Boldly (and coldly) going Forth.
There’s a man sat reading a newspaper, as I approach the Royal National Lifeboat Institution’s station at South Queensferry. The icy wind is making his ‘paper flap around as if it’s fighting to get free, but he clings onto it, his expression a mixture of monk-like serenity and the fierce concentration of a warrior about to join battle with the enemy. He turns a page, briefly wrestles the newspaper off his face and continues reading.
It’d be a charming, timeless scene — except he’s almost completely naked.
He stands, stretches his arms, experimentally bends his legs (presumably to check they haven’t snapped off with the cold), hoists his skimpy shorts a little higher, and sits down again. Trying to look natural, I move nearer and peer at his legs. They’re rock-steady. So are his shoulders. As far as I can see, he’s not shivering. I remember what happens when the human body gets too cold . . .
Shivering hasn’t worked, so your body abandons it. (This helps you doze off). Your oxygen consumption has dropped significantly and your oxygen-starved brain is struggle to string a thought together – other than “I really need to pee“, thanks to all the inwardly-pushed body fluids flooding your kidneys.
If a loved one rescued you right now, you wouldn’t be able to recognise them.
While I’m wondering if I should call for help, a strongman, an angel and a dictator wander past.
Since time immemorial, human beings have had the amazing ability to simultaneously holds two contradictory opinions on certain things, and to act upon them. Those opinions are:
1. There’s no way anyone in their right mind would do that.
2. I TOTALLY HAVE TO DO THAT.
And what could be more attractive/insane than the international tradition of the Polar Bear Plunge? The theory is simple. Instead of staying indoors nursing your New Year hangover, you painfully make your way to some bleak, wind-lashed strip of beach, stare with horror at the foam-flecked gunmetal sea, and before your courage erodes/before you come to your senses . . . you leap into the waves.
Every polarward country seems to have its own version. Vancouver’s, organised by the Polar Bear Swim Club, is the oldest on record (running since 1920) and Nieuwjaarsduik in The Netherlands holds the current record for the most heroes/idiots in the water (40,000) – but this can’t tell the full historical story. There is a basic human compulsion at work here. It sounds like the kind of thing campaigning Roman soldiers might have done, to prove they’re tougher than those wretched pagans they have to keep fighting. Norse settlers carved ice-skates out of bone – and if you’re having to doing that, you’ll be accustomed to falling in. This will have been going on for thousands of years – we just don’t have any record of it.
So, this is a primal scene laid out before me. A crowd of cheerfully absurd-looking adults dressed in lion suits and clown suits and 1920s bathing costumes and, horrifically, one mankini — hugging themselves and cursing as the wind howls off the Firth of Forth, making shop signs flap, tarpaulins snap and exposed flesh turn white in seconds. Everyone who isn’t underdressed is buried under layer upon layer of warm clothing, as plump as Moonmins. There’s a long line of people in front of the snack kiosk, instinctively drawn to heat-making calories. The local pub is crowded; I adopt an air of a man who is in two minds about having a pint, and do a few exploratory laps of the place while my hands and face warm up. Stepping out again is like opening the door of a meat locker.
There are 2 hours to go. This is the agonizing bit – not the icy plunge, which is fleeting, undoubtedly invigorating and maybe even, you know, fun. The agony comes with the waiting. Waiting in the bitter Scottish January cold, feeling the warmth being dragged out of your marrow, minute by minute…
Everybody is cold.
Everybody except Nearly Naked Man. When I emerge from the pub, he’s still over there, stretching his arms and legs, clearly not yet dead. In fact, he doesn’t even look cold.
What’s his story?
I wonder whether he’s been doing this for years. I wonder if he practices in the bath at home, shovelling ice-cubes over himself. I wonder if he’s a retired Antarctic research scientist, or perhaps the grandson of Shackleton expedition engineer Harry McNish, carrying on the family tradition in his own way. I wonder if he has a method to his naked madness – whether the human body takes its maximum whack of agony after the first ten minutes and goes numb, allowing you to, say, read the news in relative comfort. I wonder why, generally.
I should go over and ask him. But I don’t.
I’m too bloody cold.
Towering over the annual Loony Dook at South Queensferry is one of Scotland’s most famous sights, a 2.5-kilometre stretch of cantilevered steel connecting the city of Edinburgh with the council area of Fife. It’s a Category A listed building, and it’s over a century old. You’d be right in calling it the Forth Rail Bridge to differentiate it from its far less imposing neighbour the Forth Road Bridge – but to locals, it’s just the Forth Bridge.
The Forth Bridge has been involved in a lot of stories. This modern literature classic, for example, or this videogame.
But everyone knows the story about the Forth Bridge. It’s this: it’s so big it takes decades to paint, so by the time one repaint is finished, the next is overdue. Once the permanent maintenance crew reaches one end, it immediately leaps on a train and rattles to the other side, ready to start the next coat. It’s a job that is never complete. It’s even given us a colloquial English expression – “like painting the Forth Bridge”.
Everyone knows this story.
And everyone is wrong.
The bridge’s last lick of russet paint began in 2002, cost £130m, ate up 4.5 million man-hours and was completed in December 2011 — the full 230,000 square metres of the bridge’s paintable surfaces. This new coating (which involved stripping off all existing layers of paint) is designed to last for a minimum of 25 years, maybe as long as 40.
By my reckoning, 25 minus 9 leaves 16. Even if the Forth Bridge’s paint job lasted for the minimum expected time, its engineers would still have the time to go paint an entirely different bridge and sit around swigging Irn Bru for a few years.
There’s also no evidence that the bridge has been in a state of perpetual repainting since its construction – but since when did the Daily Mail allow the facts to get in the way of a good headline?
It’s not just a bridge.
It’s 2004, and I’m asleep on a train. I’m exhausted. Yesterday I was Best Man at my friend’s wedding in the south of England; today, I have an appointment in Orkney. I set my watch alarm to buzz me when we hit Edinburgh, but I doze fitfully and when we reach Auld Reekie I’m still sleepy enough to nod off before we’ve even left the city. Something wakes me – maybe that special clank clank you get when a train meets a bridge, maybe a change in speed…
My first time through the Channel Tunnel upset me.
At some unannounced point, we left the UK and entered France. I know this because one end of the tunnel is England, and at the other end, Continental Europe. But the experience of entering France? A total zero. No jaunty blast of accordion music, or the driver belting out a number from Les Miserables, no croissants being distributed – not even a begrudging Vive La France from the conductor. Ditto going the other way: no brass band music, Morris Dancing demonstration, no smell of fish’n’chips or the sound of politicians marching out of Brussels. Nothing. It was even worse than plane travel. At least in a plane, you get to see the tops of the clouds hiding all the things you’re missing enroute.
The Chunnel is a great way to enter France or England without feeling you’ve arrived in either.
The reason I wanted to be awake for the Forth Bridge was because I’d know I was in Scotland. My heart would know. My bones would known. I’d be able to feel it. Every time I’d seen this brick-coloured bridge I’d been on the way north to see my grandfather in Fortrose, north of Inverness. All my memories of Scotland, all the separate adventures scattered over the previous 30 years, started with this bridge. It was how I felt I’d returned to the land of the MacLennans, my mother’s side of the family, and it was how I felt I’d truly arrived.
Oh, you idiot. I struggle awake and fight my camera out the depths of my rucksack. By the time I’ve done so we’re nearly across, and I’ve just enough time to snap a few dreadful photos (one of which is above) before we enter Fife and I can fall asleep again. But I can’t. I’m too excited.
I’m in Scotland!
It’s not just a bridge.