Despite being born under the star of Pisces, I am not a fan of swimming.
My mantra has always been, ‘If God had wanted us to swim, He would have given us fins!’
I blame my best friend, who thought it was great fun to push me in the Lister Park Lido in Bradford when I was about 5 or 6 years old. It made no difference that this playful prank happened at the shallow end; I saw my short life passing by as I panicked and scrambled to the surface gasping for air. It was horrible and left me with a life-long hatred of water. I don’t even like drinking the stuff.
Seriously, when I am thirsty during the night and I take a sip or two from the glass on my bedside table, literally a sip or two is all I can drink before I get the sensation that I can’t breathe. Is this some traumatic Freudian throwback to my near drowning experience as a child, or is it that I am half asleep and have a small gullet?
Whatever the reason, I grew up with a loathing of swimming pools. Loathing is too tame a word. I hated swimming pools.
I especially hated the over-chlorinated swimming pool at Green Lane Baths where, with swimming costumes rolled up in towels under our arms, my class year crocodiled the 12-minute walk from school for lessons.
My school was not great for sport. Understatement. Sport was once a fortnight and since the playing fields were a fifteen-minute bus-ride away, we never got through a game of cricket in five years.
And when it came to soccer, by the time we got there, changed into our assortment of hand-me-down soccer strips and over-sized boots and eventually chose sides, it was pretty well time to get back on the bus.
When it came to the healthy pastime of swimming lessons the paucity of sport in our timetable was something of a bonus. The dreaded swimming lessons at Green Lane Baths were also once a fortnight and believe me, that was twice a month too often for me.
Much of my energy during school years was expended on finding ways to avoid the two things I feared most: Green Lane Baths and visits to the dentist. Given the choice, I think that I would have opted for a trip to the dentist over that miserable freezing swimming pool.
Being a little Yorkshire tyke, I frequently played one off against the other. A ‘note’ from my mum saying I had a dentist appointment conveniently timed to get me off swimming, generally worked a treat. I wasn’t just a little Yorkshire tyke, I was a canny little Yorkshire tyke and I would ring ‘the getting out of swimming’ changes.
Instead of the dentist, it might have to be a visit to the chiropodist for that fictional (and useful) in-growing toe nail.
Occasionally it had to be a hospital visit to my fictional (and equally useful) Auntie who was back in the Bradford Royal Infirmary for the umpteenth time. Auntie Fictional suffered badly with her nerves.
I hadn’t a clue what ‘suffering with your nerves’ was but with my canny Yorkshire instinct for overhearing, I gathered it was what many West Riding women suffered from.
It was only when I was older and travelled to sunnier climes that I appreciated how much I was missing out by not being able to swim. I would enviously watch holidaymakers, many of them kids, fearlessly leap into swimming pools or dive into the sea.
They would disappear under the water for what seemed like an eternity and then pop up, not gasping for air, but laughing and shouting before they vanished again.
In later years I would enjoy the vicarious pleasure of watching my own children doing the same thing. Anxiously sometimes, fully aware that if any of them got into difficulties, I was not one of those fathers who could swim out and rescue them. Sorry guys!
And now I have the pleasure of seeing my grandchildren, 3-year old twins and a 6-year old fearlessly enjoy the pool, the only hint of fear coming from me as I anxiously keep an eye on mum and grandma keeping an eye on them!
A couple of years ago, these water babies were splashing about at the leisure centre and I spotted a wonderful photo opportunity
No prizes for guessing what happened next.
Within seconds of holding up my mobile ‘phone to take a photo, I became aware of two things happening around me: audible tutting from the nearby mums, nannies and grandmas and a large hand over the lens of my I-phone.
‘That’s not allowed, sir.’
The voice that belonged to the large hand belonged to a large lifeguard. Actually, looking at the size of the lifeguard, it was a relatively small hand. And it was a surprisingly high voice.
‘You can’t take photos in the pool area.’
‘But they’re my grandchildren.’
‘I’m sure they are sir, but you’re not allowed to take photographs. We do get some…
There was a momentary silence as the lifeguard, searching for the appropriate adjective, paused long enough for me to hear a whispered ‘pervert’ coming from either a mum, a nanny or one of the grandmas.
‘We do get some ‘dubious’ people here. So no photographs, please.’
I realized how out of touch I was with modern mores and apologised profusely.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Cut to a couple of years later.
To be more precise, cut to the Monday a couple of weeks ago, when my bank called to say that I had been the victim of a bank fraud, followed on the Tuesday by our broadband disappearing into the ether, unlike any of our emails (see ‘Life in Laytonia’ 14).
Not the best week in Laytonia if you remember. I certainly do!
On the Wednesday, Woody and I took Moya for a consoling walk on Hampstead Heath. As we wandered around the lakes in Kenwood, we talked about how we had got everything way out of perspective.
A few nights before, Moya and I had watched the final episode of an extraordinary documentary series, “Once Upon A Time In Iraq”. It made for compulsive viewing. Given the choice of living in the UK with coronavirus or living in present-day Iraq – no contest.
Covid 19 is horrible. Life in Iraq is unbearable. The stolen money would be reimbursed and the failing broadband would eventually be restored.
We sat on a bench, curiously dedicated to someone called George who had “spent many happy hours in Kenwood” and acknowledged that our current problems were minimal.
There are three lakes at Kenwood; the large lake for male swimmers, a much smaller lake for lady swimmers, which even with my penchant for tactless curiosity, I have never seen, and the third lake is for anglers and model boat enthusiasts which is where Moya and I were sitting on the bench dedicated to ‘George’.
There were no model boats whizzing round the lake on that lovely sunny afternoon and I don’t think there was anybody fishing. There were, however, masses of swimmers, adults and children.
We found this surprising. Not because in all the years we have been going there, have we ever seen anybody swimming in that lake – I’d have thought that there would be a risk of catching Weil’s disease – more because of the strategically placed signs around the lake, each almost the size of a drive-in movie screen:
NO SWIMMING ALLOWED
‘It must be because it’s a health hazard,’ I sagely told Moya.
Heading in the direction of our car, we ambled round the lake, glancing at the frolicking swimmers.
‘I wouldn’t swim in there. I should think there are rats!’
‘You can’t swim anyway,’ Moya rightly pointed out.
‘Those signs are there for a reason, Moya, you mark my words…’ More sage words from the local F.P.O. (Fun Prevention Officer) ‘…It’s a health hazard!’
It was when we passed one of the big signs that I had my ‘great’ idea: a shot of ‘NO SWIMMING ALLOWED’ and then pan to the bobbing heads in the water. Hilarious!
Yes, I guess you know what’s coming…
‘Don’t you f*****g take f*****g photographs of my children!!!’
The heavily accented voice belonged to a heavily tattooed man who would have dwarfed the large lifeguard involved in my previously ‘photographing young children’ episode. How did that slip my mind??
‘Delete that f*****g photo, you f*****g bastard pervert!!’
I think I need to give you a fuller picture of this caring father concerned for the well being of his children, whoever and wherever they were among the mass of indistinguishable swimmers.
If I tell you that this tattooed giant with a shaven head made Wladimir Klitschko look like the kind of sap who would have had sand kicked in his face, I promise that I am not exaggerating. Admittedly, this little exchange was taking place on an incline putting the ‘bastard pervert’ at a slight disadvantage height-wise.
My hands were shaking as I deleted the photo and burbled on about having 4 kids of my own, 3 grandchildren, another on the way at the same time introducing him to my lovely wife of many years in the hope that this would dispel the ‘bastard pervert’ notion.
Moya was desperately trying to get Woody on the lead, exhorting me to leave the scene and get the f**k out of there!
Klitschko, meanwhile, continued to harangue me.
‘How I know you f*****g delete f*****g photographs, you bastard pervert f****r!
I showed him.
‘Look – no photo. Deleted. No sign, no lake, no swimmers. Deleted.’
Klitschko snatched my ‘phone. All social distancing had gone out of the window.
‘I f*****g check!’
While he was scrolling through the photos and who knows what else, I could see Moya pulling Woody away from the Klitschko picnic blanket where, much to Mrs. Klitschko’s chagrin, the little man had chosen to cock his leg.
In one neat movement, Moya attached his lead, pulled Woody away and urged me to follow her to the car.
I indicated that Klitschko had got hold of my ‘phone. I truly thought he was either going to stamp on it or sling it in the lake.
It was then the moment of Larry David hatred of being misunderstood madness came over me. (See ‘Life in Laytonia’ 15).
I decided to explain to Klitschko, in some detail, the funny side of what I was trying to do.
‘You see, I thought it would be quite funny, to go from the NO SWIMMING ALLOWED sign to the lake and see all the people swimming. Do you see what I mean…?’
He thrust the ‘phone back at me and told me to be fruitful and multiply, but not in those words. (Thank you Woody Allen.)
Back in the safe surroundings of the car, I smothered my ‘phone in santising gel and reflected on Klitschko-Gate.
‘Bloody hell, Moya. What a week! And it’s only Wednesday!!
* * * * * * * * *
Coda 1: The ‘best friend’ who pushed me into the Lister Park Lido is still my best friend.
Contrary to ‘Layton in Laytonia’ practice, I’m going to give him a name check.
His name is Peter – and he’s my older brother.
He’s the eminent glass artist, Peter Layton (in my vocabulary ‘eminent’ means the best in the world!)
Check him out and prepare to be amazed. I’m immensely proud of him.
Coda 2: In my mid-30’s I did learn to swim. I was abroad in my early Moya days. It was a long way from Green Lane Baths.
I was standing at the pool wistfully watching everybody, including Moya, having the greatest time.
‘Jump in!’ she called to me.
I smiled and shrugged. She knew I couldn’t swim.
‘If you love me, you’ll jump in.’
I held my nose and jumped.
I know, pass the sick bag! But I can swim – sort of.
I still hold my nose when I jump…