Two novices make quite a splash
Until then, I suppose, my deepest acquaintance with submersion had been in our enamel bathtub - large, deep, and Edwardian. I still remember my infant bath-times with cozy, gurgling, and spongy pleasure. And I could achieve an exhilarating but safe degree of buoyancy in that warm water.
So the transition to "Bingley Baths" had about it a dimension of extraterrestrial adventure - of propulsion into an alien world not necessarily friendly toward skinny little boys of coddled upbringing. The town swimming baths were municipal, public, and vast. They were echoingly noisy. (What is it about indoor pools that makes kids so shoutingly loud?) And the chlorine! So pervasive that you couldn't easily tell whether you were tasting it, smelling it, or both.
I was not consulted about my visits to the baths. Small children then were told, not asked. They probably thought I would display a certain trepidatious disinclination if asked whether I would like to master the breaststroke. But children must learn to swim, and that was that.
What they had not taken into account was that swimming does not come naturally to everyone who isn't a haddock. The instructor did not have much instinct for attractive ways that young people might be gently insinuated into the happy art of floating rather than sinking. He boomed and yelled at us from the side, while we clung to the edge, obediently waggling our legs but consumed by one thought: Don't let go!
We had earlier been directed to stand shivering in the shallow end and walk slowly forward until the water was at nose-level. Then, one step farther, we had discovered the novel sensation of being completely underwater. We hadn't drawn many inspirational conclusions from the experience.
Now, clinging to the side like hungry goldfish, we were at the deep end. The solid bottom was six feet below us. Though ignorant of life in many ways, we did feel fairly sure that water is slippery stuff. That even if we were assured by King George himself that slithering down into it until we hit the bottom would be automatically followed by resurfacing, we would much rather not put such a dubious assertion to the test.
I suppose the man was endeavoring to instill some sort of manly daring into us. Anyway, after weeks of goose pimples and turning blue with cold (the pool was unheated), it must at last have dawned on my parents that if I was ever going to learn anything by means of this cruel and unusual punishment, it was not how to swim.
It was the thoughtfulness of a family friend, who lived in the nearby city of Bradford, that saved the day. Miss Emily Haigh ran a small shop. A dear, she was very generous to us during World War II, mitigating shortages with treats. On one of her visits to our house, during a hide-and-seek game of immeasurable silliness involving curtains, we had nicknamed her "Boogilly." Don't ask for a rational explanation.
Anyway, Boogilly, although buoyant in a general, everyday sort of way, had never learned to swim. Now she was taking lessons, and she thought the world of her teacher, a warm-hearted man who was understanding, encouraging - and successful. Boogilly was already almost afloat because of his tutelage. She added that the Bradford pool also happened to be heated. How would I like to come along?
Apparently, I would. And by the end of the first lesson, I was a fish. I could swim! The trembly terror all gone, I rapidly turned into an insufferable showoff, splashing everyone, shouting and yelling, belly-flopping into the deep end. I even floated on my back, seeing how long I could remain on the surface without moving a muscle. I progressed from how many widths I could do in a given time, to how many lengths.
"Did you see me, Mum? I did 10 lengths without stopping! Did you see me?!"
Boogilly - I think this is true - fancied the butterfly stroke, and I made some preposterous endeavors to master it, too. She was also keen to swim underwater. (Not me. Having discovered the joys of staying on the surface, why would I want to do any such thing?) She really worked at this. And finally, to her great satisfaction, she achieved her objective.
"Did you see? I stayed under for a whole minute!"
But the unvarnished fact was that although her arms and legs were definitely under, and also her back and head and shoulders - there remained one portion of her that never actually managed submergence at all.
We never had the heart to disillusion her. She was the soul of kindness, so how could we? After all, it was because of Boogilly that I had learned to swim. If she was convinced she was a submarine, she was a submarine. It wasn't as if she needed to hide from an enemy or anything.
English artist Michael Andrews believed that paintings about "ideas" tend to "flounder." His paintings are about appearances. Curator Paul Moorhouse, in his catalog essay for a major Andrews exhibition at Tate Britain in London (until Oct. 7), writes: "The pictorial image is about the way the subject seems." He was discussing Andrews's portraiture, a genre that might be expected to go deeper than appearances.
Andrews, confining his (often large) paintings to this kind of surface "verisimilitude" (he once noted: "As it seems, so it is"), avoids the overt expression of feeling. He painted thinly, rather like an old-fashioned English watercolorist, and at first sight, his pictures seem almost ordinary and conventional. His own phrase, "mysterious conventionality," applies perfectly to "Melanie and Me Swimming" (above). It is a holiday snapshot turned into a painting.
Initially, it may be seen as a painting about the way in which a photograph mechanically represents a momentary appearance.
But it is still a very personal image. The photo, taken by a friend, gave Andrews an image of himself with his daughter that he could only otherwise imagine. His painting is like a discovery: "Ah - so this is what we looked like."
The "mysterious" aspect of it, however, is that mere appearance here conveys levels of experience other than physical ones such as being half in and half out of the water, or the sensation of floating. The painting goes further. Without resorting to weighty emphasis, it epitomizes the affectionate interdependence - and potential independence - of child and parent.
"Melanie and Me Swimming" turns the ordinary into the archetypal.