Going into the garden at 6am, seeing the sky studded with stars although the air was mild, and thinking “It’s going to be a glorious day”. Hearing the birds yelling their heads off as I walk towards the Lido at 7am. Seeing the shallow end lit and decorated like a stage set ready for the players as I come in through the winter entrance at the deep end. Batch in the café where I go to drop off my ridiculously large balloon hat, making coffee as though it were a normal day.
Emma, Carl, Batch and James all present and correct ready for duty at 7.15. Batch and Carl to meet and greet, James on the kiosk, Emma sweetly offering to man the bag drop. The desperate call for SLSC volunteers to help create a substitute changing tent after the marquee suppliers failed to deliver, and the small crowd behind the café subsequently working away against the clock to cobble together a tent as the sky lightens and, in ones and twos, the first competitors start to arrive. Carl and Batch, armed with programmes, cheery and willing on the gate. The usual small scramble to find the float as the kiosk opens, and the relief as Jenny reveals it’s locked in the lifeguards’ safe. The dozens of people who report to me for duty because of my “Official” anorak and have to be directed to Giles for the wetside briefing. Despite this, the panic of trying to find enough swim marshalls for the first races, everyone having seemingly vanished mysteriously or else been sucked into other dimensions, possibly swimming ones.
The Public, swimmers and spectators, turning up, first in a trickle, then in a flood. Keeping them moving, keeping them from parking themselves right where people need to walk, keeping them from building enormous trip hazard piles of bags in the middle of the main walkways, in front of the results board, in front of the race board, in front of the swimmers’ funnel, anywhere in fact except where they should be, in the bag drop. Having to move, and keep moving, various groups who set up small encampments in various important areas which need to be kept clear, some of which camps are large and complex enough to have their own street plan, their own economy, and for all I know their own language and currency too. Eventually I gave up on the bag drop and directed them all to the back of the grandstand, which I unilaterally designated a sort of swimmers’ reservation, and which in future years we may have to set up as a small campsite, possibly with a toilet block and showers and preallocated pitches which you can pay for in advance. (I’m joking, but not by much. It’s amazing how territorial groups get when they’re advancing into what the prehistoric lizardoid part of their brains regards as alien territory. The urge to find a bit of free ground and circle the waggons is a very ancient one, even if you do have a smartphone, a camp chair and a thermos and the ground in question is merely a bit of gritty South London concrete which will only be yours until 4pm.)
The feeling of almost surreal tiredness as the day wears on. Going into the marquee and wondering why the hell nobody is drinking, then realising that it’s only ten am, despite my impression that the day’s been going on for ever. Feeling as though my entire job consists of telling people “You can’t leave that there” and emptying bins. Why do people chuck their paper cups on the ground when there is a bin within three feet? Why?? WHY?!? Getting to two pm and thinking that I mustn’t sit down, or I’ll never get up again.
Being in the middle of answering somebody’s mundane question, probably about where the toilets are, and suddenly hearing the choir ring out from the grandstand like angels out of heaven, officially opening the day. Standing stock still and listening, wonderstruck, and seeing from the expressions of those around me that they are wonderstruck too. The amazing feeling, about 11am, when the sun is blazing down and everyone’s having fun and the races are running like clockwork and suddenly everyone’s grinning like a loon. Passing Kate coming one way from the café as I head the other way to the grandstand and wordlessly high-fiving one another. The amazing wetside running an eight-participant race approximately once every two minutes for four hours without a single hitch. The bag carriers shuttling two and fro like clockwork, clothes from the swimmers as they go into the water, clothes to the swimmers as they come out, back again, and repeat, hour after hour and still with smiles on their faces. Emma tireless and grinning on the bag drop all the livelong day, may the lord bless her forever. The cafe staff endlessly cheerful, providing tea on demand and soup and bread to keep weary volunteers going. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? And who looks after those who are looking after everything else? Yesterday it was Kate and Carol and their team, and we could not have done it without them. All the lovely people, working like dogs to keep our visitors happy, like very well-trained and responsible and smiley dogs with a mission to make the day go with a swing.
And the people. Oh, the people, all the lovely people! All the swimmers with smiles on their faces. The grins of the lady who wanted a replacement swimmer for their relay team and the lady who wanted to relay, after I united them via the miraculous medium of shouting “Does anyone want to swim in a RELAY?” over the tannoy to a site packed with seven hundred swimmers. The lovely serendipity of being right outside a cubicle with a spare costume in my swim bag when the lady inside shouted “Help, I’ve forgotten my costume!” All the friends, people I saw yesterday, people I haven’t seen for months. So many smiles and hugs and so much laughter. Sue in a cerulean poncho covered with clouds, Lucy elegant in a coat the colour of twilight, both dressed for the choir with its theme of blue: blue as the pool like a slab of heaven, blue as the sky under the swimming-god-granted sunshine. (I never did find out what the choir was called. The Big Blue? Fifty Shades of Blue? Blue in a Good Way?) The jokes: stupid jokes and funny jokes and just plain “We’re having such a good time, let’s find something to laugh about” jokes. The sense of being part of something larger than myself: the wonderful human machine of the championships, the family of South London Swimming Club, the bigger family of cold water swimmers. The happiness and comradeship and wonderful exhaustion of a day well, so very well spent.
Oh, and there was some swimming as well. I’ll tell you about that tomorrow.
Photo courtesy of Gail Phinn McLean.