Taking a rest. Reading is like exercise to me: I have to stop to catch my breath sometimes, and I can tell when I’m really enjoying it, doing it well, because my pulse actually quickens, or seems to, anyway – or maybe I’m just thinking this because of the subject matter of the book I happen to have just put down. I glance up at the pink ceiling, and then out the window at the blank white sky. Yes, we’ve reached the time of blank white skies. Soon all of the leaves will have fallen (in our garden they are stubbornly hanging on, which at first was admirable but now feels desperate) and the whole world will be in black and white until March.
The smell of the Upper Reading Room makes me nostalgic. I used to come here when I was casually employed as a research assistant, and I can’t help thinking that, at least in terms of work, that was the most purpose-filled time of my life so far. I came here with such a clear sense of what I needed to accomplish. I flipped through books and old periodicals, trying to find forgotten short stories or columns or even just a mention, a review, a reference – something. I was always searching for something. What pleasurable, simple work. True, it was not my purpose, exactly, not my project, but just being part of it felt good. I know I glorify it – some of it was little more than mindless copying-down, photocopying, confirming, stuff a child could do. But all work is like that, made up as much of small bits as big. I just wish that I could figure out how to replicate this sense of serenity and trust in my own work. I guess the trouble now is that I’m almost wholly responsible for where it goes, which is a harder thing to negotiate. I have to make the decisions about what to look for, and then look for it, and then decide what it means when I find it – or don’t – and that takes some of the pleasure out of the looking, because there’s always a niggling sense of doubt. What if I’m wrong? What if this isn’t the right direction? What if this is purposeless work?
And anyway this, today, is illicit work: no one is paying me for it, or expecting me to do it. It’s invisible, which is what writing has become to me. I worry about this often nowadays: is it true labour if there’s no remuneration? Am I not just here playing in the library?
In Charles Sprawson’s Haunts of the Black Masseur, I read of the poet Rupert Brooke that, “When working at the Bodleian he would get up in his country cottage long before dawn and bathe as he walked down to Oxford in the streams among the Cumner [sic] hills once favoured by Clough.”
I think about these young white men, striding across the land (land they seem to “own” as soon as they step on to it, whether or not they actually own it), suddenly having an urge, stripping down, getting wet, communing with nature: “bathing”. I think: to read about the (romantic) history of swimming, as rendered by Sprawson, is fascinating enough, but it doesn’t really get close to why I find it such a compelling subject. True, I’ve been known to plunge semi-impulsively into bodies of water – ice-melt lakes in the Sierras during camping trips, oceans, rivers, reservoirs – but I don’t have quite the same reverence for these encounters that I do for the highly regulated experience of going to the pool. For me immersion is not the same thing as swimming, exactly, though there’s obviously shared territory there. And surely man-made pool environments are as varied and compelling as the ponds and streams of the British countryside. Even ugly, reeking, creaking municipal buildings have their own particular charm. If nothing else the inhabitants of these environments invite interest: here the elderly, the very young, the fit, the fat, the disabled, the old pros, the just-learnings, are all united by a desire to transcend the apparent limitations of the human body. They’re here to float, to breathe. This is where the fizz of excitement is, to me. Who are these people, how have they come to be here, what brings them back, again and again and again, repeating the same old routine in the same old ugly, reeking, creaking building?
The other thing, if I’m honest, is that sometimes the nature-ness of nature alarms me. The thought of fish or reeds brushing up against me as I swim makes me shudder. To read some of Roger Deakin’s accounts in his “swimmer’s journey through Britain” is a difficult exercise: “Reaching down, I felt soft mud and ancient fallen branches, and sensed giant pike and eels”.
Perhaps mine is a “girly” reaction: perhaps I need to man up, strip down, learn to happily glide “downstream, brushed by fronds of water crowfoot that gave cover to trout”. But I remember, as a child, paddling a surfboard across a saltwater pond that had formed near our local beach, and feeling the rush of a scaly fish-like creature moving against my submerged arm, and screaming, my body rigid on the board. My father came to the edge of the water with something like concern on his face. “A fish!” I wailed at him. “Help! There’s a fish!” – and it wasn’t so much the presence of the fish (I wasn’t afraid of it in a conventional way, I wasn’t worried about what it might do to me) as the thought of the encounter, a visceral memory playing over and over again – the way it slithered, the way it was unlike me. My father wandered away, down the beach again, bemused, and I paddled frantically to the sand and pulled the board out of the water. I don’t much like the squishiness of riverbed beneath my feet, either – you never know what you might encounter. I remember walking in the shallow part of a river near a friend’s house and treading on a dead fish; there went the same shiver of unknown fear down my back, the same sense of the body of water as haunted.
For swimming “in the wild”, I prefer the ocean, my native habitat, the kind of open water with which, growing up on the California coast, I’m most intimately acquainted – but I respect it greatly, its fickleness, its waves and tides, and I’m not sure I can ever be a swimmer in the sea in the same way that I’m a swimmer in a pool. In the ocean I’m just briefly part of something much bigger. I’m intensely aware of the danger, and therefore of my self in relation to that danger. I’m treading lightly, paying constant attention to my (physical and emotional) limits. It’s good, it’s important, but it’s different. (Though maybe not so different: what did I say I liked so well about the pool? Partly the limits, the controls…)
While the pool allows, even invites, intellectual wanderings, at the same time it prevents the wanderer from losing his way. However far his excursions may take him, the simplicity of the architectural object enables him to pick up the thread where he left it, leaving no room for confusion, bombast, or contrivedness. The architectural part – the artifact – is, from the outset, easy to define whereas its contents – the natural part – are highly complex. The container encloses but also retains, holds together, and keeps from spilling. While stirring the imagination, it also prevents it from rambling; the container both kindles and quenches.
(From Thomas A P Van Leeuwen’s The Springboard in the Pond: An Intimate History of the Swimming Pool)
I stay in the library until seven. I could go on like this, probably for hours, but I’m ravenous, and at the back of my mind I’m aware of the cold ride home I have ahead of me, which diminishes the pleasure of staying here somewhat. Darkness fell fast at about 4 o’clock. About an hour ago the library began emptying, but there are still quite a few of us here, at our little desks. I’d forgotten how nice the unspoken, unacknowledged camaraderie of this is, and, though perhaps just because this is what I’ve spent the last few hours reading about, suddenly liken it in my mind to the unspoken, unacknowledged camaraderie of swimming laps. Everyone’s there for the same purpose, putting the work (or the play) in. It’s similar here. We look up every once in awhile and almost catch each other’s eyes, but mostly we’re in our own weird little universes. Sometimes it’s enough just to be surrounded by others, to be near human bodies.
So I dread the exit: the sudden imposition of real life, whatever that is, the cold air, the struggle with my bike lock, the stop at the grocery store, the nagging yelps of the self-checkout machine: “Unexpected item in bagging area. Please insert your card into the chip and pin machine. Please take your items. Please take your items. Please take your items.”
The other problem is that, once I got going, I was really enjoying my work this afternoon, and this seems to happen rarely enough that I don’t want to let it go. But you have to – otherwise you burn out. You have to stop, and take a break, and then come back to it. That’s the only way it works. So out I go.