What is the pool?

So where, I find myself wondering, does the pool “as a place” begin and end? Where are the lines around it? What does it contain and exclude?

This raises, or complicates, other questions. So, for instance: what is the difference between “the pool” and “a swim”? The pool implies stasis, stability – something that doesn’t move, something fixed, something that contains. A swim implies action, variation – something that is done, rather than something which exists, something that strains against containment. Its very nature is movement. But in my mind they’re muddled: when I say “I’m going for a swim” I mean “I’m going to the pool”; when I say, “I’m going to the pool” I mean “I’m going for a swim”, and I use these phrases interchangeably and really only in relation to each other. If I go to the lake, for instance, where I sometimes swim in the summer, I don’t say, would never say, “I’m going for a swim.” I say, “I’m going to the lake”. 

To me “a swim” has a very specific meaning, and a very specific place, both geographically and within the structure of my everyday life. In this sense “a swim” is part of the place of the pool; to swim laps is to be in place, even while you move. And the geographical relevance of the pool is not just related to the fact that the pool is itself a place, but also to the fact that the pool is in place, and if you swim there regularly enough, often enough, that place in its wider context becomes important. If I were to calculate how much time I spend at my pool versus how much time I spend in other parts of the city in which I live, I suspect I’d find that I spend more time at the pool than almost anywhere else except home: more time than I do at my local pub, at the grocery store or corner shop, than at friends’ houses, cafés, doctor’s waiting rooms, libraries, museums. It’s hard to deny that the pool is an important spot on my map of the city in which I live. In this way the pool-as-place becomes integral to my understanding of the city-as-place; in this way the pool-as-place – which is a site of many interactions, flows, encounters – is surely as material-rich as the streets a runner’s feet get to know so well, or the arcades the flaneur strolls. It’s a site of understanding, and in this regard movement plays some role; although one lacks the sense of “progress” achieved through, for instance, running or walking a certain distance through a city or in the countryside, one has still moved. Say I swim at least a mile most mornings; sure it’s a confined mile, achieved 25 metres at a time, but it’s a mile nonetheless, measured by time and bodily engagement. 

There is, on the other hand, also that more abstract place the swimmer goes to in his or her own head. This is a journey referenced by a number of other writers on the topic of swimming – Charles Sprawson, for instance, writes that: “Much of a swimmer’s training takes place inside his head immersed as he is in a continuous dream of a world under water” (1993: 17), and: “Swimming, like opium, can cause a sense of detachment from ordinary life. Memories, especially those of childhood, can be evoked with startling strength and in vivid and precise detail” (1993: 135). And the sociologist Susie Scott, writing about the swimming pool as negotiated order, suggests that: “The intoxicating smell of chlorine, babble of children’s voices and visual spectacle of azure blue combine as an assault on the senses, yet communicate an atmosphere of calm. These are the familiar signifiers of swimming as an institution, transporting us immediately into another world” (2009: 126).


So where does this place, this other world, end? What does it contain, or fail to contain? In a sense I can be said to be at the pool from the moment I decide to go for a swim; my house becomes part of the pool-place, as I, in an act of ritualistic, almost superstitious routine, take my nearly-dry swimsuit from where it hangs on the bannister and put it in the striped bag I carry to the pool. My route - whether I walk or cycle or even, as has happened once or twice, drive – is pretty fixed; there are a finite number of ways to arrive there, and I almost always take the most direct, which is about 15 minutes on foot or eight on a bike. And those minutes, too, are part of the swim, part of the pool. So its boundaries are mutable. They shift. They’re highly individualised – my pool, even if we go to the same pool, may be different than yours – but also variable, on that individual level, from day to day. Sometimes, when I am on autopilot, going through habitual motions I often fail to register, rolling along the same old streets on my creaky bicycle, the pool seems to be a chunk of time that begins when I first wake up and ends only after I’ve come home and hung up my wet things to dry and put my slippers on and washed last night’s dishes while I wait for the kettle to boil on the stove and made a pot of coffee and sat down at my desk. Other times, particularly when I am jostled out of my routine, I’m not really in the pool mindset until I find myself in the changing room, or at the water’s edge.

Either way the water itself marks a definite frontier. Deakin puts it this way: “Swimming is a rite of passage, a crossing of boundaries: the line of the shore, the bank of the river, the edge of the pool, the surface itself. When you enter the water, something like metamorphosis happens. Leaving behind the land, you go through the looking-glass surface and enter a new world” (2000: 3-4). In this sense the “place” of the pool is both external and internal, physical and experiential, enclosed (physically/architecturally) and open (mentally/experientially); it is both “the pool”, a building, a site, and “the pool”, a state of mind, a haunt, an hour, an abstraction, a physical action. Its beauty, then, may be in the way it balances all this, provides a site where one can find, or chase, a state of being which is neither fully one thing or the other; in water and air, floating but submerged. The body is cradled, though it flirts with discomfort: it’s contained, it can’t stray, it is – as far as the body ever can be, especially when it’s in a dangerous environment – safe, while the mind is free, to an extent, to wander.

I think of Yi-Fu Tuan: “Place is security, space is freedom: we are attached to the one and long for the other” (1977: 3). I think of the narrator of Alan Hollinghurst’s novel The Swimming Pool Library, doing his laps: “My mind would count its daily fifty lengths as automatically as a photocopier; and at the same time it would wander” (1998: 12). I think of Van Leeuwen, in his history of the private swimming pool, astutely observing how the architecture of the pool corresponds to its use: “While the pool allows, even invites, intellectual wanderings, at the same time it prevents the wanderer from losing his way. […] The container encloses but also retains, holds together, and keeps from spilling. While stirring the imagination, it also prevents it from rambling; the container both kindles and quenches” (1999: 7). 


We’re not just drawing lines around the pool; within it, too, are lines that contain. Lane lines, for instance. For awhile last year I was waking up or going to bed with a tender, pale bluish bruise on my left hand, in the fleshy spot between thumb and forefinger. I didn’t know what had caused it, I chalked it up to clumsiness. But then one day, while swimming, I suddenly understood: when I swim in lanes that go clockwise, I sometimes smack my left hand on the lane lines, as if I can’t quite gauge distance on my left side in this situation, and indeed I naturally prefer to swim counter-clockwise. And the fleshy spot between thumb and forefinger was where I was hitting the plastic lane lines, and the bruise was a marker of this: a mark of my accidental attempted transgression, my running up against a barrier and being unable to cross. So I am disciplined by the pool; perhaps when I am not disciplined enough on my own it intervenes, as it were, reminds me to pay more careful attention to my form, to the positioning of my body in place, to increase my spatial awareness – to temper my wandering thoughts, not let them wander so far that my body is tempted to follow them out into the ether. Preventing the wanderer from losing his way.

Works cited

Deakin, R. (2000), Waterlog, London: Vintage

Hollinghurst, A. (1998), The Swimming-Pool Library. London: Vintage

Scott, S. (2009), “Re-clothing the emperor: the swimming pool as a negotiated order.” Symbolic Interaction, 32: 2 pp 123-145

Sprawson, C. (1993) Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer as Hero. London: Vintage

Tuan, Y. (1977) Space and Place. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Van Leeuwen, T. A P (1999) The Springboard in the Pond: An Intimate History of the Swimming Pool. Cambridge: MIT Press