Or: In Which It Turns Out I’m An Utter Arse
BRITTANIA LEISURE CENTRE
40 Hyde Rd London N1 5GU
020 7729 4485
KING’S HALL LEISURE CENTRE
39 Lower Clapton Road, London E5 0NU
020 8985 2158
This is quite long. Settle yourselves in.
I know about hipsters. I have sat amongst them admiringly as they drank their old skool tea and listened to them chitter-chatter in gentle mellifluous tones about open access functionality and creative end-use digitality; I’ve watched them ungroom each other, watched how they raise their young. (They mostly don’t have young, but those that do raise them very hipsterishly, a beautiful if randomly dressed sight.) I’m in awe of the hipster, so it’s surprising that I haven’t been to this pool before, being as it’s in the middle of hipster Hoxton. (Try saying that.) I’m glad I’m not one though, it looks hard work and a bit self conscious. I couldn’t be, anyway, as I have peanut butter on my skinny jeans. Sad face.
For me, the important question has always been: what does a hipster wear for swimming? I glide up to the Brittania leisure centre in eager anticipation. My quest for this answer will at last be found. Alas. It is not to be.
Synchronicity en route: as I drove past my old office on Old Street, my old boss Roger Law was on Radio Four and his voice, a rude laugh hiding just behind the boom, still has me quaking in my Converse. Firstly, I can report that hipsters drive electric cars - there are charging points in the car park. There was also a funeral cortege about to set off: massive black horses plumed and magnificent, pulling a carriage festooned with brash red yellow white flowers. Life has been a little tough the last few weeks so I stopped a moment and bowed my head, seemingly in respect for someone’s loss but also for my own.
In essence, the building is a great big green bike shed, the sort we have in our front garden so we can actually get in the hall without pedals clanking our ankles. There’s a strange sculpture by the entrance – fifty shades of grey metal plates jointed together to form Man Wielding Javelin, his huge metal groin pointing right at me. I pay my £4.50 to swim. The route to change goes via the pool, which is empty. I put my bag down and look at it. You don’t often get to see these pools at rest. It’s a fun pool. It’s a free-form fun pool. There’s slides and bubbly bits and beaches and everywhere you look, there is fun to be had. I stop a lifeguard and ask – where can I swim? He points to the pool. Is there … somewhere else? I ask. He tells me there’s also a teaching pool, but it’s for children. I look at the fun pool again – there is a square bit at the end that’s deeper. I go through to a changing cubicle. I shut the door, sit on the bench and have a think. And I think … nah. I aint gonna get in there. I ain’t gonna be some tragic idiot in a swim cap and goggles on my own in a fucking FUN pool trying to find a bit that’s deeper than half way up my calves. I pick up my bag and go back out.
(Warning: This is the bit where I am an utter arse.)
I return to reception, to a very helpful man helpfully called Mentor. I look him in the eye. ‘I cannot swim in there’ I say. ‘It’s possible’ his colleague says, ‘there is a drop where it gets deep…’. ‘No’ I say, determinedly. ‘I have swum in over 50 pools in London, some of them leisure pools. And I cannot. Swim. In there. Can I have my money back please?’ Mentor hands over a fistful of coins, and clutching them, I swan out. I'm sorry, Mentor. I am a total utter arse.
I want to swim though, so I head further up into Hackney.
King’s Hall couldn’t be more different, so cramped onto a narrow Hackney pavement that the bus stop is practically on the steps; you’d need to cross the street to get a proper view. The 1897 building is Grade II listed, sturdy Victorian goth, like a dirty old white stone wedding cake left out in acid rain. There are stone steps up to the reception, I go down corridors with fabulous old parquet flooring and the kind of heavy wooden half-glass doors that mark out old corporation buildings of a certain age, from when ‘corporation’ didn't mean corporate, it meant something decent and solid. There are separate male and female entrances … which then both lead straight to the same changing room. It’s a pointless illusion, which quite amused me in its pointlessness. It absolutely STINKS of wee. REALLY stinks. I become a mouth breather.
I go through to the pool to discover it’s full of children mid-lesson.The lifeguard tells me I can’t get in for 15 minutes. (Thanks for telling me, in Reception. I think fondly back to Mentor. ) But I’ve already invested my 20p in a locker, so I have no choice but to stand, like the tragic idiot in swim cap, and wait. (I do take my hat off.) This is TOTAL PAYBACK for being such an arse. I watch the kids. Out of 31, four of them had goggles, and two of the four actually wore the goggles on their eyes. It may be that in this part of Hackney, goggles come fairly low on the list of essentials. The lifeguard is beside me - I must look like a dangerous swimming trespasser who might jump in without permission if he turns his back – so I comment on it. ‘They wouldn’t have goggles if they fell in a river’ was his explanation. Right. I said. But it might help them learn to swim properly? His face said ‘I’m not looking for a new friend, you nutter.’ I shut up, and took my 15 mins to make mental notes on the building.
I used my time wisely, and now have it completely planned out, how to make it nice. Because the bones of the place are really good. They have that sturdy old solidity of heritage before it’s been heritage-ised. Proper knackered original features. The kind of ‘distressed’ people pay extra for in my part of town. It is a Victorian pool, 25m, white glazed brick tiles, with a small square teaching pool in the same room. There’s a scratty iron balustrade running round the gallery, perfectly shabby and flaked. The ceiling is wooden with original narrow metal struts going across at intervals and with a long raised window right down the middle - painted, maybe daubed is more accurate, in a mysterious dark nicotine shade. If Furrow and Bollock did this paint shade, it would be called Tar Residue. It cast everything in a gassy yellow entirely in keeping with the changing room smell. Why keep natural light out? There’s a similar window in the changing room, and that one is clear. The pool would be improved massively if you let light in. That’s going to be my first job, when the pool is mine; the second job will be getting rid of the massive antiquated metal vents at each end, thrumming away like early Professor Branestawn air conditioning.
I love this building. Really, I do. Swimming here is like eating at an authentic Italian caff run by proper Italians serving home-made un-poncey food on formica tables. Yes, occasionally one fancies a modern clean Italian restaurant that deconstructs the antipasti in an amusing way. Basil jus? My, how witty you are Alfonso. But where does one feel more at home? Where does one prefer, if one is honest? One prefers the unpretentious caff, doesn’t one. Or is one just me?
I’m not going to serve up the whole polemic here, but to me these two pools sum up the whole public swimming situation, c. 2012. On one hand, we have modern shiny ‘leisure’. On the other we have old, expensive, swimming. The old buildings cost a bloody fortune to a) maintain let alone b) do up. They’re destined to fall down without intervention. They were built to last but they need some care along the way, like the elderly. And they are, the very bones of them, flipping lovely, all in their proper proportions. The modern buildings are the NEW WAY, they are the brash confident teenagers, fun and energetic, but a little self-obsessed and, well, shallow. But the new will get old one day, and then we’ll be back to square one. We must cherish the old. OLD IS GOOD. (And no, I didn’t say all that just to get to this final self-serving point.)
The communal showers are a bit crap – open and public and unisex. (I love the word unisex, but not as a shower situation.) If I'd wanted to share a shower with a four-year old boy being shouted at by his mother, I'd have journeyed back in time. It was tiresome. She started up a relentless monotone: ‘Wash you hair. Wash it. Wash it. Have you washed it? Wash your legs. Wash. Wash. Wash your arms. Have you washed your arms? Wash them’ etc. I bit my lip, and moved to get changed. They came too. ‘Dry your hair. Dry it. Have you dried it? Dry your arms. Dry them. Are they dry? Dry your legs. Come on. Dry them. Are they dry?’ Eventually he could stand it no more. YES he yelled. YES YES, and in a final howl YEEEEESSSS. I couldn’t see her, but I could hear her expression. She was outraged. ‘Are you shouting? Is that it, you shouting? Are you shouting at me?’ etc. Fade back to Jenny, making her escape.
On the way out I filled in a customer feedback slip. I never do that. I wrote ‘The changing rooms smell REALLY BAD. Like, REALLY REALLY bad’. I hope they take notice. The street outside, it smelled of sick. I sincerely hope these smells aren't there when you visit. But I offer no guarantee.