The troops stand around holding the horses, sucking back-handed cigarettes, and get on with the unending rounds of military teasing. The officer serves them coffee. It’s just like being behind the bike sheds at school with the cool gang. Above us, a man opens his curtains and rubs his eyes and closes them again. “Once, we were parked up,” the captain says, “Robert De Niro came past. Didn’t bat an eye. He was in London, so of course the Household Cavalry were taking tea in a mews in South Kensington at 6.30 in the morning.”
At 7.30am the Serpentine Swimming Club meets. It’s not a nice morning for a dip. Even the geese have all been blown into a dirty corner by the squally weather. The Serpentine swimmers are one of those peculiar English associations that are invariably prefaced with “intrepid” and “eccentric”. They’ve been meeting here since 1864. They’re a good-natured bunch who tip up in clothes bought for frugality and longevity rather than style. They clutch towels that are as thin and balding as a good many of them are.
Standing on the edge of the lake in distressingly skimpy Speedos and rubber caps, they look like shelled turtles. I can’t help casting their biopic as an Ealing comedy. They range from MPs and retired architects to hotel doormen and taxi drivers. Many of them have swum the Channel. They swim here every week including Christmas Day. There’s no mucking about, no splashing or dive bombs or lilos: today they’re racing. A chap with a barrel chest,
a clipboard and a stopwatch starts them in a relaxed, staggered handicap. “Dave, where are you? Dave, get in.” They dive into the turgid, scummy water and flap their arms with a wiry purpose. After a few minutes the water looks like a war film after the torpedo. The swimming club has a small unisex changing room full of old kit and grinning photographs. It’s crowded with the raucous and morbidly pale, knobbly bodies, sawing at themselves with gritty towels.