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Strength in swimming
When I arrived in Brighton and couldn’t really swim, I felt like a tennis instructor who never manages to serve properly.
I was determined to do something about it and in the process opened out a whole new life on, or more often in, the ocean wave.
Phil Bird, the Argus deputy news editor and a staunch daily dipper, persuaded me to join Brighton Swimming Club even though all the members were far stronger and more able than me.
But both within the club and outside, I met some characters who were in many ways utterly extraordinary.
There was Graham Martin, who spent his days on the beach no matter what the weather was like. He fished in all his clothes from the sea which he called the great provider.
He only went to discount shops, reckoning to find money in the street to pay at the till. He lived in an unheated flat with a black and white TV.
Graham reckoned he would reach 100 but died of pneumonia in his 70s. He left £20,000, found in cash after his death under the mattress. It all went to the Government as no will or relatives could be found.
The Mad Major loved rough seas and used to lower himself into foaming torrents off the Medina groyne in Hove together with his teenage son.
When lifeguards called on him to come out, he yelled, “Come and get me.” They never did and it was strongly rumoured that most of them could not swim. When they had gone, father and son would extricate themselves perfectly safely.
Marguerita looked like a Russian spy and had a romantic air of mystery about her, even though she was ancient.
She was friendly with the Brighton Festival director Gavin Henderson and would ask me to compose thank you letters in rhyme whenever he had invited her for supper.
Equally old was Wally Woods, who sat sunbathing in a corner of the Albion beach, never saying a word because he was stone deaf. It was a big surprise when he died and left enough money to provide housing for the elderly in both Hove and Woodingdean.
Terry Sinnott, a good friend of mine, swam every day of the year in 1973, a feat which I emulated in 1977. For good measure I also did it in 1978.
By this time I could swim but not well, as indicated by my coming last one year in all sea races organised by the swimming club, including one round the pier for which other entrants were handicapped to give me a chance.
The coldest sea I ever entered was in 1987 when the water temperature was just 1C. The worst bit was standing in the snow later while TV crews recorded the event.
By dipping every day, we year-round swimmers withstood water so cold it should have killed us after ten minutes or so.
In fact most swimmers lived to a ripe old age, the best example being Jim Wild who reached 92. Aged 75, Jim swam round the Palace Pier one winter’s day. He also laid out markers for the Seven Sisters’ marathon when over 80. He was a remarkable man.
Some winter swimmers claimed it did them good. Peter Sired, a watchmaker from Patcham, claimed the cold water had a champagne quality. David Sawyers, a stalwart member of the swimming club, wrote learned articles about it.
I never went that far but conceded that swimming in the sea produced exhilaration hard to match on dry land.
It is a feeling experienced by all the famous swimmers in Brighton, from Dr Samuel Johnson to Lord Hailsham, and by myriads of lesser lights.
Some Brighton swimmers crossed the Channel and many more never went out of their depth but all loved the sea off Brighton which is seldom still and always exciting.