Toot-toot-toot! Lifeguard going in!

The year 2020 is in and I am reaching the end of my twenty third on this planet. Will Taylor Swift ever speak to me in the same way?

I think at this stage I should firmly be considered an adult. It certainly feels that way in a classroom dominated by sixteen-year-olds in the St Magnus Suite of the Pickaquoy Centre of a Wednesday evening. Oh, youth with your transient worries, your world-making, world-ending passions, dreams undashed, loves hopeful, knowledge of world-literature embarrassingly scant. Despite TikTok and Thunberg and Teen Vogue, because TikTok and Thunberg and Teen Vogue you are the hope and despair of this earth.

This is the RLSS UK-wide industry standard, internationally recognised, universally regarded, three-week, fast track, qualification that allows us to entrust them with our lives. In case you didn’t get that – I’m training to be a lifeguard, and it’s making me reflect on a few things.

downloadI, like them, could have done this at 16. At school, I was involved in competitive swimming, so it’s likely the club would have contributed to my course fee. But I didn’t. It wasn’t something I wanted to do. I already had a part-time job by then. What was the point?

Ultimately, I was naïve. I used that job as an excuse not to do things, not to see people and eventually I wound down the only thing that gave me a communal identity outwith school and all but quit the swim club.

Swimming gave me so much and our first foray on “poolside” reminded me of those late primary school P.E. sessions. Fraught with anxiety for many, just on the cusp of learning to be ashamed of our bodies, it was a rare moment of ease and confidence for me among those struggling to complete a width that I could speed from end to end in a couple of breaths. Obviously, no-one on the course is that unsure and most are clearly sporty in some other discipline, but they marvel nonetheless at my “natural” ability (I am by no means – just many thousands of hours further in than they are).

It helped me immensely in the transition to secondary school. By my final year at Dounby, I had few close friends, and yes, while there was probably an element of self-isolation in there, I held almost no common interest with my peers. I didn’t like football, fighting or farming – but I did have swimming. That other world to which none of them was privy. It was my one-up on them, my gateway, my escape.

Not that there wasn’t bullying in changing rooms. There was, and I was briefly – for my teeth chiefly, which are still pretty massive despite the best efforts of orthodontists. It’s just that, after they’d got bored of that (and I got braces) it was just an extension of the Stromness playground politics, which I could, largely observe as a neutral. That all-male world was a great environment for stories, which I could only imagine, with my being unfamiliar with many of the major characters and settings in person.

I had friends then, true friends before I’d even got to Stromness Academy – and they were all meeting them for the first time, more or less. Orkney is small – yes, but not that small and you can still see on genetic maps of the place that people really haven’t moved around that much, even on the mainland itself. People from one parish compared to another are distinct and there is real variation in the accent. I had early access if you like – I got to play the beta version and became good at the game prior to release.

Swimming gave me access to secret worlds. I heard radio programmes no-one hears, saw sunsets before anyone else, was the first to crunch my shoe into the brittle frost of winter mornings. Those epic red skies as the town gradually emerged from inactivity are etched permanently on my mind. We would stride out onto concrete inhaling the sweet chlorine-flavoured ether and feel the nip of bitter air on rosy cheeks. And we would always walk together, a cross-year-group coalition, a flock with a collective wingspan beyond the arbitrary division of age and house and set.

I gave that up. Why?

Really, I don’t think I came to terms with that until, in a rut of proportions I had never and have never since experienced, I read Infinite Jest.

Infinite Jest is not what you’d expect from one of the defining works of postmodern literature. It’s about a tennis academy. Well, strictly speaking, it’s about a tennis academy and addiction, obsession and competition. It is about a spiritual void that people try to fill with what comes to hand – sporting talent, academic success, substances, lost causes, TV shows. Many people really get a kick out of “getting the joke” that the novel represents, but for me what stands out above the depravity and clever person’s clever person-type humour is its incredibly accurate description of the world of youth competitive sport.

In many ways, it is utterly brutal. As a teenager, everyone is constantly changing. By a fluke of puberty’s jumping the gun, you’re at the top of the pile for a year or so, then suddenly you’re being beaten where it took you no effort to win before. For the whole of your life hitherto, progress has been natural, effortless and it’s easy to believe the graph’s exponential rise. One moment later, half a second takes a hundred hours to shave off. It is a crushing existence, even to maintain the level of fitness required to equal your personal best. At some point, you need to ask yourself if the rewards are worth it. In most cases, in and of themselves, they are not – but because you’ve already invested so much and built a lifestyle around it, how can you let go and not have your identity destroyed?

That got real, real fast.

As I said, I’m doing a lifeguarding course. I’m also managing the St Magnus Way’s social media channels and doing app maintenance, so give that a like if you’d like.

About alasdairflett

German & English Literature graduate. From Orkney. Interested in alternative and indie music, language, writing and politics.
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