The Captains. After Midsummer’s Day. John the Baptist

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The artist, Fred McElwee, must have swum here, like thousands of others.He captured the pull and the surge of water at mid tide. No doubt he experienced it at extreme low tide, when you can stand comfortably on the bottom and at high tide when the waves wash over the platform and the current flows through like a river. Sometimes it is enough just to walk down to The Captains and gaze into the water at flickering herring fry, heralds of warm weather and mackerel. They flee in perpetual fear from the terrible jaws of the  mackerel. Their eyes are round and staring, searching, looking this way and that for safety. There is none. I rescued a stranded fry and held it in the water. I resuscitated it by gently squeezing it until a bubble of air emerged from its mouth. Now it could submerge. It wriggled away into the depths. Some day, when I am shipwrecked and clinging to a spar in the swirling waves, a giant herring will find me and say: ‘I remember you. Be not afraid’.   It worked for Androcles and to some extent, for Jonah, so why not for me.

Just be a little afraid in The Captains. The notice used to say: ‘Beware of Rocks and Bootlace Weed.’ It played to our fear of The Deep and the creatures that may lurk there. Bootlace weed won’t hold you if you swim gently through it. It slides off your body like a caress. Very little grows there anyway. Similarly with the big, leathery laminaria. It forms waving, sunlit forests where small fish hover and jellyfish occasionally drift speculatively, seeking whom they may afflict. The notice now says :’Competent Swimmers Only’. No eejits. Beware of diving onto rocks. On your own head be it. Beware of diving onto swimmers too. A friend landed on my head once. It was a pain in the neck. Still is, in damp weather. Right now we are enjoying a heatwave. I must break off here (8 30) and go for my early morning swim in The Captains. The tide is full. I should have it more or less to myself. There will be no hurtling young lads to fall on my head. Nobody will blow a whistle and dragoon me into a sea race.

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(11 30) Yes. It was better than I had hoped for. A week ago the water was mind-numbingly cold. The swim made me sad and resentful. Today was perfect; warm, clear water; sunlight glittering on sea, rocks and islands, as far as Lambay;  a haze over the Mournes; a few bright  cumulus, begging to be painted. Go for it, Fred. Moreover, it was all mine. Maybe I am becoming a curmudgeon.   Although melancholy poets write about the Earth tilting like a compass in a binnacle, as it leans away from the Sun and goofy Druids try to prevent it, the summer generally picks up after Midsummer’s Day. There are no thoughts of careering pell-mell into winter. In mediaeval times, young maidens in search of a life partner, danced in the churchyards, among the tombstones, on Saint John’s Eve, June the 23rd. That would be regarded as ‘anti-social activity’ nowadays. That’s John the Baptist, a man not normally associated with levity. In fact a dance cost him his head, poor fellow.

Stevenson said that a young fellow should be a great deal idle in his youth. I did my best. The Captains is a place of fun and sociability for succeeding generations. We argued and laughed and listened to our elders. We learned to dive and swim and practise water-safety. I have my badge from 1955. I am qualified to rescue others besides herring fry. I learned the Halger-Nielson method of resuscitation, where air was pumped back into the lungs by raising and lowering the elbows. Utterly useless for herring fry. There is a manoeuvre whereby you place your foot on the victim’s shoulder and push him/her down into the water while turning him/her around  in order to execute the ‘cross-chest-carry.’ There were no /hers in my class. Drat!  It was the Fifties, after all.  My partner was stout and heavy.(Most kids were skinny). His legs were too short to reach my shoulder. He kicked me severely in the face, (nothing personal) until the instructor gave up on him. He settled for a long cross-chest carry, before awarding the badges.  Fortunately neither of us has been called upon in the intervening years to use our skills.

The late and lugubrious Les Dawson complained about his expensive new shoes. He bought them a size too small. ‘The only pleasure I got out of them was taking them off.’  This very fine ladies’ changing shelter, built in 1956, after desegregation, was a bit like the shoes. It was built of fine Howth Stone, a striking piece of Modernism (?) It immediately became a public latrine. Outside, it was a sun-trap, a windbreak, a vantage point and a forum but you couldn’t go inside because of the stench. Moreover, it was too cold and draughty to serve as a changing room. You could climb onto the roof and sunbathe, if you weren’t afraid of heights. You could carve your initials in the soft stone but you couldn’t shelter in it. It was demolished after about fifty years when it became the focus of ‘anti-social activity’. Maybe the activity was a bit too social. There may have been some dancing. I hope nobody lost his/her head.

At night seaweed stranded by the tide, can glow with phosphorescence. It seems to crackle with other-worldly light. Away from the lights of the town, the stars shine down with startling brightness. It is not advisable however, to swim there in the dark, no matter how romantic it might seem. I have become a curmudgeon. A stranger asked my friend, who was treading water: ‘Eh mister, can you stand there?’  ‘Yes,’ said he,’ but you can’t breathe.’ Bear that in mind.

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There are days when swimming is simply out of the question, (as were most things in the Fifties). The Captains is in there somewhere. Even competent swimmers would be foolish to attempt it. Nevertheless, it always repays a visit, in memories and invigorating fresh air. I wonder if Fred ever painted what he saw under the water.

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