|A foggy winter day at the lido|
On Wednesday my peace was shattered by an outdoor spin class, surely one of the most miserable things you can do in the name of leisure, which led me to wonder why sports facilities and centres in the UK are a pile of cak, and needlessly so. I will share these thoughts with you.
Leisure centres in the UK are run by jocks with no sense of aesthetics. I plan holidays around pools I would like to visit on the continent. Müller'sches Volksbad in Munich, Therme Vals in Switzerland, Holthusenbad in Hamburg and pretty much all the pools in Budapest have found me padding around in my swimmers. They boast stunning architecture, they have a sense of place about them, they're unique and lovely to visit, usually the highlight of a trip. They often have a groovy café attached, where you can get well-made food, even a glass of wine or a brandy. At central European pools you can have a dip and a game of chess. But in the UK the architecture is usually so-so at best, older pools are rarely maintained and usually close in a state of disrepair, there seems to be no incentive to build or preserve something remarkable. Inside it might be a bit dirty and smelly, the changing area is uncomfortable, it's expensive and penalises the casual user because the place is run on a business model of hard-selling memberships, the atmosphere is banal. My local Morrisons can get it together to play Joy Division as I wander the aisles, yet a typical leisure centre soundtrack consists of bleak high BPM generic M People-sounding remixes.
At many pools your swimming choices are limited to lanes or family sessions. The lanes are about training to win, sport and its attendant nationalism and citizenship, or increasing one's athleticism. The family sessions are alienating to those of us who are not a family with kids. If you are an adult by yourself there is little space for social swimming, swimming expressively, mucking about, exploring, playing, bobbing or doing any kind of unorthodox movement that being in water enables you to do. You'll find that you're subject to the lifeguard's angry whistle if you try.
The focus is on athleticism not wellness, fun or sensuality. I don't care about swimming a fast length, I just want to feel good in my body. At Bartholomäus-Therme in Hamburg I went to a candlelight session with classical music and pool noodles. Underwater jets were switched on that swirled the group of mostly old people (they'd just had a water aerobics session) round and round, so peaceful, watching our reflections in the high mirrored ceiling for an hour or so. But in the UK shit like this is not allowed, to the extent that people can't handle it when it is allowed. I went to Thermae Bath Spa last week and was amazed by the awkward, stiff people horrified by their own public near-nakedness, unable to relax in the warm water, behaving as though they were at a suburban cocktail party with strangers.
Sports and leisure centres in the UK remain places where compulsive exercising and body dysmorphia thrive. It's back to the jock quotient again, these people can get your heart rate up on a treadmill but they are not equipped to deal with those who hate and punish their own bodies through exercise. Sports and leisure centres in the UK are like a haven for misery with a grinning-winning Go For It! face plastered on top. It's not uncommon to find services advertised on the back of body shaming whereas such places could be at the forefront of breaking it down.
Which brings me to access. Being able to winch someone into a pool is all very well, but you don't see it in use very often. If you don't have a certain kind of body, if you are vulnerable within a culture that values those certain kinds of bodies, you will likely stay away. Why would you go to a place where you might get stared at or treated as inferior? This is not just about body types but also about making places accessible to people who are "unfit," a term I hate. I would never take the spin class I saw this week because I know I would be subtly sanctioned if I couldn't keep up or needed to stop. Could I even fit on one of those bikes? Session leaders say that it's fine to take a breather but no one ever takes them up on it. This keeps away people like me and the kind of people I like or consider community.
There is no political impetus to make anything different. Policymakers can chug on about "tackling the obesity epidemic" but it's all hot air or sanctioning. I dream of public services and centres that are open to all, prioritise wellness and joyful embodiment, collective feelings, imaginative possibilities. You can see fragments of this in projects like Open Barbers, a not for profit hair salon that welcomes people of all genders and sexualities. Why couldn't this community sensibility be extended further? What if a leisure centre was an arts project? Or run like a really fab nightclub? An autonomous centre for intergenerational oddballs? A political meeting place? What an experiment that would be! And likely profitable/self-sustaining. You could cordon off an area for the jocks, the wannabe Olympians, the normals and all that family-friendly stuff, they could still come too.