Friday, April 30, 2004

26th June 2003

Defragmentation and memory

I’ve just re-discovered Llangranog, it is a tiny resort set in a cove overlooking Cardigan bay. Narrow and steep is the way into the place and the place conforms to a perfect pattern etched into my magnetic being during my childhood and which never ceases to switch on with full potency once activated.

Activation first happens when around a bend in a high hedged lane. or over the breast of a hill, there comes a glimpse of a deep blue sea under a light blue sky. Today the narrow lane is all the narrower for the fact that I’m driving a minibus but I am gratified by the fact that the excitement which hits my stomach on the first sight of blue water m, makes a similar impact on my passengers. This bunch of 17 & 18 year olds are about as self censorious as it is possible to be about being thrilled by childish pleasures, nevertheless there is a mass whoop and an eager anticipation that takes us down the hill from the free car-park to the sea front.

The town clings to the hills in minature like an Alfred Bestall illustration.. As we move from street to the steps down to the pebbles and then sand of the beach, I scan the sea front cottages and with a second lurch of the stomach have a physical knowing that I am looking at the exterior of a house that I once holidayed in when three years old. The memory is not cognitively accessible, I have only my Mothers narrative visualization in my conscious memory “You must remember Llangranog, we had a cottage right on the sea front, you would open the front door and be straight on to the pebbles…” My stomach tells me however that this is the house, it is as preconscious as a dog-memory or as the ability of the driver to unconsciously anticipate the bends and bumps of a road travelled many years ago.

The third lurch of the stomach comes when my bare feet make contact with sea. To be precise the sea paddle is an intense four element rabbit punch. Under the sensitive feet; sand, shell, grit and pebble, against legs cool turbulence and salt sting, against the face a brisk sea breeze with a salt tang, on the hair, heat from a sun in clear air.

Swimming itself is the last lurch, preceded by an infant terror, there is a fear-overcoming plunge into cold water and then the joyous mastery of swimming high over and then under the buoyant waves.

Everyday life is fragmented, non accumulative and forgotten. Routines and repetitions partly reconstruct our sense of unity, but physically activated sensation-memory effortlessly joins up lives into great spans of unbroken and un-metered time. For most ordinary people the unbroken span consists largely of endless summer, mainly because it was in summer that mundane repetition made way for an unbounded utopian experience; connecting childhood, puberty, parenthood and their current self. Old men sit on deck chairs in the sun magnetically connected to a line of former lives, along the line runs their spirit, and it wears no shoes.

The appeal of the swimming pool back in the quotidian world is to provide a little lode stone that will rub the needle of their lives into a small but regulating alignment with the big arc of their timeless selves.

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Built in 1935, Stroud Lido is larger than even an Olympic pool (55yards long) and unheated. It is sited in a Council run park next to modern heated indoor pool and leisure center. The pool is now operated by a private company. The Lido is a fine example of 1930s outdoor public architecture with a set of high diving boards which have an architectural preservation order on them. Sadly the boards are out of bounds for swimmers, but despite this there is plenty of diving going on from the areae at the base of the boards. The appeal of diving is partly down to temperature, the sun is blazingly hot but the water has not yet warmed up so early in the season. The dive into the icy water is a macho treat for the predominantly late teen males who throng the side in baggy surfing style shorts. A running dive is the preferred method of entering the water, this helps muster courage, swimmers then quickly make their way to the pool ladder and clamber out ready for their next turn. As well as being cold, the water at the center of the pool beneath the high diving boards is very deep. At each end there is a shallow end segregated by floating lane barriers. At one end the pool is mainly filled with ‘deep paddling’ bikini clad teenage girls, watching or deliberately not watching the diving boys and bobbing up and down in order to keep warm. Both boys and girls return frequently to the sunbathing terraces and lawns around the pool to warm up in the sun. At the other end of the pool there is an area devoted to parents with pre teenage children who all seem to have beach balls and/or inflatables and lilos. For younger children and their parents there is separate paddling pool.

In the deep cold center of the pool hardly any swimmers venture. After warming up with a violent crawl I negotiate the dead center, somewhat emboldened by the fact that I’m wearing a surfing wet-suit style nylon top. Even thus insulated the cold stiffens the muscles and the swim seems difficult compared to the buoyant experience of sea water swimming.

The pool is noisy and robust, showing off and sun-bathing are the main pursuits, it reminds me of being a child in Southend-on-sea, forty plus years previously, with the gangs of competitive boys, families with picnics- but without the wave smoothed pebbles of broken glass and the jelly-fish. There are Chips, ice creams and fizzy drinks however being served from the roof top terrace of the Lido Café. I go and have a cup of tea and watch the spectacle, this is Orwell’s naked democracy as he would have recognized it.

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

The Naked Democracy

George Orwell in ‘The Lion and The Unicorn’ used the phrase ‘the naked democracy of the swimming pool’ as part of his description of the emergence of a new ‘classless’ society or rather ‘an indeterminate stratum’ where traditional class values were breaking down. As Ken Worpole’s book ‘Here comes the Sun’ explores in some detail , in the 1930’s the swimming pool was equated with democratic modernity- particularly the modernistic open air lidos of the time.

Swimming has repeatedly been used to support arguments about what constitutes a quality human life.


The 18th century saw public school and university swimmers adopting the practice out of a desire to emulate the purity and heroism of the Greek ideal.

In the 19th century social reformers equated public cleanliness with civilization after the Roman model. The 1840’s saw the beginning of a boom in the building of Public Baths in the Classical style. In the 2003 BBC competition series ‘Preservation’ a wonderful example of this kind of pool, Victoria Baths in Manchester, won the nation’s vote as the most loved public building in peril.


In rural areas of England and America- but also in rivers, lakes and ponds. Local communities swam for hundreds of years as part of local unregulated custom. The image of tousled lads being chased away from swimming holes represents a twenttieth century nostalgia for this folk community tradition and for the (usually masculine) child-hood where these customs persisted for longest. Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer’s world of an endless summer of swimming and rafting is a well known example. In the early 20th century many of these outdoor pools were preserved and formalized. The arcadian elements of the ‘Hippy’ and ‘Environmental movements also had a place for outdoor swimming in their iconography.


Orwell’s ‘naked democracy’ is one example of the connection between the modern and the classless. Holiday camps and package holiday brochures, health clubs and water-parks;’ are all icons of a modern world civilization shaped to the needs of the human, rather than having the civilization imposed upon the pliant human body (see Lefebvre and Foucault).

In the seminal 80’s teen comedy ‘Bill and Ted’s excellent adventure’. The two architectural symbols of the Californian ‘end of history’ are the shopping mall and the water-park. Bill and Ted incidentally are the modern Huck & Tom who are destined to create the Arcadian society of the future (ironically costructed on the unpromising foundation of 80's stadium rock).

Monday, April 26, 2004

Dursley Pool

This is a family time in the pool, I have my own seven year old daughter with me and I am struck by the fact that all around me are displays of intimacy in the form of an elaborate and inventive choreography of holding and supporting weight.

Dads and daughters. Fathers and sons. Mothers and daughters; are all in dancing pairs. The smaller partners are pushed and towed, they are supported then let go and supported again. I lift my daughter in the style of a ballet dancer, publicly we (and other Dads & daughters) hug, hold, and swing round, lift up and hold hands.

There is a slight difference between genders, boys are towed and pushed, girls are lifted up and swung around. Later in the year in a delicious inversion, my daughter discovers that she can carry my vast weight when it is supported by water. She carries me around the pool in her arms like a maiden with a twisted ankle and also tows me in a simulated life saving exercise. Gravity is defeated in water, gravity which weighs most heavily on the older swimmer. For the younger swimmers surrendering to anti-gravity is the hard part of learning to swim, trusting their smothering but supportive upholder.

Other games are being played; Diving, holding breath, hand-stands, bouncing on one leg or two. ‘mushroom floating’, back tows, front tows, riding on Dad’s back like a horse, lying on his back, jumping off Dad’s legs and knees, diving off the same.

I’m not sure there’s any other public place where such physical ‘horse-play’ can go on. This is an arena of ludic possibilities- and yet this is also excruciatingly boring for the captive swimmer turned play-mate. Is it boredom, or the conventional and controlled brain balking at the exhibition of freedom and spontaneity? There is nothing more embarrassing than liberty.

Sunday, April 25, 2004

Sex and the swimmer

No sport is quite as steeped in sexuality as swimming, in the 18th century rhe sport was associated with male nudity in the greek mode. The naked male bonding of the etonian swimmers was not always only innocently homo-erotic and the ambivalent depiction of this kind of bathing remained a favourite of artists from Thomas Eakins ‘The swimming hole’ to Hockney via Norman Rockwell’s more innocent depiction off illicit 'wild-swimming' young boys.

The attraction for artists is understandable, swimming as a subject offers a licence for nudity or semi-nudity, ‘Dejeuner sur L’herbe’ as an example uses bathing to move the boudoir poses of classical nudes into a naturalistic social settting. This licence to show the human form was also to be exploited by post Hayes code Hollywood who made stars out of the wonderful physiques of Kellerman,Williams and Weismuller as well as the bit part players of Busby Berkeley swimming spectaculars.

Swimming was not the only sport used to push the boundaries of respectability, throughout the early 20th century fashion and the media used the growing respectability of the partially desexualized sporting body to shorten skirts, introduce shorts and tight fitting garments such as ‘t-shirts’ previously regarded as underwear; swimming however could take it further than most- the ‘swim-suit’ remained about the most risqué garment to be worn in public for most of the 20th century.

There are factors which made swimming a useful emblem of sexuality. The swimmer is semi naked and absorbed in repetitive muscular activity; the swimmer is supine and horizontal and moist.

The ‘swimming body’ has a distinct muscular form, as do all trained physiques. The relatively slow and gravity free push against the resisting medium develops long and softly defined but toned muscles. The swimming body shape for women was like that of the dancer and gymnast, acceptably ‘feminine’, but was fuller and more ‘curvy’ than their harder bodied sisters. For men the smooth muscled, barrel-chested form of the swimmer was also admired in Holllywood until the ‘ripped’ form of the body builder supplanted them as an ideal for masculine musculature. The champion swimmers of the 19th century were often ‘fat’ in that their ultra long distance feats in ultra-cold water made a good covering of body fat an asset in terms of energy release and insulation whilst the gravity free environment meant that extra weight carried a neglible disadvantage.

In everyday swimming sexual display is an unspoken factor. The viewing of near naked bodies is an undoubted attraction ‘to some’, but most be strongly disavowed and disciplined by all in most circumstances- certainly in the public swimming pool with its’ mix of ages and social backgrounds. The more informal beach or Lido offers more space for frank sexual display by young heterosexual., Homosexual men with more of an eye for the coded nuances of sexual interest than their heterosexual peers more commonly use swimming pools to meet potential partners.

Movies like ‘The Swimmer’ and ‘The Swimming Pool’ have used the pool as a crucible of change in the conflict between authority and convention and ‘natural’ human sexuality. More widely, the naked mixed swim is often used as an index of bohemian sexual liberation, from the literary skinny dipping of Rupert Brookes and Virginia Woolf to the Capri styled nudity of the Hugh Hefner and Bob Guccione mansions.

Saturday, April 24, 2004

Philoliutes and Psychrolutes, Frogs, Swans and Penguins

Sprawson waxes eloquently on the morbid fascination of water for romantic souls like Shelley, Swinburne and DeQuincey and Poe or for extreme physical challenge like Byron and (Jack) London. The first Swimming Society in Britain, formed in 1828 by Etoniians, was divided into ‘philolutes’- lovers of bathing and ‘psychrolutes’-lovers of cold water. The dangerous aspect of water sport has always been a part of it’s appeal, even the slow and steady Captain Webb finally drowned in the whirlpool at the base of Niagra falls.

In the modern era swimming is a sport confined to staid surroundings, rigorously controlled. The same cannot be said of the newer water-sports which take on the mantle of ‘wild swimming’ in terms of peril. Surfing and Scuba diving both relish the challenges offered by untamed water and accept fatalities amongst the (principally young, male and educated) practioners of the sport. the swimming pool.

In the swimming pool traces of peril still exist, the cold of the unheated lido and the un-needed depth of the ‘deep-end’ being the most common. Early in the history of the pool, technological challenges simulated natural perils: The diving board, flume, chute and wave machine.

Perhaps in time ‘wild swimming’ will be rediscovered like ‘free-diving’ which rejected the paraphernalia of scuba diving and ‘free running’ which discarded the skate-board but kept the gravity defying urban freedom of the sport.

Van Leuween in his wonderful history of the swimming pool ‘ The Springboard in the Pond’ divide swimmers into three categories:

Frogs- The swimmer who wants total immersion and is totally hydrophllc.

Swans- The swimmer who wants to make excursions into water for reasons other than a love of water. Describable as Hydro-opportunistic the Swan finds things to do in water which use water- but do not partake in it’s nature. ( my own biased example is the difference between the hydrophilic surfer- who essentially loves rough water for its nature and the hideous jet-skier who ‘uses’ water as a mediam for mechanical speed.

The last type of swimmer is the hydrophobic ‘penguin’, who pops into the water, but is happier being safely on it’s edge. (this metaphor is of course deeply unfair to the real penguin who is a water athlete of the highest kind- whereas real frogs are not actually that fond of water- rather they need to be kept damp- but the metaphor is still a useful classificatory sceme.) .

Friday, April 23, 2004

GL1 Pool
30th May 2003 (Half term)

GL1 is a modern city center pool completed in 2002. It is made up of a large pool and three smaller chiildren’s pools. As well as pools the facility contains a fitness center, café, squash court and a licensed bar. The building is a modernist structure with curved walls of glass and metal.

Unlike the predominantly white and middle class swimmers of Dursley pool , GL1 has a a varied mix of ethnicity and social class.

The large central pool is almost square and has a uniform depth throughout. The lack of either shallow or deep end, length or width disorientates my son and I and we leave after only 30 minutes in the water. What is so disorientating? The first factor is spatial, unlike the ‘normal’ pool in which the number of swimmers ‘thin out’ toward the deep end, the swimmers are distributed evenly in random ‘clumps’ across the whole pool. There is also the factor of direction, without a clear sense of length and width swimmers swim in any way they please, there is no such thing as ‘swimming a length’. So what are all these people doing in the pool? The main event is a long line of ‘foam floats’ for which children are queuing to run along and dive off. The remainder of swimmers are standing in inward facing‘bobbing’ circles of ‘deep paddlers, there are 3,4 or 5 in each circle and each is composed either of families or of peers. Most circles of peers or friends are girls of 9-12, free of parents, many in bikinis. As well a chatting the bobbing circles engage in improvised group games such as ‘throw the swim-band’ and ‘all go under’. Amongst these many mini territories swimming more than a few strokes is as impolite as running across a crowded beach.

Whilst the large pool is chest deep and can sustain a swimmer when not crowded ,the smaller pools are shallow enough to sit in. Two pools have slides entering them , suitable for the more robust toddler. Fountains and jets of water also rise in various places in these pools. There is also a shallow rectangular learners pool with three pool attendants in close supervision.

Safe waterplay in social groupings is the order of the day, every pool has it’s ‘float’ sessions, but GL1 makes plain in it’s design that this kind of family swimming is important.

DANGEROUS water-play is the modern parental nightmare, even in the 1960’s and 70’s of my youth risky behaviour was accepted more readily. In public baths the diving boards still stood, tiered for high dives and springboards too. Today not even a standing dive from the side of the pool is common. Before I could swim, fearlessly clutching a ‘rubber ring’ my 5 year old self would climb the ladder to the 10 foot high top board and jump. On one occasion a larger, borrowed rubber ring released me from it’s center on impact and I disappeared into the depths before rising up and managing to recapture my errant buoyancy aid. In my teens I swam in gravel pits with their chill cramping depths under the sun warmed surface layers, I swam the lazy river Nene near Peterborough and enlivened the experience by jumping from lock gates into the white water race below. The ten foot drop was into water only three foot deep, but the hard white water broke the fall. Under the white water, a still pocket in which the swimmer could position themselves carefully before rising to the surface again,. Out of the dark still water into a sledgehammer weir-race which flung the swimmer like a surfer far out into the river. An awkward surfacing caused me once to dislocate my shoulder before being flung painfully down river and bourn away unable to swim to the bank. A friend saved me , but the rest of the summer was spent confined in a triangular bandage. It was 1975, a summer almost as hot as the legendary 1976 following, to not be aable to swim but to watch others swim was purgatory. I made up for it in 1976, by that time a ‘hippy’ (Punk was only a year away) I spent most of the summer in the Elan valley, bathing naked in the waterfalls and pools of the upper Wye amongst the ‘teepeee people’ in a month long festival. Charles Sprawson in his poetic account of the swimmer as hero in ‘Haunts of the Black Masseur’ writes about the romance of the ‘Wild Swimmer’ in their many incarnations. Roger Deakin brings a more ecological and spiritual dimension to the same subject in ‘Waterlog’. Did people drown whilst ‘wild swimming’ as parents now fear? Oh yes, they did.

Thursday, April 22, 2004


The ‘Swimming Baths’ are also of course BATHS. The Roman Bath house and its descendant via Byzantium, the Turkish bath, were a major influence on the modern pool and were associated with personal and community hygiene. Many early Baths contained ‘slipper baths’ (so called because of the slipper like hoods which concealed the bathers nakedness.) Some also had Turkish Baths and Laundries. The Public bath was part of the ‘civilizing process’ of the Victorian era. Subscriptions societies and Municipal authorities built Baths with the same zeal as Libraries, Museums and Churches were constructed to help civilize the ‘great unwashed’ rendered feral by the industrial revolution. Built after the Roman style the bath-house emulated Roman civilization and engineering.


One of the primary motivations for developing the widespread knowledge of swimming was military. The first schools of swimming were for Roman soldiers and the revival of swimming in the 18th and 19th centuries coincided with the attempt by rival Prussian and French military authorities to teach swimming skills to troops (the first students being horses!).

The river crossing was a martial feat and it was in rivers that competitive swimming was popularized as a feat of martial prowess. Eton public school fostered river bathing as a Spartan virtue and many celebrated Etonians waxed lyrical about the heady mix of challenge, homo-eroticism and masochism involved in the sport. Celebrated romantic figures such as Byron were almost as well known for their death defying feats in swimming rivers and turbulent seas as for their other accomplishments. Shelley fatally combined a morbid fascination with water and the inability to swim. Byron himself almost drowned when swimming the same waters that had killed Shelley immediately following his cremation.

For the more staid and conventional swimmer, the rivers of Europe provided the first large scale swimming structures, these were large swimming barges which gave access to enclosed and filtered river water.

The ghost of the river within the swimming pool can be seen in one of its’ most potent semiological features, the distinction between WIDTH and LENGTH. The length swimmer is the hero, emulating the long distance swimming contests of the gentlemanly and Spartan early swimmers who challenged fatigue, cold and current. The width swimmer however is merely the ordinary foot soldier taking the quickest path across the flood.


Whilst the 18th century Spartans would settle for rivers if sufficiently deep and dangerous and even for lakes and ponds if cold enough, the sea offered the greatest challenge. Byron swam the Hellespont and popularized swimming amongst gentlemen and romantics, Captain Webb however made swimming a craze amongst all those classes who could afford access to the English coast.

Swimming was at first an ‘extreme sport’ and one in which the 18th and 19th century British, with their unique appetite for sporting recreation, were preeminent As the 19th century progressed sea bathing gradually lost its masculine and naked competitiveness and became a recreational successor to ‘taking the waters’ in the spa.

The seaside continued to become more and more democratized throughout the early 20th century. As the more well off decamped to more exotic resorts, the swimming pool took on the hue of the travel brochure mediterranean beach. The modern leisure pool with its’ warm azure and turquoise water and palm trees can be as a minature representation and reenactment of the annual holiday in the sun.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Pool, River, Spa, Sea, Bath, Pool

What is a pool meant to be? The modern pool is the end result of a number of different imaginings, many of which are residual within its’ structure and in the practices in it and around it. The practice of swimming in a leisure pool is so much a simulacrum, a thing entirely unto itself, that it can be easy to forget that the pool is a simulated environment and represents something other than itself.


If anyone can be blamed for the origin of the swimming pool it is the Ancient Greeks. The pool in Greek culture was animistically endowed with the ‘genius loci’, different pieces of water (pool, stream, spring and coastal location) were ascribed magical and healing problems. Water from these special place could be bathed in, dived into or drunk in order to partake in these properties, or ,conversely NOT drunk or bathed or dived in because of their special properties. Although water had a mythopoetic link with heroic deeds, competitive sport was not generally conducted around it. When the gentleman romantics of the 18th century rediscovered swimming they did so in the Greek fashion, naked and in the natural world of fresh and energized water.

The conceit in modern pools of adding natural shapes, foliage and artificially energized water could be seen as appealing to this Greek sensibility, even more so the LIDO. The Lido was often fed by natural springs and specifically located in a ‘natural’ environment such as the park and also of course open to the elements- chiefly sunshine. The heyday of the Lido in the 1930’s coincided with the cult of open air athletisism which is celebrated in the documentary ‘Olympia’


If anyone rivaled this reverence for water in the ancient world it was the German tribes and it was in Germany and Switzerland that the SPA was popularized. In Medieaval Christian culture ritual immersion and sacred springs and wells played a role and inspired pilgrimage. In the Spa, sacred became therapeutic- but the distance was not so very great, certainly the proto-scientists like Paracelsus ascribed special power to the element of water and used the presence of elemental spirits: gnomes(earth), undines(Air), Sylphs(Water) and Salamanders(Fire) to explain sickness and health.

In The 18th century the Spa became institutionalized as a major therapeutic and leisure facility. Whilst immersion or consumption of the healing waters was a medicalised and sometimes uncomfortable process, the most popular spas such as those in Bath and Bristol allowed warm water bathing. Spa buildings such as the one at Bristol's ‘Hotwells’ greatly resemble swimming baths and reflect the transition of spas from medical facilities to leisure and recreational resorts. In the last few years the idea of ‘spa’ has been revived to describe the exclusive pools at private health clubs. In Bath itself the controversial millennium spa will, when finally completed, allow visitors to bath in the warm waters of ‘Aqua Sulis’ in an open air pool in the same way as the Romans did 2000 years ago.

The sparkling clarity of the modern pool, chemically created and augmented by coloured tiles and lights, makes a visual claim to a be linked to the pristine and therapeutic spa. Even the nasty smell and taste of chlorine has a placebo claim to medical efficacy. (Interestingly chlorination could be replaced by an odour free method of purification such as ultra-violet light and silver- the main reason these are not used is because the smell of chlorine verifies cleanliness.)

Monday, April 19, 2004

27th May 2003
Dursley Pool

Three lanes are open this morning. Initially strict lane discipline is working perfectly.

In the outer (pool side) lane are the 'racers', mainly younger men in speedo trunks and goggles, they are all using the front crawl.

In the middle lane are slower 'length counters', the preferred stroke is the breast stroke and no goggles are worn. In this lane the discipline is meticulous. Non verbal negotiations are made at the end of every length as each decides whether to continue swimming or to stop, give way, judge the correct distance based on the next swimmer’s pace and then proceed. The ‘give way’ signal can be a nod, the removal of goggles or by making body or hand contact with the end of the pool. At one point lane discipline breaks down as ‘mid-lane cruiser’ from the length-counter lane swims up and down without observing the signals from other swimmers.

In the inner lane are the rest, some 'fast crawlers'- but they are playful and seal-like, varying their strokes, pace and lane and obviously enjoying the sensation of swimming. There are also ‘eccentrics’, such as one footed swimmer and a high proportion of the older women.

7th March 2004
7.15 am
Dursley Pool

After a year of regular swimming I have developed an elaborate routine for early morning sessions. I swim 34 lengths, the first one of them underwater, the next 20 in a fast crawl, 12 in a breast-stroke and one on my back without hands. The figure of 34 has been arrived at on the assumption that the pool is 33m long and that I am therefore swimming a respectable kilometer. Today I ask a pool attendant how long the pool is and find out is only 25m long. I swim 50 lengths out of penance, it is the furthest I have ever swum and I feel suitably athletic.

On the way out however I notice a leaflet for the annual Swimathon. I am shocked to find out that a ‘Swimathon’ consists of 5000m or 200 lengths, I am suddenly in a much bigger world. I enter the half swimathon on the internet, 100 lengths, twice as much as my best effort to date.

14th March 2004
7.15 am
Dursley Pool

A week before the Swimathon, I intend to swim 64 lengths-1 mile. In the end I keep on going and swim 100 lengths. After 50 lengths the pool develops a slope, I finish vindicated but exhausted.

20th March 2004
4.30 pm
Dursley Pool

I arrive for the Swimathon, there is only one other entrant. The pool attendants evacuate the party of children who are using the pool, dredge out the polystyrene play floats and then set up six racing lanes. The crowd of children watch as two adult males take over the whole pool.

The event starts, the same experience is repeated 100 times, push off, swim, turn and swim again. Art he end of each return length a flash of the pool attendant making an encouraging facial expression or counting out significant numbers. There is an isolation tank like experience otherwise- though I catch sight of the smooth rolling stroke of my ‘competition’ (who is swimming the full distance)

I have stroke envy, my crawl is stiff, angular splashy and inefficient by comparison and he is swimming at least 50% faster than me. I eventually emerge from the pool after compelting 100 lengths- 1hour and 25 minutes later, he has swum 175 lengths in the same time.

A week later I look at the results on the Swimathon web-site. I am the 503rd fastest in the event, 103rd fastest in my age group. I don’t discover how many entrants there are.

My routine has now stretched, 64 lengths (1 mile) my new benchmark. I attempt to emulate the rolling splash free crawl of my swimathon rival and consider buying swimming flippers.

If human beings are the evolutionarily adapted ‘aquatic apes’ that some biologist believe, it must be said that we are evolved to paddle rather than swim. We are ill adapted for speed, the racing swimmer moving no faster than someone having a brisk stroll. A three mile run is the commonplace feat of an only averagely fit person, a three mile swim is a marathon.

Porpoises we may not be, however there is some consolation in the fact that relatively porpoise shaped people can be fairly respectable water athletes, at least by the standards of the municipal swimming pool.

Sunday, April 18, 2004

Bristol North Baths
Gloucester Road
March 26 2004
4.00 pm

A traditional swimming pool somewhat deeper shorter and wider than the moden standard - and with crystal clear water. The glass roof has been concealed by a modern suspended ceiling but there is a Victorian railway station/Arcade feel- yellow brick walls and tiled signage over the doors. Around the whole perimeter is a large viewing gallery with a wrought iron balustrade. The pool is under pressure to close despite being popular, probably because it is ill suited to the modern leisure pool template (lots of shallow water) but also does not conform to the Olympic pool proportions. (An Olympic pool is 50m long by 25 m wide- most modern pools are 25m by 12.5)

Despite it’s ‘Victorian’ feel- like most pools in Bristol and the rest of Britain was actually built in the 1930s- It apparently was used as a cinema and dance hall as well as a pool.

The most ‘dated’ part of the building however are the Changing rooms and showers.

Changing Rooms

Nothing more clearly shows the changing nature of public swimming than showers and changing facilities.

Here, as in the swimming pool of my youth, changing is done in individual curtained cubicles around the side of the pool. Originally each side of the pool was sexually segregated. When safely changed the swimmer would at one time have put their street clothes into a wire basket and clothes hanger and then taken them to the cloakroom attendant for storage, receiving a numbered tag in return- I am told that one such pool still exists in Bristol. There has been a concession to modernity here- there is a locker room for those who do not want to leave their clothes by the pool-side. This changing room system is probably based on the Turkish bath model- presumably derived from Turkey via Byzantium from the original Roman prototype. I used to visit a wonderful Victorial Municipal Turkish bath in Carlisle, here the changing cubicles were curtained with velvet hangings and the changing cubicles contained cushioned ottomans for (social) reclining. The cubicles were arranged around the ‘frigidarium’ or cold plunge pool which is itself probably the prototype for the swimming pool.

In Dursley - as in most modern pools there are gated, lockable changing booths ( some of family size), once changed, discarded clothes are stowed in lockers immediately outside the changing cubicle. If these cubicles have any antecedent it is surely the seaside mini beach hut still found at resorts like Charmouth in Devon.

The shift in protoype from the bathing model to the swimming model is not coincidental.

At the 1930’s Stroud Stratford Park Lido, changing arrangements are neither modest in the Victorian or the modern fashion. Here the changing rooms are communal and single sex in the tradition of school and sporting facilities. Here there too are lockers for clothes.


At Bristol North showers are public and by the poolside. The fact that there are showers on each side of the pool show that originally they were single sex.

At Dursley the showers are also by the pool-side, but are unsegragated.

At the Stroud lido the showers are communal but sexually segregated, If people so wish they can actually remove their swimming costumes before showering, few do.

There is a peculiar trade-off between sexual modesty privacy and public view. The communal shower and changing room causes mild embarrassment for all, but protects against what might happen if people are allowed too much privacy. In the Carlisle Turkish baths the curtains were removed from the cubicles to prevent anything ‘steamy’ going on in them.

Bath-houses have of course had a long association with sexual licence, from the ’Stews’ of Shakespearean times to the ‘’Saunas’ of today.

Day two of the live disseration-athon- I'm getting the 'juices flowing' by writing 800 word a day in a fast journalistic fashion- to be cleaned up and referenced later.

Sunday 18th April 2004
7.00 a.m.
Dursley Pool

It’s very still at 7.00 am- the dedicated few are just arriving, mainly middle aged male lane swimmers at first, but then a family with a baby and an also an older woman on her own.

The pool becomes an intersection of a number of different spaces, each with their own codes and practices.

Individual space-

swimming is an especially solipistic and self absorbed activity, a kind of mobile total immersion tank for some. The especially solipsistic swimmer ploughs on regardless, expecting any in (his) path to clear the way. Individual space is particularly important amongst people clad only in wet skimpy underwear, the avoidance of physical contact is paramount. When an arm leg, hand or (at worst) toe-nail makes contact with another body the transgression is usually not acknowledged on either side- but it is registered as a violation of personal space. The tinted swimming goggle is almost universal amongst the solitary swimmer- it allows the social isolation of a lone car driver. Solitary swimmers generally like to swim in straight lines without alteration in pace or direction, routine and regularity of behaviour is marked.

Athletic space-

usually marked out by physique and branded swim wear the athletic swimmer is swimming against a training programme.At the ‘low end’ of the athletic ladder are the strong solitaries, swimming for fitness, at the top of the ladder are competitive swimmers working to improve their time or technique, often with a mentor or training partner to hand. Top end athletes tend to use the pool when no other kind of swimmer is present, strong solitaries however can impinge on other swimming spaces.
Today for example the (would be) athletic swimmers are forced out of the single swimming lane by the aqua equivalent of the Morris Minor in the fast lane- an older man with a slow and stately breast-stroke. The athletes move in to the un-laned general pool and need to negotiate their way around other swimming spaces- such as the family space around a young baby. When the family leaves however, the whole of the pool becomes an athletic space with an informal lane system in place.

Social space-

Amongst the young (9-19) the pool can be a social space, particulary amongst generational cohorts. The solipist is silent and avoids eye contact and body contact- these are sought out amongst the social swimmers. The social swimmers form bobbing circles facing inwards and obstructing the non-social spaces. Bobbing and talking is interspersed with splashing and physical challenge. In pools where this is allowed’ wrestling and running along the side of the bath to jump or dive are a favouite amongst social males. Mostly such activities are not allowed, diving boards which were once the strutting ground of social swimmers are now removed or immobilized in the pursuit of safety .To some extent the boards have been replaced in ‘leisure’ pools by ‘floats and inflatable sessions’, aqua shutes and wave machines. Apart from the formalized activities of the modern leisure pool the social swimmer’s spontaneous patterns can still be seen in the larger Lidos- which tend to segment and separate the different kinds of swimmers. In the ordinary shared usage community pool social swimmers must bob, splash, talk loudly and grab each other. All girl social circles are less physically demonstative- they form larger circles than boys and seem to perform the piscine equivalent of dancing around the invisible handbag.

Family Leisure Space-

The modern leisure pool (Dursley pool was built in 1987) inclines towards providing semi privatized (rather than the communal spaces of the 1930’s pool) nuclear family mini breaks. Like the beach or the hotel pool, the family forms it’s own enclosed territory. The minimum number is of course two- parent and young child, though the presence of both parents makes an even stronger territory. unike the beach territory which can be marked by towels and maintained at a distance, the family space in the shallow ‘learner’s lagoon’ needs the continual presence of at least two family members. Individual adults and older children may peel off from the family group and swim a length and then return to the space. The Shallow end/deep end binary restricts the territory aavailable to the family, modern pools –such as G11 in Gloucester remove the deep end and devote the whole space to family leisure.

Pedagogic Space

Swimming is cultural, swimming is explicitly taught. There are very few social spaces in which which so many participants are so carefully inducted into specific gestural codes and sequences.Pedagogy can be formal and conducted in groups, or formal one-to-one. Even when formal teaching is not being conducted there is a great deal of parent-to-child instruction going on. Swimming instructors along with music teachers, driving instructors and other athletic coaches have a physical pedagogic authority which is no longer found in academic schooling. The coach trains the body and circumvents the brain. The ultimate authority of the coach is the threat of drowning. Less formal pedagogy can also be observed in parent-child encouragement to play and parent-child challenge to perform.

Many millions are spent every year on teaching children to swim, it is apparently an unproblematically ‘good thing’ to swim- and ‘obviously’ saves lives. I would suspect however that the ability to swim is statistically neutral as a survival strategy. Swimmers are far more likely to drown than non-swimmers because they are more likely to take risks in water. Traditionally, Britsh deep water sailors often believed it ‘unlucky’ to be able to swim. Many modern aquatic codes derive from shallow water and Island dwelling cultures (such as Poynesia).

Saturday, April 17, 2004


Here's the first of my 'waterlogs'- work in progress for my MA dissertation- fairly free associating- feel free to comment.

PS- The 'Waterlog' pun is nicked from Roger Deakin,

Monday 19th May 2003
Dursley Pool

Late Monday afternoon is quiet time in the weekly life of the pool with a wide variety of swimmers , each with varied agendas. At the more‘serious side’ of the pool a single ‘lane’ is being shared by three lane-swimmers (one of them me). I’m overweight in baggy red swim-shorts, swimming a splashy crawl and attempting to both observe and participate with the assistance of smoked swim goggles. The other two lane swimmers are a man in his late 20’s or early 30’s wearing orange shorts swimming a fairly brisk breast stroke and a woman in her 40’s wearing an orange tankini who is attempting to swim a stately breast stroke whilst keeping her hair dry.

Away from the rectangular disciplines of the 25m lane is the rest of the pool, including ‘the ‘learner’s lagoon’, indicated by an island planted with a palm tree and containing a wheelchair hoist. In the lagoon a small number of learners (3) are receiving formal one-to-one tuition from pool instructors. Each learner has a different form of buoyancy aid (wings, jacket and float) all the instructors are marked out by wearing wet-suit style shirts over their costumes. Learners are being given tasks and set goals against some graded system of progression. Learners are being observed and being given verbal and mimetic feedback on their efforts.

Elsewhere in the pool less formal kinds of instruction/induction are going on. A father (in his 40’s) with a son of 9/10 years old is setting goals and challenges for his son (‘”swim a length”). A little later the father asks one of the pool attendants about badges and awards available.

In the deep-end another Father and son pairing (Father in 30’s, son in early teens) are mildly competing on swimming widths. The father is slightly more competitive than the son.

Also in the deep end, two boys of 9/10 are setting a series of challenges for each other, including width races and diving to touch the bottom.

Some swimmers are neither pedagogic or competitive. Three 9/10 year old girls are ‘bobbing and talking, talking whilst swimming together or talking whilst hanging on to the steps at the deep end of the pool. They are not talking about swimming.

A female mentor swims lengths in leisurely fashion whilst keeping an eye on her charges, two adult male ‘special needs’ cases who are grinning, bobbing up and down vigorously, splashing and conducting a loud conversation.

‘Bobbing’ is the basic activity of the immersed non-swimmer, exploiting the triple pleasure of water-air comparison immersion; anti-gravity, temperature change and surface penetration. Bobbing or ‘deep paddling’ is a basic survival mechanism for a non-swimmer and could be regarded as hydrophobic’(swan-like according to Van Leuween) - equally it could be argued that it is profoundly ‘hydrophilic’ or ‘’frog-like’, in that it maximizes the FEELING/SENSATION aspect of swimming.

The serious ‘hydrophilic’ lane swimmer engages in activities that ten d to maximize the MOVEMENT/THOUGHT aspect of swimming (Laban,Jung, Feldenkrais)

Lane swimmers are as a breed; individualistic, goal orientated and operate a refined etiquette and an elaborately negotiated form of social stratification.

Costumes signify basic intention, for men baggy shorts signify not taking it all too seriously and a sociability not associated with lane swimmers. Baggy trunks are not the preferred garb for a lane swimmer. Serious swimmers wear tight ‘speedo’ or ‘addidas’ costumes and, favour monochrome and dark colours. Women swimmers at their most ‘flippant’ wear colorful bikinis and rarely swim more than a few strokes . The branded sportswear one piece swim-suit shows a serious swimmer. In the middle ground are the surf styled tankini wearers. Amongst male wearers the ‘surf’ style is suggested by longer legged wet-suit style trunks. The very pinnacle of sporting cool is the whole body all in one suit (Later I will acquire a pair of long-leg speedos myself). The older style scanty slip style trunks are worn only by older, thinner men.

Fast and serious swimmers tend to favour the ‘front crawl’ as a stroke. Slower and older swimmers keep to the breast-stroke. The breast stroke is the most polite form of swimming, neither splashing passing swimmers or creating turbulent wakes. The most controversial stroke is a back stroke, this requires other swimmers to avoid the swimmer as they blindly make their way up the pool. In this pool this stroke is only ever used by ‘a grumpy old man.’

Lane swimming demands disciplines of speed, spacing and proximity.

Speed has to be regulated so that the swimmer does not ‘catch up’ the swimmer ahead, nor obstruct the progress of the swimmer behind.

Space must be given to passing swimmers so as not to brush hands or feet or to ’swamp’ or splash.

Deference is given to the faster or more ‘serious’ swimmer . Polite distances are observed, conversation is generally kept to the minimum.

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