I went with my son Ned to the swimming in the Paralympics and it was impossible not to be moved by the backstroke swimmers without arms or legs - and they still swam faster than I can! Some of these people need help to manage every part of their everyday life, like dressing or eating, yet in the pool they were free to compete at a world level.
It was a wonderful experience, although when newspapers like The Times write that the Paralympics closing ceremony was “the best party in the history of the world”, you know that we have lost perspective. The funny thing is that the Olympics and Paralympics won us over without the hype. Of course the whole spectacle would have been incomprehensible to George Herbert. In numbers alone, the daily attendance was 3 times the current population of Salisbury, and probably greater than the population of all England in Herbert’s time. The technology, the number of nations from such distances, and all the disabled athletes who would not have even survived in his day, all serve to underline the distance in culture between the early 1600’s and now - which makes Herbert’s ability to continue to speak to us all the more amazing.
Inspired by our athletes, I took part in an open water swim this summer in Cornwall. Last year at this time I was in hospital with illness so it was wonderful to be healthy enough this year to take part. It was just under a mile, and whilst swimming is usually quite solitary, with 400 others taking part this felt more of a social event than a sporting one. I won’t tell you my time or position, but it was reasonable for an old man (!) and I’ll try to do it again (quicker) next year.
It will soon be Harvest Festival time (the actual harvest having been finished last month, what there was of it) and I am reminded both that this is the Victorian invention of a Cornish cleric, a bit like our Christmas traditions, and that few of us have any real connection with the farming or harvesting of our food.
In Herbert’s day (when they didn’t celebrate Harvest festival) it was something like 95% of people who worked on the land, but by the Victorian end of the agrarian and industrial revolutions it was down to just 10%. Now it's barely 2% - which frees up the rest of us to go the Olympics!
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