Tuesday, 20 September 2011

"Mummy, they're going in again!"

This is Simon Murie. He's standing on a grassy hummock on the shore of Buttermere in the Lake District, doing I forget what with a banana. A joke involving cold water and male shrinkage? Demonstrating front crawl with soft fruit?

He was one of two guides leading a swimming and camping trip we went on last weekend. Our other guide was Olly (below, in blue), who has been a beach lifeguard in Cornwall, a surf bum everywhere from Bali to Costa Rica, and is now a PE teacher in Cumbria.

The weather was shocking, but the scenery heartstopping.

Murie used to be a mining engineer, but decided nine years ago to turn his hobby – open water swimming – into a job. The result is Swimtrek, a company that runs outdoor swimming trips all over the world, from Turkey to Mexico (I went with them to Greece last year – weirdly warmer than northern England – and never laughed so much).

While the rest of us squeezed into our wetsuits and shrieked as we entered the 12 degree water, Murie stripped down to his shorts as if it were the Mediterranean in August. It's really not: at 12 degrees, the cold hits your face between your eyes, your lips turn numb and your hands, by the time you climb out, are incapable of movement until you've grafted them to a mug of tea.

Australian by birth, Murie has swum Hellespont in Turkey, the Channel, the River Volta in Ghana and the Gibraltar Straits. He goes on half a dozen Swimtrek trips a year, and spends the rest of his time scouting for new locations. He swam alongside me twice, shouting encouragement and giving me technique tips.

But what I admired most about him is his modesty. When introducing himself, he didn't tell us it was his company. He got up before breakfast to manufacture sandwiches with excellent humour. And he cracked jokes all weekend.

On our final swim – the length of Lake Buttermere (above) – a small girl shouted: "Look Mummy, they're going in again!" Yes, I couldn't believe we were either. But I'm still glowing.

Brief Encounters: parallel parking

I've been spreading a little kindness around the world lately, for a feature: showering colleagues with compliments, helping lost tourists and chatting to neighbours like I was born to it. Random acts like this, not surprisingly, strengthen our connections with people and make us happier.

More interesting is news that happiness is contagious.
Research from the US suggests three degrees of separation of positivity: our good mood affects not just us, but our friends, their friends and even their friends.

I was reminded of this a few days ago. I was trying to parallel park in front of a cafe filled with onlookers, and after ten minutes of getting no closer to the kerb gave up in a huff, leaving the car a foot from the pavement.

A man leapt up. "You're not gonna leave it like that are you, love?" he said. I nodded. "Give me the keys." As I handed them over (while simultaneously undoing decades of feminist progress) it occurred to me he might just drive off, but of course he didn't. It was a random act of kindness that forced me to trust him, and made me smile for the next two hours. I wonder if my own meagre acts, in a causal, butterfly-flapping-its-wings way, somehow prompted it. I like to think they did.