Friday, 20 April 2012

Jubilee Pool, Penzance by Johnny Lamb

When thinking about lidos, my thoughts turn immediately to my friend the musicologist. She has one of those minds capable of the kind of focus that all academics must have, but also, she has the gift of the childlike ability to turn that focus to the irrational and whimsical. The musicologist loves the lido at Penzance, until the summer though, it was a place of indifference for me. That has changed. Now that place with its iron fencing perched on the front and isolated from the sea that it longs to join and merge with in playful reunion is a potent sign for me, and a portrait of someone now absent. Despite the apparent tragedy of the pool’s separation from the ocean, it is a beautiful thing.

The musicologist had devised a game. We were to swim in all of Cornwall’s tidal pools, allowing ourselves time for hot drinks or brandy afterwards. To her I think it was a romantic vision of crisp university lawns, esoteric conversation and cream cakes. If you could punt in a tidal pool, I’d like to think she would have. To me it was more an image of misbehaving in beach-front bars, a bearded, chain-smoking wastrel, hell bent on the masculine practice of seeming impervious to cold water, while relentlessly pulling on an endless supply of boxes of ten Mayfair. The EA composer completed our team, comedically wetsuited and cheerful, with a healthy look to his face. I think we went to three of them. The list hung largely unticked above the musicologist’s desk for too long. I regret this.

The musicologist has a friend in Penzance, and she would regularly disappear for the day, returning to tell stories of her swims. Once, the sun had rouged her white skin, making it vicious across her shoulders, tight and hot, livid and threatening to peel. I never went with her, except one day when the lido was closed, to try and make a recording for this project. It was the first time I really looked at it. It’s wonderful. And now, with the musicologist far away, I go out of my way to go past it.

I walk from the fisherman’s monument at Newlyn, along the coastline towards St Michael’s Mount. On the best days, when it’s raining, the waves will reach out over the road, soaking car and cyclist indiscriminately as you approach the pool. It is a relic I suppose. Some strange idea of the Victorians, to tame an unambitious section of the sea, so they could bask like seals in the drizzling Cornish summers, whipped by pious winds. How very fucking English. I imagine those giant striped swimming costumes completed by a stupid straw hat coupled with a judgemental gaze and a closeted and bitter sexuality. But this is one of those rare things, a relic that remains of use. It refuses to die, or change. (It seems like an echo of Newlyn’s tired and diminished fishing fleet, which I also love). The barbed iron gate seems to lock out the development around it, like a cultural nature reserve. As the old seaside charm gives way to nightclubs, pretentious delicatessens, chain bakeries, sports bars and pound shops, the whitewashed walls of the empty pool lie dormant for another summer of shrieking children, reclining women and strutting men, escaped for a short time from the details of their lives.

Lidos seem like photographs, a site for atavism. Even the very old are childlike when they swim. It is often the noise of people swimming that occurs to me. It’s one of those strange formless sounds where human beings seem like a swarm. But excited human voices are full of timbre and melody, unlike bees or locusts that drone in uniform tones.

Delight in something so simple, so primal. There is no need for technology in the water. No need even for company. Just the body within the element. The lido is in Penzance, but it is also separate, somewhere else. To enter its space is to leave the town behind. We swim in our nostalgia willingly, removed from the outside, and immersed in more than the water, and to each person I suppose a different time. I cannot help but relate the pool to the nineteen eighties, but to others it would be other numbers that date their image of a lido. I relate it too to the musicologist and the half forgotten, never made trips to the tidal pools. When she visits, I will take her to Penzance.

Johnny Lamb is a recording artist and works under the name 30 Pounds of Bone

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