The Chlorine World

Smell in geographical experience is complex, including both immediate encounter with the environment and a kind of virtual encounter with places in the imagination when odour memories are excited by current place experiences. Olfaction seems to offer a time-space geography, both at the level of current durations of odours in space and in the lingering of odours in memories.

- Paul Rodaway, Sensuous Geographies (p 67)

Therefore, olfaction gives a distinctive sensuous experience of space and duration; past, present and potential spaces; and this is both physiologically grounded and culturally defined. Olfactory geographies are not merely ‘smell maps’ or even ‘smellscapes’, but complex emotional encounters with discrete olfactory events, odours passing through time as well as space. […] Olfactory experience is, however, not mere juxtaposition but always a relationship, chemical or mechanical, between that which (gives off) smells and the individual who smells (or sniffs). 

- Paul Rodaway, Sensuous Geographies (p 71)

I swim mainly in the mornings. It wasn’t always so, but for the last year my preferred routine has been: wake up between 7 and 8. Cycle to the pool. Swim for an hour, or three quarters of an hour if time is tight, which often it is. I’m never fully awake until I hit the water, and even then, a lot of the time, I’m on autopilot.

Later, at home, sometimes I will rest my chin in my hands, or rub my hands across my face if I am feeling weary or unsure about how to begin a task, and I will catch a whiff of something. It’s chlorine, but it’s chlorine mixed with, marked by, time; chlorine diluted by a few hours since my last immersion, diluted by the smell of the hand soap in the bathroom, the shampoo I used in my hair after my swim, the garlic I sliced at lunch. An imprecise mixture, an inconsistent potency, but the thing that’s consistent is the tone of the chlorine, which is muted and therefore somehow more evocative than if it was fresh - it is the fragility and fadedness of memory manifest in a smell.

It reminds me, first and most viscerally, of the pleasure of a swim: it grounds me, or waters me, in a way. It soothes. I tend not to think of the challenges or embarrassments or the frustrations of the particular morning’s swim, if there were any, which there often are; nor do I think of the specific satisfactions, the tiny victories, the marks of progress. The smell of the weakened, fading chlorine instead calls to mind a more general impression of swimming, which is strongly tied both to the necessity of it for physical and emotional maintenance as well as to the heady, extravagant kind of pleasure it stirs up.

But then, too, the smell reminds me of chlorine itself: which reminds me of my childhood.

Actually these memories are not always so plainly happy. They are tied to a nostalgia for childhood, yes, but also to feelings of fear and apprehension, sometimes dread: sitting in the car, on my way to the pool, wishing I was on my way elsewhere, driven by my mother, who never learned to swim at all and who provided guarded encouragement. She wanted me to swim, thought it imperative that I learn as early as possible, but she never could quite overcome her fearful awe of water, and I’m sure that fearful awe was palpable, and absorbed by me.

"Smell,” Paul Rodaway writes, “can evoke rich memories, but it can also evoke tantalisingly incomplete memories. Whilst place-specific memories are common, olfaction can also give us more abstract memories of kinds of relationship and emotion, but lacking in specific location or point in time […] Olfaction gives us not just a sensuous geography of places and spatial relationships, but also an emotional one of love and hate, pain and joy, attachment and alienation." (p 73)

The emotional geography of the pool, as written by all the variations of chlorine-smell – or perhaps I should say the olfactory geography of the pool, which is partially an emotional one – is indeed one of love and hate, pain and joy, attachment and alienation: exactly so. A complete relationship to place, like a complete relationship to a parent or a child or a lover, is coloured by various shades of all of these dual emotions. I put my hands to my face: I smell pleasures, I smell anxieties.

And of course smell does not, as Rodaway points out, always evoke specifics. These I generally have to dredge up, particularly with the memories from childhood, which are hazy to begin with and from which I am further distanced with every passing second. My childhood memories of chlorine are: hot, sickeningly bright California summer days, dry-as-bone hillsides andcold turquoise pools. Lessons during which I grew aware of myself, during which I was afraid, not of drowning, not of the deep end, but of my own bodily limitations. Discomfort at finding myself in an environment in which breath could not be drawn at will but had to be planned and executed precisely, an environment in which the effort I put in did not seem to match the results I got, the speed I attained. We swam mini races across the width of the pool. We put our faces in the water and blew bubbles. We held on to the side of the pool, or to floats, and we kicked kicked kicked. Instructors told us what to do and how to do it; I did not, could not, always comply. I swallowed water sometimes, came up spluttering. In the car, on the way home, I would be heavy and hungry and sleepy. Sunburn, the sting of chlorine in my eyes, the feel of it at the back of my throat. This was the taste of failure, or so I thought. 


Chlorine comes up in conversations about pools. One swimmer, on being asked what he likes about the pool, identifies a soothing sense of familiarity, rooted in childhood and evoked largely by – what else – the smell of chlorine. “The changing rooms of these pools always tend to be the same,” he says:

You know, obviously they’re all tiled, you’ve got your lockers in there that are in various…states, some of them working, some of them aren’t. Same kind of key system. So they’re all very familiar, cause they’re all same as they were when I was a kid. And there’s that certain smell to them as well - and it always does make, when you’re getting changed in there, it makes you feel like you’re a kid. […] And that, that all makes it very comfortable.

Often it’s one of the first things people mention: I like that pool because they don’t use so much chlorine! Or, I love swimming but I can’t stand the smell of chlorine. I guess because it is one of the most recognizable (chemical) components of the pool, one of the pool’s most distinctive features. What makes a pool? (Or: what makes a pool suitable for swimming laps?) Water, walls, chlorine. The basics.

It’s also very apparent. It’s in your face. It has a perceptible effect on your body, particularly your senses – your skin, your eyes, your nose. Sometimes it causes you to sneeze, or to wheeze, or to cough. It burns your eyes if there’s contact. It smells. It wreaks havoc on hair, or so I’m told; I remember childhood friends worrying their bright blonde hair would turn green from too much swimming over the summer. One swimmer I spoke to recently has had to give up swimming in pools entirely after developing an allergy to chlorine out of the blue; now she makes the trip out to the lake as often as she can while the weather’s still good, and worries about what she’ll do in winter when the cold and the dark sets in. Once, swimming with the city triathlon club, we almost had to cut a session short because the amount or type of chlorine in the pool was different than usual – there was more of it, or it was stronger somehow. First I noticed my throat was burning and then that my chest hurt, in a particular, hollow sort of way, not entirely unfamiliar, as when you have a bad dry cough or inhale poor, smoky air. I paused for a minute at the edge of the pool to reorient myself in this newly uncomfortable environment; all around me, I realized, swimmers were spluttering and coughing and suffering similarly. A girl the next lane over hopped out and crouched down in panic and retched fruitlessly. The coach, even on dry land, had moist red eyes. That’s the thing about chlorine: as well as serving as a kind of olfactory time-travel machine, it also aggravates the senses, assaults them. “I used to have a real problem with chlorine,” one swimmer tells me. “And breathing in chlorine. And that put me off swimming for awhile.” She describes a peculiar, swamp-like effect at her pool:

they’ve got these massive windows, so the sun shines on the swimming pool, which does something to the chlorine which creates this fug that just lies across the top. […] Especially if there’s been a hot day. Cause the atmosphere in the pool’s really hot, and the pool is actually quite hot, and yeah, it just creates this layer of gas. So of course as you’re swimming, you turn your head to breathe, and as a Tri club you get in there and mash up the water like there’s no tomorrow, and breathing - cause you’re not doing your normal lady-like breaststroke, nice breathing - a lot of people start coughing, sneezing, and spluttering halfway through a swim session.

So chlorine colours the experience of the pool, is fundamental to it. It cleanses the water, keeps it safe and clear, gives us peace of mind – but also, simultaneously, it pollutes the water, clouds our perception of the pool as a place. And when I get a whiff of it, the whiff is carrying all that weight and meaning.