The swimmer's journey home

29 March 2007

In his latest column for the New Statesman, John Pilger touches on the life behind his public face. "I am a swimmer," he writes. From his childhood on Australia's famous Bondi Beach to a career that has taken him to many places the opposite of benign, Pilger has swum through, as he puts it, "the difficulties".

Most days, growing up, I would walk down a steep hill past blocks of Aussie Gothic with stairwells that stank of cabbage and beer and dogs, through crooked alleyways of fresh tar turned to putty in the heat and rusted iron fences, beyond which were “Bondi semis”, faithful copies of the back-to-backs of northern England. The comparison stopped there. Nowhere else was the reflected light so bright it hurt, leaving the eyes with a permanent squint. Nowhere else was the air laced with such an intoxicating smell, which came with the salt spray of the South Pacific, the greatest ocean on earth.

I am an inveterate swimmer. I learned to swim when I was very young. In flaming sunrises or hard rain, Reg Clark, a courtly, few-words Iceberger (an Iceberger swam in all seasons) taught me to swim through the white water of 30-foot waves as they broke over Bondi’s ocean baths. “Reach out, reach out,” he would say, as he paced me along the barnacled wall, impervious to each great fist of water.

The stroke was freestyle, or crawl as it is known in England; breaststroke was considered, well, sissy. And when Reg said I was ready to race, he arranged for a number to be pinned on me and for the ocean to calm down. Racing was not fun because winning was too important, although when I managed a second to Murray Rose, the future triple Olympic gold medallist, I imagined myself before adoring throngs at the next Olympiad and disregarded the fact that almost a lap separated us.

As a teenager, I graduated to the 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, 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. At the wonder pool, there is a fast lane, a medium-fast lane, a medium lane and a slow lane. The swimmers are mostly men and women of indeterminate age and by the look of them, each has known a Reg Clark, though Reg, who swam like a dolphin, would not approve of their splashing. “Splashing slows you right down,” Reg would say. I try not to think of that as they pass me.

Whatever has changed in my life, swimming never has. I have swum all over the world, across rivers and lakes and oil-slicked canals and once to save my skin; and whenever I am asked about overcoming the difficulties of visiting places of upheaval, I say, “I swim”, though that is not the whole answer, of course. Once in the wonder pool or the superb marble Marshall Street Baths in the West End of London (now closed, scandalously), or countless lesser versions of both, it seems like the whole answer. Hindus returning to the Ganges will understand.

With all respect to the memory of Marshall Street, my Michelin-starred pools require that the ocean is close by, for the ocean brings the sky and breeze and demands a class of swimming on its own. I taught myself to body surf when the races were over and the umpires had taken their stopwatches to the pub. The great sandy crescent of Bondi Beach is benign most days, running an even, rolling surf, with each wave rising into a perfect blue-green pyramid. But this is an ancient, unpredictable continent, and the sky can suddenly turn wild and a vicious undertow known as a bombara can pull you into Noah territory (a Noah is a shark). When that happens, you learn to body surf almost instantly, catching the biggest, most awesome wave and setting an unbeatable personal best back to the beach. My father once watched a shark expertly catching a wave, with a friend of his surfing the same crest, unaware of his man-eating companion. They both got away.

Unforeseen circumstances have kept me out of the water lately. The other day, with the sun visible through a curtain of mist, I returned to the wonder pool, actually to the medium-fast lane, and I am pleased to say that not every splasher passed me.

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The John Pilger archive is held at the British Library