Divers - Joanna Newsom
My mother was born in 1917 in Wanstead, Essex. She was one of seven brothers and sisters, but was thought not to be as clever as the others until she was diagnosed with bad hearing when she was around fourteen, which explained her below average class results, although her brothers and sisters never got out of the habit of thinking her a little dim. She made up for it by excelling in sport, as much as one could in those days if you were a young woman. Her big thing was swimming and diving.
Back in 1933, in Wanstead High School, when the swimming gala came round, the girls could compete at backstroke and the sedate breast stroke, but crawl, or as it was known, "free style", was forbidden to them because it was "ungainly" and was the sole preserve of the boys. Instead, the girls swam underwater, one at a time, (if more than one started drowning it could mean the lifeguards were overstretched!) and this year my mother was one of the two favourites, the other being one Jenny Smith. Up until the day of the gala, the record was around 20 yards - approximately two thirds of a length of the Olympic size pool (33 and a third yards in those days), and my mum knew from her practice she could do a full length, so she reckoned she had it in the bag. But Jenny Smith swam before her, and had everyone on their feet gasping as she completed a length, turned underwater and got half way through a second length before surfacing, spluttering. Someone actually dived in to help her get out, but she pushed them away and climbed the ladder herself, marked at 45 yards. Mum's turn, off she went, swimming deep. The hardest thing to do on an underwater swim in one of those pools, she told me, was to stay under for the turn at the end of the first length, as it was the shallow end. Once you had done that it was a matter of staying deep and holding your breath as long as you could as you swam, stroke after stroke, knowing that you were always only stroke form the surface if you wanted it. Which meant that you could always just push yourself for just one more stroke, and then another and so on. She turned, then had the problem that she couldn't tell where the half way mark was, so she realised she had to get close to the end of the second length to be sure, which she did. Then she thought, okay it's only two strokes to touch it, but she was till deep so she put in a second turn and pushed off into her third length. On the surface, there was bedlam, everyone on their feet yelling "shall we save her?" and "is she alright?" and some cheering her on, the jocks following her along the edge ready to pull her out at any moment. She came up at 78 yards, a school record that has never been broken. And that is how girls got to swim free style at Wanstead High!
I know that because after that they banned the underwater swimming as "too dangerous" and switched to the crawl after all.
She also excelled at diving and made one of the two national under 17 women's diving squads, the one based in London (the other was in Manchester), but sadly her father died and in those days part of the mourning process, especially for girls, was that you gave up sport for a three or four months, after which time she was too far behind and couldn't catch up with her peers. She always told me that a girl in her group who wasn't as good as her made the UK Olympic team in 1936, so she always wondered what could have been but was never bitter about it.
When I was a kid in Bahrain, she was still a heck of a swimmer, but as she got older , a series of ear operations meant that she used to have to stuff one ear with wads of cotton wool to keep out the water, and wear a tight bathing cap. Sometimes, water would get into the ear while she was under, and she'd lose all sense of direction and be swimming down, deeper and deeper, into the warm Gulf water, shot through with sunlight, until I'd swim quickly down, tap her on the shoulder, point upwards and lead her to the surface. When she got older, into her early nineties and finally finishing in a one room bedsit in a nursing home after a succession of strokes, her strength and enthusiasm slowly faded away, as though she were swimming down into the darkening blue, down, down, and I just couldn't ever quite get deep enough to show her the way back.
".....and how do you choose your form? how do you choose your name? How do you choose your life? how do you choose the time you must exhale and kick and rise?"..........