Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Wrong side of the Gherkin

190 Burdett Road, Mile End
London E3 4HL
020 8709 4420
Housekeeping note: Please stick with this. I do get to the swimming, eventually ...

The colour of sport in Mile End is yellow. You may be expecting a smart ‘who knew?’ at this point. But I knew. Because I'm a yellow. I shall explain. 

Let’s start with some semantics. There is a seemingly innocuous question that can be particularly revealing about the askers background. It’s this: ‘where were you at school?’ If you get asked that, or the even shorter ‘where were you?’ rather than ‘where did you go to school’ the assumption is that you were ‘somewhere’. By ‘somewhere, they mean ‘somewhere we consider important’ (where ‘important’ means practically in the Cabinet already, and ‘they/we’ means ‘people who need to perpetuate myths about what is best, and then do their utmost to keep them out of people’s reach’.)  If your answer is ‘up the road’ rather than one of the acceptable private names, it shows that you were, in fact,  ‘nowhere’. I went to school ‘nowhere’ though at the time it looked pretty somewhere to me, with all its buildings, teachers, pupils, books etc.

And now, on to statistics. ‘What house were you in?’ is equally revealing. If you went ‘somewhere’, your house was probably named after an Old Boy or (for the more radical establishment) Old Girl whose families had owned whole areas of Surrey or estates in Northumberland.  The rest of us, educated nowhere, split into four easy Houses: Reds, Yellows, Blues and Greens. Around 7% of the UK is privately educated; of the remaining percentage, I suggest we knock off 3% for home educators, because if they were asked which house they were in they would just say ‘my own’. Divide 90 by 4, and we can conclude that 22.5% of us were Yellows.  That’s a lot of Yellows!  I was a Yellow, I probably still am as I never officially signed out; I passed that Yellow birthright down to my own Yellow  children (it was that, or the shooting rights on my little place in Scotland). And in their paint and d├ęcor choices, Mile End Park Leisure Centre  has identified itself with the Yellows, has come down not just on the side of the Best of Fellows, but on the whole house colour system. They’re saying proudly: we’re anti-elitist. We, Mile End Park Leisure Centre, are sport for the people. Looking round the area, I’d say they made the right choice.

By the way. If you’re a little alarmed that a simple paint choice can get me ranting about the politics of education, you really don’t want to spend time in my actual company. But I do know the difference between chatting shit and writing a blog about swimming pools, so I shall stop doing the former and get on with the latter.

So, we’ve established the yellow theme. The building is a like a huge low yellow silo, it reminded me of a sewage farm, which in turn reminded me of a family story, of the time when my mum, who is a member of various ‘Ladies Circles’ (let’s not go there. There’s a pool to review ffs) was taken on a surprise trip which turned out to be to a sewage farm. Yes, I know, that IS a surprise. It’s even more of a surprise that none of them turned round to the organisers and said ‘This? This is what you think of us? A shit farm? Well fuck you’, from which you can glean that my potty mouth didn’t come from my mother. 

The centre was opened in a renewed state in 2006, and the pools are just a small part of the facilities on offer. It’s described as ‘flagship’, and I’m glad it exists, I’m glad it’s what it is, where it is -  not a great part of town, massive estates all round, a bare concrete city and some accessible sport – yep, that works for me. And they offer free swimming on Fridays for residents, which is cool. Six years on, it all still looks pretty OK. Not a penny was wasted on fripperies, there’s not a plastic potplant in sight, just a huge plain reception area that looks only slightly more welcoming than a communist airport.  I go through the turnstile to the changing area. It’s a bit confusing, with masses of shared cubicles and lockers in a horribly vibrant teal blue. I change and start to put my stuff in a locker. There are thousands of lockers, their keys all sticking out keenly advertising their availability. While I’m cramming my bag and shoes and clothes and jacket in, getting a little hot as I scrabble for a 20p while clutching my goggles and hat in my armpit, a man in trunks comes over, stands right next to me (PERSONAL SPACE, MATE, PERSONAL SPACE), and begins trying to put his stuff into the locker directly beneath mine. Sorry, he says. Sorry again, as his locker door jams into my belly. And because I’m not my mother, I don’t say ‘oh that’s OK’. I say ‘there are thousands of lockers, look. Why do you have to chose this one right here? What’s your problem?’ He answers with a glare. I glare back and stalk through to the pool.

Yellow is the colour in here too. Yellow spectator chairs. Blank walls of kinda yellowy tiles (or maybe beige). It puts a funny reflective tint on the water; yes, you’re right, makes it look slightly wee-ish. Again it’s all quite plain and utilitarian, there’s a few signs around in simple block colours but they don’t say ‘on-trend’, they say ‘printing in one colour is cheaper’. The wall that separates this pool from the learner one looks as if they aimed for a Japanese paper screen look, but ended up with something resembling cheap trellising. The pool itself is as wide as it is long (25m), or as we might more commonly say, ‘square’. This is slightly odd, in perspective terms. It doesn’t move your eye along in the right way. I can’t quite articulate what’s wrong with it, which I accept is shit as I’m a writer and should keep my failings more safely hidden. I’ve said before that some pools (notably Hampton Court) look like holes in the ground filled with water and I’m sure that’s to do with proportion and how you ‘come to’ the pool. The same is true here. It just doesn’t invite. It’s clean enough, and the infinity-edge is nicely tiled,  not yet grimed by time. But nothing is helped by the grey corrugated iron ceiling with huge square skylights letting in the grey cloud. The skylights are over-fancy, naff and plasticky, like they were bought knock-off from a cheap conservatory place as advertised in the back of the Sunday Express. They are not stylish.

Most of the pool is closed off; there are two narrow lanes available for swimming. One, medium, has ladies swimming slow. The other, marked fast, has men swimming slow. OK. I’ll just tolerate it for 30 mins, I think, slipping in to the men’s lane. They are all standing at the end in a preeny way, including the man who barged me with his locker door. The shallow water laps at the bottom of his shorts. I wish he’d move so I could get a gliding start. He eventually does -  there’s a lot of splashing but not much forward motion, I note. I’m pleased.  I kick off and follow. The water is nicely cool (but yellow). I’m tagging his heels the whole way but he’s too wide for me to overtake. I continue in this way for ten minutes, huffing not from effort but from annoyance. Eventually the lane clears and it’s just me and a triathlete managing tumble turns even in the shallows. I decide to be inspired: if he can tolerate this so can I, and I put in some effortful lengths. Then the next lane clears and I move into it, so we are both alone in our lanes. And then:  there’s a colour change to the water, the wee is brightened as the clouds break and the skylights let in some more pleasing sun. It calms everything, and I relax. I decide to race the tri guy on the other side of the rope. At FULL SPRINT SPEED I can just about keep up to his beautiful lollop for 25 metres, but then have to swim very slowly breaststroke back down the length again. I try to make it look like on purpose, but actually I’m trying not to be sick, which is actually not that relaxing after all. I’m sure he thinks I’m mad, but Yellows don’t care about that kind of thing.  

Back changing again, I eventually find a shower in a women’s room I’d missed before. It’s a bit of a maze this changing place; why do these things need to be so complex?  It’s quite nice in here: dark blue brick tiles set on edge to create an art deco waterfall pattern. It’s clean and empty and nobody is barging into me.  When I leave the building I look around and I sigh – I’m on the wrong side of the Gherkin. I want to go home. I leave knowing that I shan’t be back here, even if we are on the same team.


  1. Marvellous. Thank goodness you have greater tolerance for public pools than me and can write about them. Tooting and an old man swimming upright in a nappy in the fast lane put me off 10 years ago. Mind you, however beautifully written, it still doesn't make me want to go back. I am a runner now. Easier to overtake, even men in nappies; less smelly chlorine.

  2. Hi Jenny. I'm the editor of Mumsnet Tower Hamlets. I'd really like to to talk to you about swimming in our borough. Can you please send me an e-mail to tower.hamlets (at) mumsnetlocal (dot) com. Thank you!

  3. Oh dear! Well, I suppose it's always good to challenge yourself and go over to the 'wrong side of the gherkin' sometimes! I live there (on the wrong side, not in the gherkin) and I don't find it too bad!