I feel atavistic and pantheistic. I feel touched by what they could have, maybe did call the divine wind. Though only my fingers and eyes move here, a wind, no, a storm is blowing through me. I feel wracked, my soul exposed and blown to shreds. Around my head a cloud of words whirls, I can still taste the colours that no-one has ever named. The ocean took me, and now the words take me. The world feels one second slow, not synced to your perception. They call it seeing beyond the veil and they are wrong. It really means that I can see through the veil, but that you are on one side of the veil and I am on the far side, and over here everything is clear. I have mainlined the ocean and the night into my blood and my lungs and my eyes.
Fifteen years ago, in a weekend shop in one of the lesser known London Sunday markets, I was in no small way surprised to discover myself hanging on a wall.
A plaster cast of a 2000 year old fragment of Grecian sculpture, an eye, a nose, a closed mouth. A replica of an ancient broken statue of who knows who and what was the best image or representation of myself I’d ever seen. I was rocked to recognise such a perfect externalised echo of who I was, no mirror had ever been so clear. I was looking at myself, looking at how I was in the world, how I interfaced with the world. I saw. Some people hear the world, some listen, some feel. Some talk. Some look.
I had to, have to, see to understand. Not looking, seeing. And to see I have to be part. I can’t understand the ocean by looking at it from the shore. I have to see it from inside. From inside myself and inside the sea.
Later I taught myself to see and capture some of what I saw in a moderate photographic skill. But photography is flawed. I can use it to show you some things as I see them but there are other things it is literally unable to capture. But beyond the photographs, I taught myself something else.
I taught myself to use the words that the plaster cast of ancient me didn’t have, the plaster ancient me whose mouth was closed. And while the taught and learned words are rarely adequate or sufficient, this one thing I capture as best I see it: I see the sea. In my pictures, I occasionally capture a shadow of the sea I know. But not all. Never all. It’s not possible to capture it all. The words are more. The photos are wallpaper, the words are paradoxical truth. Anyone who believes a photograph is worth a thousand words is impoverished and has been shortchanged. Cameras cannot capture dark, they are tools of light. At best, they merely frame the dark, try to put it in a box. The washed-out almost-colours of the sea at night are invisible and impossible to any camera. Cameras misdirect. They add time to try to fill in the gaps in perception to human eyes and minds. Tramore Bay at night as seen by camera, is not the Tramore bay at night seen by my eyes.
The words are the truth, the photograph is not.
When I say that you absolutely should only swim in groups, that is the truth.
When I say that unless you swim by yourself you will never discover the ultimate freedom of the sea, and yourself, that is also the truth.
Only the sea. Lakes and river and pools are small and pale. They are shadows and revenants. They are not big enough to fill me. I need an ocean to pour into me.
I was in Tramore, shooting a photograph for a friend, English Channel swimmer Bernard Lynch. Bernard and English Channel swimmer Robin Rose of San Francisco had recently inspired my swimming. English Channel swimmers is a community, a family.
I was on the prom, waiting for the right light. The tide was the highest of the year, and there was no wind. I took my photos, and watched the sea, the undisturbed groundswell hitting the prom wall, and reflecting back out to sea, passing through the incoming waves, causing brief clear doubling of peaks.
Sea swimmers, ocean swimmers, cannot look at the sea without craving. The hunger for that perfect evening surface rose up in me. I got my right light, and then I waited for the night and no light.
An hour after sunset and there was no-one at the Guillamene. No cars in the car-park, no walkers, no dippers. Into the perfect high tide I dove, the actinic green of my LED light, always carried in my swim box against such need hidden on the goggle straps behind my head.
I swam toward Tramore, the prom where I’d been now two kilometers away, the distant lights casting tungsten-orange reflections on the water in the distance, far enough away not to destroy my night vision.
A night swim on a different night
I turned back and swam South, away from any artificial light. South is the swimmer’s direction. On the distant horizon a point of light, an entire ship approaching the estuary ten miles east compressed to a single point. Eastwards over Brownstown Head and the far side of the wide bay the full Moon had risen but was wreathed in increasingly heavier cloud. Overhead the clouds concealed the stars.
And facing away from the artificial lights of town, westwards I could see the black silhouette of the cliffs. The grey of the sea surface, the other darker grey of the depths, the pale but dark grey of striated clouds. East I could see the umbra of Brownstown, the blue grey of the sky below the clouds. The umber of the sky above and below the clouds occluded the moon, while the penumbra of the Moon against the clouds hinted of burnt sienna and ochre, which I could feel but only see later when I used my camera to capture.
I looked down. Were it not for the inconvenience of breathing, I would never have looked up. I watched the not-pink of my hands and forearms pierce the water. I watched the night swimmer’s treasure. The bio-luminescence coruscated, sparks and fireflies flared while escaping the cavitation of my hands into the freedom of my passage, and I painted a subtle fading light through the water.
I stopped, treaded water, and looked down. Then I almost gasped, and I wept. Gently, briefly, the slight tears never reaching into my goggles. Not with sadness, not with memory, but with the overwhelming beauty of the night and the water. For in the depths, the stars. An effulgent brilliant Deep Field of galaxies and suns. Constellations, coronas, auroras and nebulae spun and scintillated. Aeons passed. Supernovae flared, entire superclusters collided and faded. It was entirely mine, transient and eternal. I was desperate to shout and say “look, look here, look at my treasure, share it with me” though my voice would not have carried even to the far empty shore. I looked down and I saw the entire Universe.
Headlights ignited directly across in the car park, aiming out where I was, blinding me to the cosmos beneath the surface. There is no picture, no possible image except what resides in my memory, shining and eternal.
I am a lone swimmer. Alone swimmer. And in those moments I shed whatever remaining angst I felt about solitary solo swimming and knew that I had come into my full inheritance. The sea belongs to me, as I belong to it.
For he comes, the human child,
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than he can understand.- WB Yeats
I’ll tell you a secret. They say you should always fear the sea. I do not. I do not think you can fear what you love.
The only word in the English language that reads the same forward and backward, right side up and upside down…is SWIMS.
I am backwards and upside down, and I am right side up and going forward.