Dear Dr Andy*,
I was very sad to learn that you had passed away while walking in Dulwich Park. I wondered many a time at the old oak trees in the park and the way that the golden leaves hang on far into winter when the rough winds do blow. You left while walking which is so right for you.
I don’t remember how many years ago it was that you went in to hospital for that hip operation that didn’t work. Thereafter you walked with crutches. But you did keep walking. There have been times when I wondered about the journey you made each morning from the car; heaving yourself out of the cramped front seat – for you were a big man in every sense of the word – and then treading the 200 yards or so from there to the disabled changing room in the Ladies’ showers. (Yes there are compensations if you get back on your feet and start walking again!) Was it 10 minutes, the walk from car to pool? I don’t know and now I’ll never be able to time it … for such is the study of small things that this big blue pool seems to engender amongst its winter swimmers. But I digress.
You kept on walking … every day. I had a theory that your indomitable spirit was partly down to bravery and a cussedness that said I’m not going to limit my love of life and that when the time comes to depart this life, it will be in action rather than repose. No, each day you seemed to pit yourself against the elements, like King Lear in the storm, but you with a smile. I remember that you used to say of swimming in winter: ‘It’s better than banging your head against a brick wall’.
When I was a 12 year old at boarding school in Surrey we played ‘rugger’ in one of the winter terms. And there was a boy called Huddersfield who at the age of 12 was already a full grown, hairy hulk of a man. He combined the sweetest of natures with enormous physical strength. Our school was small and therefore never really successful when we played matches against other bigger schools. We usually got beaten but when we played rugger matches there was always a magic moment when ‘Hudders’ got the ball and ploughed through the other team’s scrum. At any given moment there could be half a dozen boys riding on his back until the weight was too great and he came tumbling down beneath them.
‘Hudders’ raised our spirits back then and you did the same in the here and now. And I hope that when you did eventually come crashing down like an old oak tree that has served its time, you had a brief moment of peace and satisfaction; a life lived with love, heart and passion; and there you were out in the open, the wind in your hair, the smell of earth underfoot. Just like it was back in the days when you played rugby. The tussle over, the final whistle blown and time for oranges in the centre circle. (Andy, I hope you will excuse my getting carried away and making things up!)
Anyway, I know that you will be remembered for many years to come. And I am sure that we will try and come up with a commemoration that is neither a cup nor a bench, for we have so many of those now and somehow they don’t seem to capture your essence. And what was that essence? Could it be something to do with crosswords (never cross words) and anagrams, malt whisky or warm kisses, new steps for the pool; we could call them ‘Handy Andies’! Who knows! For the moment this is just a personal farewell. You won’t be coming back because this is not a ‘Cross & Blackwell’ as you called a couple of widths on a cold winter’s day. But in some respects you won’t be going anywhere because you have a place in our hearts and thoughts.
Finally, Nick thought this extract from DH Lawrence’s Gladness of Death said a lot about your spirit. And I thought the reference to travel agents on the journey would have raised a smile with you:
Oh the great adventure of death, where Thomas Cook cannot guide us
I have always wanted to be as the flowers are
So unhampered in their living and dying
And in death I believe I shall be as the flowers are
With love and best wishes
*Dr Archibald Anderson or ‘Dr Andy’ as he was known to members of South London Swimming Club, died in January 2012. He was 90 years old and he started every day, come rain, wind or snow, with a swim in the unheated Lido at Tooting Bec, South London.