Days of sunshine and grace: John Pilger remembers an Australian swimming legend

Sep was tall, handsome and languid, with a laconic half-smile like Errol Flynn's. 

The great American athlete John Carlos once described "those people of grace who raise sport to something more than a game". Carlos and Tommie Smith had stood with their black-gloved fists held high on the winners' podium at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, damning racism and poverty. They were men of grace. Sep was very different, but he had the grace.

Sep died the other day. He was 88, but I imagine him only as a dashing figure. Tall and languid, with a laconic half-smile like Errol Flynn's, he would appear on Bondi Beach dressed in fashionable white bathing trunks and navigator sunglasses and surrounded by bikini-clad beauties, one of whom (usually Lexie) would apply his favourite coconut oil. And when the moment was right, he would dive from the perilous bogie hole into the fist of a wave as it raced towards the cliffs, then crest it before it struck the rocks. An accredited legend of North Bondi Surf Life Saving Club, he was one of the greatest surf swimmers and swimming coaches Australia has produced. As someone wrote, he was "Don Bradman's equivalent in the water".

I knew about Sep from a very early age because we had both attended Wellington Street School. He and other Bondi lifesavers had taken part in a courageous mass rescue of a kind that happened when the first non-swimming immigrants arrived in Australia and embraced the surf and its dangers. My headmaster had pinned up newspaper pictures in which Sep wore his signature shades. He looked good.

To appreciate Sep, you need to glimpse Australia in the 1940s and 1950s. Apart from enclaves of old money, Sydney was a poor city and Bondi, where I grew up, had faithful copies of the back-to-back houses of northern England which ensured that the diamond light of the great south land seldom intruded. In the long, hot, humid summers men wore serge suits, and an evangelical primness was upheld. But the beach was different. An English visitor, one Egbert T Russell, noted in 1910 that "one of the strangest features of Sydney surf bathing to the stranger is the casualness of the sexes on the beaches. They are partially naked, but not so unashamed as to notice the fact." Swimming up and down the green pyramids of the South Pacific, eyes half closed from the salt spray, was the greatest fun of all.

On Saturday mornings, Sep would sit on his coach's throne on whitewashed rocks overlooking Bondi's ocean baths. His female entourage would strap kerosene cans to the backs of the youngest kids - water wings had yet to be invented - and put the rest of us into flippers. Sep was the first to do this. He later said that the great American coach Bob Kiphuth, who reputedly could not swim a stroke, had told him his secret: "Ninety per cent personality and 10 per cent ability." What I remember was patience and kindness, the antithesis of the brutality that was to consume so much of sport in the years ahead. In 1952, Sep was appointed an Olympic coach and in the same year he married Lexie, who was famous for wearing one of the first ultra-brief bikinis, which she made herself out of towelling. She was also brave, diving with Sep off the bogie hole. Four years later, at the Melbourne Olympics, Australian swimmers won eight gold medals. You could spot the freestyle that Sep taught or inspired. When the elbow lifted, the fingers skimmed over the surface of the water. The result was shoulder power rather than arm movement. "Get that right and you'll swim like a dolphin," he said to me. The day I got it right, I managed a second to Murray Rose, who would go on to become an Olympian. We were 11 years old at the time, and Murray finished almost a pool length ahead, but it gave me a story for life. Thereafter I graduated to any pool I could find all over the world.

My Michelin-starred best pool on earth, as regular readers will know, is the North Sydney wonder pool, which lies spectacularly beneath the Sydney Harbour Bridge across from the other-worldly Opera House. Built in the 1930s and adorned with art-deco dolphins and frogs, it is known as the wonder pool because no fewer than 86 world records have been broken there, itself a world record. Once, a sculler and a swimmer raced over its 50 metres and the swimmer won. Those who knew about swimming cleaned out the bookies.

Speaking of bookies, Sep was also celebrated as an illegal SP bookie. SP meant starting price and in horse-race-crazed Australia, the pre-Tote bookie was as important as your mother. He received supplicants with bad watches and silver cufflinks, he knew secrets and he even paid out. I suspect my father dealt with Sep on urgent non-swimming matters during the racing season. They both drank at Billy the Pig's and might have stepped out of Damon Runyon - my dad in his snap brim hat, Sep with his shades and dolls. I would say they both had the grace.

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 13 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The facade cracks

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times