GURNELL LEISURE CENTRE
Ruislip Road, East Ealing
London W13 0AL
020 8998 3241
Added bonus: I’m struggling with this category.
Gurnell. It’s hard to say that word with a jaunty bounce. I wonder if the Mr and Ms Gurnells of the world fold into a depressed slump every time they introduce themselves. It suits the day; just off the A40 I spot the low grey building perfectly matching a low grey sky. I came looking for a moan and then I found a moan: why do I have to pay to park my car here? That’s crap and money-grabbing. There’s a crow watching me as I push coins into the machine. It laughs. Caws. I resist the urge to throw something at it, but more because I’m shit at throwing.
The changing rooms are a large open space, benches, few cubicles. Bland and neat, basic utilitarian over fashionable, which is fine because they are very clean – the white tiles almost twinkle, a good sign for standards in the water, I think. A couple of women changing and chatting forward-remind me of me and swimming friend Jackie in about 20 (probably 10, if I’m honest) years. Watching them, I’m quite heartened. That looks OK, I think, being 20 (10) years older…
Today I have a mission. Today, I want to practice the ‘art of swimming’ I learnt earlier in the week.* I wonder if people think that because I write about swimming I'm a good swimmer? It's not so. Normally, my swimming style is as close to art as ... Tracy Emin's second cousin-once-removed is. No longer. Now I'm the swimming version of Tracy Emin. (Yep - rude and self-obsessed, and people often ask - is it really swimming?) I’m chanting the Art of Swimming mantra I walk through: ‘ready, steady, go’, and I'm glad it's not something rude. If there had been no-one there, I’d have practiced my arms on land, but I’m not a show-off, so I did some visualising instead. I quite like a bit of visualising. I do it in cold water, visualising a fire in my belly. Now, I’m visualising beautiful arty arms and legs propelling me through the water like a torpedo.
The pool area is massive, and nicely apportioned into three separate pools: teaching, shallow and deep. I thought I was coming to a 50m pool (which I love) but today the boom was up, and the deep bit, laned for swimming, was only about 25m (and deep, obviously). I take a look around. Christ on a stick, it ain’t pretty. You know corrugated cardboard? The way you can force it into wave shapes? That’s what the ceiling looks like, same colour, a horrible browny beige, and texture. (I saw a whole art exhibition made from that stuff, last summer. Loads and loads of it, curling into mazes. It was less interesting than it sounds.) One wall by the deep pool is the same material, bowed back as if we’re on the outside of a tunnel, with, nice touch, mould crawling up it. Great clumps of black mould flowering slowly up the wall – you can even see it on the photo above! How shit is that! It’s enough to make me want to get my marigolds on and get scrubbing. (It’s not. Somebody should be paid to clean it. If GLL are looking for someone, I can recommend the person who cleans their changing rooms.) On another wall a long line of kayaks are propped up, like an instillation, putting some vibrant plastic colours into a dirty-colour space. Little bits of light float in through the condensation on the windows. It’s one of those condensation days.
I get in. Lane MAYHEM. A big group of men in the water, dotted all over the place REGARDLESS OF SPEED OR ABILITY. I despair, silently, then tick myself off for my own intolerance. Fuck it’s tiresome being me, constantly trying to moderate my natural mean-spiritedness, I can’t imagine why you’re all still reading. In the far lane, there are three women swimming and I head there. I can’t see a clock, so I decide to swim for as long as that woman who got in just ahead of me. I say I can’t see a clock. I can’t see bloody anything. The water is so murky and milk-churny and hot, I feel like giving up before I’ve started. I can’t do that, I have a stroke to practice. Ready steady go.
This is a really tricky swim. The lanes are narrow, everyone’s speed is erratic, the water is really churned up and busy. That woman I’m following keeps swimming so I keep swimming. It’s impossible to see. I can’t slow down, there’s someone right behind me, I can’t speed up, the kick-bubbles ahead are keeping me at bay and on track. At the end of each lane there’s no rail or grip, so you either grab the slippery boom, or touch and push awkwardly off again. That woman keeps swimming so I keep swimming. I’m hot, and bothered. I try a bit of ‘ready steady’, I really want to practice, but I’ve got too much other intrusions from this pool on my mind, and I’m too slow - I need to be slow to get it right before I (theoretically) speed up, but I’m holding up the line. I do my kick practice instead – down, down, I mentally chant. I think: this pool would be OK if the boom was down, so it was at the full 50 m. And if the water was clear and clean and cooler. And the mould was sluiced off. Oh, and the walls weren’t that horrible grubby beige. That woman keeps swimming, and I visualise a torpedo failing to go off, so follow another woman instead, one who is just getting out.
I shower (they’re OK) and change. The mirrors are excellent for eyebrow plucking. Bring tweezers.
As I leave, I walk through a wide gate, marked as a wheelchair exit, then I approach an automatic door, it opens. Hmmm, I think, good disabled access, and when it proclaims itself like this, I mentally give it a tick. And then I hit the outer doors, almost literally. They need two hands to shove open, the bottom scratching along the ground. All I do is sigh, it's not a personal inconvenience but I wonder how frustrating that is for a wheelchair user. They get some of it right, there’s a ramp up, but then, you’re faced with doors that are dead tough to open manually.
I’m on the way to see my mum. Next time I’m doing this journey, I’ll stop off at Uxbridge Lido instead, infinitely better. Sorry, Gurnell, but nominative determinism works, you are like you sound. I hit the A40 again, in a slump.
*The Art of Swimming is great; I did a day-long front crawl workshop, first time I’ve ever really had a proper front crawl lesson. I really recommend it for deconstructing your stroke along Alexander technique lines, whatever ability you are. They are here.