Look at Life: Torpedoes in Speedos

10th March 2017

Living Life in the Medium Lane

By Deborah Mulhearn

Why does everything have to be a competition? Every time I turn on the television or open a webpage, people are competing for something. Singing, dancing, sewing, cooking, baking, painting, gardening: pleasurable pursuits that have been turned into competitive sports. ‘Hobby’ seems a quaint word now to describe what we used to do outside of working hours.

This culture of competition has percolated from (or to) the ‘real’ world, where you are somehow a failure if you don’t have the latest Smartphone or get your child into the ‘right’ school. From Bake Off to Brexit, everything is either an actual competition, or couched in the language of winning and losing. Sometimes the effort invested in winning can be worthwhile. But often it isn’t. Yet not to win is a sin.

Even the language of failure has been appropriated to mean its opposite. I keep seeing the phrase ‘fail better’. It’s used as an upbeat mantra by the messiahs of the corporate world. If we fail, we have to fail better. It’s the path to success, which is what we want to be on, right? It’s human nature to compete, isn’t it? It’s ironic that this paradoxical exhortation comes from a short story by absurdist Irish writer Samuel Beckett, who wrote about futility, failure and our comical lack of self-knowledge.

Take an example… For some reason I never learned to swim. I was afraid… I couldn’t put my head under the water, and I wouldn’t go out of my depth. So, recently, feeling ashamed by my failure and my fears, I took some lessons at my local pool. It turns out I was fine, just lacking confidence. I had what the instructor called ‘natural buoyancy’ – something to do with body position in the water. This cheered me up no end, and gave me the motivation to keep going. To fail better, as it were.

I started in the pleasant shallows of the family pool. It was only 20m, and I could stand up at the deep end. I enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere and the camaraderie of the different groups. But soon I started to feel ever so slightly irritated by people who weren’t swimming straight or fast enough, or who weren’t swimming at all but standing around the edges gossiping and getting in the way. Most irritating were the people who were – God forbid – messing about. I realised I needed to move up…

The big pool is Olympic-sized – scary and deep and cold. But I wanted to improve, so I forced myself in. Lane swimming is divided thus: Slow for the less confident and anyone who doesn’t want to get their hair wet; Medium 1 for the more practised swimmers who are fairly good (or think they are); Medium 2 for those who actually are good; and Fast, which is self explanatory – for the serious swimmers who move elegantly through the water like benign exocet missiles.

This four-lane water highway is designed to keep everyone moving and avoid collisions. But, as on the road, everything gets muddled up. People inevitably find themselves in the wrong lanes, because, in reality, everyone who is not the slowest or the fastest is in the middle. And people behave in the pool pretty much as they do in their cars.

You have the lane hogs going slower than they should, and the cutter uppers who want to get ahead, even though they are only going to turn round and swim back again. Worst are the equivalent of the white van man – the torpedoes in Speedos – who tailgate you or rudely overtake you, creating an unpleasant swell of chlorinated water in their wake. Yes, you with the mirrored goggles and the splashy uncoordinated arm motion, I’m talking about you.

We don’t have to be competing all the time. As Samuel Beckett sort of said, we can only ever fail better. It’s no coincidence that his grave in Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris is a simple, unadorned slab lying between huge and ornate Gothic gravestones and tombs with their elaborate sculptures and statues (yes, competitiveness extends even to the afterlife). If Beckett knew his enigmatic, unfathomable phrase had been mangled into a mundane motivational tool, he’d surely be groaning in his decidedly minimalist grave.

My swimming has improved. I have moved up to Lane 2, and while I’m sometimes nervous, I can see the benefits of being among faster swimmers because it urges me on.

Maybe I’m deluded, but I like to think that I’m only in competition with myself.

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