For the first time as an adult, I’m swimming regularly for exercise, which – if you’re unfamiliar with how they do it over here in England – is a simple process. Nothing to it. First, walk to the Leisure Centre (of course they call it that) and check in. Next, disrobe, put on my trunks, and actively ignore the fascinating array of humanity as I walk through the locker room. Walk out to the pre-swim shower station, shower, well more of a rinse really since they don’t provide complimentary soap. Do other people do the pre-shower? I didn’t see them when they got here. How much does a pre-rinse do? They used to call these things public baths, didn’t they. Anyhow, off to share the warm pool of water with these strangers.
I’m not a hypochondriac. I know that sounded like it. If there’s a hot tub somewhere, I’ll get in, though I might know better. As a Minnesotan, I claim the practice of swimming in bodies of water that have a lot going on microbiologically as part of my birthright. I’ve swum in murky lakes where there are posted signs warning that you’ll get Swimmer’s Itch if you go in there, and by God, I’ve done it and I’d do it again. But, relative to my other regular experiences in London, going to the pool offers the most obvious reminder that underneath the trappings of society, we all have bodies, and sharing things in public can be a bit personal. Thank goodness this particular pool seems really well-managed, the floors are always clean, hang on just doing a quick Google search…
Clissold Leisure Centre’s catalogue of problems is a frightening read. A local activist group, called Not the Clissold Leisure Centre, lists no fewer than 59 defects on its website. These include a “changing village”, which Orthodox Jews and Muslim women would be unable to use. The children’s changing areas, moreover, were located next to two-metre deep water. Shower drains have blocked. Dirty water from showers flowed into the pools. Tiles around these were slippery.
Yet these are relatively minor complaints compared with defects number 32, “roof leaking across whole centre”, 33, “roof sweating with condensation”, 34, “glass walls around pools retain fetid water”, 40, “inadequate ventilation to both pool areas”
The Guardian, March 1, 2004
Be careful what you look for! This – the most beautiful facility of its kind that I’ve ever seen – has some secrets. Another instance of an exceptionally fancy and expensive (£34M) building not working very well in practice. Fortunately, that article is 14 years old, and the hygiene-minded community activists won – it’s since been renovated, and there are no signs of the problems from when it opened. The drainage is fantastic everywhere you look, couldn’t ask for better. But it goes to show that when the systems around a shared public resource like a simple pool of water aren’t working, it’s gross on a visceral level.