I’ve been swimming a lot. I am in a kind of a mood, lately, where I will put up with a great deal of inconvenience if it means a swim at the end. I will drive for long, listening to my best Scottish woman on Fine Music Radio as she describes for ten minutes what trumpet music sounds like . I will stand on a bee. I will get all the way to the pool and realise I forgot my towel and so I must stand there dripping water at 7pm and go to dinner with blue lips and wet clothes. It is no bother.
At the beach in Simonstown the other day, there was this little baby who could not be prevented from making for the water. One of those good babies with a round face and a hat like a bonnet, crawling towards the sea at extraordinary speed. She was easily recaptured, but not easily subdued. Every time her dad put her down, she would smile at him nicely and eat a handful of sand and then pow. Off down the beach again. Moving so fast, seriously, and also no hesitation when she reached the water’s edge. Just no pause at all and then up to at least her little chest before her dad hooked her up by her underpants. Just let me at that water again, please. Just let’s see what happens when I get into the water of my choosing. It was written very clearly on her face, and I felt a pure and total affinity with her and her ideas. The main idea being yes, this is all fine, but what would happen if we were swimming, also? You say a thing, and I will say how it can be improved with the addition of a swim.
Some babies are like this. I was one such baby, according to reports, a baby you could not take your eye off if there was water around. The first dreams I can remember having were about water. I used to wear goggles when there was no pool in my immediate vicinity, just in case the opportunity later arose. You get those little girls who are obsessed with horses, and who spend grade 3 pretending to be a horse at break, setting up jumps in the playground. I was like that, except with swimming. My best part of Robin Hood was when he hides from the sheriff by breathing through a straw underwater. My worst part of The Little Mermaid was the entire end of it, where she abandons the sea for love. My best book was The Water Babies.
Some people know everything about The Water Babies, and some do not, which means this summary will seem either vague or unnecessary. However. The Water Babies is an underwater version of Pilgrim’s Progress, written by the Rev. Charles Kingsley. It is one of those Victorian things that people insist is satire, despite its displaying none of the characteristics of what I understand satire to be. It is “of its time” in that it is quite energetically racist. It is not something you would want to read to a kid today, and neither is it something that my parents would have read it to me. I got hold of it somehow, though, and loved it to pieces.
All I wanted when I was small was to somehow contrive a situation whereby I could be swimming at all times. I used to think about how I would flood the house. I suggested to my parents that they buy a big kind of truck, and put a swimming pool in the back, and then when we went on long car trips I could just float in the back. Someone when I was six told me what Venice was, told me that instead of roads there were canals, and you may well imagine how I took this information. I had it in my head for a long time that you weren’t actually allowed to walk in Venice. You had to swim to work and to visit your friends. You were allowed a small boat, but why would you need it when you could swim?
It is easy to see, then, that The Water Babies just knocked me out. Here is everyone living their normal lives of Christian uplift and trying so hard, except they are all doing it underwater. What else could a person conceivably wish for?
The full title of the book is The Water Babies: A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby. It is, as I said, supposed to be a story of moral elevation via Jesus, where the humble chimney sweep (yes) learns how to be good enough for rich people. It is overtly didactic in nature, a sort of a guide for all the sinning land babies out there. Many lessons. The best thing about The Water Babies, though, is that there is no reason for it to take place underwater. There is no lesson in that book that could not be taught more efficiently on land. It is structurally unnecessary, and yet. There they all are paddling around in the seaweed, smiling at the fish.
This is why I still love this book. The Rev. Charles Kingsley sets out to write a tract. He wants it to be a clear set of moral lessons for little children and no two ways about it. As he writes, though, he finds himself thinking well wouldn’t this just be better in the river? Wouldn’t this situation be greatly improved by the addition of a swim? He finds that he cannot help himself. In this we are as one. This is a man who, when he was a baby on the beach in Simonstown, would have been shooting for the water at an extraordinary speed. The three of us, in our little hats like bonnets and our goggles, making straight for the sea.