I was five or six when my father decided that it was time I learned to swim. So one Saturday morning we set out together for the lido in the park. It was located close to where the new swimming baths are, but was a wholly Victorian affair that smelled like piss and chlorine. We went to separate cubicles to change before he took me by the hand and lead me to the deep end of the pool where he threw me in.
I sank like a stone. The shock made me inhale the water which burned as it invaded my nose, throat and lungs. I thrashed around trying instinctively to propel myself to the surface, but my efforts were futile and I sank ever deeper. Suddenly, strong arms scooped me up and hauled me to the surface. The lifeguard had dived in to rescue me before I drowned. He laid me on the floor as I spluttered and coughed up the stinging chlorinated water. He made sure I was alright and then rounded on my dad.
“That was a bloody stupid thing to do – it only takes a minute to drown you know!”
My father went beetroot. I could see the anger and embarrassment in his face, but he said nothing. He just glowered at the lifeguard as if it was he who was doing something wrong. Without a word he hauled me to my feet and marched me to the changing cubicles. He maintained his silence as he dressed me roughly before dragging me homeward. It was some time before he spoke.
“Don’t you ever humiliate me like that again.”
Then, after a moment’s consideration he added;
“Don’t you tell yer mother about this.”
I grew up with a phobia of water; just being close to a body of water filled me with fear. It was my girlfriend Linda who taught me how to swim and she did it with great patience and consideration. I never did enjoy swimming, but at least I knew I wasn’t going to drown and the terror of being near the water gradually abated.
My father was a great believer in ‘tough love’ and he never spared the rod. All his lessons contained the threat of violence, if not physical then mental. All he taught me was to fear him which was partly his objective. He seemed to confuse fear with respect and the more respect he demanded the more fearful I became. Yes, tough love is no love at all; real love engenders forbearance and it’s forbearance which fosters respect.