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Blood like the River

Updated: Jul 28, 2022

The Red Rebel Brigade’s silent scream of protest about the health of our rivers was incredibly powerful. It inspired this piece from wild-swimmer Stanley Ulijaszek who came perilously close to death when he contracted an illness after swimming in the Thames near London.

A drowning lady floats downstream in the Thames at Port Meadow, Oxford, her blood flowing with the current of the river. An Ophelia, a Lucia di Lammermoor…

As an opera-lover, when I see this image, the resonance with Lucia is immediate and powerful. Lucia di Lammermoor, Donizetti’s opera, is based on Sir Walter Scott’s Bride of Lammermoor, an early romantic work of thwarted love, manipulation, and finally, a suicide, all set in the Scottish hills south of Edinburgh. The Lucia we see here is a member of Oxford’s Red Rebel Brigade, at a demonstration against sewage dumping in our rivers.

The parallels between the opera and the demonstration are striking. There is thwarted love – of the Thames because the regular dumping of sewage makes it harder for those who love Thames swimming to swim in it regularly; manipulation – by the powers that be (which of them can be trusted in the clean rivers campaign?); suicide – death to swimming, and death to the river. I wasn’t at the demonstration, but I see this image, this Lucia, and I see the River Thames, bleeding.

In the opera, Lucia di Lammermoor, the final act of suicide is poetic, beautiful, poignant. And unnecessary. All conflicts in this work resolve and Lucia’s lover returns to tell her the good news. But there she is, imagine, in her bath, water overflowing, a river of blood spilling into the floodplain of water on the stage. Death in the water. When I saw this great work in London a few years ago, I cheered the poetic death – then Lucia sprang to life for the curtain-call, bowing deep and acknowledging the thunderous applause of the great Royal Opera House audience.

When it comes to the Thames, I feel like Lucia, in a mixed-up kind of way. How so?

I was somehow in the wrong place to develop leptospirosis last August, in the Thames close to London. I ended up in intensive care. My blood pressure dropped and dropped as I went into septic shock and the River Thames seemed to flow through me as I lay in hospital dying. While, into her bathwater, Lucia bled and the water overflowed blood-red across the stage, on my deathbed, water flowed back into my blood as litre upon litre of intravenous fluid was pumped into me; to rehydrate me, pushing in antibiotics to kill the Leptospira bacterium that drove my spreading sepsis.

Then, just as the curtain of death was coming down, I sprang back to life to take a curtain call in one of the world’s greatest theatres, one devoted to health – the JR in Oxford. I was not fully recovered, this came steadily across two months of kidney injury and the lethargy that came with it, still swimming, but not yet in the Thames.

Leptospirosis, Weil’s disease, is the disease no-one wants to talk about, least of all open water swimmers. In fact, since my experience with it, I talk about it a lot.

I worry that it is symptomatic of the Thames and, rightly or wrongly, feel that my health and the health of the River Thames are connected. A river suffers illness whenever there is dumping or run-off into it, with consequences for all those who engage with it; its honorary blood relatives.

The Lucia of the Thames at the recent demonstration probably felt the life blood of the Thames connected to her flowing blood. I wish both her, this Lucia, and it, the River Thames, good health and long life. She embodies in art how we are all connected in nature’s water.

Today I got an email circular from #EndSewagePollution which started “We did it!” A happy start to the day. It continued by saying that “The Wolvercote Mill Stream at Port Meadow, Oxford is now the second official river swimming spot in the UK!” It had the highest response of any bathing consultation… Almost totally positive to the idea… “ People want clean rivers, and they want them NOW, not in 30 years’ time!”

It feels good, the email. I wasn’t awake really when I read it, somehow linking Lucia of the Thames, drowning in the river with her blood-red headdress flowing gently downstream, to this good news. I hope she carries on doing her good work, this Lucia. This now-monitored and hopefully clean spot in the Thames at Oxford is just the start.

Did I say that I only really got passionate about cleaning up the rivers after contracting leptospirosis? Some things are learned on the skin, regrettably.

Fortunately, like an actor in my own life and death story, I sprang back to life for an encore, as Lucia at the end of the performance of the opera, wishing no other swimmer to catch leptospirosis, this vile disease, from contaminated rivers.

If you are an outdoor or open water swimmer you probably don’t want to know too much about leptospirosis, or its more extreme form, Weil’s disease. You may feel you already know enough about it. You certainly don’t want to be too close to it - but how would you know when you are? Read more about Stanley's experience at SWIMMING, LEPTOSPIROSIS, AND ME


We are passing through – floating for the life of this river
The Red Rebel Brigade wear red to symbolise the common blood we share with all species. As they float downstream on the Thames, their robes swirling a bloody protest, we are forced to contemplate the devastating impact of polluting of our rivers. One of the Red Rebels writes of her experience:

As I walk into the water, I am calm, elated, feeling the water seep through my shoes, my dress. It is kind, and not cold. I feel the strength of the river entering me. It is glorious to be in the water and I surrender to it. Even though I cannot see them, I know my Red Rebel companions are with me, and their presence gives me courage. Soon I am in deep enough in the water to lie back, the water creeps up my spine and suddenly I am floating. Lying in the water now, I don’t know where I am. I am alone, and have no idea where the others, whose movements I depend on, are now. I cannot see them. I can only see sky. And it is so beautiful. Swifts are swirling in the sky above, but my ears are full of water and I cannot hear their joyous screams. I surrender and lie suspended, in no place in particular, totally absorbed in the experience. I could float like this forever. Ophelia comes to mind, but my mind is not her mind. I am not drowning. I am floating for the life of this river.
This is an extract from a longer article coming soon.


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