Once I’d been taught to swim properly with the aid of a window pole applied liberally across the back of my head every time I didn’t want to do it, there was no stopping me.
Well that is, there was the deep end to stop me. Sinbad Simpson coaxed us across the width of the pool with the aid of a long pole hovering inches above the back of your head, “its to hook you with if you sink” he promised, I never saw him hook anyone out of the water with it, saw him crack many across the back of the head but hook, no.
After swimming a width there was the length of the pool to go at and your “one length” certificate, 25 yards of chemically infused water, angry water, choppy from 30 boys messing about in it, and cruelly Sinbad Simpson made you start from the shallow end so that in your exhaustion after twenty yards or so you wouldn’t dare to stop for the deep end was deeper than your worst nightmares, a girl from the adjoining school had once drowned in the deep end in the 1950s and it was said that she was still down there somewhere, you couldn’t see the bottom lets put it like that, she could have been there.
I got my 25 yards swimming certificate, and that was that, I figured that 25 yards would just about save me from any aquatic related incident, 25 yards away is surely not asking too much of a person to chuck a life jacket.
Others in our year went on to do 50 yards, 100 yards, an impossible quarter mile and ultimately a mile, swimming a mile in our filthy old swimming baths, why thats just showing off for you were never more than five yards away from an edge and if perchance you happen to be taking a sea voyage and unfortunately find yourself in a position where you stumble and fall from the decks whilst out a-strolling then even the most weakest of arms could throw you a life jacket well within a one mile radius of you, why, by the time you’d have swum a mile the ship would have had time to reach its destination, realise you’re missing and come back for you, it took them hours to swim a mile – totally pointless.
But not quite as pointless as the life saving badge.
Some idiot somewhere had decreed that it would be a fine and spiffing idea if young boys were trained in life saving techniques so that on those long sea voyages that they often partook of, if they happened to stumble overboard whilst out promenading the upper decks they would be able to save their own lives by means of a handy pair of pyjamas, for surely they would have such a thing about their person, why they may even be wearing pyjamas at the time of their tumble overboard, so best start from there then.
Those boys daft enough to undertake the “Weird Life Saving Badge of Courage” were instructed to bring their pyjamas to school, dress in them during a swimming lesson and walk alongside the swimming pool as if promenading on an upper deck of an ocean liner, perhaps admiring the stars or sipping gently from a cocktail when suddenly, ooops, on Sinbads command they all fell in the deep end, oh gosh, boys overboard, throw them all a life jacket someone…
But wait, no life jackets required on this occasion for how fortuitous that they were all wearing pyjamas, look, they are removing their pyjama bottoms, tying the ends of the legs in a tight knot and blowing into the open end as if their pyjama bottoms have suddenly become balloons, as indeed they have.
Properly inflated pyjama bottoms, Sinbad advised us all seriously, could keep you afloat atop an ocean for days on end and all you needed to do was learn how to tie the legs up properly and keep them topped up with air, fascinating, we’ve got double maths after this, can we go now sir ?
Regrettably its a well known fact that ocean going liners do not recommend that you throw a pair of pyjama bottoms after a fallen overboard drowning man, not even if you hastily yell the instructions on how to tie the legs up after him, nor do their emergency lifeboat stations contain a linen cupboard of pyjamas, more is the pity – I can’t help but think that those Life Saving Badges would have been much more sensibly earned by the more simple instruction of “Look boys, man overboard, here, throw him this life jacket – good, now, double maths then…”
Even weirder was the need to rescue a drowning brick, many the time I’ve been walking down a canal towpath and I’ve shuddered at the thought of all those bricks that must be languishing in the bottom of that canal just waiting for me to exhibit those skills learned at 11 years of age – if only I’d actually learned those skills but being as I was never in Sinbad’s elite corps of swimmers and never progressed beyond the 25 yard certificate I was never deemed to have those skills sufficient to enable me to save the life of a drowning brick.
Taking his elite corps down to the deep end he’d throw a hard rubber brick into the murky unseen depths and then bark at a young boy to dive in and find it, surprisingly hardly any of them told him to fook off, most of them did as he was bidding and would disappear into the brown swirling depths – the deep end of our school swimming pool resembled a pint of Guinness, lets just say that Harry the caretaker had obviously lost the instructions on how to clean the pool.
Some time later, far beyond that time at which any self respecting lifeboatman would look at his watch and declare, “Thats ten minutes, come on boys he’s not coming up again, lets go home” the small boy would emerge triumphant, gasping for breath with a heavy rubber brick held aloft, Sinbad would reach over and remove from his grasp, then throw it straight back in again and bark at another victim to go fetch it for him.
We non-swimmers would sit on the edge of the pool at the shallow end and whisper to each other “I’m fooking glad I can’t swim” and “So am I, why do they do that ?” and for the last forty-something years I have been unable to answer that question and to date have yet to read a newspaper account of the rescuing a rubber brick technique ever being put into practice.
I think Sinbad was quite mad.