I awoke this morning at about 5am and I began to think about what I should write for my upcoming Cup of Tea Tale and, whilst doing so, I began to consider the process that I go through. What I hadn’t realised was how physical the process was. The only way that I can describe it, is like moving through a room full of curtains and I could feel myself push one curtain aside, and there was a snippet of memory. I would then push the next one apart and there was a bit more. The problem is that when I say I felt myself push them aside to reveal the next bit of memory, I actually could feel pressure. There was a resistance and a softness that was a bit like walking through water. Maybe it is the start of madness, but certainly it felt very real and it took me to a topic that I hadn’t intended to write about and, well, here it is.
Swimming! It is one of those things, like reading, riding a bike, driving a car that there is one moment when you realise that you can actually do it. Prior to that point it was an unbelievably difficult skill. I can still remember the time that I grasped the concept of division, the very moment when it suddenly seemed so obvious and I couldn’t understand how I hadn’t seen it before. Anyway, swimming! There were swimming pools, but in the 1950s I had never been to one and whereas I had paddled in the sea on the Yorkshire east coast, I had never been above knee deep and never for very long as your legs would turn blue from the cold and lost all sense of feeling within a very short time.
Whilst at Harehills County Primary School we started swimming lessons. I am not exactly sure which year we started, but I suspect it was third year with Mr Kelly. I know that I was quite anxious about starting as I had never been in a pool before, but the day of reckoning was approaching and my fear was growing. It was a mixture of excitement and worry that I wouldn’t be able to do it. The day arrived and I had a bag with my swimming trunks and towel and I walked down Easterly Road to school. I guess I was ten years old and I have been racking my brain which baths we went to. For some reason I seem to recall two. One was on Meanwood Road and, for some reason, Kirkstall Road and Bramley come to mind.
The first time we went is quite vivid and I remember the classes getting on a double-decker bus outside the school. If you were lucky you were allowed upstairs, but if not you were sent downstairs. The buses upstairs held the lingering smell of stale tobacco and I remember being bemused by the sign that said, ‘Spitting Is Forbidden”. I couldn’t for the life of me imagine why anyone would want to spit in a bus. The upstairs gave a strange perception of overhanging the rest of the bus as you looked down. The best upstairs seats were right at the front and you got a great vantage point, but the movement and swaying of the bus was exaggerated and combined with the smell, had a tendency to make you feel sick. The seats were paired benches with fairly hard, leather, brown and marked, or carpet-like upholstery. There was a chrome rail across the back of the bench and it was necessary to hold on to it as you moved about whilst the bus was in motion. Going down the stairs, whilst the bus was moving, was also challenging and added to the excitement.
Rolled towels and trunks were clasped to our knees and the journey was only short. We arrived and lined up outside the baths. The building was old then and I remember, not sure if this was both pools or just one of them, that there were cubicles on either side of the pool. The boys were down one side and the girls down the other. We were sent down our side and with our partners we had to change. This was a bit embarrassing as I wasn’t used to public nudity, or at least with a boy from class, and it was very cold. The air in the baths had a strong clawing smell of chlorine and there was a strange echoing sound. Our trunks donned, shivering, we had to leave the cubicle and face the world. We had to line up at first and lift our feet up to have them inspected. Apparently they were checking for verrucas, but I had no idea what they were.
Mr Kelly was shouting orders and instructions and we were then divided into non-swimmers and those who claimed to be able to swim. Obviously, I was in the former group. Being quite a sporty boy, this was a new experience for me and at that moment I harboured unpleasant thoughts, blaming my parents for the ignominy and embarrassment. Why hadn’t they taken me swimming before? Why hadn’t I had lessons? Pool staff took some of the swimmers to one end, the deep end, of the baths and checked to see if they were swimmers and to group them further. My group was herded down to the shallow end for our first time in the water. There were stainless steel ladders and we were told to climb in and move to the end of the pool where there was a gutter. I became horrified and when my turn came, I started down the ladder and when the cold water hit the top of my legs I froze. It was horribly cold. Mr Kelly saw my distress and approached it with his usual subtlety, told me to not be a baby and get in. Left with no choice other than total embarrassment, and certainly I wasn’t brave enough to refuse his orders, I got in. The water reached to chest height, just about armpit level and I grabbed the gutter with a strength that probably cracked the tiles. I clung on as if my life depended upon it and I thought it did. We pathetic creatures hung along the end in the shallow end and were instructed to hold on the side and let our legs float. “As if?” My legs weren’t coming off the bottom for anyone, but one by one we were inspected to see if we had achieved it. I watched the teacher getting nearer and I panicked. It was like waiting for the moment of doom. As I said, I had always been one of the sporty ones and I had never suffered the disgrace of being near the end when teams were picked for soccer, cricket or any games. We sniggered at those poor souls and, at the end, the last one was further belittled by the team refusing them and giving them to the other side. Here I was, equally suffering and I realised how it must have felt for them.
My turn came and I was told to let my legs float up. Somehow one leg, managed it, but the other was stuck to the floor. I was given further gentle encouragement of, “Get on with it, lad!” and finally, somehow my foot slipped and it floated up. The problem was, I got a mouthful of the foul water and immediately writhed, trying to regain my footing and coughing and spluttering. This was not my finest moment! Somehow I was bypassed for the next and, bit by bit, we were instructed to try and raise our legs, relax and then kick them. I eventually managed to do this and we were all in a line kicking and splashing great fonts of water everywhere, creating a racket. I was actually enjoying this, but by now I was getting very cold and I was relieved when a whistle was blown and we had to get out and get changed.
This should have been simple, but we were cold and shivering and the trunks didn’t want to come off easily or the undies go on effortlessly. Added to that we were all trying to hide our private parts from each other and there wasn’t much space. To be honest, we were barely dry and it was a very raggedy looking mob of boys that appeared, whereas the girls seemed almost pristine and calm in comparison. We had to line up by the entrance when we were ready and then the teachers checked the cubicles and appeared with a wide array of towels, trunks and, in one case, a pair of underpants. It was funny how no one seemed to be missing them, but eventually the miscreant was tracked down by great detective work and his public humiliation was complete. There was a positive for me as at least I wasn’t the one to feel the heat of shame, wanting the world to swallow you up.
Now some children who had been to baths before knew that there was a possible treat at the end and they had come prepared with some pennies. The baths sold little bags of crackers that looked very much like Ritz crackers. The crackers were very salty and in great demand. We new-comers had to wait starving for the next week to come prepared. Over the weeks I looked forward to the crackers and later there were other offerings, Bovril drinks were available in plastic cups and even Smiths Crisps with the little blue paper twists of salt. There was only one choice of flavour in those days, with salt or without.
As I have mentioned, I think we changed baths at one time and that was due to repair work or something. We only went once a week for one term and, little by little, I gained a little confidence, but that will have to wait for next week when I will explore the pleasures of verrucas, getting your feet off the floor and the delights that were waiting for us at Roundhay School Baths. I have lived in Perth, Western Australia, since 1992 and you can see why Australia has such good swimmers. Children often have pools at home, have lessons every day for a term and it is warm so that they go on the bus in their swimmers and go back to school just wrapped in a towel. Even adults will turn up at the sports centres in their bathers and leave the same way. So very different to the freezing delights of Leeds in the 1950s!