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Living in the city of Brighton, I miss nature: I miss the quietness, I miss the majesty.
So I took up sea swimming. Not as some kind of long-haul expert, more of the quick-dip variety. I took up sea swimming to bring rawness and zest into my life, to get out of my head and into my body.
A confession: I wear a wetsuit. I am not a die-hard, trunks-or-nothing sea swim kind of guy. My hipsters are firmly for summer.
It’s a great feeling to saunter down the street in this skin away from skin: a good tight wetsuit is a bit like floating. You walk around feeling slim and trim, midriff held in, arms lightened, chest straightened. (a good thing no-one’s around to see the contortion required to to tug the neoprene over the ankle, up the shin, thighs and hips, before wiggling it over the bum, and then wrestling into the sleeves).
Hitting the street wearing a just wetsuit makes you realise just how normal the ‘everyday’ is. But then swimming in the sea is a bit like that.
Towel hung around my neck, I head towards the water. A woman in a hat looks at me, shivers an says to her handbag dog: “oooh, he’s mad isn’t he, Dr Seuss?”
The green strip of Hove Lawns feels just like it is – cold earth – as I cross. It’s soft and slippy, my city-trained instinct is that I’m treading in dogshit. How tragic that the feel of our natural world has been turned – by something as innocent as shoes -into an assumption of shit.
Brighton beach is hard and awkward. Walking over the shingle is like having a a brace of vigorous Thai Masseurs at work on my feet all at the same time. A strange, crab-like dance ensues as I make my way to the shore.
Then: the English Channel. It can be ferocious, it can be charming, it can be deadly and it can be deadly dull. Today it is simply calm. The English Channel rises and falls as the North Sea tides rise – and so water is sucked east – and then as Atlantic tides rise – and the water is pulled the other way. It’s a sort of enormous planetary trough between a sea and an ocean.
It takes a few minutes to get used to it. I kick out and do crawl, hard, for a minute or so, then breaststroke. By this time I’m out of my depth. I turn around and – slightly out of breath – admire the view of the city.
But suddenly there’s something else. It becomes an experience of being held. Lightly undulating, the water lifts and lowers me as waves pass. Often I laugh here from delight. This, surely, is one of the thrills of sea swimming. It’s joyous to relax in the open space, supported and rocked with the slop-slop-slop of gentle waves lapping around.
This movement of waves often stays with me after I’ve got back onto land, as if the waves are remembered in the water in my body, like a song that you can’t stop singing.
And while singing, sometimes you suddenly see yourself, legs dangling high from a floated ceiling.
Is there something down there?
Fear is a never that far away from sea swimming. It’s perhaps another thing about it – real, physical fear is something that we don’t often experience. Fear is not rational, and yet it’s can appear almost immediately and demanding. It’s salutary to know that our fears lurk right there, very close to the surface, and that they can be so powerful.
The Jaws phenomenon: the power of our land-based, city lives on us revealed. Because if I still get the Jaws fear – and I’ve been sea swimming for years – then how many other people get it who are not used to the water?
There is also fear of rip tides, and although I have been swimming of Brighton for three years I’m always wary. Sometimes I’ve found that I’ve kicked off back towards the shore after a wash of easy panic has convinced some primal bit of my brain that I’m drifting away from land.
But why do something that makes you afraid? Surely it would be easier to stay comfortable and serene?
Actually there’s something about conquest – facing fear is an immensely exhilarating experience. Facing a fear makes you take yourself seriously. It’s that moment when you think: “right: think about this”. There’s no-one else to take the decision, and the decision is important. It’s a unique moment in our lives when we decide our destiny right here, right now. It’s the moment when we take absolutely responsibility for ourselves. It’s the same as when on a high ledge, or on a long walk as the sun starts to go down. Fear is when we take ourselves in hand and make a concrete decision that has far-reaching implications. And that space where we take responsibility is something that used to be called character: once it’s been found in one area, it’s learnt for use in others.
It would, of course, be easier to avoid these types of situation. But an easy life is not perhaps the most interesting.
This ululation between joy and fear is interspersed with the exhilaration of dynamic swimming – the same buzz as the jogger or pool swimmer feels. It’s added to by the balmy feel of floating on the back, gently lifted and lowered, and staring at the sea. It’s augmented by the slopslopslop of the waves around. And the beam of the sun, glistening, bobbing, ever changing and vast, that lies out in front, extending to the horizon.
It’s an immersion into something natural that – incredibly- can happen just metres from the heart of a city. It’s a total body immersion in nature, a sudden switch from the media-led lives of computers and comfort, to a brutal immersion into wet universe of biology and currents.
The only similar experience I’ve had is standing naked and alone high in the Pyrenees mountains (I guess I’m just into this kind of thing). There there’s a feeling of vulnerability, then intimacy with the natural world. I found myself face-down on the ground, admiring the grass-life, and feeling the wild on my skin, noticing fearfully how many things could cut my city-softened hide.
Because – long forgotten – the wild is not to be messed with. With no clothes (or barely any clothes) the wild cuts, chills, scratches, drowns. Without our implements – boats, cookery, houses we are revealed as supremely vulnerable. Death is a matter of days away. It’s an experience of awe to experience this (as well as a joy to come back to the heaven of the towel on the beach, and, later, the cup of tea and the hot shower). Sea swimming takes you right back.
It’s an experiential as well as physical dousing, a literal, almost metaphysical immersion.
When I get out an Indian tourist approaches me along the promenade. “Excuse me sir,” he says, “could you tell me the name of these waters?”
“English Channel” I reply, feeling slightly disingenuous that the commonplace name obscures such a rich experience.
On the 27th January 2013 I began a week at the Sivananda yoga ashram in eastern France. Why? I didn’t know.
In the way that my New Year’s Resolutions are always inclinations, rather than promises (how else are you going to keep them), I decided that this winter I wouldn’t achieve. For the last two winters I have schemed, written business plans, held meetings, researched, plotted, read, figured out, implemented, executed, thrusted. A good boy. I have produced.
This year (I resolved sometime during a meditation on on the 31st December) I would stick to fingers up to all this achieving. I would strip out the external striving. I would do stuff for myself. Ha! Yes, there it was: said.
So I travelled by ‘plane, train, underground, bus and then foot to hear the words of a long dead man: “Riches are nothing. Power is nothing. The only thing is self-realisation.”
I found myself in eastern France, in flat, frozen woodlands that remind me of the first world war, at a yoga ashram, a few miles from a remote French village.
Why? I wasn’t wholly sure. Fortunately, the founder of this particular branch of yoga, Swami Sivananda, had a line for that one, too: “You don’t need to know what you’re doing,” he wrote in a letter (read by a French woman in the cavernous barn that was the meditation space), “you just need to practice. At first it will seem obscure, this quest for realisation. But the more you practice, the clearer it will become.”
So, I thought, nice one Swami, that’s it: I don’t need to know. I can live with that.
After all, if I knew, I wouldn’t be in the first place, would I? But it was a comfort to know I didn’t need to achieve anything. I just needed to practice, and whatever it was that was going to come, would, well, come.
And that, in the dead time of the freezing January of 2013, was good enough for me.
Book review of ‘Nine Miles’ by Jim Hindle
For many, the 1990s road protests are a historical footnote. Yet for those involved the protests were a life-defining experience. ‘Nine Miles’ admirable captures this forgotten part of British social history – it’s a vivid, page-turning and deeply personal account of an epic struggle.
It’s often said that first-time writers should write about what they know. And it’s the detail that makes Nine Miles such a fascinating read. Hindle’s accounts of the main tactic of the protests – aerial treehouse camps, linked by rope walkways – are a revelation. He shows camp life up close – a harsh landscape of mud, rain, and fires, broken up only by the stringing of yet more ropes for yet more treetop walkways.
The experience of living outside in winter – sometimes 50 feet in the air – is brutal (something that will resonate with those who stayed at the 2011-12 London Occupy Camp). Biting winds lash non-stop through the tallest trees (the biggest & oldest trees were a particular favourite for defending), against which no amount of layers, planks and tarpaulins made much difference. And yet it is not just hardship. At other times we find the author waking one winter morning, for example, dazzled by bluebells that have appeared for miles around way down on the forest floor.
Nine Miles is not simply reportage. The book also covers the psychological toll visited on the protesters as they – barely surviving in sub-zero temperatures, are by turns man-handled and dragged from their treetop bases by hundreds of police and security, only to watch the trees they have fought for to be razed and then pointlessly burned.
And the book is full of beauty. As the author travels further and further away from a mono culture of roads and suburban sprawl – he experiences the taken-for-granted woodlands chopped into by these contemporary developments, to places 99% of the UK population has forgotten. Here he begins to unearth old pagan understandings. This leads to some spectacular accounts of the surreality of direct action: where wild horses square up to police mounts and trees scream. He is repeatedly visited by dreams in which the trees appear to speak to him, culminating in a druidic ceremony that took place as the evictions rage around.
In this respect Nine Miles is a damning indictment of how how society treats its dissidents. The protesters, living outside civilisation, eventually came to be seen as fighting a heroic cause. For many contemporaries, however, they were objects of derision. The life of communally living, caked in mud, often sleeping rough – angered many: protesters are spat at, attacked, even – at one point – a gang attempt to Molotov cocktail the old Oak that Hindle has made his home (it was too windy to get them lit). And that’s not counting the evictions.
In the woods Hindle finds a cast of assorted characters, from the Barbour-wearing landlord who comes over the the protesters side, to the professional climbers who install futuristic platforms to evade the bailiffs, the local gentry getting forced into a ditch by police horses to the ganga-dealing dealers who join the tree-dwellers. It’s all a refreshing reminder that the early 90s were not just a haven for the mindless techno scene of burnt out acid house – Hindle describes it well as ‘narcissistic tribalism’.
The book is full of lightness: the gentle humour of those who experience ‘the fear’ on climbing for the first time, to the almost comically heroic attempts to stop the diggers: accessing a 300 foot rope strung between two trees by looping over a rope from the ground, hauling up and then shinning along – over the heads of the bailiffs to a tree about to be cut down.
They protesters rarely win. But the epic fight eventually cost so much in cash and political capital that the new road building was scaled back significantly. And the road protests did succeed in illuminating the fact that the more roads are built, the more traffic there is. In an afterward Hindle notes that there is more traffic in Newbury town centre now than before the bypass was built.