Hi de hi!

4 October, 2021

Since the summer opened her arms with a sunny welcome, and the lifting of Covid restrictions have permitted, I have taken to visiting a local lido whenever I can to start my day with an outdoor swim. It is very beautiful there. Built in the 1920’s, the art deco lido rests easy on the eye, mountains hug the valley sides, the sky is enormous. There’s no-where I’d rather be at 6am.

Despite the charms, what with work and school drop off commitments, I can’t go too often, but as my visits slowly clocked up, I began to notice the lido regulars. Two in particular caught my attention. As I wavered up and down the pool, trying to politely avoid collisions with my fellow swimmers, the two regulars in question ploughed up and down in rod-straight lines. These women seemed to have an iron grip on their endeavour and gave way to no-one. They were some of the oldest people in the pool and as they spoke together I could hear from their accents they were locals. I assumed that their swimming enacted their sense of entitlement to space in the lido pool. This I could grudgingly accept. After all, they had probably swum in this pool since they were little girls.

Contented with my understanding and acceptance, I swam on until, after a little while longer and resting a moment at the shallow end, one of the women in question spoke to me. ‘It’s a bit crowded today. I wish they wouldn’t let so many people in at once.’. ‘Yes, it is.’ I replied evenly. ‘I suppose we all just have to make room for one another.’ (The grudging nature of my ‘acceptance’ was showing through a little perhaps.) The woman continued ‘Yes, I’m blind in my one eye mind and so if I don’t follow this black line on the bottom of the pool I just don’t know where I am! And do you know, a few months ago, I was kicked in the back by a man swimming too close and it fractured my bone! Took me ages to recover.’. This new information changed everything for me. With this information I could reappraise the meaning of the women’s clinging to the straight line up and down the pool. I softened, felt compassion for them and found myself moving from a grudging acceptance of entitlement to wanting to help the women to maintain their course and keep them safe.

This encounter made me reflect on how important it is to understand the meaning of behaviour, the person’s context, their intentions, the way the behaviour works for them and the logic of their need to perform it, the risks they feel giving it up too. How important not to make assumptions and to actually try to find out from the person concerned about where they are coming from. I chided myself, surely I should know this as a psychologist? Yet how easy it is even when we know this to slip back into making the assumptions mistake.

With compassion for the woman and even a little for myself in making my error, I continued on into the final furlong of our allotted swimming hour. Then the customary warning, the rising ‘bing, bing, bing’ chimes just like a 1950’s holiday camp and the announcement over the tannoy; ‘This session will end in five minutes. Five minutes to go please.’. I glanced at the poolside clock – seven minutes to the hour. The two straight swimming women had noticed too – ‘It’s seven minutes to go not five!’ they chorused ‘Don’t go trying to cut us women down!’ they playfully warned the young lifeguards. I chuckled to myself at their warmly delivered steeliness and felt gratitude to women of the generations before me for their strength and courage.

From tolerating the entitlement of locals, to compassionately caring for the frailties of elders, to admiring the steel of feminist icons, my reactions and relationships with these self same women, simply being steadfastly themselves, changed with every interaction. How powerful our attributions are in creating what another person becomes in our eyes. And it struck me too, one interaction allows a single story – we might call it ‘this’. Two interactions help us to change our minds and see more widely – we might call it ‘this and that’. Yet three interactions reveal that people have many moving and evolving parts of themselves and can’t be pinned down to simply the frames that we make for them in our minds. They are something more. We are all something more than being reduced and boxed in to a simple, predictable, narrow ‘this’ or ‘that’.

Just at that moment, as if to prove the point and celebrate my realisation, the familiar rising ‘bing, bing, bing’ tones of the tannoy sounded a second time to mark the end of the swim session and the women morphed again into something new… ‘Hi de hi!!’* they chimed in response and bustled off into the changing rooms laughing their heads off.

Jen & Jael

*Hi de hi was a popular sitcom set in 1959 at Maplin’s holiday camp and aired on TV in the 1980’s with Ruth Madoc playing glamorous yellow coat Gladys Pugh. Gladys made announcements using the holiday camp tannoy, always beginning with a rising three ‘bing’ chime played on her xylophone followed by the words ‘hi de hi campers’ crooned in sultry Welsh tones.

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