A journey through the public pools of greater Cape Town.

Openings columnFinancial Times, 8 January, 2016.

Waterlog #3 | Sea Point Pool | 19.01.16

Since Silvermine there have been terrible heat waves; fires leaving smoke all over the city’s horizon; helicopters toiling through the night, scooping up water from the reservoirs, dropping it in tiny white plumes on the shoulder of Devils’ Peak.

A banner appeared, taking up the whole face of an apartment building at the top of Long Street: Zuma Must Fall. Then an ANC-led march ripped it down, turning on a man who (allegedly) called out Zuma se ma se poes! On social media, self-appointed pundits explain that singling out the President is tantamount to racism, and that mob violence is only to be expected. People can only be insulted for so long.

Can you blame a man for wanting to go to the water?

Have been to this pool hundreds of times; but on this day, the day of the official visit, it is doing itself proud. Bodies distributed in water, for the most part not swimming in lines, but standing, wading, frolicking, talking, touching, petting – though no doubt it’s against regulations.

Bodies distributed in water. Why is it such an endlessly fascinating scene? I must again examine Dave’s pictures of Muizenberg beach. Or the bathers photographed by Massimo Vitali from a custom-made perch, 20, 30 feet in the air – Anna showed me them in a Paris Review of Winter 2009…Canary Islands, Turkey, Croatia, Coney Island. Against bleached-out backgrounds, the bodies can’t help but resolve themselves into scenes of compositional genius.

I am watching from my usual ground level perch: a bench that looks over the pool and through the railings and out to sea. One of a row of benches parallel with the long side of the pool – the landward long side, if you get me. People lean against the edge, gazing back in my direction. On the ocean-going side, some lane swimmers are beginning to reassert themselves among the non-linear bodies. The Brownian motion – as a Pisces I dive in and join it all, into the more than usually chlorinated water, strike up aimless conversations, dive onwards.

Some major considerations for the larger project come into focus on the high summer day. The desire to see bodies in water without a history, as just people, in their absolute individual presence, immediacy, unrepeatability, biomorphic idiosyncrasy. Is that the fascination? The crowd, but within it, each molecule a furnace of self, of self-hood: stubborn, nut-brown electrons in a particle field, held in frame by weak atomic forces. But that’s not really it. The fact perhaps that the majority are not wearing goggles or wetsuits or swimcaps – they look like themselves and less like the automatons on the ocean side, gathering in numbers now, protein-rich arms crashing like watermills, cartwheeling, cart horsing, hauling themselves through the water and into the year.

The summer holidays are ending and I sense that I may be witnessing the changing of the guard, the turning of the tide. The reassertion of lane swimming, goal-directed. The dwindling of aimless wateriness.

This fulcrum brought out a strange Jekyll and Hyde dimension within me. Now I was joining the particles in their Brownian motion; now I was doing a bit of a lap. Here I am a bit annoyed with a group of kids blocking my way; here I am stopped in the middle of the pool and trying in turn to antagonise the goggle-wearing strivers. Just a little, stepping out of their way at the last minute. Easy to do, just a step to the right, a jump to the left, weaving in and out of the lines of the loom. They were the warp and I was the woof. Or they were the woof and I was the warp. and frequently it seems to me that I am you, / and you are me. If I’m the rising incantation / you’re the charm, or I am, or you are.

I looked back to the bench, where Anna was reading the Diaries of Franz Kafka under a shawl – she had virtually made a tent out of it.

Bullet-headed, hydraulically powered lane swimmers, I can’t see you properly ok? My goggles are old and misted; plus I have a little conjunctivitis from all the smoke and summer. My eyes are red like the sun that will drop away there into the water, an hour after the pool closes. Why do you kick us out so early Sea Point Pool? Why not let us linger like the heat?

‘Customers, attention,’ says the P.A. system, ‘Customers, attention, the pool will be closing at 7, so you must please vacate the water by 6:45 p.m. Have a good day further.’

‘Customers nogal,’ I say to Anna, who is still with Franz under the shawl. I think of a New Yorker cartoon: a policeman addressing someone on the beach: I’m sorry sir, but Dostoevesky is not considered appropriate summer reading.

‘Well I don’t know if it’s intended, but I find this man hilarious. Listen to this, it’s perfect for you. 15 August 1911, and the last entry, note, was 27 May:

The time which has just gone by and in which I haven’t written a word has been so important for me because I have stopped being ashamed of my body in the swimming pools…

Bodies in water, bodies without a history, photographs of them distributed in water, distributed in space. When I research histories of swimming in South Africa, portraits come up of the Sea Point Pavilion, the old restaurant that once was here, even a rooftop cinema. Today there is the main pool, the diving pool, the toddlers’ pool, the kiddies pool, from which tadpoles sometimes try to slip into the main pool, until they are shamed by the lifeguards’ whistles. But back then it was all one joined-up expanse, acres of pool, presumably at a time when the self-improving rubber bullet heads were not such a cult, when German coaches didn’t run along the long ocean-going side with instructions about how to perfect your stroke, when there was less chance of people in wetsuits tumble turning against you like unfriendly seals.

My heart goes out to these pictures. Then a split-second later you see that all the bodies are white – well, pinko-gray, or yellowish blue, or orangey brown; but not non-white, ergo: white.

The whistles start blowing and we have to get out. The whistles of history, of human time. The pool starts becoming a calm sheet, resuming its natural condition. But over there on the ocean side the rubber bullets are still hauling themselves through water, still counting, still insulated by the crash and the breath and the turn. Do they think they are immune, I wonder to myself, towelling off angrily while Anna waits in the shade of a palm tree? The revellers have obeyed, but the law-abiding are above the law? Really pushing it, these guys, staying until the very last. Then they get out and even then there is someone who stays and stays. I christen her The Renegade. Now she is the only person in the pool, has all that beauty, that whole calm sheet to herself. And still she flouts! Turn after turn she keeps going. Until eventually a lifeguard must signal to her indvidually at the shallow end. She gets out all smiles. I walk swiftly over, trying to overhear the exchange. The lifeguard is calm and softly spoken – I can’t catch his words. She is loud and tongue-in-cheek, taking the scolding as if it’s the first.

‘Oh well! Now I know! Thanks for telling me.’

She pulls on khaki shorts and walks out barefoot, towards (we are tailing her) an old BMW. Early 40s maybe, slender and smiling, carefree, the costume soaking through the old khaki shorts: The Renegade. Into the old gunmetal grey Beemer, pulls confidently out into the summer traffic and is gone.