Adding Kentledge

Last Wednesday, I hopped on the tram and headed to the State Library to chase up the photograph of the swimmers at the Fitzroy Pool, which sits above the fireplace at the local pub, the North Fitzroy Arms.  My memory is that it was labelled “Melbourne Times, 1926” but after searching the catalogue, there is nothing and I give up.  So I switch the search to the West Gate Bridge.

It’s hard to imagine another more thoroughly documented project, perhaps with the exception of the Sydney Harbour Bridge or the Opera House, certainly not in Victoria.  Did the National Gallery garner as much attention during its construction?  Was there a need to rival the Sydney Harbour Bridge and define Melbourne in some way that had always been missing?  The West Gate is, after all, twice as long, as Melburnians liked to remind themselves and others.  Or perhaps it distracted public attention away from the ugliness and brutality of the Vietnam War and the abortion debate.  Ironic that it should eventually join the ranks of disaster, as the worst industrial accident the country had ever witnessed.  Then again, perhaps the enthusiasm for the bridge is just Melbourne, where else are roads so embraced? Where else would crowds of people gather to walk through a newly opened section of freeway, whether it was the bridge or in recent times, new freeway tunnels in the eastern suburbs?

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Working my way through the library’s imagery collection provides some telling clues about the imagining of the bridge and its reserved place in the minds of Melburnians.  The vision of a bridge across the Yarra had been nurtured since the late 1950s, and in iconic fashion, gathered momentum as construction proceeded and the structure took shape.  It dominated the skyline in photographs and paintings by Rennie Ellis, Wolfgang Sievers, Rick Amor, John T. Collins and Fred Williams.  The early imagery records the toothy gaps between the central spans, and an army of spindly construction cranes, slowly bringing the bridge to life, clustered around stout, boxy piers standing solitary, and improbably, above the waters of the Yarra.  Looking at these photographs, it’s almost conceivable that a collapse could have been predicted, so tenuous do these structures appear.  It’s easy to imagine the piers starting to totter at any time, although that’s not how the bridge collapsed.  There is another photograph of a young engineer, in high-waisted flairs, long hair spilling from under his hard hat, in jovial discussion with a foreman.

The idea of a bridge over the Yarra was galvanised in 1965 with the formation of the somewhat humbly named Lower Yarra Crossing Authority which appointed joint consulting engineers based in London and in Melbourne.  The essential structure consisted of a bridge 2,590 m in length, rising 58.6 m above the river below, described as a suspension bridge or alternatively and probably more correctly, of cable-stayed box girder design.  There were five steel spans, the longest 336 m,  divided into three compartments by vertical ‘webs’.

Construction proceeded with the end spans erected first, each of these consisting of two full length longitudinal halves which had been assembled on the ground, then lifted and joined on the top of the piers.  The boxes were then lifted and mounted on top of the erected spans, and the remaining spans cantilevered toward the centre of the bridge until the two ends join.  On October 15th, 1970, the 112 m long western span collapsed and 35 men, including four engineers, were killed after 30 bolts were removed from a transverse splice.  The intention was to flatten a buckle that had developed after fifty-six tons of concrete were loaded on top to correct a 4.5 inch difference in camber between two of the half spans after they had been jacked up to the top of the piers.  Other reports say eighty tons, well in excess of the engineer’s directive.  This unconventional action of ‘adding kentledge’ and the subsequent undoing of the bolts reduced the safety margin, already appallingly inadequate, to nothing.

The collapse and subsequent review following a Royal Commission revealed other design problems and a huge number of highly stressed components.  Every single design and structural aspect of the bridge was scrutinised – its aerodynamics and capacity for ‘significant excitation’ in high velocity winds, its ability to withstand fatigue, its loadings and stresses, the panel stability of webs and flanges, towers and cables, its roller and rocker bearings and the serviceability of its deck.  The engineers were indefatigable in their investigation.  Only the original concept and geometry were retained in the re-design.  By early 1973, new contractors Redpath Dorman Long and John Holland started work to resurrect Melbourne’s dream bridge.  From “The Dawn of a New Era” described by the Lower Yarra Crossing Authority in a pamphlet published in 1969, to the Royal Commission into “The Failure of the West Gate Bridge”, to a reinvented, bomb-proof, modern structure.  The bridge evolved far differently than was ever imagined.  It spawned the bland and boring Bolte Bridge which replaced the Yarra Bridge, barely more than a causeway, built as part of the CityLink project and connecting the West Gate Bridge with the Tullamarine freeway to the north, and the Monash Freeway to the south.

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There are no Fred Williams paintings of the Bolte Bridge but there are two paintings in the SLV collection titled ‘West Gate Bridge Under Construction’ I and II, both dated 1974 and a couple of others in the National Gallery dated 1970.  The former two were both were painted ‘en plein air’ and both dated March 6th, after the collapse.  The date doesn’t seem quite right  given that Williams was reportedly on Erith Island in Bass Strait and according to his wife Lyn, was supposed to have lost interest in his series of river paintings after the bridge’s collapse.  It also seems unlikely that Williams would have painted both, on opposite sides of the Bay, on the same day.  No matter.

The bridge looks almost completed in the first painting, although the cranes are still there.  The khakis, blues and dirty orange smears of the polluted western shore of the river and the thick grey sky are strikingly different from the playful scene of tug boats, a child holding up a red beach ball and the aquamarine blues and greens in the second painting from the other side somewhere near Port Melbourne.  Even the cottony puffs of smoke from the factories in the background look decorative.  It’s only after a while that you notice what could be the grubby haze of bushfire smoke pluming from the south west.  The central span is clearly incomplete in this painting but the cranes look larger and more commanding.

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Fred Williams 1974. “West Gate Bridge Under Construction I”. State Library of Victoria Collection.

I like how Williams has positioned the bridge within the broader urban landscape.  If the date of the painting is correct, later confirmed by an enquiry to the SLV to be so, then the impending disaster of the bridge collapse was known.  The naïve belief in construction and the built environment, and impending calamity, might be represented by the smoke gradually engulfing the suburban sky.

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Fred Williams 1974. “West Gate Bridge Under Construction II”. State Library of Victoria Collection.

The image of the bridge persists throughout the photographic record as subject or in the background.  Even the administration building was recorded by architectural photographer Wolfgang Sievers in 1975.  Since the bridge dominates the skyline, it is and always will be there.  However, surely the most stately photograph is by John T. Collins, in black and white, taken in 1970, before the collapse.  It is classical and contrived.  Yet the bridge’s structure and the curve of the span, dispassionately photographed against Edwardian red brick industrial buildings, factories and power pylons reflected in the still river water below, and even incomplete and with the knowledge of what is to come, is harmonious and graceful.  Briefly, the bridge’s meaning is captured.

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John T Collins 1970. Port Melbourne. West Gate Bridge. State Library of Victoria Collection.

Rennie Ellis continued to photograph the bridge well after its collapse, or rather the bridge appeared in his photos of  the Bay beaches.  I never liked his work, although now I am pleased that it exists, in all its volume and unkempt, undated carelessness and haste, it’s lack of composition and precious record of the ordinary.  They are snapshots really, photojournalism at a stretch.  In his work, the bridge is a careless presence among sunbathers, yachts and traffic jams.  It’s a half constructed silhouette, shot on Kodachrome and undated, or foreshortened through a telephoto lens off Port Melbourne Beach in the late 1980s like some prosthetic extension of Princes Pier, the sunlight reflected off windscreens as cars climb and descend from the summit, matching the sparkling Bay below.  There is some sort of loss in this photo which I can’t put my finger on.  The topless sunbathers and the threads of silvery Spinifex on the foredunes, since replaced with concrete bike paths, shrubs and tussock grasses, belong to the era of beachballs and tugboats, before beach tents and the unrelenting, shrill sound of jet skis.  The bridge belongs to that earlier time and the artists have secured a place for it there.

Rennie Ellis Beach [between 1981 and 2000]

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Two bridges – the road to Willy

There is a light smatter of rain on Saturday morning. I ripped a hole in my wetsuit last week and need to collect the new one from the Post Office. The doors are still locked at ten past nine. Eventually, one of the elderly Vietnamese counter staff grudgingly admits the half dozen or so people who stand despondently on the footpath. Gone are the days of Kevin and Basil, the jovial pair who ran the Post Office along a line of least resistance, breaking various mail regulations, amiably allowing customers to peek into their parcels before signing, news of which might also be shared among the waiting customers. The new owner, Jimmy, darts around behind the counter in an entrepreneurial manner, deftly cutting short inquiries and at the same time, barking orders to his parents who he has installed to deal with the customers, and who adhere rigorously and humourlessly to procedure. The wetsuit has arrived and I head west toward Williamstown beach.

The Western Ring Road is a grey ribbon draped across the industrial landscape at the western edge of the city.  On the eastern side of the bridge is a white ferris wheel, a ludicrous imitation of the London Eye, and a bizarre, gleaming white plastic structure which sits somewhere between a circus tent and Camelot.  It has four, conical apices with little mediaeval-style flags snatched up by the prevailing westerly wind. But as the freeway ascends to meet the Bolte Bridge, all that is visible are apices of cranes and power pylons emerging from the docks below like spars in a remnant iron forest, the understorey untidily crammed, stacked and crowded with paraphernalia, a giant’s toy box of rectangular containers and cylindrical storage tanks. Red, yellow, blue, white.  From a distance, there is an air of bright efficiency and gaiety to this most utilitarian of landscapes, belying its grim business and hard underbelly; most recently, the bitter dispute between the Maritime Union of Australia and the Patrick Corporation in 1998; a Royal Commission into organised crime in the early 1980s. Murk and shadow. Massive cranes for loading and unloading shipping containers, mostly painted the distinctive and now iconic red of Patricks, straddle the docks; impossibly ludicrous, stilted Meccano giraffes wanting to bolt away at any sudden disturbance, lurching above the clutter of containers  stacked and crammed untidily along the wharves.

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It’s a far cry from 1926.  Fifty years after the incorporation of the Melbourne Harbour Trust, a Jubilee bonus of one sovereign for each year, or part year, of continuous service was paid to port employees, retiring employees and to the widows of any employees who had died that year.  Those on sick leave were visited at home to receive the letter of greeting from the Commissioners.  The sovereigns were specially minted for the occasion and are uniquely dated 1926.  Total cost to the Harbour Trust was £7,594 in one of the best trading years since the outbreak of World War 1.

The river gleams in the bright morning sun.   Docklands.  The Land of the Docks.  A land you can see but can’t go to.   Presiding over it all, the Bolte is a bridge of bland, impersonal concrete bearing the name of the conservative Premier with a reputation for infrastructure, including the building of the West Gate Bridge, and rusted in as leader of the State government for seventeen years.  The Bolte Bridge is part of a freeway; a bridge with no pedestrian access bridge; a bridge that people can only drive across.  Fuck you Kennett-era architecture.   Bolte himself supported capital punishment – death by hanging in Victoria – and in spite of building two universities, was party to massive cuts to postgraduate programs in the late 1960s after refusing to match Commonwealth higher education funding.  Makes you wonder what sort of savings these measures were intended to invoke, since fee-free education would not come into play until after the election of the Whitlam government in 1972.

Then the phone rings and distracted, I nearly miss the turn off to the West Gate Bridge.

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At Williamstown, the sea is opaque green and choppy but when the sun comes out, suddenly it’s blue and sparkling. Still, no pool end piled with drink bottles and kickboards; no black line. Instead, the pitch and swell of open water. Uncertainty.  Tim and Richard get out of their car at the same time as I’m sorting out towels, keys, drink bottle and other bits and pieces. We wave and meet down on the sand a few minutes later. Lexi and Mary have also arrived and another swimmer, Mike is standing on the sand with an air of expectation, hands on hips, taking in the scene. Towels are spread out on the sand and we wriggle into our wetsuits on the beach, snap on caps and goggles and wade into the water. At waist level, Tim dips up and down to acclimatise, while the rest of us suck in our breath as cold water seeps through spine-length zippers. Then we dive under and make a start.

Under water, the sounds of the terrestrial world are blocked out and replaced, by what? The submerged world is not exactly silent; rather, sounds are sealed in some internal, amphibious compartment. Thoughts are audible through breath and even when the water is reasonably clear, I hear rather than see. Watery exhaled breath, languidly cast, then the barely audible gasp of inhalation.  There are other unexpected silences too: trails of tiny bubbles which appear and disappear with each stroke evaporate noiselessly beneath the surface; one of the others swims past, wraith-like, a sleek black arm appearing suddenly at the periphery of vision then pale feet kicking into the green, masked by effervescence. Breaking the surface every few strokes to sight the fluorescent orange ball tied to Tim’s leg is awkward and caught in the trough of a strong swell, it’s difficult to keep up a rhythmic stroke after gulping a mouthful of air and the shock of bright sunlight. Then, amphibious and sound-sealed again in the thick, green wate, clouds of bubbles magically form and disperse as hands plunge forward and with each breath out.

Rocks appear and disappear over the sea floor and alternately, patches of current-rippled sand. Swimming about a hundred metres to the first buoy is fine. Same to the second boy, about two hundred and fifty metres away. Swimming back, Lexi, Mary and I do a half-lap, meeting the guys on their return, then complete an entire lap non stop. Next, we swim to a rocky point about two or three hundred metres from the second buoy and in shallow water, drift over a reef crusted in coralline algae and bunches of ochre seaweed ribbons moving ghost-like in the current, blurred in the yellow-green water. Maroon starfish are clamped on the rocks and we are careful not to scrape the sea floor with our hands in case of disturbing a stingray. All the way back to the first buoy and then to the shore, is about two kilometres all up. By this time it’s easy. Everyone staggers out of the water, pleased and elated by the swim. A couple of us rinse off under the cold shower around the side of the surf lifesaving club and rejoin the others on the sand. Faris, a Jordanian, hands some dates around, their dull sweetness and pasty texture perfect after the salty water. I walk back over the sand and across the road to the car, barefoot. The bitumen is still only slightly warm, without the hot, stickiness of summer when fragments of tar cling to the soles of your feet.

It’s a perfect spring day and on the way home I detour through Williamstown and on the spur of the moment, buy some scallops and potato cakes at a fish and chip shop on the Strand opposite the pier. At the edge of the water, the sun is just warm enough to sit in but not too hot. To my right is the Hobsons Bay Yacht Club and further along the shore to my left, is the Williamstown Sailing Club. The backdrop is the city skyline, the Port Melbourne docks and incongruously, an enormous cruise ship which throws it all out of balance, its bulky squarish shape awkward and out of place alongside the slim skyscrapers and the numerous small fishing boats moored just off shore between the yacht club and the sailing club. As soon as the food is unwrapped, seagulls cluster around. They keep their distance but are collectively staring me down. Gradually, they draw closer. Then, menacingly a swan appears, confidently pushing the gulls aside and staring unnervingly at me with insouciance. Eventually it glides off when the last potato cake is eaten.

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The yacht club gate is fenced off by rendered brick, wrought iron and gold lettering beyond which is a copse of masts. The sailing club is a restored weatherboard building, with its name painted heritage style in green along the top of the clubhouse just below the roofline. Back along the Strand toward the West Gate Bridge, almost all the old houses have been replaced by featureless modern designs, blank windows masked by blinds to shut out the world. A couple of pretty Victorians still remain, built by ship’s captains or marine merchants fifty or so years after Williamstown was settled in 1835. Gold rush era neoclassicals and graceful Georgians, some restored and elegant, others shabby, mix with newer featureless 1970s houses and shops in the main shopping street and along waterfront back toward Gellibrand Point. Dishevelled pubs with cool cellars where cadavers were stored and autopsies peformed, before the morgue was built by convicts in the early days of settlement, mix with abandoned warehouses from a later, prosperous era. The Hobsons Bay Hotel; the Rose; Port Phillip Wool Processing Pty Ltd .

The Williamstown morgue is a square, bluestone building with a shiny new corrugated iron roof, out of place among the abandoned, tin sheds formerly Port of Melbourne Authority workshops where tugboats were repaired.  It sits behind a barbed wire and chain mesh fence close to the road leading down to Ann Street Pier. The arched, once-barred windows have been boarded over with planks nailed haphazardly over rusting chicken wire to prevent vandalism.  Originally built at Gem Pier, detritus from autopsies were carried away by the tide and bodies were hung from the ceiling, away from rats.

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The West Gate Bridge is always in the background. From Ann Street Pier and Waterfont Pier, the low slung arch seems equally a part of Hobsons Bay as of the docks. Waterfont Pier is buzzing with people on excursion from other suburbs and other parts of the world. There is the quiet clang of a ferry bell as it approaches the pier and across the water, some kind of machinery is buzzing. Occasionally there is the crunch of sandals and and stroller wheels on the gravel footpath and chatter of sightseers. The smell of grilled steaks and fried fish from nearby restaurants wafts past. The HMAS Castlemaine is moored at the end of the pier. It’s open to visitors, provided they can run the gauntlet of bossy, middle-aged men with a passion for naval ships. One shanghais two Indian women who hand their money over to have a look on board. He mistakes their politeness for interest. No doubt, he says, you learned about all this at school. They look even more perplexed but acquiesce, no doubt thinking that this is the best option.

On the way home, approaching the bridge, I am aware of a small buzz of excitement, a feeling no doubt unique to my generation who can still remember its inception and later, it’s collapse.  Its construction started in 1970, to link the sprawling leafy suburbs of the east with their bleak western counterparts. It would effortlessly span the grey-brown Yarra River and its backwaters dank with chemical waste, in a single, broad arc. When it collapsed half way through construction, concrete and steel debris and mutilated bodies were dumped in the sludge under the broken western span.  Already forced to witness the realities of the Vietnam war when moratorium marches clogged Bourke Street, and confront the ugliness of illegal abortion when the Wainer years played out on black and white televisions each evening, Melbourne was brutally shocked when the grand project proved only as good as the smokescreen that concealed its deadly flaws.

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From that moment, the bridge was linked forever to shame. Firstly, in caddish fashion, the Bolte government imposed a toll, hitting hard the working class commuters from the west. But only recently were grim mesh barriers erected to curtail suicides of desperately saddened human beings whose last eye contact was made through a grimy windscreen with a commuter stuck in a traffic jam. Or in one instance, the murder of a baby flung over the railings by her father in a deranged act of marital revenge.  But then there is the moment when, ascending, the span curves at its summit and the road disappears. All that is visible beyond the curvature of the bitumen and white lines, is the sky.

The Australian environment is unpredictable. Disasters transform landscapes and communities suddenly and with unimaginable force. One summer night we are watching the tennis on television and wake in the morning to hear reported on the news, that five hundred houses have burnt to the ground in suburban Canberra; we hang out our pillowcases on Christmas Eve and by morning, a cyclone has flattened Darwin. Towns are swept away in minutes by floods, in malevolent storms which strike during a decade of drought. But there is a nobility about bridges and they don’t collapse.

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Musee des Beaux Arts at Sandridge, with apologies to Auden

Sandridge beach is the very last beach before the docks.  A crescent of sand squeezed in between Princes Pier and Webb Dock with a large modern life saving club and cafe, reasonably civilised changing rooms and free car parking.  Sandy tracks thread through re-planted native vegetation.

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By 9.30 am on a mid-week day in January, it’s already 300 but Sandridge is sheltered from the hot, northerly wind.  The beach is quiet, only about a dozen people are scattered around the sand and a few are in the water.  There is the sound of traffic in the background and occasionally, the squawk of a seagull.  A couple of kayaks glide languidly through the deep green water and a couple of kids splash around in the shallows.  A single red giraffe crane looms above Webb Dock. At any moment, white legs might disappear into the green water.

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A squad of young men in fire truck-red shorts are doing some sort of training. Swimming between yellow markers a few metres off shore and running between others impaled further up the beach. They gather on the shore to listen to the trainer’s instructions. He is upright, muscled. Fit and balding, gold chain and blue Speedos. A thinning crop of white chest hair. He explains the manoeuvres carefully to the thirteen young men, who are beginning to flag in the heat. Instructive, even-voiced and clear. He sprints back and forth to consult with two other men and to re-position plastic sticks and discs in the sand. The young men lie face down in the sand, heels together, elbows bent, hands beneath chin and heads down. On the word go, they leap up and scramble to retrieve a stick spiked into the sand about ten metres away. There are more sticks than boys and those that failed have another go, grinning at each other.

The water is calm but not cold. I am hesitant about swimming all the way out to the yellow marker about 200 metres off shore. I tell myself I am worried about being sliced to ribbons by a jet ski but in truth, that’s not really the reason. In the end I swim about half way then change course and swim across toward the beach berm built from black, volcanic rock and then head back in to shore. Surfacing, I catch the eye of another swimmer in a wetsuit, wading through the shallows. We smile and start chatting. He has travelled from Sunbury for a swim but is interested in the Williamstown group, preferring to find people to swim with. And here’s the difference between pool swimming and open water swimming. In the pool, swimmers are self-absorbed, concentrating on their stroke. They rarely talk to one another and concentrate on getting the laps done. A boy could certainly fall out of the sky unnoticed at a public pool while someone else is just swimming dully along. It’s different at the beach. There is a shared love of swimming in the sea, the sun or the cold, the excitement and sheer joy of the third thing.

Back on the beach the young men are finishing up. The trainer claps and congratulates them. Well done. They look pleased but keen to be relieved of the hot sand.

A Middle Eastern family has set up camp under the wooden shelter. They are well equipped for the day with a beach tent, a fluorescent green umbrella, fold up table and an enormous esky. A small child, entrapped, hangs from a sling within a circular plastic contraption and three boys run back and forth between the camp and the water’s edge. The father sits at the table munching a sandwich. The mother is covered from head to toe in a purple Islamic swim suit.

It’s getting hot so I decide to have another swim, this time out to the marker, encouraged by the thought of the man still in the water. A little bit of critical mass. Swimming out is fine but when I reach the buoy and look back toward the beach it seems like a really long way, in spite of knowing that it’s only a couple of hundred metres. A moment of fear creeps in when I realise that I am without the buoyancy of a wetsuit. It’s a reminder of how dangerous water can be. I turn around and head back to shore, upping the pace to make it happen a bit quicker and focussing on the green umbrella in the distance. Progress seems slow through the bottomless yellow green and I swallow a few mouthfuls of saltwater but eventually, coils of sand worms and the rippled sea floor come into focus.

The squad of young men in the red shorts is just dispersing from the changing rooms. Chatting to one of the trainers I discover that they are a soccer team, in the State league third from the top. But they can’t progress and the coach in the blue Speedos has been brought in to work with them. He is German and specialises in this sort of thing.

“The team has it in them”, says the trainer, “the German will get it out”.

It’s all about mind, a psychological barrier endemic in the team. The trainer is confident that they can and will do better. His faith is touching. The young men are clearly a bunch of working class kids mostly from Middle Eastern backgrounds. I voice my reluctance about swimming alone out to the marker but he’s not having any of it. He clearly thinks that this is ridiculous.

“What’s there to worry about”?

I mumble something about an irrational and unfounded fear of sharks, since it seems too complicated and out of place to explain my anxieties. He opts for a rational explanation to do with sharks being found only in the channel at the heads. Except during the dredging, when some strayed into the outer reaches of the bay. This is not all that comforting, I didn’t think there were any sharks at all in the bay. I am about to point out that I’ve just swum about fifty times further than any of the young men and am old enough to be his mother, but instead I wish the team well and we say good bye. Thanks guys, he says. Don’t think his mind’s been on the job. Maybe the German will have better luck.

Later in the year I swim at Sandridge with Tony one Sunday morning, a cold and bleak day, the only swimmers in the water on a deserted beach other than a couple of life savers messing about with an inflatable boat.  We swim to one of the yellow markers then across to another one and back again, then into shore.  I remember the day in summer when I met the other swimmer, Mike, now a good friend.

It had rained the night before and the water is a little cloudy, although with enough clarity to see for a metre or so beneath the surface.  Emerging from the water, we agree that on days like this, gloomy, with no-one else in the water or on the beach, it wouldn’t take much to feel afraid.  Suddenly and shockingly afraid.   An unexpected shadow cast by the sun disappearing suddenly behind a cloud, or a wad of seaweed appearing at the periphery of vision.

I think the sea provides expression for a fear of nature which I believe sits beneath the conscious surface.  Most Australians have very little experience of landscape but everyone goes to the beach.  But fear of sharks is a fundamental part of the psychological landscape of the beach.  Not drowning, sunstroke, or polluted water but fear of some unknown aspect of nature which in truth, is at best remote but more likely, impossible.   Perhaps it’s a lack of control over the environment, sometimes there is residual unease that stays with even some of the most experienced, veteran swimmers.  For me, being able to see through the water at this time of the year has added a dimension of curiosity to swimming.  Knowing what lies beneath the surface has stripped away some of the uneasiness.  But unable to see beneath the surface, swimming becomes an act of faith.

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Kilt factor high

People ask why I have to gone Glasgow for a holiday, which I haven’t. I’m a bit taken aback by this so mutter something about how friendly and nice it is. It’s true. Men in lane ways, barking down mobile phones, aggravated, sucking on a cigarette and glancing sideways. They all have crew cuts and pink cheeks. Good stuff in the shops and music in the streets; a mix of hipster, poverty, and the genteel; old fashioned courtesy, energy.

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Scotland clashes with Serbia this weekend and Glasgow is filled with kilted football devotees. Men, women and kids all kilt-kitted, topped off with sports shirts. A party atmosphere prevails. By evening, everyone has retired to the bar. It was a nil-all draw. Glaswegians take it on the chin and get on with the business of laughing and drinking.

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Buildings are weighty in Glasgow. Pink sandstone, neo-classical, framing Glasgow’s merchant precinct. At its edge, toward the eastern end of the city, they are replaced by ramshackle shops and houses around the Barras market. The interstices of the streetscape are filled with poverty, mental illness and pregnant teenagers.

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A few people wander around Glasgow University on Saturday afternoon. A small group of Asian students and some Americans. The sound of traffic is muted in the distance. Green lawns, elms and oaks. Iron-framed leadlight, turrets piercing the sky, elegant cloisters and quadrangles.

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Next morning, most of the football fans are in jeans but still cheerful and tucking in to the all you can eat breakfast.

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At St Mungos Cathedral, the Sunday morning congregation lingers over tea in paper cups. Approaching the nave, my passage is blocked, politely but firmly by a middle-aged woman who gently informs me that the cathedral is closed to tourists during services. I hope that as a lapsed Presbyterian, an exception might be made. The woman gives me a look as if to say she’s heard it all before. It’s Health and Safety, she says. We chat for a bit but she has the vacant smile of the religious. She gives me a photocopied information sheet, with our love she says.

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After a quick spin around the Museum of Religious Life and the oldest house in Scotland, it’s off to Buchanan Street then to Jura by bus. The journey begins in the usual way, waiting in queues with backpack growing heavier by the minute, but there is an affable, congenial air among the travellers.

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A few hours later the bus arrives at Lochgilphead, then there is a taxi to Tayvallich and the ferry to Jura. The ferry is actually a speedboat and I share it with three obnoxious English public school types and their Sloanish woman companion. They load on boxes of French champagne and reminisce, loudly, about ‘last year’. Their forced, self-conscious humour suggests they are a little nervous about the crossing. This is played out later on.

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Through a two metre swell, rain pelts down on the boat. As it crashes between crest and trough, Jura emerges. Embroidered with white cottages along the sea front, the distillery and pub, the grey Paps and low, dark clouds. The weather doesn’t look so good.

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The hotel is warm and comfortable though and the smell of malt from the distillery drifts in through the open window in my room.

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Later, I can only remember, with clarity, the size of the jellyfish in the Corryvreckan.  At the time, I thought they were all different sizes but that was only because they were floating along in layers of currents, in their jellyfish world, at different depths.  The Corryvreckan is 70 metres deep, reputedly, and the water is crystal clear; the smallest jellyfish were really the ones at greatest depth.

We waited in line to jump into the water, as the boat lurched from side to side.  Jean first, nonchalantly stepping overboard and calmly breast stroking away but making absolutely no progress and under threat of being washed up on the rocks, oblivious to the shouts from the boat to swim faster.  The rest of us jumped in one by one, slower swimmers first.  Even now I can’t believe that I swam the 1.4 kilometres to the other side, especially since I know now how tough it is swimming in choppy water and not knowing that the weakness in my legs was anxiety.  Julia swam with me and Iain returned and swam circles to stay with us.  We had 40 minutes to get to the other side before the tide changed and the whirlpool returned to life.

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A day later, after the next, longer swim between Scarba and Luing was cancelled at the half way mark owing to bad weather, we revisited the Corryvreckan.  Turned toward the stinging, salty spray and clutching the side of the boat, the group stared in disbelief at enormous, white-capped waves swept up out of the swirling steel-grey water, released like some unchained, roaring creature from the depths beneath.  Each day, within only an hour or so of the tide changing, the remarkable transformation dramatically plays out within a unique confluence of current, tide and the topography of the submerged coasts of Scarba and Jura.  The boat skimmed and shied over the waves at its periphery, advancing then retreating as Duncan manoeuvred away from the thrashing beast to the safety of the rocky Scarba coastline, where the rough sea from the day before seemed suddenly ordinary.

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Swimming in Switzerland

One a hot day in France, Anna and I decided to head to Switzerland for a swim. Baguettes, cheese, fruit and beer, picnic rug, sunscreen, a book or two were tossed into day packs and we were off. The day before, we had walked along stony alpine tracks to Lac Blanc above the Chamonix valley. It was hot but the views were breathtaking. We stopped for lunch at a smaller lake just before the main lake where salamanders floated on the surface like tiny plastic bath toys. At the lakeside cafe we downed a coke then sauntered back to the carpark and drove home to Ségny, the small village beneath the Jura where Anna and Seb live.

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At Lac Léman we spread out on the grass under Tilia trees suspended between the end of flowering and fruit formation, too late to collect the mildly sweet blossoms for tea. Mid-week sunbathers, mostly middle aged couples, single men or women, mothers and children stood chatting on the shore or lay on the grass in that meditative, freshwater state. Yachts were anchored and stationary, in the distance the Jet d’Eau monotonously spurted an endless stream of water into the void, planes cruised noiselessly into Geneva airport. Time standing still.

The lake is aquamarine and beautifully translucent; the water cool but seductive. Inevitably, a pontoon was anchored about twenty metres off shore but getting into the water meant navigating the sharp stones which blanketed the shoreline and grew into even more painful larger pebbles, until the water was deep enough to start swimming. A slow breaststroke out then back to beer and baguettes on the rug.

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The next day it was time to head off for a while so I travelled down to Annecy, south of Geneva but still part of the Haute-Savoie, before catching the train back to Chamonix and ultimately, the Aguille du Midi by cable car and a telecabine ride over the alps for a brief but memorable visit to Italy. The trip was a few hours with a change of trains at St Gervais les Bains to a single track metre gauge line.

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Most passengers were tourists, slightly anxious that something might go wrong and they would end up in another part of France altogether. I chose a seat in an almost empty carriage and opened my book. A few minutes later a man in about his early forties sat in the seat beside me. His manner was cheerful and courteous but slightly assertive and it was clear that he intended to sit right next to me, in spite of there being another thirty or so unoccupied seats. I was taken aback and slightly annoyed, although not unpleased to have some company. He asked if I minded that he had occupied the seat. He realised immediately that I was not French so switched to English, in that self conscious way that the French have, always the perfectionists, when they converse with a native speaker.

He was an engineer working in Iceland, returning to his home town of Chamonix to visit family. After a while he explained why he had chosen this seat. I had only vaguely noticed that in addition to the large windows lining the sides of the carriage, glass panels connected the roof and the walls, to maximise the view of the surrounding mountains. The train climbed steadily upwards and the broadleaved forests and river valleys gave way to steeper slopes cloaked in conifer forest. Unwittingly, I had chosen the best seat in the carriage. This man had done the trip many times but his anticipation grew as the train climbed up the narrow gauge track. The late afternoon sun streamed into the carriage as we chatted. Blue blue sky and clear air; snowy mountain peaks appearing above deep green. A happiness settled over the man and I found myself going home as well, in a foreign country with a stranger, sharing his connection with place.

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South Melbourne

9.06 Sunday morning, August 2012.  First sea swim, Port Phillip Bay in winter.  It’s 11 degrees and grey.  Into a plastic box go wetsuit, towels, goggles.  The idea of being in the water is seductive; curiosity, excitement and the idea that this may be a good thing to do on Sunday mornings outweigh the not insubstantial anxiety of the new.  I like the idea of getting in the water but am little frightened again, maybe of the cold but I’m not sure exactly.  Just do it.  The first step.  Not what will happen next.  Just the immediacy of each bit of this new thing.  So I head to the bay determined.

Through the half empty streets of the city, damp after last night’s rain; past the King Street brothels, clubs and disused office blocks transformed into backpacker joints, then down Kings Way, past the State swim centre to South Melbourne Beach.  Along Albert Road, ornamental plum trees are in blossom.  The sky lightens toward the beach.

I search for a spot to park, somewhere that I can get changed.  On the Esplanade, a group of disheveled young men hang around an unlit barbeque on the wet grass, stubbies half empty or fallen on the grubby brick edging grey and discoloured by grease.  I drive on a couple of hundred metres and find a spot to park outside the South Melbourne lifesaving club.  Get my wetsuit on and walk down to the water.

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There is not a single other swimmer to be seen.  Plenty of walkers, joggers, beach volley ball enthusiasts and dogs, a group of sea kayakers down near Kerferd Road pier and at Port Melbourne in the opposite direction, the Spirit of Tasmania moored at Station Pier.  It seems solitary after the cameraderie and familiarity of the pool but conditions are perfect.  Flat, metallic sea surface.  No wind.  Clumps of brown seaweed roll with the wash along the shoreline, slimy underfoot.  I nearly slip, caught unaware after the friction of sand.  But it’s a treat to be barefoot and to feel the textures of the sea and later, I remember the nautilus shell that Louis and I found here ten years ago.

The second I am in the water my feet are chilled to the bone.  But the wetsuit is brilliant; nicely buoyant and completely blocking the sheer coldness of the water.  Hands and face feel the chill but after a dozen or so strokes seem to equilibrate with the water temperature.  Once in, the water is thick and brown and I am more worried about being poisoned than getting cold.  So dense and treacly that I can’t see my hands.  Kerferd Road pier doesn’t look too far away and it’s easy to swim in the wetsuit.  I pick out a tall apartment block in the distance to sight and swim toward it.  It’s easy to get into a rhythm but hard to sustain and keep the building in sight as well.  It’s annoying and even after a dozen or so strokes, easy to run off course.  Although after a while I start to relax and enjoy the swim.

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On the way back, losing sight again, I nearly run into a group of young men in shorts, footballers I’m guessing, huddled but cheerful, standing ten or fifteen metres in from the shore for no apparent reason.  Fifty metres further along, another identical group is gathered, arms crossed and hugging torsos, waiting for instructions.  I think I am a welcome distraction.  They must be freezing.

Back at South Melbourne, I am so pleased with myself that it’s effortless to walk up the beach and back to the car.  Mantled in cold but still buoyant from the water, it occurs to me that now I have a wetsuit I can swim any time I like.  It seems ludicrous not to have thought of it before.  Strip off in the shabby concrete changing rooms, rinse under a thin stream of cold water and pack my stuff back into the plastic box.  I am elated. It’s 10.34.  Swimming at the end of the day sets wrongs to right; swimming at the beginning of the day sets its course.

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Madame Butterfly

The Point Leo Swim Classic is held on Boxing Day. There are two main races, the five kilometre and the 1.2 kilometre race; a beach run of four kilometres and a nippers’ swim over four hundred metres. The race is beginning just as I arrive and take a vantage point on top of a sand dune. The starting gun goes off and swimmers race to the water, crashing through the waist-high waves close to the shore, then seaborne and away, a peloton of thrashing arms and legs.

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Almost immediately, one swimmer is far ahead and soon after that, two others are neck and neck in second and third place. Three enormous red plastic inflatable cubes mark the apices of the broadly triangular course, with smaller red markers in between to keep the competitors on track. Each lap is just over a kilometre, four laps complete the course. The remaining forty-seven swimmers soon spread out, ploughing their way between the first and second markers but as they head out toward the third, occasionally disappear in the swell. The leader is going to take about fifteen minutes to swim a lap, a crew of life savers in a blue kayak keeping pace alongside.

But then, bizarrely, it seems there is one swimmer doing butterfly. Life guards cluster around on boards and kayaks. The announcer sees this at the same time and with disbelief, alerts the crowd over the loudspeaker. Everyone on the beach is enthralled: five kilometres of butterfly is an heroic feat and for a while, attention is deflected away from the leader who is now on the second lap and about to overtake the slower swimmers yet to finish the first. Smooth, powerful strokes, breath on each and unflagging rhythm. The butterflier curves and crests above the water.

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Spectators accumulate on the beach, untidy clusters of teenagers lie face down on towels, and competitors ready for the next race mill around talking to each other, or look intently out to sea. The surf lifesaving club has set up blue, white and orange marquees around the finishing line. A couple sitting near me on the sand dune, just downslope, are arguing. The woman is barely controlling her voice.

“I wasn’t being difficult. I was trying to be both things to both families”.

He turns from her, feigning disinterest but eventually, he argues back. The wind carries his voice away. Then she is on her feet, kicking sand out her Birkenstocks and leaning over him, thrusts her arms forward as if about to place her hands on his shoulders. They fall short in mid-air, outstretched and rigid, but unanchored. Speech leaves her and abruptly, she walks off. He stares out to sea, trying to pretend nothing has happened, then gets up and leaves as well, his stroll determinedly casual.

The butterflier is about half way around the second lap. But the announcer has run out of things to say and the crowd is bored with the pace now. The breeze has picked up, lifting the red plastic cubes out of the water but the lead swimmer is powering through the fourth lap, focussed, internal. The blue kayak sticks faithfully close. Suddenly, he is upright and at the shore, running across the wet sand to the finish line. The crowd cheers. Sam Sheppard is barely out of breath. He competes at national level and training for a ten kilometre swim in a couple of weeks. It’s serious business.

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The next two swimmers are out of the water a few minutes later. They are the crowd favourites and have swum inseparably throughout the entire course. The second place getter wins on the sprint up the beach. He is 32, the other is a 14 year old boy. Both are exhausted. The older swimmer is congratulatory and cheerful, the younger stunned and seasick. It was a remarkable effort. The boy joins his parents on a sand dune and curious, I walk up to him a little while later to congratulate him on the swim but by now, his father, in a broad Glaswegian accent, is talking him up for the 1.2 kilometre race in an hour’s time.

The announcer reminds the nippers to find their goggles and caps before they make their way, with anxious parents, to their race which is about to start further up the beach. The gun goes off and they scramble to the water, frantically swimming flat-out around the four hundred metre course. But the crowd’s attention is mainly on the adult swimmers, still finishing the five kilometre race. One by one, or in small groups, they emerge from the sea and cross the finish line. At one hour 50 minutes, two are still in the water with about two hundred metres to go and seven minutes later, a young woman, perhaps about thirty, and an older man in his sixties stagger out of the water together. He wraps himself in a towel printed with the Australian flag. She slumps against a sand dune, reaches into a day pack and starts sending text messages.

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The butterflier will be the last to finish. Arms, wing like, arc over the water, perfectly imitating the insect for which the stroke is named. Torso rising above the water, legs fishtailing, disappearing every now and again in the rising swell. Finally, eventually, a woman emerges from the water and jogs to the finish line. Ignoring the crowd, she looks around to find her way through the marquees and back to the sand but is approached by the announcer for an interview. After the long wait for the finish, everyone on the beach is waiting to hear what she has to say.

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“It’s just what I do. Five kilometres is my minimum training distance”.

The crowd is disappointed, hoping for an insight into why someone chooses to go against the grain and swim such a gruelling race, knowing they will come not only last but last by a long, long way.  Understandably tired and probably bored with the same old questions, she turns from the announcer to find her towel.  Later, I bump into Sue from the swimming group, getting ready to compete in the shorter race which is about to start. She mentions “that bird” who did the butterfly. I am appalled.

I decide to buy a coffee while I wait for the 1.2 kilometre swim to start. The warring couple are running the kiosk. They are very busy. She darts around coordinating the kitchen orders and counter staff while he is stationed at the cash register. I have to tell him three times which sort of coffee I want and am irritated by his vacuity. I decide to take it down to the beach with a bacon and egg sandwich from the surf living saving club stall. Mistakenly, I jump the queue and get told off.

It’s not the Peninsula of my youth and I wonder how many locals are on the beach.  Later, I am relieved to be home in the city. But the feeling remains for a while and is hard to shake.