Purveyor of Bollocks to the Crowned Heads of Europe
Saturday, 29 November 2014
Last one in's a sissy
Captain Pete, my sailor friend, once asked me to crew with him on a yacht delivery, somewhere far away across some exotic sea. He thought I might enjoy it, and since I would be of virtually no use to him for lack of experience, I think that the offer was a kind gesture.
"But I can't swim," I admitted through a profound instinct of self-preservation rather than honesty.
"Don't worry about that. Wherever you are at sea, you are never more than a mile away from land." I looked puzzled, and he pointed his finger downward.
On a chilly Summer afternoon in 1963, my class were taken for their first belated swimming-lessons at Woking Lido (that's it above). On the bus, there was an excited babble from most of the kids who were - unlike me - looking forward to the experience, and legends of the Lido were exchanged between those who had previous experience of the place - also unlike me.
The one which sticks in my mind was about a slightly overweight man who - a few years before - had dived from the highest of the high spring-boards and had belly-flopped flat onto the water's surface, bursting himself on impact and spreading his guts across the surface of the pool. Apparently they had to drain the pool and refill it before it could be used again.
We went into the stinking atmosphere of the damp - not to say awash - changing rooms, and I got into ill-fitting trunks that used to belong to my brother. At that time, I was about five foot ten inches tall, and weighed about 8 stone. My arms and legs were like sticks, and my shoulder blades were like a matching pair of prehistoric digging-implements mounted on a thinly-plastered museum wall. I tried not to expose myself at all if I could help it, but this lesson was deemed mandatory and overdue by a headmaster who had only just noticed the oversight in the sports curriculum.
We all assembled at the edge of the pool and the sports master - a sadistic bastard with hairy tree-trunks for legs - bawled at us. He began by asking anyone who could not already swim to put their hands up.
Me, an enormously fat boy and a lad with pebble-glasses whose face was covered in spots, put our hands up. Interestingly, these boys were already my best friends at school, and I think that says something about how people choose their friends, but I don't know what it is. I like to think that we admired each other because of our intellectual abilities or senses of humour, but it was probably more to do with huddling together for security.
We were told to go and stand in the shallow end and this we did, shivering and lamely splashing each other for about twenty minutes whilst the sadist coached the able swimmers in the deep end, in the hope they may excel in the school Swimming Gala, heaping glory upon his regime.
Eventually he remembered us and ambled back to our end, then began contemptuously barking orders from the edge of the pool, ordering us to 'move our arms about' and screaming "Not like that!" until he got bored and left us alone to amuse ourselves.
This is not the only reason that I cannot swim.
One hot, Summer afternoon, my father was cutting the huge lawn at the back of our house, when a wasp flew up his trouser leg and began repeatedly stinging him around his arse and associated frontal area.
Rather than drop the huge, baggy trousers (in which a wasp could make surprise attacks without fear of discovery) and release the creature, he hobbled/scampered not only into the house, but into a toilet to do this, even going so far as to lock the door behind him before he started.
I never once saw my father without a pair of trousers on, and even though we spent two weeks of every Summer with his sister in Brighton, any picnics on the beach were with him sitting on the pebbles wearing his trade-mark size 13 shoes, socks and shiny-seated, grey nylon office trousers.
He had an unspoken excuse for this, and it was whispered that his legs were in such a bad state having been broken in multiple places after a bomber-crash in WW2 that they would never publicly see the light of day again.
It is true that he did indeed carry out a daily ritual of bandaging both of his legs from ankle to knee, and a 'fresh' set of bandages were always hanging in one of the lesser bathrooms (we had four bathrooms) to dry ready for the next day. Two great six-foot strips of yellowing cloth, permanently there except for Christmas when it was his sister's turn to stay with us.
Being brought up with this, it didn't seem quite normal, but it was just part of life and was never spoken about, let alone questioned.
Anyway, a reluctance to wear swimming trunks rubbed off on me. How strange to go through your entire life and never once see your father's legs.