Caliban’s dream

I have never felt as uncomplicatedly patriotic as I did at the moment the letters N H S were spelled out in lights during the London 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony. 

I had been such an Olympic sceptic. I would tell anyone who would listen that it was an outrageous waste of money; that London’s transport infrastructure could not cope and would inevitably collapse; that I had no interest in sport, anyway.

The handover at the end of Beijing 2008 had prepared me to anticipate the worst. Into China’s glitz and splendour shuffled shabby, shambolic Boris Johnson, signalling: we will do this so much worse. Then the logo was so ugly, the mascots so bizarre. I was convinced it would be a disaster. 

I’d set myself up for an evening of snark, imagining that Twitter would be playing host to puns and wit and moments of collective WTFery – like Eurovision with more PE kits. 

I’d even purchased ironic snacks from Sainsbury’s, The Official Olympic Supermarket. Chocolate caramel shortbreads printed with that ugly logo, and fairy cakes topped with “a white chocolate flavoured compound”. Mmm… legally edible.

Lest you think I’m making this stuff up.

Then Danny Boyle, that beautiful sneaky genius of a man, presented this Opening Ceremony of such brilliance that I wept with delight until I was more drained of electrolytes than the athletes themselves would be over the course of the next three weeks. 

It is testament to the sheer irresistible loveliness of Mark and his family that I am able to maintain functional relationships with them without being overcome by all-consuming, debilitating envy knowing that they were there in person. (For realsies! I know!)

Then the whole shebang was just a delight, wasn’t it? I fell in love with each and every sportsperson, rooting for them all: superhuman and underdog alike. 

I’ve never been sporty. 

That’s an understatement. I’m improbably uncoordinated, aggressively inflexible, and lacking in both stamina and drive. 

During on PE lesson when I was 14 or so, we were supposed to be practicing the high jump. I could not even begin to understand how to make my body move in the way necessary to propel it over the bar. The whole class lined up, taking it in turns to leap onto the crash mat. In theory, each of us kept going for as long as we were clearing the bar, and it moved up a little on each rotation. I, of course, could not even make it over the lowest setting. My PE teacher insisted that I try again – to no avail. While others dropped out, she made me keep trying. The bar got higher, higher, higher and I ploughed straight into it over and over and over again. I think she genuinely believed that if I tried enough times it would eventually click. 

She was wrong, of course.

This week, for possibly the only time in my life, I have undertaken my NHS-recommended 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity. I can only attribute this out-of-character occurrence to some kind of latent Olympic neural programming, reawakened by the sporting heroics currently taking place in Rio.

On Monday, I went to my currently-beloved swing dancing class. It’s run by a jovial Italian man called Riccardo and a sparky, redheaded Canadian woman called Nancy. I’ve been going for six weeks or so, with a couple of my colleague-friends, and it’s really an enormous amount of fun. 

You spend an hour or so prancing around a sticky-floored bar, dancing for 90 seconds at a time with a succession of friendly strangers. There are some recurring characters we’ve come to know and love: the man whose parents wanted him to learn salsa “because grandchildren”; the woman with an endless array of novelty earrings; the man who is so floppy I am convinced that he may not have a single bone in his body. 

I am not particularly good, but as I bounce around I can convince myself that I am basically dancing this Charleston:

(Remember Strictly Dance Fever? I loved it so much more than I could ever love Strictly Come Dancing. It’s right up there in my heart with How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria/Joseph/Dorothy/Jesus).

From swing to spin.

A little while ago, someone I follow on Twitter posted super enthusiastically about her experience at BOOM Cycle. She – not terribly fit, lacking body confidence – had been to a session and had been surprised to find herself loving it. The instructor had been peppy without being patronising, encouraging the class to focus on themselves: their inner strength, their personal motivation for being there.

I created an account for myself on their website, and spent weeks receiving regular marketing emails to remind me: you have totally not been to one of these classes yet. 

I read dozens of blogs and reviews, all of which were tremendously positive. Finally, in a glow of post-swing endorphins, I stopped reading and actually booked a session.

You guys: spin is not for everyone. Specifically: spin is very much not for me.

I haven’t written about it much, but 4 years ago or so, my brain decided to make some room for a generalised anxiety disorder to move in. At its worst, I was struggling to get on public transport or make my way around a supermarket. Mostly, now, it’s less intense and I’ve learned how to cope when it does intensify. But there are still moments when I am gripped by complete terror in the most innocuous of situations. Its irrationality is the thing I hate about it most: a situation that I am in every single day – like getting on the tube – can become suddenly impossible.

When anxiety strikes, it feels like:

  • Things are in the wrong place; there are too many things moving in my peripheral vision.
  • Colours are too saturated.
  • Noises are incomprehensible, and too loud – an overwhelming wash of sound in which individual elements are indistinguishable, getting louder and louder.
  • My heart is beating too fast.
  • I am hot; getting hotter.
  • I can’t breathe.
  • I am trapped.

Going to spin class was like voluntarily inviting myself into a deliberately created anxiety attack.

The room is dark and made of mirrors and steps. You can’t tell where the studio ends and the reflections begin. Every movement that you or anyone else makes is duplicated in every corner of your vision.

The dim lighting makes the neon of the other riders’ workout lycra garish and surreal.

The music starts loud and gets louder. The instructor encourages you to ride to the beat; it is all you can do not to clamp your hands over your ears.

You cycle as hard as you can – you’ve paid money to be here, after all, and might as well get some value out of it – and your temperature and heart rate rise. You know, rationally, that everything is fine: that your heart is racing because you’re exercising, and that you’re in a safe space. But anxiety isn’t rational, and suddenly the positive energy of voluntary exercise is replaced by the similar but terrifying adrenaline rush of panic. 

And your feet are clamped into the bike, and nobody’s explained how to release them. You are literally, physically trapped. 


I wanted to love it, I really did. The rest of the class seemed to be having a great time. 

Let me channel Amy Poehler:

Spin if you wish. Spin if you must. But rest assured that I will not be joining you.

You know what creates the absolute opposite feelings to spinning, though? Swimming.

Yesterday I wandered happily through the streets of Belsize Park, making my way to Parliament Hill Lido. It’s a thing I’ve been meaning to do for years and years, since I was living in Archway and walking to Gospel Oak each morning to get on the Overground. I wish I hadn’t waited so long.

It’s a perfect piece of 1930s architecture – all neat curves and angles. The pool is lined with stainless steel, catching the sunlight and radiating sparkles. And the people! What a microcosm of loveliness. 

The three friends – one heavily pregnant – in goggles and Outdoor Swimming Society caps, putting in efficient, determined laps.

The bearded man who wasn’t Jeremy Corbyn but might as well have been, swimming a leisurely backcrawl.

The gorgeous black girl in a white cutout swimsuit, looking like she’d fallen straight from the pages of a fashion magazine, repeatedly dipping her toes in the water and recoiling in horror at the temperature.

The tweenagers on an awkward date.

The four little girls playing an elaborate, acrobatic diving game.

The succession of beautiful, bored teenage lifeguards. 

The woman, defiantly nude, luxuriating in the hot water in the communal showers. 

And me.

Plodding happily up and down the pool. Breathing deeply. Looking around; looking around.

How lucky I am to be alive right now. 


One comment

  1. Eleanor Gibson · August 14, 2016

    I simply cannot put into even vaguely sufficient words how much I loved this blogpost. Having lost at least an hour recently to your back-catalogue I thought I knew what to expect, I knew to take my time and savour every brilliant sentence but these sentences were even more enjoyable than I was expecting (especially the ones that loosely involved me). I feel like I was with you every step. xx


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