I still dream of my old pool – The Spectator

Julie Burchill

I felt a flash of affection reading that Boris Johnson’s plan to build an outdoor swimming pool at his second home in Oxfordshire may be stalled by the presence of great crested newts. What a very Bojo situation; seeing the big picture, seeking fun, determined to do things large – but hampered all the way. Carrie will probably have told him that it will be lovely for their three kiddies and that they’ll save a fortune on days out in the school holidays. But, trust me, as someone who was owned by a swimming pool for the best part of a decade, this may well be one folly too far, even for Boris.
Swimming pools were what film stars in Hollywood had; when English girls of humble origins laid claim to them, something shady was probably taking place
I became fascinated by outdoor swimming pools and lidos when I was a girl in Bristol. We had a beauty in nearby Weston-super-Mare where I spent most summer days as a child; the largest in Europe, the lido opened in 1937 in the confident knowledge that thousands would flock to it, more than ten thousand square feet of water with a scooped-out section of some 15 feet beneath the towering edifice of the diving boards – the highest in the world. Unlike the generally banal backdrops to my childhood, it seemed a suitably grand place in which to plan my exit to fame and fortune in That London. Where indoor swimming pools made me think of verrucas and testy teachers, lidos spoke of a glamorous escape. When I moved to Brighton, Saltdean Lido was a reasonable substitute; also built in 1937, it was hailed as the most innovative design of its type in Britain – the only lido to be featured in the Design Museum, described by the Telegraph as ‘particularly glorious, with its elegant, curved lines, like a stately ocean liner.’ Though, this being Brighton, where the council knows the price of everything and the value of nothing, it was allowed to go to seed and was then touted to the highest bidder as a housing development. Luckily, there came the Save Saltdean Lido Campaign, which stopped it from either sliding into the sea or being razed to the ground.
But soon I wouldn’t need lidos. Flying into Gatwick, I could see that swimming pools were not unusual in Sussex; the Brighton suburbs and surrounding countryside were full of them, but being an extreme modernist I like to live near the centre of cities. I was going through a nasty divorce at the time but presumed that I would get custody of my son as I’d always been what they call his ‘primary carer’ and liked the things that little boys like – video games and theme parks – which his rather more serious father wasn’t keen on. ‘I don’t feel like an only child,’ Jack once said to me. ‘Because you’re not just my mum – you’re my sister.’
While checking out a junior school in Hove, I passed a large 1930s house for sale and knocked on the door on a whim. It had six bedrooms, an orchard – and a half-Olympic-sized swimming pool through an arch in a huge house-high hedge, giving it an Alice in Wonderland feel. It was only two blocks back from the sea – so central! They called it a ‘family home’ but wherever Jack and I were together was the best family I could imagine. He would love it – I had to have it! And so began one of the most gorgeous – and most money-haemorrhaging – times of my life. 
When I was a little girl growing up in a working-class communist household, the idea that I would one day possess a swimming pool was on a par with believing that I might grow wings and a tail and fly right out of a high window one bright night. Swimming pools were what film stars in Hollywood had; when English girls of humble origins laid claim to them, something shady was probably taking place. There are few things which scream ‘made it’ more than frolicking with one’s new young husband in one’s recently-acquired swimming pool. Adding to the mix, school-night pool-parties were every bit as much fun as I’d been led to believe as an impressionable teenager. But my son – who, shockingly, I’d lost custody of – was the heart of the matter; every Friday afternoon the pool-boy would call and by the time Jack arrived from his father’s care it would be fully fumigated. He loved our weekends there so much; the first year I moved in, he drew a picture of the garden and the pool called ‘The House Where Dreams Come True.’
But my word, it was a money pit. These were my wild years, my second adolescence from 35 to 45, when I was still earning mad money; England being cold, I’d turn up the pool heating as far as it would go – and then forget about it, going out on a cocaine spree in Brighton or London for 24 hours. When I led a posse back for a dip, the pool was often too hot to enter. The Friday afternoon knock at the door and the young man crying ‘Got your chemicals, Mrs Raven’ signalled a whole new level of profligacy; I could conceivably have financially managed a swimming pool or a major Class A habit for a decade – but both
In the end, sense and sorrow prevailed; shortly into the 21st century, I wearied of my pool, my party house and my parties and sold out to a developer for a whole lot of money. This was partly informed by the fact that my happy little boy was now a sad teenager, no longer romping in the pool with me but hiding in his bedroom slashing at himself with a razor blade. It started with our sundering and it ended with his suicide – no amount of splashing in the sunshine could have saved us. But when I dream of Jack, as I often do, I see him in that lost swimming pool, the shameless, blameless sun shining down on us; a symbol of the innocence and recklessness of the 20th century, when we really could kid ourselves that we had all the time in the world.
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Julie Burchill

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