I went swimming the other day for the first time this year. I managed to do 22 lengths, but not consecutively; there were frequent rests. After the first length, which I did front crawl, I clung onto the rail in the deep end, gasping for breath and with my heart pounding so hard I was making ripples.
I got my breath back by doing the next length at a leisurely backstroke. As I reached the half-way point of the pool, I was in collision with a man some years older than me who was doing that almost slow-motion front crawl (how do they do that?). Neither of us was injured but he came off worse and he spluttered and flapped about until he regained his composure. I apologised and continued on my way with my head tilted further back so that I could see other traffic. They were twenty-two long, slow lengths.
These days, however, there can be more to a trip to the swimming baths than doing boring lengths. Themed pools have transformed the experience with such additions as wave-making machines and water slides. Local pools, like Waves at Whitley Bay and Wet & Wild in North Shields, are a world away from the comparatively austere facilities of my childhood, which were less wet and wild than wet and cold. And yet there was one feature of my local pool that made it a far warmer place than some I have visited lately.
As teenagers, we would go upstairs into the café after getting dried and dressed. Swimming is a tremendous appetite builder and we were always ready for food after an hour spent larking about in the pool. I usually got a mug of Horlicks, a bag of crisps and a Kit-Kat. The café was warm and cosy and the best seats were by the huge windows that overlooked the pool, offering excellent viewing facilities for watching pretty girls. If we were lucky, girls we had been horsing around with in the pool would be sitting (probably giggling) at a nearby table. These after-pool encounters offered the perfect opportunity for older boys to try out that corniest of ice-breakers, ‘Oh, hello. I didn’t recognise you with your clothes on’.
The café is no longer there, the result, no doubt, of budget cuts somewhere along the line, but there are vending machines in its place. Another pool I visited not so long ago had a similar set up: tables and benches bolted to the floor, a coin-operated Postman Pat ride on van for the children, and two huge vending machines offering post-swim sustenance. The bare bricks of the walls added to the depressing, soulless atmosphere, and the only person using these facilities was a young woman who was feeding a baby. Her table showed no signs of her having bought products from the vending machines.
No warm air emanates from these machines, on which hangs the delicious smell of onions destined to be slathered on hot dogs. There is no cheery banter with a counter assistant, and no thank you on the completion of a transaction; just the dull thud of a beverage can dropping into a collection hatch. The cafe at my local pool was lively and usually full, and time spent there made up about a third of a visit to the swimming baths. The empty tables described above would appear to suggest that the automated alternative does not have the same appeal.
Yet the replacement of human workers by machines is not a new phenomenon. Concerns about new-fangled technology taking over jobs done by humans go back as far as the Luddites, and similar concerns can be seen today, in scenarios such as supermarkets bringing in self-service checkouts.
This may make sound economic sense to those who balance the books and, as such, I would not expect my much-loved café to re-open if better times came. I do though think it is a sad reflection on modern life when I can go to the swimming baths, have a post-swim snack and buy groceries on the way home, and the only human contact I have is when I collide with another swimmer.