A few weeks ago I took my first visit to the public swimming baths in Surrey Quays. Walking up the disabled access ramp, I felt a little ashamed, for I harboured a snobbish trepidation: could I really go back to public bathing, after the dizzy heights of my Virgin Active days? To a place devoid of all jacuzzi and sauna? A place where the soap would not be free?
Let’s face it: private swimming pools are like holidays, only indoors; public baths are not. They’re not like holidays at all.
The lady at the reception made no effort to be nice to me. She didn’t even let me know that you needed 20p for the locker, or give me the change that included a 20p piece. I had to get changed, realise about the 20p piece, get changed again, walk out, fake an apology about not knowing about the whole 20p piece deal, graciously accept the 20p piece, and do the whole thing again. And, by the way, you don’t get the 20p piece back. You never do. I have no idea who ends up with these 20p pieces.
But I was trying to be positive. Despite the fact that the passage to the swimming pool was reminiscent of the most dilapidated service corridors of The Black Mesa Facility. And despite the fact that I took my towel with me, only to find out that there were no pegs for it, no wooden slats, not even deckchairs.
Why are public pools so dark? This was what I was asking myself, as I awkwardly bumbled my way to the poolside in that gloomy cupid cave. But once I was in the water, to be fair, I was fairly happy. Here’s something a bit embarrassing: whenever I enter a swimming pool I think to myself the Kurt Vonnegut quote: ‘In the water I am beautiful.‘ In my case (and probably in Kurt’s), I’m not sure if that’s literally true, but it sure is a good thing to think.
The other people in the pool were not, in general, beautiful. They were not anything much at all. They all just kind of lingered, aimlessly, in their own patches of pool – as if they had each been individually dumped there by a well-meaning but annoying mother, and were waiting for her to return. It was as if somebody had poisoned the water with liquid lethargy, or as if somebody had tried to create an aquatic version of ‘the doldrums’, the land-based version of which we all unfortunately find ourselves in from time to time.
My memory took me back to an Olympic length open-air pool near Praetoria, South Africa. It had been hard to keep up with the sheer pace of that water: to your left, a dozen lithe, identically bodied 13-year old team swimmers, zipping through the water; to your right, a couple of geezers in their 70s just finishing off their hundredth length (faster than your first). It had been a fitness frenzy. When people went to this swimming pool they went with a determination to, well, swim.
I was brought back to my public swimming bath in Surrey Quays. I couldn’t work out why these people were there. If the South Africans had been dolphins, the Surrey Quaysians were mules. They were not only (barely) treading water, but treading time, existence, and their very humanity. A few men were dotted around the edges, leaning back, with their faces showing, incomprehensibly, the satisfaction you get after a hard day’s work.
A seemingly endless procession of portly women drifted down the pool at a funereal pace. They sketched out tiny circles in the water with their swollen palms, as they – majestically, it must be said – kept their heads above the water, maintaining the driest of perms. I imagined how long they’d been here: days, maybe weeks.
I think that a lot of people in Britain believe this dubious proposition: a legitimate form of exercise is getting wet in the company of strangers.
I asked the lifeguard whether they could put any lanes up, you know, for swimming, and he said, ‘No, that’s lane swimming’. I couldn’t fault his logic. Later that week I found out – after a Kafkaesque ordeal with the Southwark council tele-labyrinth – that ‘lane swimming’ is an entirely different kettle of fish, at a separate time, for about 7 minutes a day.
I tried to swim lengths at a half-decent speed. Again, I felt beautiful; again, I was probably not. After a few lengths, an awful feeling crept over me. I thought that, out of the bleary periphery of my prescription goggles, I could see the pool-dwellers staring at me. The water felt cold all of a sudden. I didn’t feel welcome.
I moved to breast-stroke, to give myself a better view. Something was clear: I was not fitting in. I wanted to hide. But it’s pretty difficult to hide or play nonchalant when you’re as near to naked as you are in a swimming pool. Their frowning wet faces followed my every movement, and I admonished myself: how dare I, come to their pool, splash around in their water, make them look so slovenly.
And then, when I was about to attempt a tumble turn at one of the ends, a trio of nondescript-other-than-“fat” men wobbled uneasily towards me and surrounded me, in what was probably the most awkward moment of my life.
“One day,” a man said in a gruff whisper, “One day you’ll be just like us.”
And then they wobbled off, as uneasily as they’d come, and parted ways. I looked around, to see if anybody else had noticed this confrontation, but the water-treaders just kept on treading, and the procession of portly women just drifted on at their funeral pace.
I’ve been back a few times now. It’s actually pretty convenient.