Naked scorn

Friday, September 3rd, 2004

So yesterday we went to Pells Pool, an unheated open air swimming pool in Lewes, Sussex. Any colder and you could have sat on the surface and cut a hole in it to fish through. Nevertheless, it was a fine experience, in which the small amount of swimming done (I am no expert) was a pleasant counterpoint to the large amount of lounging around on the grass in the sun which followed, reading Viginia Woolf's diaries and occasionally drinking tea.

Although the pool itself is rather wonderful, the changing facilities leave a lot to be desired – they reminded me powerfully of the ones we were herded into for school swimming lessons when I was aged 11, which the public never saw and which we nicknamed the cattle shed. Although, admittedly, Lewes has individual stalls for each cow, it didn't surprise me greatly to find that most people ignored them completely and changed on the grass, with varying degrees of modesty.

It's always amusing to watch the English's attitude towards their own nudity. Apart, I think, from the Americans there can be no race so repressed. I remember in the public swimming pools in Iceland, the natives (and continental tourists) were relaxed in the communal changing rooms while the Brits endeavoured to hide behind their towels and the Americans complained loudly to each other in astonished voices at the indignity of it. When changing at Hampton Pool – our local lido, currently out of favour – it's far from impossible to find three men next to each other in the changing rooms, each at some different stage of stripping, each succeeding in ignoring the existence of the other two, even when sprayed with water from an errant towel or elbowed accidentally in the ear.

Yet Lewes appears to be an exception. It was very odd.

I saw one man, whale-like in his proportions, sunbathing on his back with his knees drawn up and his feet apart, on the terrace just beyond the deep end of the pool. He wore a small pair of tasteless blue trunks. Anyone swimming a length in the marked-off swimmers-only section of the pool will have been treated to a view of him, gradually increasing in size as they swam closer, with which – had he been a she – only his gynacologist should have been familiar. Generally Englishmen shaped like that – unless in lager-fuelled 'lads' mode – hide in shapeless shirts and baggy shorts, unwilling to subject their girth to public inspection. It's rare to see such blatant disregard for the usual politics of body shape and body display and, although normally I'd say it was good to see someone ignoring them, I think perhaps on this occasion I might have voted for more modesty and a cover-up.

Nor was it just the men. Right in front of us on the grass was a group of friends, parents in their very early 40s I would guess, and associated children. The membership of the group changed fluidly through the day as families left and others arrived, full of effusive greetings and bonhomie. About half way through the day a mother appeared with two children. She was a very recognisable English 'type' – upper-middle class, smart and wholesome-looking, some silver in her hair but still with perfect skin. You've seen her type in countless Agatha Christie TV adaptations.

Immediately she fell into animated conversation with one of the fathers there. As they spoke she rather vaguely wrapped a long but ill-fitting shawl around her, dropped her trousers and knickers, stepped out of them and pulled up a bathing costume, flashing half the pool as she did so. During this performance the conversation continued utterly without break, as if she was merely kicking off a pair of shoes. The nonchalence of the whole thing was positively Scandinavian, and a little shocking to a well brought-up Home Counties boy like myself.

The most shocking episode, however, had little or nothing to do with clothing and a lot to do with bad parenting. A mother crossed the grass towards a table, carrying two polystyrene cups of tea and trailed by her children. The small girl was nondescript and silent, the boy – aged maybe 10 or 11 – was fat and whiny in the way of a Gary Larson cartoon, or the movie version of Dudley Dursley in Harry Potter. There was no drink for the boy, and he wasn't happy about that, and his mother was fed up with him. They arrived at the table, which was white plastic garden furniture and not at all level, and she put down the tea cups.

Moments later the boy somehow contrived to knock into the table, which rocked violently on its uneven legs and spilled an inch or two from the top of the two tea cups. The mother's fury and scorn was whithering. She berated the boy for his clumsiness and his stupidity, and told him to get out of her sight – she didn't want to be able to see him. He slunk off, sweaty and shiny and unappealing, looking like a dog that's been kicked, that expected to be kicked, that accepted being kicked was the appropriate punishment, but was still crushed that the kick has been quite so hard. He was one of the most unlikeable-looking boys I've seen in a long time, but he didn't deserve that from his mother.

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I'm Andy Darley. Sometimes I want to say things. This is where I do it.