Swimming in the sea off an English coast at 9 in the morning without a wetsuit is a bracing experience. Not so much for the cold and the half-ton of fist-sized stones smashing into your ankles every time a wave advances or retreats, but for what it turns you into. You lie on your back and wave at the cowards on the beach and they wave back, and even though no one’s actually saying anything, there’s a telepathic conversation going on, a silent inescapable repetition of cliches exchanged by other people on other beaches for decades. It goes a bit like this:
Come on in, the water’s lovely
Is it? Is it, really?
Oh yes. I mean, it’s a little bracing at first, but you soon get used to it.
Erm, ok then, maybe later
Everyone knows what that means, that maybe later. It means “you’re certifiably insane, and I’m not, and there’s more chance of me walking across hot coals than there is of me going better than knee-deep in that weed-ridden, half-frozen, seething mess of grey and white you think of as the sea”.
You swim around, and enjoy it, or pretend to enjoy it, as the case may be, and eventually you clamber out, more walrus than Andress, and you know precisely what they’re thinking, the cowards, and you resent it, because as it so happens that wasn’t what you were trying to communicate, that wasn’t it at all, and you’re not the person they think you are, some weather-beaten, austerity-hardened memsahib, or some burnt, pot-bellied middle-aged gent, that’s not you, not at all.
Forty minutes later, as you glance in the mirror and ponder your next birthday, you’re forced to admit that maybe they have a point after all.