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.
Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.