I’ve taken up outdoor swimming. I just thought you should know | Fiona Maddocks

OK, I only started last month and I don’t know how long I’ll manage it, but for now it’s making me glow

We all eat our words. “No way” sneakily turns into “OK, maybe”, then “yes”. You vow never, ever, to wear Crocs, then you see your smart friend in a yellow pair and British Vogue has named them the It-shoe of the winter season (true) and suddenly you’re weakening. My volte face is more extreme. I’ve joined the thousands who’ve taken up outdoor swimming during lockdown. I don’t much like swimming. I’m not good at it. I dislike casting clouts and favour a hot-water bottle all year.

“You’ll need a bobble hat,” advised my aquatic mentor, suggesting a garment I haven’t owned since primary school. I am initiated into the secrets of neoprene, a fabric as alien as Chantilly lace. I arrive at the appointed hour (entry is strictly timed) looking like Nanook of the North. A hardy regular congratulates me on starting this habit mid-December in a pandemic. I glow. But then I am still fully clothed and have not yet set foot in the water (5.6C).

I’m too realistic to make it a new year resolution but I’ll carry on for now. Why do it? It makes me feel less of a physical coward, even somewhat brave. Or it did, briefly. Then my cool friend with the yellow Crocs sent me a tweet – turns out there’s quite a splashback on social media – from Stig Abell. “Here’s a fact I discovered recently. Since records began, nobody who has gone wild or outdoor swimming has kept it a secret.” Why would you, Stig? Answer me that.

Bum note

In longed-for ordinary times, the low days of early January are quiet for musicians. New Year’s Day concerts apart, it’s the one time that classical music stops. Even touring is on pause: that nomadic sequence of “hugs of greetings, hugs of farewell”, as the star pianist Stephen Hough has described it.

Touring is how musicians of every stripe, not just classical, make their careers. It’s part of the free cultural exchange that feeds back into the UK economy: £5.8bn last year, contributing more than four times the value to the economy than fishing (£1.4bn).

After this terrible year, when many have abandoned the profession, a fresh blow has been dealt. The post-Brexit deal makes no visa-free travel provisions for working musicians. The consequences are unimaginable. Each EU country has different entry requirements. The list of specifications is enough to make your head spin. If you go to Norway, you must notify the police. If you transport an old instrument with the tiniest ivory insert, you may need the same certificate as for a live animal. A few politicians have taken up the cause, among them Tracy Brabin, Labour MP for Batley and Spen, and, in the Lords, the composer Michael Berkeley. A petition calling for a visa-free work permit has already got 213,500 signatures. Please sign it. It’s a no-brainer.

Hats off

Most of the New Year honours headlines, understandably, have been about those frontline workers who saved lives and put their own at risk in 2020. Yet it’s good to see top musicians getting recognition, among them three pioneers: the conductor Jane Glover becomes a dame, a knighthood goes to opera director Graham Vick and a CBE to Wasfi Kani, opera-entrepreneur extraordinaire. Vick’s adventurous work with Birmingham Opera Company – truly opera for all – has given me my only experience, being a bashful music critic, of climbing into a black plastic bag (in Beethoven’s Fidelio). Kani, with her Pimlico Opera prison project, has shown me a glimpse of life behind bars. It’s no insult to Glover to say my musical encounters with her have involved sitting quietly on a chair in a concert hall and listening. I’d give anything for that right now.

• Fiona Maddocks is the Observer’s classical music critic


Fiona Maddocks

The GuardianTramp

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