Three things happened in July. Firstly, I took a ‘vacation’ to Lake Arrowhead. The week unsurprisingly involved a lot of wild swimming in the glittering mountain waters, and as I revelled in the feeling of nothingness beneath my feet and my heart pounding with each stroke; somewhere in the back of my brain I started wondering why on earth I hadn’t been to a swimming pool once since I moved to Los Angeles. The same week, my mum accidentally attended the celebrations of David Hockney’s 80th birthday in our shared hometown of Bradford and she kindly sent me a photograph of the giant birthday cake that was made depicting one of his vibrant acrylic swimming pool paintings. Finally, my dear Kerry started sharing photographs of her regular visits to Bramley Baths in Leeds. The Edwardian baths have been there in some form since 1904, and are a now a Grade II listed building. Amongst these occurrences, an urgent desire burned for me to revisit a thread that has run consistently through my life and last weekend I finally because a member of the The Culver City Municipal Plunge.
1. Shipley Swimming Pool
I started swimming lessons at a very young age. I had an amazing terrycloth swimsuit that was bright blue with an orange goldfish on the front; that I’d enviously watched my older sisters wear before me, and was crushed when I too grew out of it. I splashed about in the baby pool working towards my Watermanship Badge. I can very clearly remember the terror of ‘jumping in’, the excruciating rub of pulling armbands onto dry skin, the ‘lightbulb’ moment when I thought that if I just walked along the bottom of the pool, but did the correct arm movements, I would fool everyone into thinking I could swim (clearly forgetting that the pool water is, in fact, transparent) and the heavenly taste of the raspberry slush puppy I was allowed after each class. I was an instant water baby and threw myself into taking as many classes and exams as possible. I quickly worked up from regular classes, to underwater skills during which I remember a misguided test that involved picking a brick off the bottom of the pool whilst wearing pyjamas. I moved onto my 10 metres, 25 metres, 50 metres, 100 metres, 200 metres, and eventually so many metres that I did a charity swim for OXFAM where I swam for three hours without stopping. Next it was time to take the bronze, silver and gold certificates and after that my Saturday morning routine, which had existed for half a decade at that point, was ending. With no more classes to take, I had two choices. I could specialise in either diving or, synchronised swimming. I am pretty sure I took one look at the high-board and figured I would rather spend my time in the water than standing 10 metres above it, most likely paralysed with fear.
2. Belle Vue Swimming Pool
I’m smiling to myself as I type out the name, as I am guessing that Belle Vue means Beautiful View and there was absolutely nothing aesthetically pleasing about this building or the part of Bradford that it existed in. I tried to find a photograph but went down a Google rabbit hole and can only assume it’s long since been demolished; which would not surprise me. My secret life as a synchronised swimmer began at the age of 11. I can’t even tell you how UN-COOL ‘synchro’ was in the mid ’90s. There was none of this kitsch or quirky association of the now-Olympic sport; it was something I could not admit to anyone that I did. I went to great lengths to hide my swimming kit on practise days, and was forever having to scuttle off to the pool from school before anyone could ask me to walk home with them. My time as a synchronised swimmer was my one and only experience of competitive sport and having a coach in anything. I was part of the “City of Bradford Synchronised Swimmers” and would participate in meets and competitions around Yorkshire. It was quite a shock to the system. I arrived at my first lesson to be directed to a white board that had written on it: 20 x breaststroke, 20 x front crawl, 20 x back crawl, 20 x butterfly, 20 x sculling – which is the arm + hand movement that you do during synchro to keep the rest of your body looking completely still on top of the water. Yes, 100 laps was just the ‘warm-up’ before we even began doing our routines and positions. No wonder my body resembled a spaghetti strand at that age.
I wish someone had the foresight to make a documentary about pre-teen synchronised swimmers in Bradford in the nineties. The stranger-than-fiction lengths of bitchiness that a group of competitive pre-teen girls will go to is staggering. Tickling feet mid group-routine, hiding nose-clips before a big competitions and endless vying to be the one that was selected to perform a ‘solo’ routine at the next competition. I enjoyed the training and the craft, but back before the sport was taken so seriously there was still a strong ‘beauty pageant’ element to any competition. We wore ridiculous matching sequinned outfits, vaseline on our face to stop the caked-on make up running and our hair was covered in yet-more-sequins, flowers and then set with gelatine; which you could only remove after with near-boiling water. Each swimmer would perform various positions and then have a panel of judges hold up scores. It’s a tough age to receive a wall of 1’s for your wonky ballet leg. My one and only solo routine featured a self-selected musical accompaniment of East 17, Ace of Base and Eternal. Oh and The Power by SNAP! and you can just imagine how special that was for everyone. The clearest memory that stays with me from these days is the way the music vibrated through your body and cued the various moves. You couldn’t wear goggles, so vision in the deep water was pretty murky and it was the beats that guided you. As I slunk into my teens and puberty crept in, I started to buckle under the pressure to stay a certain shape that my body just wasn’t blooming in to. The previously harmless in-fighting took on a darker body-shaming tone, and I was absolutely sick of training when all my friends were ligging about watching telly or shopping at Bay Trading Company or planning sleepovers.
3. Central London YMCA Club
In my early-twenties I finally made the move from Yorkshire to London that I had been craving since my teens. My timing could have been better; as a week or so before moving, we found out that my mum had a serious health issue. She was still adamant that I go, and of course I did, but my heart was very much back home with her. The big smoke is a tough, rough and gritty city. I do adore it, but I am pretty sure nobody gets out of their first year unscathed. I had my chirpy, friendly northern edges quickly rubbed off. I missed everyone back home like crazy. I was in a disastrous house-share with two friends in a black hole part of Streatham that was nowhere near any form of transport; clocking my commute up to over an hour each way. I was working in my first high-pressure ‘career’ job, for ‘expenses only’. Looking back I was just completely clueless and bumbling through each day as best I could. It was at this time that I retreated back to old habits and spent every spare minute I could under water. I found a swimming pool at the YMCA just off Oxford Street, that was under a ten minute walk from my office. It’s not an exaggeration that I would sometimes go there morning, noon and night; re-using the same soggy costume after a quick blast with the hair dryer. The swimming pool at the time was in the basement of the building. You accessed it from the changing rooms by taking a long spiral stair case deeper and deeper until there was no noise and no natural light, which was as creepy as it sounds. The stairs led you to a dark dingy pond-pool that was actually demolished (there’s a theme to these stories!) later. In all my memories, I am alone in the swimming pool. This seems absolutely impossible with hindsight; as it was a busy central London facility. Why wasn’t there even a lifeguard for company? Maybe it really was that unappealing? Or maybe it was the fact I was probably there on a Saturday night when most people were spilling out of pubs. When I look back to this time, it has that sepia nostalgia film of un-realness. I think I owe those hours spent slowly-pruning, for transitioning me through that first foreboding year and into a London life that I loved.
I wrote a short story called ‘Chlorine’ at the time, about this swimming pool. I desperately want to edit it as it feels so clunky and cheesy now, but that would be cheating.
The shock of the air against my damp skin caused a blanket of goosebumps to sprout across my arms and chest. The swimming pool was empty, and I was alone apart from the echoing of my wet feet slapping against the tiles. An hour of monotonous lengths and playing chicken with my lungs, as to how long I could stay under the surface, hadn’t helped to clear my mind. The watery salvation absent that usually comes with tracing my fingernails along the lines on bottom and starving myself of oxygen until a thousand sparkles swarm my vision. Instead I ripped myself from the stillness that always looks such an enticing aqua marine from the edge. The stench of chlorine followed me as I stood at the top of the staircase back to the changing rooms. The one that twists and turns in spirals that seem to last forever, forcing you to spend an excess amount of time out of the water lusting for the hot soapy shower waiting only moments away.
Your figure shocked me as I turned the last corner. My swimming costume clung and creased into an itchy second skin. I told you my eyes were scarlet due to the chemicals that make the water that tempting toxic blue. You knew I was lying as you reached a long arm around my tiny frame. The one that shrinks and shrieks since I moved to this stupid city. Crevices appearing where softness existed before. Bruises sprouting on corners of my body that protrude instead of retreating coyly. The walls sang back the drip drip drip from our soggy embrace and our bones creaked as we broke away.
4. The Culver City Municipal Plunge
My last blog post talked about anxiety and taking control over unwieldy thoughts and feelings. Well I think it’s evident that there has been quite a key location missing in my life. Every night that I now pack my swimming cap, towel and locker padlock in advance of a morning dip, I feel some of the days stresses and strains just melting away. I’ve made no secret that moving countries and re-setting life has it’s ups, and it’s downs. When we first moved here I actually bookmarked the swimming pool information, but instantly found the prospect of working out when I could fit in going, what the membership fees were and just not knowing the etiquette of lanes and lessons completely overwhelming. I’m angry at past-me for giving up so quickly and taking nearly two years to fall back on what is clearly such a tried and tested method for my brain. On my first trip there, everything was a disaster. I paid the wrong fee (I should have got a ‘resident’ discount) and I misjudged the lanes so badly that I got into the fast lane, and was instantly yelled at by a butterfly-ing man. And it was FINE. I retreated to the medium lane and basked in the fact that I can swim outside, in an unheated pool, all year round. My view from doing backstroke is palm trees, and bright yellow diving boards. I like to do my laps underwater, watching the the sunshine dancing on the tiles and the bubbles from my nose obstructing my view.
I get into the swimming pool with questions, and I leave with only answers.
And this time around, I get to do it inside a real-life David Hockney painting.