Free for all by Amy Sharrocks
On the 12th July last year, 50 people met at Tooting Bec Lido at 5.30 in the morning, in order to swim across London to Hampstead Heath, touching as much water as we possibly could.
We travelled from South to North London: a cross section of the city, a horde of swimmers charging the North/South divide.
It was a journey to gain access to the water in this city, to open up the lakes, the private and the public pools to a tide of more and less competent swimmers, from all parts of the world and all walks of life.
It was open invitation, as much as possible a free for all.
Between the water we travelled by bus: a huge red splash on an otherwise grey London morning.
The Routemaster was warm and welcoming, itself already an anachronism: an icon of former days, part of our heritage, not our present. It proved a nostalgic environment, the windows steamed up quickly, filled with memories of other journeys.
Your faces were a bit dazed as I welcomed you. I smiled brightly as if to force your confidence in this bizarre and unknown adventure. You were full of trepidation, “Do we really have to stay in swimming costumes all day”, “Will we get cold?”, “Will you sweep the streets?”, but these fears disappeared when we hit the water.
The first icy plunge into the Lido at Tooting Bec woke us up, and by Camberwell we were well into our stroke, bursting out of the Leisure Centre across Peckham High Road. A leisurely swim in the Serpentine, and we shivered through our lunch before the sun suddenly came out at Swiss Cottage. The water and the journey made us daring and brave. The gasping for air after being immersed in water is a huge affirmation of life and wanting to live.
SWIM was inspired by John Cheever’s short story and Burt Lancaster’s odyssey across the American landscape of Frank Perry’s 1959 film ‘The Swimmer’.
We offered a very British response to that film at the start of the 21st Century. We extended the experience beyond Lancaster’s very male purpose and concentration on the body beautiful, and subverted his solitary hero’s macho, self-regarding fantasy by making it an inclusive, participatory celebration, with both male and female swimmers of all ages, sizes and abilities, exploring an idea of freedom in this dream of swimming the capital.
We were immersed in the bathos of swimming London – not the wild swimming of Roger Deakin on his quest to swim the country, nor the superhuman arctic swimming of Lewis Pugh - but the chlorinated, stunted swimming of short city pools like the 20 ft pools at Balham and the Seymour Hall. The mob of motley swimmers running over Vauxhall Bridge had something of the slapstick of the Keystone Kops. We were a little Odysseus but a lot Benny Hill.
50 swimmers dashing and stumbling across the capital with strokes and costumes of varying style and competence - we took a human measure of this city in the wide strokes of our dripping arms.
We entered the dirty waters of London, tasted its blood, its fluids, its effluent. Some swimmers kept a running survey of these tastes, which runs through ‘salty..light and effervescent… and chalky, milky, tangy, strong..stale to earthy, leafy, muddy, dark’.
Alive with the camaraderie of our group and the strength of our memories of different places and people, the living and the dead, we emerged from the baptism of each swim together and grinning: a stream of swimmers in a dammed repetition of short lengths and loops of pools.
There was a very physical side to the day, but it was not really the exertion of swimming, for we swam only 15 lengths in total. Rather it was the bravery of daring - to change one’s day completely, to attempt a new journey, to throw off one’s usual uniform and routine and to run out into the capital in only a swimsuit, to swallow one’s pride, loose one’s shame / inhibitions - and all the excitement of the possibilities of that.
After all we come from water, we’re surrounded by water and mainly composed of it, we depend on it to live but most of the time we’re unaware or careless of it. The very idea of a swimming pool, penned in and ‘owned’ by a large private company or charity, water companies charging exorbitant rates for letting us use it at all... Water has a hard time of it in the city: on the one hand, it’s readily available, comes gushing out of our taps, and on the other it’s less and less accessible, much less part of our lives than ever before. London used to be a river city. Now we’ve created oases of water in our concrete jungle, yet take it for granted, aware nevertheless of the droughts and acute shortage of water in so many other parts of the world, and its status globally as a dwindling commodity more precious than oil.
It took months of negotiation to gain access to some of these pools, and I had signed contracts including a health and safety disclaimer 15 pages long in one case. I had been refused access to more private health clubs than I can mention.
Walking, running, swimming, taking to the streets are political acts: and this event campaigned for access to the water in this city as much as it clamoured for broader access to art.
It was marching season and we marched butterfly style, making our complaint seen and heard in grunts and splashes, hoping the ripples would carry.
Peter Ackroyd talks of London as a body, with the parks as its lungs and the river its blood; we can take this further to include all the water in the capital: our life blood.
To extend this idea, here is a quotation from Chief Seattle’s speech in Washington when the Americans offer him money for Native American Land in 1854:
The shining water that moves in the streams and rivers is not just water, but the blood of our ancestors. Each glossy reflection in the clear waters of the lakes tells of events and memories in the life of my people. The water's murmur is the voice of my father's father.
The rivers are our brothers. They quench our thirst. They carry our canoes and feed our children. If we sell you our land, you must remember, and teach your children, that the rivers are our brothers, and yours, and you must henceforth give the rivers the kindness you would give any brother.
If we sell you our land, remember that the air is precious to us, that the air shares its spirit with all the life that it supports. The wind that gave our grandfather his first breath also received his last sigh. The wind also gives our children the spirit of life.
We know the sap which courses through the trees as we know the blood that courses through our veins. We are part of the earth and it is part of us.
Teach your children what we have taught our children, that the earth is our mother.
All things are connected like the blood which unites one family. All things are connected.
This connectedness of the Native American approach to the earth, which is at odds with Western ideas of division, capitalism and ownership is what came out of SWIM for me, and what a lot of others have remarked on since.
Art events can shake us from settled normality or routine, forcing us to consider alternative existences, other ways of living.
For some, SWIM offered an incongruous, apparently impromptu spectacle interrupting everyday life, while for others we challenged London with a serious, alternative Olympic bid, for revolution through randomness – a kind of Flesh Mobbing. Someone afterwards remarked on the ‘cosmic oddness’ of the piece, as if it threatened the ‘nature’ of things. Water offers relief from the relentless pull of gravity; we in turn looked at the landlubbers with sudden incomprehension.
If we are thirsting for something in the 21st Century - for challenge, connectedness, meaning? – then SWIM was a quest for feeling, a strong challenge to the loneliness of spirit that often characterises modern life.
As always our minds have played tricks on us, and our memories of the day have been distorted, like distended figures seen through rippling water, but SWIM was about the mix of all our stories, and it seems that the community of the day has stayed with those who took part and changed our feeling for the city.
© Amy Sharrocks/Lulu Norman 2008