Night swimming

Malachy relates a wild dip Gunglesund - Fair Isle's swimming pool


It was around 8.30 on Monday evening. The light outside was beginning to fade, though the day had been bright and the sun was still lingering. A cold breeze was blowing from the northwest.

"Let’s go swimming," I said.

I finished reading Roger Deakin’s Waterlog just a few weeks ago, and I have been quietly harbouring a desire to get out and do some 'wild swimming' myself since then. But that desire never actually transformed itself into action until that moment.

This is not to say that I have never swum 'wild' before of course. Growing up in Shetland inevitably means sporadic jaunts to beautiful sandy beaches, lapped seductively by waves that sting and bite at your legs when you dare to venture in. On hot days children splash and play in the sea, emerging blue, like tiny wet smurfs. They seem somehow resistant to the pain of the water; or perhaps they are just more stupid than adults.

"Okay," my girlfriend replied, rather unexpectedly.

And that was that. I pulled my swimming shorts on underneath my clothes while Rachel hunted out the wetsuit that I didn’t even know she owned, and we left the house before wiser thoughts set in.

The swimming pool in Fair Isle is called Gunglesund. It is a large rock pool, 15 or 20 metres long and more than five feet deep in places. The water is remarkably clean and clear, and while, on a sunny day, the temperature can certainly rise to a tolerable level, at 8.45 in the evening, after a spell of poor weather, tolerable is certainly not an appropriate description.

Standing by the edge in my shorts, I began to regret the entire venture. And as I inched my way gradually into the pool, my regrets grew. With every step, another part of my body began screaming out in pain, begging me to get out and put my clothes back on.

The general advice in these circumstances is just to dive in and get the shock over with. I disagree.

The pain was inducing involuntary facial contortions from me, and hysterical laughter from my girlfriend in response, but allowing numbness to gradually creep up my body was certainly preferable to throwing myself in – an act of recklessness that would, no doubt, have resulted in heart failure.

Eventually I was in – swimming, after a fashion. But although the lack of feeling had fooled my body into thinking it was okay, I was acutely aware of the sheer effort that was required to fight the cold. My breaths were heavy and difficult, punctuated by shuddering, and I could already feel the muscles in my arms and legs beginning to ache.

I thought suddenly about how it must feel to fall into the North Sea from a boat. The experience would be overwhelming in every sense. In the past, fishermen would generally not learn to swim. It was better to go quickly, they thought, than to try to fight it.

But there was something addictive about the feeling of being immersed in the cold. As I swam round and round the pool in circles I was reluctant to stop. Gradually I became aware of things other than my body again: of the sea moving against the rocks, just a few metres away, of the full moon, and of the lighthouse flashing just around the corner.

But that was enough. After five minutes or so, something in me said stop. I climbed out over the sharp, awkward rocks to where our towels were, and we stood there drying ourselves, shivering and light-headed in the darkness of the evening.

Malachy Tallack is 26 and lives in Fair Isle. He is a singer-songwriter, journalist, and editor of the magazine Shetland Life.
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The Women's March against Trump matters – but only if we keep fighting

We won’t win the battle for progressive ideas if we don’t battle in the first place.

Arron Banks, UKIP-funder, Brexit cheerleader and Gibraltar-based insurance salesman, took time out from Trump's inauguration to tweet me about my role in tomorrow's Women’s March Conservative values are in the ascendancy worldwide. Thankfully your values are finished. . . good”.

Just what about the idea of women and men marching for human rights causes such ill will? The sense it is somehow cheeky to say we will champion equality whoever is in office in America or around the world. After all, if progressives like me have lost the battle of ideas, what difference does it make whether we are marching, holding meetings or just moaning on the internet?

The only anti-democratic perspective is to argue that when someone has lost the argument they have to stop making one. When political parties lose elections they reflect, they listen, they learn but if they stand for something, they don’t disband. The same is true, now, for the broader context. We should not dismiss the necessity to learn, to listen, to reflect on the rise of Trump – or indeed reflect on the rise of the right in the UK  but reject the idea that we have to take a vow of silence if we want to win power again.

To march is not to ignore the challenges progressives face. It is to start to ask what are we prepared to do about it.

Historically, conservatives have had no such qualms about regrouping and remaining steadfast in the confidence they have something worth saying. In contrast, the left has always been good at absolving itself of the need to renew.

We spend our time seeking the perfect candidates, the perfect policy, the perfect campaign, as a precondition for action. It justifies doing nothing except sitting on the sidelines bemoaning the state of society.

We also seem to think that changing the world should be easier than reality suggests. The backlash we are now seeing against progressive policies was inevitable once we appeared to take these gains for granted and became arrogant and exclusive about the inevitability of our worldview. Our values demand the rebalancing of power, whether economic, social or cultural, and that means challenging those who currently have it. We may believe that a more equal world is one in which more will thrive, but that doesn’t mean those with entrenched privilege will give up their favoured status without a fight or that the public should express perpetual gratitude for our efforts via the ballot box either.  

Amongst the conferences, tweets and general rumblings there seem three schools of thought about what to do next. The first is Marxist  as in Groucho revisionism: to rise again we must water down our principles to accommodate where we believe the centre ground of politics to now be. Tone down our ideals in the hope that by such acquiescence we can eventually win back public support for our brand – if not our purpose. The very essence of a hollow victory.

The second is to stick to our guns and stick our heads in the sand, believing that eventually, when World War Three breaks out, the public will come grovelling back to us. To luxuriate in an unwillingness to see we are losing not just elected offices but the fight for our shared future.

But what if there really was a third way? It's not going to be easy, and it requires more than a hashtag or funny t-shirt. It’s about picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves down and starting to renew our call to arms in a way that makes sense for the modern world.

For the avoidance of doubt, if we march tomorrow and then go home satisfied we have made our point then we may as well not have marched at all. But if we march and continue to organise out of the networks we make, well, then that’s worth a Saturday in the cold. After all, we won’t win the battle of ideas, if we don’t battle.

We do have to change the way we work. We do have to have the courage not to live in our echo chambers alone. To go with respect and humility to debate and discuss the future of our communities and of our country.

And we have to come together to show there is a willingness not to ask a few brave souls to do that on their own. Not just at election times, but every day and in every corner of Britain, no matter how difficult it may feel.

Saturday is one part of that process of finding others willing not just to walk a mile with a placard, but to put in the hard yards to win the argument again for progressive values and vision. Maybe no one will show up. Maybe not many will keep going. But whilst there are folk with faith in each other, and in that alternative future, they’ll find a friend in me ready to work with them and will them on  and then Mr Banks really should be worried.