I was determined to go into the sea before the end of the year and cross off 'swim in December' from the resolutions I didn't make at the start of this mad year. Everything was auspicious: a calm, clear sunny day; a slight northerly, meaning the sea was tranquil, and the tide up at about the perfect time. And I did go in, feeling the usual rush of that slather of ice and the accompanying oxygen deficiency which diminished after a moment or two. But unlike my last swim, this felt a dip too far - at least for me. I pawed the water for a few minutes, lay on my back pretending to enjoy myself and then hauled myself up the beach to hot tea, towels and dry clothes. Despite the flat, lapping waves, the sea felt suddenly alien, frightening even. It may have been wearing its power lightly but I felt it in every sense of that word. And I felt none of my usual smugness, the self-congratulatory sense that I was a member of some special club to whom the pleasures of the sea had been granted while others remained shut out.
Of course, this is all nonsense. If nothing else, the club is not so elite; you can't move for 'cold water swimmers' these days, although I was the only swimmer at this particular time on our local beach. I'm sure had this been Brighton or Bournemouth, I'd have been struggling to avoid social-distancing in the waves. But perhaps the more important lesson is the ancient one of hubris - and I mean it very much in its Greek sense - defiance of the gods leading to some sort of nemesis. The nemesis bit might be pushing it a bit, but bear with me.
So, which gods have I been defying? Perhaps Age - the most powerful god amongst them all.
I think this stems from a feeling that I could have been more adventurous in my youth. Looking back on my teenage years, I was a bit of a coward when it came to physical stuff. At my rugby-playing school I was pretty good ball in hand, being reasonably quick and skilful. But when a Jonah Lomu-type rumbled towards me I tended to fold like a pack of cards as he trampled me underfoot. I also place some of the blame on my much-loved maternal grandmother who used to a) make us all put on coats if we were going outside (pretty much regardless of the weather) and b) remind us to 'look both ways' when we crossed our no-through-road. Good advice perhaps today, but in the 60s and 70s few of the houses in our street had more than one car, and we lived pretty much at the top of our cul-de-sac. And as for bigger vehicles - the rag and bone man, the milk-float and the occasional ice-cream van, these could all be heard from miles away. There were no 4 x 4s at that point (thank god) and the only really dangerous contraption was my uncle's Morris Minor traveller, although as it never left his drive it was only ever a threat to him as he tried to mend another bit of rust on the under-carriage.
I suppose the other major god I have been defying is Nature herself. I gender her deliberately - as have many before me, whether in the form of actual gods or goddesses such as Persephone (or 'Proserpine' as she's named in Rossetti's painting above) Gaia, or simply as a signifier of birth and nurture. Was there something of male pride at work here? So many of the cold-water swimming clubs I have heard of seem to be female-led, perhaps because they speak to a sense of community, whereas I, the solitary male, take on the sea without an army of confederates by my side. Who needs 'em, huh? Well, today, Nature rebuked my pride and reminded me where the real power lay - as if I didn't already know. Leaving the water, I'm sure I saw a sly smile play around my wife's lips - perhaps she'd had a word in Gaia's ear: 'He needs taking down a peg or two..'
Anyway, I resolve to begin 2021 as a more humble man. And it is love as much as anything that has brought me to this point after the challenges of the past twelve months. Love of family, friends - and Nature herself. None are to be taken for granted.