammar School in Street, the summertime humiliation of going to a swimming pool continued. We were made to go to Greenbank pool, a place of Art Deco architecture that was undoubtedly a great innovation when it was opened. Open air, it offered no protection from the indifferent weather of an English summer. Being in a much larger group than in primary school years allowed those of us who had not learned to swim to hide and to shiver in the shallow end. Strangely, the PE master responsible for the ill assorted group of boys was reputed to be a non-swimmer himself. Whether or not his swimming was strong, when a boy was in trouble on the day of the school swimming gala, the master jumped fully clothed into the water and climbed out carrying the boy with him.

When my asthma became severe, the county council sent me to a school on Dartmoor. Going swimming was not compulsory, but it was encouraged. Swimming was good for developing lung capacity. Succumbing to a housemaster’s suggestion, for one term, I did go with the school bus filled with boys that went to an indoor pool in Exeter each Tuesday afternoon. All I can remember from those hours is the noise generated by dozens of boisterous teenagers and the gasping for breath that followed the inadvertent swallowing of water.

Perhaps it is a reaction to memories of the chlorine, perhaps to the sense of vulnerability, perhaps to the sense of humiliation, but it is a non-swimmer that I shall remain.





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Could have done better

Concerned that the words might be read again by someone somewhere in fifty years’s time, I have spent much of the day carefully writing reports for the twenty-five students in my Year 7 tutor group. It was a relief not to have to write reports on all of the students whom I have taught in the past year; three hundred and fifty comments would have taken a considerable time.

I have been mindful of the need to choose words carefully because a year ago my mother unearthed my Year 7 report from Elmhurst Grammar School in Street, where I spent a year before it closed its doors for the last time in the summer of 1973.

In those days, every subject teacher was expected to write a sentence for each student they taught. The comments were about as useful (and accurate) as mine would have been if I had been required to comment on three hundred and fifty students.

The most comical comment of all in the report came from the physical education teacher. Awarding a grade “C,” he wrote, “Ian has made some improvement in swimming.” I couldn’t swim at all. I didn’t learnt to swim until I was thirty-eight; how could I have made improvement?

There are three Cs and seven Bs on the report, something which I remember reading with a sense of injustice. In the end of year exams, I had done well in most subjects. I had come fourth in geography, fifth in science, sixth in maths and French and seventh in English – surely, I had deserved at least one A minus? In history, I had scored a dismal 33% in the exam, coming sixteenth, but still was awarded a B.

The comments on the report were probably the longest communication I received in the year from some of the teachers. “He has worked steadily and shows average ability,” was the comment from the art teacher. I suspect that similar words were used by him on many reports. “Average ability,” was an absurd exaggeration, my talent for art was worse than my ability for swimming, if one can have less than zero talent.

Reading through the report now, the teachers whose names appear were not old. Some were in their twenties, some probably only retired in the last decade, yet they seem to have belonged to a bygone era.

A little empathy from some of them would have gone a long way. There would probably have been many pupils who would have left with happier memories.

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For the sake of it

Apropos of nothing at all, a story from days in Ireland as I pushed my trolley around Sainsbury’s.

The story is of a man who lived in the Ireland of the 1950s whose two best friends had left the country to find work in the United States. Each Saturday evening the man would come into the pub, sit up at the bar and order and drink three pints of Guinness, one for himself and one each in honour of his absent friends.

One Saturday evening, the man came in as usual, sat up at the bar, and ordered two pints instead of three. The order worried the barman, had some ill fate befallen one of the man’s friends. “Excuse me,” asked the barman, “are both of your friends in America well?”

“They are,” said the man, “I had a letter this week. Why do you ask?”

“It was you ordering two pints instead of three. I thought perhaps that something had happened to one of the men for whom you drink a pint.”

”Ah, no, not at all,” said the man. “The missing pint is my own. I have given up drink.”

Heading down the bakery aisle of the supermarket, I wondered how much there was, that we did, that was symbolic, for appearance, for the sake of it. How many of our actions are symbols without substance?

There is a local man who has a flagpole in the garden, from which, for sometime, he flew a Union Jack. He made no attempt to take it down at sunset, nor to prevent it tearing to shreds in winter weather, suggesting a lack of respect for the national flag. It was difficult to avoid the conclusion that he flew flags for the sake of it when the Union Jack was replaced by the Somerset flag, a red wyvern on a yellow background, and, more recently, an NHS flag.

There seems much that we do that seems a symbol without substance. The attachment to the idea of being “Church of England” does not bring with it any sense of obligation, it does not stir any feeling of a requirement to believe anything, and certainly no belief that they should attend church.

The doing of things for the sake of it is perhaps a way of retaining a sense of identity, a mark of belonging to a community, a choice not to step out of line with those around, a decision not to discomfit those for whom traditions are important. But sometimes it seems as sensible as a man drinking two pints instead of three in the name of abstinence.

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Didn’t we have a lovely day?

A day trip to Weymouth by train from Langport required two changes. Having a good day out meant catching the 8.03 from Langport West to Yeovil Town (the next train was not until two hours later), where the shuttle train was taken to Yeovil Pen Mill in order to catch the train that ran from Bristol to Weymouth. Arrival in Weymouth would have been at 9.50. An hour and three quarters journeying to cover forty-one miles.

What was it about a day out that made the journey worthwhile? Why would people dress up in their best clothes to go to sit on a beach in Dorset?

Langport West station had been closed for three or four years by the time we went on our first outing to Weymouth. The track had been torn up. Trains would never again be an option for a day out.

From High Ham, we travelled by coach for our outing. The “Sunday School” outing was the first Monday of the school summer holiday. Few people went to church, even fewer went to Sunday School, perhaps there had been a time when it had been an annual treat for children of Saint Andrew’s church, but by our time it was a village excursion.

Whether by train, or by bus, though, what was it that attracted people? There was never a year when the bus was not full, why did we all go?

Perhaps it was about taking part in an activity with others. There would have been no reason why we could not have gone to Weymouth in our family car, but it would not have been the same. A family of five heading off for the day in an Austin car did not have a mood comparable with that of fifty people boarding a bus.

Even now, I can still recall the sense of excited anticipation as we stood at the end of the road awaiting the arrival of the coach. There would have been shouted greetings and smiles and laughter as we found seats and opportunity on the journey to wander up and down the bus to talk to friends. The first glimpse of the sea would be greeted with a cheer.

But what was it all about?

The day would have been spent on the beach in hired deck chairs. There would have been sand castle building and dips in the sea, but, on a crowded beach, games were restricted. Lunch would have been sandwiches.

In the afternoon, there might have been a visit to the shops before tea was eaten in a fish and chip cafe.

On the journey home, there was a stop in Dorchester. Ostensibly for more fish and chips, the stop allowed some of the trippers time for a quick drink in a pub.

“Didn’t we have a lovely day?” would be the refrain as we left the bus at the end of our road.

A beach, chips, togetherness – a lovely day did not demand much.


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Hannah’s holiday

Aunt Hannah was a cousin in some degree of my grandfather. In the intricate complexity of our family tree, it is possible that she was a cousin in more than one degree. In small rural communities, intermarriage of cousins was a frequent occurrence.

Hannah would have been described at the time as “simple.” It seems a much kinder word than many of the terms used now.

Hannah worked in a school meals kitchen, preparing the vegetables each day for hundreds of school dinners eaten at the school at which she worked and at the schools supplied by that kitchen. The pay would not have been much, but it allowed her money of her own, and a sense of independence.

Hannah joined various of her cousins for a day out to Weymouth. The train was caught from Langport, with presumably a change at Yeovil, so as to reach the Dorset seaside town.

A fine day was enjoyed, but at the end of it, Hannah was nowhere to be found. Worried family members had to return to Langport fearing something had happened to Hannah. A week later, Hannah reappeared at Langport station, she had been to Jersey for the week.

Anyone familiar with Weymouth will recall that the train once ran right down to the harbour, running along the streets at one point. The channel island ferry would only have been a short step away.

However “simple”, she may have been, but Hannah must also have possessed a capacity for planning and calculation. A ticket for the sea crossing would have had to have been bought, accommodation in Jersey would have had to be paid for, and spending money would have been required to make the week a worthwhile experience.

The family were mystified as much mystified by how Hannah had financed her holiday as they were by the fact that she had gone for a daytrip and had disappeared for a week without telling anyone.

A while later, Hannah asked at home if she might borrow some money. Her National Insurance stamps had gone unpaid and she wished to pay her contributions. Money that usually paid for stamps on a National Insurance card had obviously been set aside each week for the quietly planned week in Jersey.

There is something delightful in the story of Hannah’s holiday, a tale of a person who refused to conform to the role ascribed to her, a tale of an independent spirit.

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