This is not a swimming pool

The other day I took my four year-old son for a swimming lesson in the public baths close to where I’m staying in Suffolk. Florine, a fourteen year-old French girl who is over for a week from the village where I live in France, came with me. This was my son’s third lesson and he was clearly past the first flush with his teacher and reluctant to get into the water. While the coach cajoled him down the steps, Florine and I took our seats in the viewing gallery.

“Don’t you want to swim this time?” I asked her.

She shook her head.

“Why not?”

“It’s rubbish, this pool (C’est nulle). In fact,” she added, gazing sadly at the rows of swimmers moving sedately and tidily up and down the pool. “It’s not even a pool.

“What do you mean?”

She threw out her hand.

“Look at it. It’s not a pool. It’s a church! You’re not allowed to do anything here. Pools aren’t like that in France. In France, it’s chaos. (C’est le bordel). People jumping in and shrieking and chasing each other about…Just having fun.”

I had a flashback to the 1970s. Remember? Before Health and Safety. Before the US contagion of litigation.

“And look!” she went on. “There’s a sign saying ‘No diving’.”

“That’s just in the shallow end.”

She puffed out air.

“Why do they have to tell us not to dive in the shallow end? They think we’re stupid or something?”

I smiled and turned to the baby pool to see my son swimming towards his teacher.

I stood up and clapped furiously. His little face peered up at me from beneath the surface of the water as he paddled furiously to keep that tiny island around his nose and mouth from becoming submerged with the rest of him.

“Quick!” I said to Florine. “Where’s the camera?” She handed me my bag and I rushed down to the poolside, switching to film mode. I was picturing my son’s pride at seeing his father’s delight at seeing this moment; a whole chain reaction of joy would be triggered by this film.

As I crouched down a whistle blew.

“I’m sorry love,” the coach said, wading towards me. “No photography allowed. It’s the Children Act.”


The penny dropped: The Internet. Child pornography. The modern world.

Appalled, I stood up, blew my son a kiss and returned to my seat to find Florine laughing and shaking her head.

“I told you. It’s not a pool. It’s a church,” she said.

Afterwards, the coach took me aside and explained. I could film him, she said, but under certain conditions. We’d set them up. Next time.

“He can get his badge, though. Today,” she said encouragingly. “He can pick up his five metre badge from reception.”

I looked down at my son.

“Did you hear that? You won a badge!”

His face lit up.

“What’s a badge?”

“It’s fantastic,” I said. “We’ll go and get it now and you can show Dad when you get home.”

I had spoken too soon. At the reception I met with the inimitable, close-mouthed, compensatory smile of UK officialdom, the one that’s always, always accompanied by an “I’m sorry Madam but…”

THEY HAD RUN OUT OF 5 METRE BADGES. I looked down at my son who was looking up at me expectantly. Then I turned back to the woman behind the desk. But how could they run out of five metre badges? Did they not comprehend the emotional stakes they were dealing with here? Instead I asked,

“When do you think you’ll receive them?”

“Should be some time over the next few weeks.”

Florine was laughing. I wanted to cry.


18 thoughts on “This is not a swimming pool

  1. I have filmed in a swimming pool but not at people. I was filming the workings of the wave machine out of an interests I have with them. My Experience from taking photos on the poolside I had to fill a form which relates to photography usually name, address and reason.

    Also as this was filming the wave machine they thought it was better to come to the swimming pool when it is closed to public.

    The Manager of the swimming pool said their staff has to go for CRB Checks due to this mess.

  2. Hi Lucy,
    I had a similar experience in a swimming pool in Paris… looks like both countries have strange rules. We checked the times to see when we could swim, and following the sign we turned up on a Wednesday afternoon. But of course, we were told by the lady at the desk, this is open for the local school children only! We then returned the next day, to be told that to be allowed into the pool we must wear a swimming cap. Now I understood the reasons behind this for myself, as I have quite long hair, but my brother, with very short hair, also had to wear one! Once we had finally passed the rigourous inspections of the reception lady, we entered into the change room. There were signs on the wall requesting us to please shower before proceeding. Once through this, we thought we would reach the elusive pool, but no! Instead, there was another room, filled with ankle-depth water. This was, apparently, in case our feet weren’t quite clean enough from the shower. Finally we made it through the hurdles, to find all but one lane were taken by adult swimming classes, at 2 in the afternoon! I love Paris and the french, but I sure don’t understand them.

  3. we likely because the sea is warm enough to swim in, no need to swim in chlorined water. Nice after all is on the Med!!!
    I just finished you book, I live the experience the other way round I was married to an English man for 12 years, lived and worked in England, where lots of things seemed very strange to me.
    I got used to it and even enjoyed it.
    I am back in France and seeing what England is becoming each time I go and visit my friends, I do not regret being back.
    I took pleasure in reading your book even though some traits are rather exagerated ( i.e.” mistresses”, did you go and ask someone coming out of the factory if he/she had a mistress/amant. It is a luxury which only wealthy person can afford!!. It is not the national sport!)

  4. My Viennese cousin came to stay with me (in Bath, UK) recently and was first baffled, then amused to see little fences around holes in the pavement. He made it a feature of his stay to photograh as many of them as he could find – and there were dozens just in the streets around where I live.

    The reason – yes, obvously to prevent people falling into them, and yet….. it’s also about the fear of litigation. These days you neglect to look where you’re going, tumble into a hole in the pavement, and you could make thousands by suing the council!

    On a visit to Brussels recently I was equally baffled and then amused to see countless holes in the road, some of them revealing scary-looking leads and wires, rainwater dripping dangerously onto them – but no fences around any of them. Belgians just have to, um, look where they’re going. And if god forbid anyone falls into one of these holes and breaks their ankle – well, they won’t do it again, will they?

  5. As much as UK Pool Rules are “over protective” at least they do not close up, like in Nice, for staff holidays for the months of July and August!

    Truly loved the book. Now re-reading it.

  6. Lucy, you wrote above that the ‘long and historic French tradition of flouting those rules that are deemed to be too silly or too invasive obviously has its problems ethically-speaking’. Might I suggest that some of the consequences are quite practical? In the case of my mother-in-law, a hard-fought, 25-year winning battle against the ‘ceinture de sécurité’ (car seat-belt) has culminated in the sad spectacle of an, otherwise, sprightly 85-year-old needing to be strapped in like an infant. She’s never mastered the art of clunk-click, you see. And all that effort she expended over the years! Whenever a policeman hove into view, she’d pretend-strap herself by slipping the buckle under her thigh.

    You also wrote that you were ‘shocked by the rampant regulation in the UK’, surmising that this is ‘a recent (New Labour) aberration and a betrayal of our Protestant heritage’. Could your memory be playing tricks on you? In truth, we’ve always had officious little men telling us that something or other must be ‘abated’… something which almost always is fun. (These chaps have seldom been fleet of foot, which is a great good fortune.)

    The ‘Nanny State’, in her most recent manifestation, is perhaps less an authority figure than a government apparatus in dread of the ‘ambulance-chasing’ lawyer, not to mention disruptive, anti-social elements. Moral authority has declined as licensing hours have lengthened. ‘Continental drinking culture’ — my giddy aunt!

    French-style officialdom’s urge to regulate has warped that nation’s perception of what sport should be all about. It is nothing if it fails to administer to a need for fun: one PLAYS at GAMES, for crying out loud. And nobody can ‘play sensibly’… with the single exception, perhaps, of the Frenchman on holiday and hell-bent on self-improvement, with all the latest accoutrements and kit to testify to his unswerving determination. Good luck to him, though I prefer my fun with a grin. And rather less masochism. No matter how he may delude himself, your average Frenchman is made of serious stuff. Now, if he were made to apply (at the local office of the moped-ing Mitterandian Min of Cult?) for a fun licence…?

  7. It’s true that regulation in France reaches absurd proportions. And true too that the rules are frequently ignored. A strong monarchy and then a strong state has contributed to the habit of passing laws at the drop of a hat. The long and historic French tradition of flouting those rules that are deemed to be too silly or too invasive obviously has its problems ethically-speaking, but when it comes to the quality of everyday life, it has its advantages.

    I suppose I’m so shocked by the rampant regulation in the UK because I see it as a recent (New Labour) aberration and a betrayal of our Protestant heritage. We’re supposed to be ‘the society of confidence’, the society that trusts our citizens to be self-regulating adults but we have become a ‘Nanny State’ in the worst possible sense.

  8. Hold on! France has merely different regulations, and they can be every bit as draconic. True, they may no longer be enforced (yellow jackets for every car driver: very last year) but they always require lots of paperwork…

    Your article reminded me of a piece by Alistair Cambell in 2005, that I have just googled and found.

    To quote:

    Finally, another anecdote to illustrate regulation here on a scale that no sane Brit would ever contemplate. My son and I spotted a piece in the local paper about a 10km run in a beautifully named place called Cheval Blanc, an hour’s drive away. We called to get directions. We arrived to register, only to be told we could not enter unless we had a licence or a medical certificate to say we were capable of running 10km without fear of illness or death. This was not some big athletics meeting but an amateur fun run round a small provincial town.

    The race organiser conceded the absurdity of it, and after a discussion with his colleagues decided we could run the course but not be part of the race officially. It meant that when my son came in third overall, and first in the juniors, third place actually went to the man who finished just behind him. The organisers were very friendly and charming, and the race was brilliantly organised. When we talked about the ludicrous need for licence or certificate, we were greeted with a series of nods and shrugging shoulders and the observation: “Hein, c’est la France.”

  9. But Charles, it wasn’t a stranger. I’d be very upset if I couldn’t photograph my own child. Especially if they are doing something special like swimming for the first time. I have a co-worker who has tons of photos of her son and scrapbooks everything he has ever done.

    And I don’t think I’d be upset if someone wanted to photograph my child.

    From what I’ve read, and from what my parents have told me (who live there), England seems to have gone way overboard. It’s certainly no longer the country I grew up in and remember fondly.

    I still say it’s crazy.

  10. Swimming pools? Went to one in Tidworth. Each hour of the day was divided into different ‘types’ of swimming sessions. (This is the summer holidays btw; it had been raining, rain threatened again. The pool is of course inside.)

    We turned up, as a family, for what we presumed was the family hour having spoken with them on the phone. The boys could go in (up to five years old), said Jackie but not Millie. And no, she couldn’t make an exception because she didn’t make the rules and she didn’t know who did.

    Even if Millie is 7 and releasing rural warrior Bede into the pool posed far more of a threat to public safety than his older sister.

    So Millie and I hung around mucking about on swings and stuff and then went and sat on the grass lawn so we could look through the glass at Bin and the boys. After five minutes we were moved on. We were told we couldn’t sit on the grass there.

    Millie turned to me and asked me why there were so many rules in England, and then told me this was the worst swimming pool she had ever been to. I told her I didn’t know the answer to her question and agreed with her about her observation.

    When the ‘family session’ was finished, Millie very much wanted to swim, and had patiently waited for an hour while her brothers had swum for an hour.

    So we went and got fish and chips and hung around for another hour and half until 1400 when the pool was open ‘to all’ – for one fucking hour.

    Millie wanted to swim a length. I was with her in the water, next to her; we were by the side. A man came up to me and asked if Millie could swim two lengths unassisted. No, said Millie. Well in that case you can’t go beyond this line. So we had to swim widths across the people doing laps, she hitting them, they hitting her.

    I could have said: Well, no she can’t yet, but that’s what we’re working towards, but the thought didn’t cross my mind.

    Why? I have just given up on England and I have no expectations. It is a broken country and a broken society.

    BTW Charles: if I saw someone taking pictures of my child in a public swimming pool I would assume he was taking a picture of his children or grandchildren or nieces or friends’ children and, as is often the case in swimming pools, my child was in the frame.

  11. Jackie you wrote, “You couldn’t photograph your own child!?!? Absolute madness!”

    If a stranger started to photograph your child at a public swimming pool, what would you do? Something tells me you would be requiring urgent assistance from the staff. Ah, but… they have other duties, don’t they?

    I fear you are rushing to judgement.

  12. Was the lady at reception wearing a “badge” (i.e. “Hello my name is Marge”). I would’ve asked the lady for her badge and handed it over to the new 4-year-old (presumably still illiterate) swimmer and told him it was his badge. But then again, I’m American.

  13. But how could they run out of five metre badges? Did they not comprehend the emotional stakes they were dealing with here? Instead I asked, “When do you think you’ll receive them?” ”

    Because you asked that instead, you’re British too! 🙂 Hypocrites… And you can be sure considering it as a sign of particular politeness and civilisation. Though I hope, Lucy, in your case you may already be spoiled a little by bad (good!) influences of French “bordel”… 🙂 You’re “internationally rich” now, a superior being, but to live … where? 🙂 Somewhere above all those nations, with their small ridiculous limitations… Let’s call it Europe. Future Europe unfortunately, if ever… But nations should not disappear, as they want it, modern totalitarian EU leaders, what do you think? If they disappear, what you writers will be writing about? Already today one should look carefully for interesting subjects… When rules and standards will suppress human bordel completely, you’ll only deal with references to rules, unless it’s already almost the case in some particularly “developed” parts of the world… This is not our world, is it?

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