Why A Pool is not always A Pool

The other day I made a comment on John Scalzi’s post about money and writers.

I said something along the lines of “friends of mine once met a famous writer at a SF con and she invited them over to her house to use her swimming pool“. It was intended to convey a sense of awe at the success of said writer (no, I’m not naming names).Swimming Pool at wikipedia

As I thought about these words this morning over my porridge, a strange wave of embarrassment rolled over me, not connected to the oats.

OMG, I thought, that makes me sound like such a hick, being impressed by a swimming pool.

The more I thought about it, and the  more porridge I ate (maybe Goldilocks was right), common sense piped up.

So what? You’re British. We don’t DO swimming pools here like they do elsewhere.

Y’see, a swimming pool is not always a swimming pool. The words “Swimming Pool” mean something different to each of us, depending on where we were brought up, and what the cultural norms are. In museums, they call this the interpretation of artefacts. Where you come from, and what you’re used to thinking of as normal, affects how you think about things.

If you live in Manitoba, I expect your notion of A Pool is much the same as mine. If you live in Miami, probably not. And if you live in Mumbai or Melbourne, to keep the alliteration flowing, your notion of A Pool will be different again.

I see pictures online of houses in the USA that have A Pool in their back “yard” (that’s a garden, to us Brits). The houses look modest enough i.e. they’re not huge mansions, they’re suburban three-beds. Yet there it is, A Pool.

To my sensibilities, that seems improbably luxurious. (I get that it might actually be luxurious for a lot of the US population as well, and as for the rest of the Developing World, well…). Having a swimming pool in your back garden is a measure of wealth and achievement and status, I get that too. All those re-runs of Dallas have taken their toll on the unsuspecting psyche.

But even in Neighbours the houses have A Pool, or it seems like it. Last time I watched Max was still a character (that makes it about 1987 in the UK) – he was a plumber, IIRC – and his house had A Pool. One storyline revolved around a diving champion – Shane (Shawn? Shaun?) – taking a risk from the high board at the local community pool. People seem to wander around in shorts or bikinis a lot, in expectation of there being A Pool in which they might partake of a swim.

As you do.

So as a measure of comparative wealth and status, A Pool comes in at the comparatively modest end of the scale for those parts of the world, I’m guessing. (Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong).

In the UK, we don’t do outdoor swimming pools that much. I’ve seen a few houses of the suburban three-bed type with A Pool in the back garden, and there is a certain grim optimism about the venture.

You have to be a certain type of fanatic to enjoy outdoor swimming in the UK most of the time, in my opinion.

My own family memories: we walk across a field of cows and a railway line to the seashore, then chase the sea out for about a quarter of a mile across rippling sands to a convenient shallow behind some rocks. This must have been 1976, when the summer was hot and went on forever. We didn’t go swimming that often.

The next time, 1986, I was working in the Highlands and had long lunchtimes, so a couple of us would head up along the small, snow-fed river by the side of the local youth hostel and go take a dip in a sparkling, sunlit pool where trout lazed on the gravel and you could jump from the overhanging rocks. This idyll lasted a week before the weather set in for a proper Scottish summer, all light mist and midges and 10 degrees Celsius.

So, bad weather and insect termagants do not make for happy swimmers. Nor frequent ones. The local council filled in the outdoor pool some time in the 1980s, after building a nice new indoor pool, with heating. Very few UK towns have a Lido any more, which was common in the 20th Century.

The notion of A Pool, then, in the UK, implies something more than just the luxury of a spare twenty feet by thirty in your back garden and a half-day with a digger. It implies infrastructure.

We are talking shelter, here. To make it worthwhile, you’ll need a plot of land that will take your 20’x30′ swimming pool and a metre around it each way for a walkway (sorry to mix metric and Imperial, I was just raised that way). Then you’ll have to add on another couple of feet on each side for a wall, so you can put a roof over the pool. Suddenly a small pool in your back garden has taken up more footprint than your house.

Unless you happen to have a much larger house than usual.

And that, given the extortionate cost of housing in the UK, implies a much greater degree of wealth and status than might be expected elsewhere. Hence, my comment, way back at the start of this post and on John Scalzi’s, about the famous writer and her swimming pool. It sounds glamorous because it is glamorous, where I’m from.

Owning a private swimming pool in the UK isn’t common (although it’s often portrayed as rather vulgar). The ownership of enough real estate to have A Pool is a measure of significant success.

And yea, thusly, I thought, your comment wasn’t so daft after all.

We Brits are, however, addicted to the seaside. There is so much of it, and very little of our country is further than 70 miles from the sea. Just watch out for the gulls…

Sunset on the Summer Solstice 2012, above Kilchiaran Bay


  1. Ah 1976…! Having just spent 2 months in NZ & Australia I agree wholeheartedly with your observations on the UK perceptions hehe! N

    • Heyyy!!!! Welcome back! Hope you brought the good weather with you… 😉

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