Swimming and Seeing

John Berger finds wider ripples of thought in his local pool.

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A good many people have their favourite bars where they like to meet friends and share a drink. I prefer drinking with friends at home. But I do have my favourite municipal swimming pools, where I go to swim up and down at my own pace, crossing other swimmers whom I don’t know, although we exchange glances and sometimes smiles.

Such pools have nothing in common with the private swimming pools of the well-off, or with the luxury pools of the very rich, who today are catastrophically buying up the future of the very planet on which we live.

The wearing of bathing caps is obligatory. As is a shower with shampoo before diving or stepping down a corner ladder into the pool. I dive and, today, as I swim my first strokes under water, I have the sensation of having entered another timescale, somewhat similar to the feeling a child may have at home when he decides to go from one floor to another.

As swimmers we share a kind of egalitarian anonymity. No shoes, no marks of rank, just our swimming costumes. If you accidentally touch another swimmer while passing him or her, you offer an apology. The limitless cruelty towards others like ourselves, the cruelty of which we are capable when we are regimented and indoctrinated, is difficult to imagine here in Paris as you turn to swim your twentieth length.

The outside walls and the flat roof of the municipal pool are of glass. So from the water you can see the surrounding buildings and the sky. To the west there is a slope of grass at the top of which grows a large, tall silver-maple tree. I watch this tree as I swim on my side.

The overall form of the tree with its many upward-thrusting branches is like the shape of any one of its leaves. (This is more or less evident for most varieties of tree.) The maple leaf is pinnate-shaped – reminiscent of a feather. (The Latin for “feather” is pinna.) The face of the leaf is a salad green; its back is a greenish silver. The inscribed destiny of the maple is to be pinnate.

I decide to make a drawing of it as soon as I get out of the pool: a sketch of the whole tree and on the same page a close-up drawing of one of its leaves (see below). Like this, I say to myself, still swimming, it will refer in some way to the maple’s genetic code. It’ll be a kind of text of a silver maple tree.

Such texts belong to a wordless language which we have been reading since early childhood, but which I cannot name.

Later I swim on my back and look up at the sky through the framed glass roof. A vivid blue with white cirrus clouds at an altitude, I’d guess, of about 5,000 metres. (The Latin for “curl” is cirrus.) The curls slowly shift, join, separate as the clouds drift in the wind. I can measure their drift thanks to the roof frame; otherwise it would be hard to notice it.

The movement of the curls apparently comes from inside the body of each cloud, not from an applied pressure; you think of the movements of a sleeping body.

This is probably why I stop swimming, and put my hands behind my head and float. My big toes just break through the surface. The water below holds me.

The longer I gaze at the curls the more they make me think of wordless stories, wordless stories like the stories fingers may tell, but in fact here stories told by minuscule ice crystals in the silence of the blue.

Yesterday I read in the press that 20 Palestinians in their homes were blown to pieces in Gaza, that the US has covertly despatched 300 more troops to Iraq to defend its interest in the oil refineries, that James Foley, an American journalist held hostage by Isis, was filmed during the ritual of his execution by beheading, and that 35 illegal immigrants from Afghanistan, men, women and children, were found suffocating in a shipping container on a freighter that had just crossed the North Sea to dock in London.

The cirrus is drifting northwards towards the deep end of the pool. Afloat on my back, motionless, I watch it and chart with my eyes the pattern of its undulations.

Then the assurance the sight offers changes. It takes me time to understand how. Slowly the change becomes evident and the assurance I receive becomes deeper. The curls of the white cirrus are observing a man afloat on his back with his hands behind his head. I’m no longer observing them, they are observing me. 

John Berger first became a critic for the New Statesman in 1951. He recently published his “Collected Poems”, available from Smokestack Books (£8.95)

This article appears in the 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014