Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Australian Crawl

I have always been fond of outdoor public swimming pools. Not those awful, glassed-in, chlorine-reeking places that you find in the British isles, but proper outdoor ones that come into their own in the warm months, providing an oasis in the middle of crowded city suburbs, where parents and children, old and young, can mingle in sparkling water or lie semi-comatose after a swim.

They are egalitarian places in the best possible way. That is, they are not intended to be so - there is no agenda beyond relaxation, escape from heat and having fun - and yet somehow, wet and stripped of almost all their clothing, few people are able to retain even a shred of pomposity. In the water, barriers between people vanish. Stretched out in the sunlight after a few Olympic lengths, petty exasperations seem to evaporate along with the moisture on your skin.

I suppose it's not surprising I feel this way about pools. My earliest memories are of going to one in Kuala Lumpur. We only had school in the mornings and so we spent each afternoon beside a local pool. I can remember the triumph of finally managing to swim the width of the thing. I remember the horror of blood unfurling like some strange bright ribbon into the water when my brother slipped on the steps and sliced open his chin. Although I cannot remember doing so, there are photographs to prove that what I did most of all at that pool was spend hours on the edge, telling anyone who was listening that I was going to dive, posing rigidly, arms stretched, hands pointed in front of me, deetermination written all over my face. I never once did dive, apparently, chickening out and jumping at the last minute every single time.

Later there was a pool I used to go to just outside Siena and another at the end of the 34 tram route in Vienna - there each time you lifted your face from the water to breathe, the scent of delicious sausages sizzling at the poolside snack bar would tempt you to stop for a quick bite. In Budapest, of course, there was (and still is) a variety of options, some of them - the Szechenyi baths spring to mind here - open even in the depths of winter, making it possible to sit outdoors in thermal waters, surrounded by baroque splendour,  (playing chess, if you wish, as they have floating chessboards),  while the snow falls round you.

Sadly my love of public pools is not shared by everyone in my family. In fact, when my  husband and I first met each other, our relationship almost foundered when I suggested we go to an outdoor thermal pool near Moscow (this was in the 1970s, I should add, when hygiene and various other things were not at the top of the list of Russian priorities - are they now, I wonder?). The word horror does not adequately cover the expression on my future husband's face at the prospect. Which is why that place remains on my to do list, as did, until last week, the Boy Charlton swimming pool on the shores of Wooloomooloo bay (the link is worth following, because the story of the pool and Andrew "Boy" Charlton gives a wonderful sense of Australia in an earlier time).

Tree by entrance to Boy Charlton Pool
I should point out that the Boy Charlton pool could never be confused with anything in Moscow, even if that something is now in a gleaming, revamped state. The Boy Charlton pool is the antithesis of grimness and light deprivation. The Boy Charlton pool, which lies in the Domain, just behind the Art Gallery of New South Wales is bright and sparkling and cheerful. It is unofficious, uncluttered, uncrowded. It has no canned music or bossy announcements, it is litter free and hedonistic. Despite the fact that it is right opposite a naval dockyard, it has a breezy optimistic atmosphere that precludes everything but pleasure and fun. Like all good swimming pools, it brings out the playful and relaxed qualities of its visitors.
Looking back towards Potts Point as you go down the stairs leading to Boy Charlton Pool
After I'd got over my initial excitement at actually being there at last, after I'd negotiated the mysteries of the locker system and after I'd worn myself out with length swimming, I found a spot on the shaded tiers of wooden benches beside the water and sat down to relax. A dark boy who looked a bit like Nick Kyrgios swam a race in the lane nearest to me against a rather chubby blond friend. The Kyrgios lookalike beat his friend easily and yelled out gleefully, 'I won, I won'. He caught my eye and grinned, 'You saw', he called, grinning, 'I beat him by miles didn't I?' 'He wasn't really trying', I told him, and he laughed and splashed water in his friend's face.

Later when the pair were leaving, the Kyrgios boy caught my eye again and smiled broadly. 'Sorry if I was too loud. I'm like that. I try not to be', he called, reminding me of a cheerful puppy.
The shaded paddling pool with Olympic pool beyond
Meanwhile, the entire time I was there, two young men on my left were talking and giggling and exchanging gossip.

"It was fantastic", one told the other about some party, "they had, like, a Spanish guitarist, and he was, like, on a rock, and there were, like, beach umbrellas and everyone was, like, hanging out." I think Spanish guitar music on a beach with everyone hanging out (a phrase I've never quite penetrated the exact meaning of) might be one of my various ideas of hell, but, as they say, 'Hey'.

"Can you put some sun cream on my back?" the other asked at the end of this recital. The partygoer happily did so and then, when he'd finished, he headed off for a swim.

It's hard to tell these days as lots of boys do seem to have a slightly gay affect, but nevertheless I had the impression these two were probably gay and possibly flirting. Which is why, when the one who'd been to the party came back from swimming and the other, who'd been lying sunning himself and watching the other through one squinting eye, said to him,  'Gosh, I didn't have you down for a breast stroker', the comment struck me as very funny.

For anyone who doesn't know what breast stroke is, here is John Betjeman demonstrating how it's done:

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