Have you noticed how often reformers are behind the times ? They want to make public transport free when the majority of people no longer use it; or to protect ancient buildings after most of them have been pulled down; or ban some deleterious sport such as hunting or prizefighting at the stage when it is nearly extinct anyway, the realistic time for the campaigns ought to be in the heyday of whatever-it-is. And that is precisely the time in most cases when the reformers are saying nothing about it.
The Observer and other papers have made headlines recently of the discovery that some public swimming baths are dirty, and the demand for a clean-up. The reporters must have been diligent — and young. If they were not young, and could recall Third-Class Night at the municipal baths before 1939, they would not have been so horrified. They would know also that a few coppers in the income structure saved from or condemned to it. Gentle reader, if you are squeamish don’t read on. I was there.
The Baths were in the High Street. They were also the municipal wash-house, and the back windows billowed steam over a railed-in and litter-strewn dirt patch which was called (what joys!) the Recreation Ground. The swimming bath could be floored-over with rough wood blocks and was used in winter for free concerts, cheap dances, and political meetings.
The principle of Third-Class Night was that the water was changed once a week. On Mondays and Tuesdays the swimming was First Class: that is, the water was clean. Ladies’ session and gentlemen’s session at sevenpence a time, and the local Grammar School had time reserved. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday were Second Class, for fourpence — ladies’, gents’, and mixed, and the broth thickening inexorably.
And Saturday . . . Saturday was Third-Class Night, mixed: twopence. They used to say “Tread water”. No problem; you could have done handstands on it. The story of Christ walking on the water probably originated on Third-Class Night in the baths at Jerusalem. You could stay in as long as you liked, so everyone peed while swimming about as the need arose. There was a joke about a conscientious girl who always gave the attendant a penny before she left. Every male over thirty spat frequently as well, because every male over thirty did that everywhere.
Shampooing and shirt-changing did not happen frequently, either, if you were in the Saturday class. Most men slept in their shirts, and a good many in their socks too. For a lot of the Third-Class-Nighters the twopenny swim was a combination of business and pleasure; you got a wash, of sorts, all over. Of course a lot of the basic muck came from the Second and First Class, but it was probably thought an honour for us to swim in their secretions. Like Madame Tussaud’s: Mingle With the Mighty.
There we floundered in our scores, doing breast strokes and side strokes and colliding with one another in yellow-grey water you couldn’t see the bottom through and with cigarette ends and spit and bits of paper floating all round. We wiped and dried ourselves with the scraggy municipal towels. And when we had gone they emptied the soup away and filled the bath with nice clean water for the First Class again on Monday.
So the Observer won’t scare me with its pale account of a grubby swimming bath somewhere: what it describes is mere Second-Class stuff. But I cannot remember any reporter coming to our Baths on Saturday night and going away to Shock the Nation with his findings. Surely that would have been a much better time? However, it would have been a complicated investigation. It would have led to discovering that our problem was not dirt but poverty and inequality; and to get to the bottom of it they would have to go into the economics of capitalism. You can’t expect newspapers and reformers to start that kind of thing.