Meditations on water

My lifelong affinity with water may stem from being born under the sign of Aquarius. It’s always been there. Rivers, canals, lakes, ponds and especially the sea, I’m magnetically drawn to them all. Had national service still been around on my reaching “call-up” age, I would undoubtedly have opted for the navy, like my dad before me. I remember vividly his tales of wartime service on the I-class destroyer, HMS Isis. The escort convoys, the depth-charging and sinking of the German submarine, U-562 in the Med in 1943, north-east of Benghazi. “We’d been chasing her for hours,” Dad told me. “Then when a depth charge finally got her, the sea seemed to boil. She came up straight as an arrow, fell back on her conning tower and went down like a stone. It was horrible to watch, no cheering, we were stunned. All those young boys like us, just gone.” Dad was later transferred to another vessel, before, on July 20 1944, the Isis struck a mine off the western sector of the Normandy landing beaches and sank, with the loss of eleven officers and 143 ratings.

The wartime good fortune of able seaman E J Rigby eventually led to his offspring enjoying annual caravan-park summer holidays at Clacton-on-Sea. Clacton then, was everything a holiday-hungry kid could dream of. A sandy beach, the pier, candy floss and ice cream, amusements, strings of coloured lights along the seafront at night, and most of all the sea. I would spend most of every day charging into the water, diving into the waves, perfecting my front crawl and then turning over to float on my back and gaze up at the sky, which, of course, was always blue. Meanwhile, back at the caravan park, at the van next to ours, grandad would sit outside in a deckchair, wearing just trousers and braces and snoozing under the Essex sun, while inside nan buttered mountains of white, sliced bread, for cheese and ham sandwiches, which she wrapped in greaseproof paper and brought down to the beach. No sandy sandwiches ever tasted better.

Water is precious, and its care and protection are imperative to not only humans, but also to the very survival of the planet

My passion for water is genuine and most certainly no splash-in-the-pan. Water has played a large part in my working life. A few years back, I wrote the scripts and songs for my own CBeebies Radio series, Waterways. After hearing one of the ten episodes, a mum listener was so enamoured with my song about the tide, with its repeated chorus of, Back and forward flows the sea, she posted on Twitter that the words and music had become her new meditation mantra, relieving her of stress and anxiety. I was delighted at the news and didn’t even ask for royalties. And in 2012 I was commissioned to be the official children’s author for the London Olympic and Paralympic Games. I wrote four novels, each set in a different sport of my choice. Naturally, one was centred on swimming, and for my research I met and interviewed a young athlete who had suffered life-changing injuries in an horrendous accident. She spoke of how sport had not been particularly special to her before the accident, but that exercising in water had become an essential part of her of rehabilitation. It led to her taking up swimming competitively, eventually becoming a member of the UK Paralympic team. Her words were humbling and inspirational and many made it into the novel, which I called Deep Waters.

The wonders of water are many. It can be restorative, cleansing, healing, refreshing, strengthening and calming. Water is precious, and its care and protection are imperative to not only humans, but also to our wildlife, the environment and the very survival of the planet. Which is precisely why I see red when I read about or see evidence of yet another river, lake or coastal resort being foully polluted with tons of raw sewage, due to yet another water company’s greed, negligence and commitment to putting the profits of shareholders before the good health of those waterways and of their customers. To top it all, they have the effrontery to tell customers it will cost billions to put these disasters right, and that since they won’t be paying, our bills will “unfortunately” go up. I am ever-thankful to celebrities like Fergal Sharkey, and others, who are constantly on the alert to name and shame offending companies – which seems to include virtually every single one.

I was distressed to find the water quality on part of my beloved Clacton beach is now classified as “poor” by the Environment Agency, a rating it has maintained for five consecutive years. The specific spot, known as Groyne 41, is currently judged as amongst the most polluted in England so bathing there is, unsurprisingly, not advised. It’s just west of the pier, precisely where we used to swim, sunbathe and eat our cheese and ham sandwiches all those years ago. This heart-breaking news makes me angry, not to mention anxious and stressed, so I’m afraid there’s only one remedy. Join me if you care to, and feel free, on this occasion, to make up your own tune. One, two, three, four: Back and forward flows the sea, Back and forward flows the sea, Back and forward…

Robert Rigby is a journalist, author, scriptwriter and musician

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August / September 2023, Life, Sport

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