On Swimming and Swimming Pools

`Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer as Hero’ by Charles Sprawson (Vintage, 1993) is widely regarded as the best account of the culture and environment of swimming written in modern times. The range of references in the book is impressive. Shelley, Byron, Yukio Mishima (with whom the book ends), and then an historic overview, from the views of the Romans into modern times of the benefits, or ills, of taking to the waters.

Reading the book got me thinking about the places I’ve swum in, and which were the most memorable. I did swim in the Baltic once, just near Helsinki, and remember it not so much for the location (near an island on which there was, I think, an old fort) but the way in which because of the water currents and the strength of the waves it was far more challenging than just doing lengths even in an outside pool linked to the sea. You swim with a sense of vulnerability and danger in places like this, because you know you are linked to the great mass of water that covers the rest of the world. An amazing, intimidating and humbling thought.

The pools in Sydney were pretty magnificent – Victoria Park outside where I swum most days going to or from the university; the open air pool by Luna Park on the north side; the one with salty sea water on Bondi beech (Iceberg?). In Canberra, when it is open (which is about half the year) the very fine Manuka swimming pool has a lovely faded feel about it, with these perpetually empty spectator seats around what was, in my experience, the invariably empty water. I did swim in the Collins Bay water once – not too petrified by the idea of sharks swooping in.

For the rest, the hotel pools in China or Hong Kong or Taiwan are often fun. There’s the Tombraider kind of effort in the basement of the Hyatt in Wangfujing. City centre pools in such a dry city though are a real luxury. The School of Governance in the north east of the city where I sometimes stay at the guesthouse has what it advertises as an Olympic Sized pool (as far as I know, almost all the pools in Sydney make that ranking!) where an attendant once demanded when I was getting in the water to see my `swimming certificate’. I said I was living in Sydney, and for some reason that sufficed and he left me alone.  The Friendship Hotel has a much older, historic pool too, built for the Soviet experts in the 1950s before they all got ordered back home.

European pools are not so dramatic, and the British ones I use are utilitarian. I haven’t swum in the sea water around the Kentish coast for ages. Perhaps I should. When you swim, Sprawson makes clear, you get the chance to think. Pools are great thinking places – as long as some aspiring Olypiad isn’t bearing down on you. He mentions the great erotic print by Hokusai of the girl and the octopus. I don’t know if I think about things like that when I swim. But I certainly do think.


Hokusai octopus woman

Random Associations. Or serendipity.

I went to the Garage coffee place in Canterbury yesterday, to read the final few pages of Freud’s `Introductory Lectures of Psychoanalysis.’ A friend had recently taken me around the Freud Museum in North London, and that had inspired the desire to know a bit more than the few cursory looks I had taken over Freud’s works in the last three decades. Fortuitously, I had Freud’s works in English in the Penguin paperback version on my shelf, and the first volume seemed a good place to start.

The key points Freud makes in these lectures delivered during the First World War in Vienna is about the orderliness of the inner world of people, the ways in which there is an economy between conscious and unconscious forces, and the kinds of symbolic grammar that can be applied, to impose a kind of rational sense on all of this. These texts are a hundred years old now, amazingly, but one still reads them with a sense of excitement that here, at last, was someone trying to conquer the world under the waking world. It is all the more extraordinary that Freud does it with such preternatural calm!

This reading is on the back of re-reading Proust’s great `Remembrance of Things Past’. I’d waded through this more as a feat to just say I’d done it than with any real comprehension in the early 1980s, and the sole memory I had of that was the way that Proust’s endless sentences with their sub clauses and sub-sub-sub clauses weave their way in and out of your consciousness. This reading, with thirty years of experience and life intervening, was much richer and more enjoyable. The question of conquering time and bringing the past into the present so that it is ever-present, really resonated with the things that Freud was writing about. In some senses, the past is always alive, and lives in the memory, ignited by things like smells, sights, things that happen through the day that make our waking lives a kind of palimpsest of different times and different intensities of experience.

While I was reading in the Garage café, an extraordinary thing happened. A song came on the iPlayer. I vaguely remembered it, but not exactly. So I swallowed my pride and got up and asked the barista what the name of the piece was. `Different Drums’ he said, by the Stone Poneys. I checked. From 1967, the year of my birth. So not new! But I then remembered how I had come across it before. When I was working in Beijing as a diplomat in about 2000, I woke up in the China World apartments we were living in then, on one of these foggy city mornings, and this music was stuck in my head, which hung there for days. A few bars of it came back to me over the years, from time to time, but I thought it was just something I had dreamed up. But no! In 2018, on a sunny June Sunday morning, I learn this is a late 1960s pop song I have no recollection of ever having heard (but must have) or knowing about. Freud, or Proust, in practice, I guess. Not so sure what this says about my psychology though – the song itself seems a short, sharp complaint about how no-one seems to understand anyone else!

Books, Sites, Sights, and Other Things

So this is an experiment. I have posted many things on Facebook, and other sites, but I wanted somewhere a bit more durable to put up reviews, and other writings, some related to China, and some to other areas.

I write mostly about China, and am Professor of Chinese Studies and Director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College, London. But all things have a link with China, in some ways, and therefore my interests stray according to what books happen before me, or what places I visit and people I speak to. So this blog will be an attempt to write about some of these things. Nine_Dragons_Scroll

Without neurotic people, most great art would never have been produced – Marcel Proust