Swimming pools: it’s love/ hate. When I was first marched to the local pool in Lichfield for lessons aged four or so, delivered by a very hands-on teacher who looked like David Bellamy and smelt strongly of bacon, I had no apprehension that I’d still be swimming, of my own volition, some twenty-two years later. “It’s a skill for life,” my Mum had told my brother and I, but my own enthusiasm waxed and waned through childhood and beyond, until I fell into my current adulthood regime.
I can’t have been the only child turned off swimming by the trials of splashing, chlorine in the eyes, the shame of remaining in the ‘middle group’ indefinitely, or the public humiliation of coming last in every gala, as simple recreation increasingly became competitive sport. And all this with the prospect of a cold shower and an anxiety-ridden communal changing room still to come! But it had its moments, even then- the Zen-like trance I used to enter when permitted to do lengths of backstroke, dreamily counting the slats on the ceiling, or the weekly promise of fish and chips on the way home if we behaved ourselves. Best of all was the phenomenal take-away pizza in the unlikely setting of Swadlincote in Derbyshire. Following a weekend swim with my Dad, to this day it is the best I’ve ever tasted. Whether we had stumbled across a truly artisan pizzeria in the Midlands, or the food was merely transfigured by the profound physical exhaustion and raging hunger that are the coda of any good swim, it mattered not. But no such incentives followed PE swimming, which simply condemned the fairer sex to an afternoon of damp locks and the inevitable chill that followed when waiting at the bus stop. The fetching 80s ‘snood’ my Mum supplied me with was no defence; the letters verifying pre-menstrual, menstrual and post-menstrual indisposition that she and other lenient mothers wrote at their daughters’ behest were, up to a point.
So when did I fall in love with it? Discounting swimming abroad (which is almost always more salubrious, with the combination of kinder climate and holiday humour), the leisure centre eventually became my refuge from library and bedroom during those dark days of dissertations and finals when pubs, clubs and cafes were off limits. I couldn’t bear the mechanised hot house of the gym, or face pounding the pavement with hardier joggers in the January chill- but a solo dip to clear my head of cabin fever and stretch my limbs out of desk-induced cramp, suddenly seemed incredibly appealing. I’ll be honest- I’m not a strong swimmer- I can’t dive, I never mastered butterfly and my front crawl leaves a lot to be desired. But I was sufficiently impressed with the refreshing and restorative effects of a plunge into the medium lane to keep it up at home in university holidays, even undeterred by an embarrassing episode in which I was accidentally permitted to enter a ‘Nifty Fifties’ swim session. Although I was hauled out within minutes by a disgruntled lifeguard, it warmed my heart and strengthened my swimmer’s resolve to know that I had the support of my elders in the pool- ‘there’s enough watter for us all, int there?’ one OAP spoke up in my defence.
It was outdoor swimming, though, that really captured my imagination, once I’d made the move to the metropolis. The juxtaposition of an al-fresco, immersive experience in the shadow of a tower block was somehow thrilling; experiencing the elements on a far more visceral level than is the norm in the air-conditioned- centrally-heated – double-glazed interiors of modern urban sprawl, and all underscored by car alarms, sirens and planes overhead. My landlord at the time extolled the benefits to the circulation and the immune system of an early morning, open-air plunge, and whether it was anything so physiological or simply the enlivening and clarifying sensation, half low-impact work-out and half spa-treatment, it worked for me. I’ve heard that diving passes were issued to the first high-finance expats to populate the Cayman Islands for the same reason- losing yourself through water combats island fever as well as London fever.
Of course, in the lido you were just as likely to glide into a stray plaster or knot of hair as a fallen autumn leaf, just as likely to be stuck behind painfully slow Sunday swimmers, lane-hoppers or reckless paddlers as at any swimming bath. I’m thinking of those serial offenders who display flagrant disregard for personal space and wade right through yours- there’s nothing like an unwanted underwater scuffle of limbs, with only Lycra protecting your modesty, to violate your personal lagoon fantasy. And squeamishness is an inevitable consequence of letting the mind dwell too long on the gruesome solution of bodily fluids and debris, vomit and verrucas in which we might be wilfully marinating ourselves. Certainly this revulsion gripped a friend of mine on a recent visit to a Turkish bath in Budapest- I was in seventh heaven, she, repulsed. Does this phobia hark back to a time pre-dating water filters and chlorine, I wonder? A time when public baths were just that- communal washing facilities built as a civic duty to counter the spread of disease amongst the burgeoning urban population of the 19th century, under the Baths and Washhouses Act of 1846. Cleansing, certainly, but only if you got in early.
But back to the blissful open-air exhilaration. Brit Art doyenne Tracey Emin- a champion of lidos, amongst other things- has compared the experience to ‘being baptised. My muscles sprang into action and said: “Thank you, God,” she wrote in her column for the Independent in 2007. And novelist Alan Hollinghurst perfectly captured his characters’ hermetically-sealed thought processes, suspended within a public sphere of decadence, athleticism and homoeroticism, in his 1988 debut, The Swimming Pool Library:
‘…the swimmers loom up and down unaware of each other, crossing sometimes in the soft cones of brightness. All this makes the pool seem remote from the rest of the world….
It was a bizarre occupation, numbing and yet satisfying. My mind would count its daily fifty lengths as automatically as a photocopier; and at the same time it would wander. Absorbed in thought I barely noticed the half-hour- one unfaltering span of pure physical exercise- elapse.’
There seems to be a contradiction in the portrayal of swimming in art and popular culture, something akin to the Freudian virgin/ whore complex that has divided simplistic representations of women. From fairy tales to horror movies the swimming pool or marine world is consistently shown as a liminal, transformative space, outside of the realms of everyday society. In Charles Kingsley’s 1862 novel The Water Babies, drowning is akin to rebirth, once the innocent child-victim proves their moral worth. The heroine of earlier work The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Anderson is punished for sacrificing her aquatic origins to pursue an earthly mate, ultimately dissolving into foam or air, as a result of rejecting the utopian sea kingdom. Beyond Victorian didacticism, we find swimming pools and swimming opportunities celebrated as places of liberation and transgression- from David Hockney’s sun-kissed 1960s Splash paintings, to the lurid aesthetic of Francois Ozon’s 2003 thriller The Swimming Pool. Burt Lancaster charts a surreal and cavalier course home through the pools of his affluent Connecticut neighbours in the 1968 movie The Swimmer. What begins as a romantic stunt soon degenerates into an itinerary of middle class, midlife crises in microcosm. An open-air pool was similarly used to signify opulence, glamour and to provide the backdrop to sexual awakening in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet, or Danny Boyle’s A Life Less Ordinary. Not unlike Hampstead’s male bathing pond in Hollinghurst’s 2004 novel The Line of Beauty, later lavishly adapted for TV. A comparatively lack lustre public pool gives Naomi Watt’s character solace and rehabilitation following grief and drug addiction in 2003’s 21 Grams. However, there is an altogether more menacing association to be found in the horror genre, from the silhouetted stalking scene of a lone female swimmer by an anthropomorphic predator in Cat People from 1942, to the torture of a young boy made to hold his breath after a swimming lesson in Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In of 2008, an offence for which his vampire girlfriend takes revenge by decapitating the bullies, exiting by walking on water and leaving her victims’ heads to float on the surface.
Plenty to percolate through the newly hydrated consciousness then as you strike out for another length. But I agree I agree with Laura Barton’s assessment that Loudon Wainwright said it best. Rufus and Martha’s dad encapsulated the life-affirming liberation of propelling oneself in water in the 1973 lyrics of Swimming Song, immortalised by his late wife Kate McGarrigle and sister Anna: ‘This summer I went swimming/ This summer I might have drowned /But I held my breath, kicked my feet / And I moved my arms around…’
Photograph by Kirsty McQuire