`Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer as Hero’ by Charles Sprawson (Vintage, 1993) is widely regarded as the best account of the culture and environment of swimming written in modern times. The range of references in the book is impressive. Shelley, Byron, Yukio Mishima (with whom the book ends), and then an historic overview, from the views of the Romans into modern times of the benefits, or ills, of taking to the waters.
Reading the book got me thinking about the places I’ve swum in, and which were the most memorable. I did swim in the Baltic once, just near Helsinki, and remember it not so much for the location (near an island on which there was, I think, an old fort) but the way in which because of the water currents and the strength of the waves it was far more challenging than just doing lengths even in an outside pool linked to the sea. You swim with a sense of vulnerability and danger in places like this, because you know you are linked to the great mass of water that covers the rest of the world. An amazing, intimidating and humbling thought.
The pools in Sydney were pretty magnificent – Victoria Park outside where I swum most days going to or from the university; the open air pool by Luna Park on the north side; the one with salty sea water on Bondi beech (Iceberg?). In Canberra, when it is open (which is about half the year) the very fine Manuka swimming pool has a lovely faded feel about it, with these perpetually empty spectator seats around what was, in my experience, the invariably empty water. I did swim in the Collins Bay water once – not too petrified by the idea of sharks swooping in.
For the rest, the hotel pools in China or Hong Kong or Taiwan are often fun. There’s the Tombraider kind of effort in the basement of the Hyatt in Wangfujing. City centre pools in such a dry city though are a real luxury. The School of Governance in the north east of the city where I sometimes stay at the guesthouse has what it advertises as an Olympic Sized pool (as far as I know, almost all the pools in Sydney make that ranking!) where an attendant once demanded when I was getting in the water to see my `swimming certificate’. I said I was living in Sydney, and for some reason that sufficed and he left me alone. The Friendship Hotel has a much older, historic pool too, built for the Soviet experts in the 1950s before they all got ordered back home.
European pools are not so dramatic, and the British ones I use are utilitarian. I haven’t swum in the sea water around the Kentish coast for ages. Perhaps I should. When you swim, Sprawson makes clear, you get the chance to think. Pools are great thinking places – as long as some aspiring Olypiad isn’t bearing down on you. He mentions the great erotic print by Hokusai of the girl and the octopus. I don’t know if I think about things like that when I swim. But I certainly do think.