“Wind batters me, waves hit me – I don’t care.”
— Mao Tse-Tung, ‘Swimming’.
It is a fact not commonly known that in 1966, just over a month after swimming for an hour in the Yangtse at Wuhan – for the purpose of ending rumours about alleged ill health – Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, the Great Helmsman of the Chinese Socialist Revolution, took a dip in the Bristol Channel.
I was a young boy of six, visiting my mother’s mother in Bath. We always took a steam train from Newport to the very edge of Wales, and when we got there, we transferred ourselves over to a boat, which sauntered smokily from Beachley to Aust, where we embarked upon another train. And thus did the slowness of time make itself apparent. Until eventually, just before it was time to return home, we arrived in Lower Weston for just long enough to rush through the house, wonder about the insouciant mothball smell in the air, sit on the rusting scooter in the back garden (wearing a crash helmet as big as an industrial wok), play George Best’s Scored Another Goal beneath the wisteria, kiss Nan and her fluttering husband goodbye, and race back to Wales the way we’d come. In reverse.
Once, we went over (more than a visit from one country to another, it was virtually a voyage across Hades) with my mother’s father’s wife (phew, our family is riddled with divorce). She happened to be drunk at the time, and dropped her handbag over the side of the boat into the murky waters of the Severn estuary. Its small, lazy peaks were brain-grey, but the liquid beneath them was wine-dark, like the sweet sherry she favoured.
I saw and heard it spring itself over, like a lame suicide. Her voice was high and hound-like when it went. Her glasses reflected what little sun there was, and for a moment I missed the fall of the thing, regaining my clear vision just in time to see the bag slip into the channel like a cormorant into the Yellow River after lithe carp.
Her vowels were Brynglas through and through. As if being on top of a small hill made her mighty, she exclaimed the loss of her bag like she was Sir Walter Scott talking of Byron at the moment of his passing: “It is as if the sun has gone out.” In fact, it was nothing of the sort: we all had a good laugh.
Now when I look back to that moment (and it was almost forty years ago), I imagine that handbag, brown or black, crocodile or leather, plastic, riding slowly to the river bed, anchoring itself on an old wreck, and waiting. Waiting, until, 25 years later, young Richey falls from the bridge, bound in an angelic cocoon of loneliness, and sinks in almost that same spot. Drifts somewhat, sinks obliquely, and meets the handbag. They tangle, and he meets his maker with Maisie’s handbag on his torn forearm, like a more magnificent Queen Mother. Bless him.
But all of this is a mere digression. The background to my story of the Great Helmsman and his traversing of the Bristol Channel (why do we not have our own name for this stretch of water, like the French have theirs for the English Channel? Perhaps ‘The Portskewett Wash’?).
On this particular visit, the train journey went as planned, and we all – mother, step-father, and I – alighted from the carriage into a plume of white steam enveloping the platform like fog on a Rangoon morning. Walked to the boat, and sat on the wooden bench which mimicked the curve of the vessel’s white stern. Worn, smooth slatted timber, like driftwood from years of spray, salty or not. Giant lollipop sticks, from mammoth Fab or SkyRay lollies.
(I still have my Wall’s Captain’s Moonfleet Log Book: in it, I discover that on the 7th December 1966 I was 3′ 7″ tall, and that for “Only 5/11d – and 2 Sky Ray wrappers” I could have been the proud owner of a SUPER MOON FLEET SPACE JACKET!) How stylish I’d have looked then, crossing that channel, positively millennial: so 21st Century. However, it was not to be.
Back to the story in hand. The boat filled up with people, with cars, and slowly edged away from the jetty for the short hop over to England. These journeys must occasionally have been quite rough, sawing as they did at right-angles across the incoming or outgoing tide, which at this stretch of river has always been fast, and moody.
Like both of my wives, when I first met them. But no more.
We crossed, we disembarked, and amidst containers at the dockside, I was photographed running towards whoever held the camera and was watching my every step. There are cranes in the background, pale like the boat, and although it is a bright sunny day, my mother is behind me wearing a head scarf. How we got from there to Lower Weston I don’t know, but we always did. Perhaps we even stopped the night there in Bath – this would certainly explain how the whole visit was manageable in a single day.
It is the return trip, back to Newport, I remember so vividly on this occasion though. We’d arrived at Aust ready for the crossing. It was another breezy but quite fine day, clouds curlicued, Romanesque, butting sunshine.
There were more people than usual milling about. Someone said there was a film being made at the small beach just upriver from where we then stood, and that as some of the filming was to be done on the Channel itself, the boat would be delayed for as long as possible: no more than an hour though, as the tide determined our crossing. And as we know, it waits for no man. Or woman.
Some people strolled up to see what was happening, and we went with them.
The people being filmed were Chinese. This much I guessed from seeing their unusual clothing, and from the fact that several of them were holding up little flags. I’d used such flags myself at Barry Island for topping off sandcastles. A packet of paper and match-wood flags began my long history of travelling far and wide. It’s why, when I stood in Tiannanmen Square once, I was thinking of my father plunging me into the dark water of Cold Knap, closely followed by a large football. It was an August moon cascading to Earth, propelled by my father, who had such power after all.
So I knew what a Chinese flag looked like, even then.
Little flashes of red splashed against the blue sky in a dance of primary colours, and I began to pick up the excitement whistling through the air. We went nearer, and were alongside these people. Altogether, there must have been almost a hundred people there, including these dozen or so Chinese men in their navy suits, and their plain flat caps with little stars on the front. I always associate Chinese people with sternness; as if they hold the weight of the world upon their shoulders. But that day, every one of them held a flag (some of them a bunch in each hand – like posies of flowers, red and gold), and had such beaming smiles on their faces that I thought they must be ill. Or had just been told a very funny joke.
At the water’s edge a smaller group of Chinese people I hadn’t noticed before were paddling in the brown water, stepping quickly, as if acclimatizing themselves to the coldness of it. Or as if avoiding tiny snapping turtles, like in the Ganges. They all wore identical blue swimming shorts, and I noticed that unlike my father (with whom I swam in the sea in Barry every summer) their chests were completely hairless, like mine. Though it never occurred to me that they might just be very big children, I must have thought it.
One man in particular caught my attention. He was in the middle of the group, and the others seemed to be deferring to him; protecting him from non-existent danger. Perhaps I imagined this, but some of the men did not look like they enjoyed a dip in the river.
I let my hand slip out of my mother’s, and I moved closer to the man for a better look. It was obvious then that he was the centre of attention here, and for some reason everyone had come to see him. A cine camera filmed his every breath, but I couldn’t take my eyes off an enormous mole on his chin. I crept nearer, unsure if I was welcome there. I ran back to my mother and asked if I could paddle too. But before she could answer, I’d taken off my brown leather sandals and my socks, and was testing the water along with the group (I was wearing stripy shorts – reversible -, as usual).
I edged nearer the man with the mole, and another man saw me, put a hand on my shoulder – not nastily, because he smiled at me; but firmly nonetheless. He spoke to me but I couldn’t understand at first what he was saying because of his accent. I remember giggling, though I knew I shouldn’t have, because he seemed to be speaking English out of his nose.
This attracted the attention of the man with the mole, and he spoke to the man whose hand rooted me to the spot.
He spoke more slowly to me then, more clearly, and I saw his lips move: The Chairman wishes to speak with you. I looked back at my mother, who had come alongside us, and she said that would be OK. So I walked the few yards to him, toes dipping into the water where it came ashore. The froth of the Severn pushed me. Saw the man’s stern face as I approached, until I was right in front of him, our toes next to each other in the muddy water, invisible, as though each of us had lost our feet and were balancing on ankles.
He smiled at me and I forgot everything: it was such a strong, powerful smile, that words seemed to be formed just by its being there. He put a hand on my shoulder, and I realised how very different a hand could be: this was steadying, reassuring, almost spiritual, whereas the other man’s hand was like a teacher’s: restricting, possibly unkind, but necessary.
The Chairman was fat. His hair was swept back, dark, tinged grey, and that mole was almost out of view now that I was looking up. His chin jutted out, obscuring it, though when he talked he looked at me, and I tried not to stare. His forehead was very high, and I remember thinking how smooth it looked, almost like the timber slats of the ferry’s benches.
I asked him what he was doing, and he said – more clearly than the first man – that he was going for a swim.
‘In there?’ I exclaimed, because I wouldn’t have wanted to go in. He laughed, and I saw the cameraman film us together while he patted my shoulder, which by now felt about six inches lower than the other one.
‘Are you going to swim over there?’, I asked him, pointing across the river to the other side. Then he laughed even louder.
And with that, he ruffled my hair and turned away, walking slowly into the Bristol Channel, followed by half a dozen other Chinese men, and watched by a crowd of others waving their little red flags. All of it captured on film, as I suppose I had been. When the Chairman was in up to his knees, he looked around, and caught my eye. He laughed, made a shivering mime, and waved to me before turning away again. I realise now that he was very much like another man I have since seen: the Dalai Lama.
And looking back, although one of them is now perceived to be happy, kindly, and beneficent, and the other something of a tyrant, they really don’t seem essentially that different. Behind both their eyes, there was an unmistakable spark of power: an importance, perhaps this ‘weight of the world’ I spoke of earlier. And though the Dalai Lama has never put his hand on my shoulder, other people, other gods, have, and they were no different from Mao’s.
Just after this wave, my mother told me that we had to go back to the boat as it was due to leave, though how she would have known this is uncertain. I dragged my feet, which by now were back inside their socks, their brown sandals, eager to slow our return from the scruffy beach. Each time I looked back, I could see less of the swimmer. Until, when we reached the road again, all I could see was his head above the water, like a football drifting with the tide after George Best had booted it in.
He stayed close to the shore, and didn’t seem to even attempt crossing the channel and setting foot in Wales. Perhaps the currents were too strong.
I saw his chin jutting up out of the water, and upon it, like a small beacon, that mole. I watched for a few moments more, before he – and the group of flag-wavers – were out of sight. I don’t remember much else about that day. The benches were the same as the day before, the noise of the engine was as overwhelming as it had been on other occasions, and the cloud of smoke that emanated from the boat’s funnel was as black as that of the train was white.
I looked for him from the boat, but we were too far downstream. I like to think that after his swim, before he was whisked into his car and driven back to wherever it was he had come from that day, he looked over towards Welsh land, and for a moment at least became lost in thoughts of home: of mountains and their own, cleaner rivers. Columns of mountains supporting the sky.
Shortly after my adventure, the Severn Bridge opened, and the ferry service stopped.
And thinking of that day, those events, I often think that when my time comes, I’d like what’s left of me to be scattered at that very spot, when the tide was sawing towards Wales. And I think of a line the swimmer wrote about an earlier swim:
Dying – going into the past – is like a river flowing.
Historical note: On July 16th, 1966, Chairman Mao Tse-Tung swam for an hour in the Yangtse to deny rumours about his health. He was 73 years old, and was joined by 10000 other swimmers, whilst 200000 people watched him from the river bank. A couple of days later, the Cultural Revolution began.
Illustration Claire Palmer