Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Discovering Coburg Olympic Pool while watching The Slap

Since watching The Slap, the ABC-TV series of Christos Tsiolkas' novel, I have been trying to identify the pool featured in the final episode. Tweets to the ABC didn't produce any answers but my online detective work did.  Googling swimming pools in Melbourne I discovered the Coburg Olympic Pool, which seemed to match the images on The Slap. The Friends of Coburg Pool confirmed my hunch.

While the Coburg Pool is in a lovely leafy setting by Merrri Creek, on The Slap it looked a bit grungy, a little bit neglected. It reminded me of my local, slightly patched-up Fanny Durack Aquatic Centre and a few other pools approaching the half century. Turns out Coburg Pool was threatened with closure in 2006 and was shut for two seasons. A campaign by the Friends of Coburg Pool helped ensure its re-opening in 2008.

As the Save the Coburg Olympic Pool website states, the pool is part of a long history of swimming on the banks of the Merri Creek. The current complex was built in 1965 to replace swimming in the Merri Creek and lake which had become polluted. As well as the 50-metre Olympic pool, there is a children’s pool, a toddler’s pool and a diving pool. Unfortunately the local Moreland City Council demolished the diving towers in October 2008 before assessing their heritage value.

From its beginnings the pool has been closely linked with the suburb’s history of community activism. The pool’s construction was a local community initiative and was made possible by a massive fundraising drive. Activism in the 1990s kept the complex going. While the latest campaign, Save Coburg Olympic Pool, seems to have put a halt to the pool's closure, at least for the time being, hopes that it would be part of Moreland City Council's recent heritage overlay were dashed in June this year.

Back in the mid-1990s when Premier Jeff Kennett reduced the number of local councils from 210 to 78, a number of municipal pools in Victoria were under threat of closure. One of the most notable was Fitzroy Pool, featured in Helen Garner’s novel Monkey Grip. Fortunately the Friends of Fitzroy Pool rallied to save the more than 100-year-old, inner-city icon, which has flourished ever since. 

Coburg Pool's recent battle to remain viable is not an isolated case, particularly in Victoria. Friends in Wangaratta recently told me they were concerned that the council was letting their outdoor pool deteriorate. While the town has an indoor centre, it is only 25-metres and as they say it’s really important to have an outdoor pool for the kids to go to during summer especially in inland places like ‘Wang’.

So I'd say good luck to the Friends of Coburg Pool in getting council to repair and restore your pool and return it to its former glory. Let's hope the council sees sense and allows the pool to continue its vital recreational and social role in the local community. And good luck to any other local outdoor pools across the nation threatened with closure.

And if you are wondering where Coburg is here are a few interesting facts and figures on the Melbourne suburb. It is eight kilometres north of the CBD in the local government area of the City of Moreland. Its most famous landmark is Pentridge Gaol which was recently redeveloped into housing. Some names you might recognise as hailing from Coburg include Raelene Boyle, Ted Egan, Phil Cleary, Rod Quantock and Angry Anderson.

To see Coburg Pool's starring role in The Slap click here. To find out more about Coburg Pool visit the Save Coburg Olympic Pool website.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

South coast swimming at Gerringong's ocean baths

There were plenty of surfers in wetsuits in the Werri Beach waves last Sunday but only one swimmer in the ocean pool.

The cool, wet weather discouraged most from diving in but as lone swimmer Margaret commented: “It’s warmer in the water than outside.” So after taking a few snaps I joined Margaret in the Werri Beach Ocean Baths, which sits on a wide rock platform at the south end of the beach.

Opened in the late 1930s, it was built to cater for the many campers at Werri Beach and to provide an alternative swimming spot on dangerous surf days. The pool was originally intended to be 165 feet by 75 feet but was reduced to 75 feet by 40 feet to save costs.

As Margaret kick-boarded up and down, she told me that one time when the tide was high and the seas were big the force of the waves picked her up and threw her out of the pool. Our Werri Beach host said the same thing had happened to her nephew during the Christmas king tides.

While waves broke on the nearby rocks last Sunday, the conditions were pretty calm within the pool walls, and it was lovely gazing up at the rolling, green hills in the distance.

Gerringong is blessed with a number of ocean pools. At the north end of the beach is a natural water hole called Campbell’s Hole, which our Werri Beach host says is lovely to flop around in.

The former ladies-only baths at Boat Harbour.

Margaret also recommends the Boat Harbour Baths, south of Werri Beach. Originally a ladies-only baths, she says older people enjoy swimming at the nearly 110-year-old pool as it has better level access than the Werri Beach Baths.

There used to be a men’s-only baths at Boat Harbour but its exposed position caused continual erosion of the pool structure.  It was also prone to clog up with seaweed, which was the excuse the men gave for swimming in the women's pool. The NSW Ocean Baths website (no longer online) records that in 1930 a group of ladies from Nowra were very disappointed when their planned swim was not possible after finding a lot of men in the ladies-only pool.

The remains of the men's pool at Boat Harbour.

“While acknowledging that a man might want to swim with his wife or children, Gerringong aldermen agreed that ‘Gerringong is not a city’ and ‘some of our ladies are a little shy’ and ‘don’t want to plunge in with men’.”

Another incident recorded by the NSW Ocean Baths website was the 100-foot fall into the Gerringong Ladies' Baths in 1942 by a racing greyhound called Socialite after chasing a rabbit on the cliffs above.  The greyhound was expected to recover unlike a baby whale that Margaret informed me beached on the rocks near the pool recently.

Gerringong is about a two-hour drive south of Sydney. For more information visit Kiama Council.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Sarah Watt, William McInnes and their watery worlds

I didn’t know Sarah Watt and I don’t know her husband, William McInnes. But for a few reasons I feel a bit connected to them.

At different times when I have been looking for inspiration or solace I have found it in their TV characters, films and books. Back in 2000 when I was writing a story about my love of swimming and water, I was struggling to find an angle.  I found it watching William as Max Connors in the ABC-TV series, Seachange.  Gazing over Pearl Bay, magistrate Laura Gibson (Sigrid Thornton) asks Max what he believes in.  

“Swimming,”’ he says. “I believe in swimming. Wherever I am – when things are good or bad – that’s what gives my life meaning.”
Forster Ocean Baths
I had been struggling to articulate my feelings about swimming and there was William on the small screen saying it for me. He gave me my angle and opening lines to my story.  Five years later when my father was going through chemotherapy treatment for secondary bone cancer I went to see Sarah’s film, Look Both Ways. I had taken the day off work and went to the movies to try and relax and escape the dread and worry. When I sat in the Palace Theatre that afternoon, I felt like Sarah's movie starring husband William and Justine Clarke was made for me; was talking to me.  It was a sad but uplifting movie about cancer and death and grief. It was also funny at times and filled with hope. I emerged from the darkness of the theatre feeling comforted and more relaxed.
Annette Kellerman Aquatic Centre, Enmore
A few years ago when I started writing about swimming pools I came across an article by William about the Footscray Swimming Club at Maribyrnong Aquatic Centre. I enjoyed the piece and related to his sentiments about the community spirit of a local swimming club and the characters who make it worth turning up each Sunday morning.

Northbridge Swimming Club
More recently, on one of my post-working-at-home-all-day-walks to Norton Street, Leichhardt, I discovered Sarah and William’s new book, Worse Things Happen at Sea: tales of life, love, family and the everyday beauty in between published by Hachette Australia. I had heard that Sarah wasn’t well with secondary bone cancer after reading an article and listening to an interview with William on ABC Radio National’s Life Matters.

I flipped through their book and had to buy it – it was so beautifully designed –  full of touching and funny stories from both of them. It also featured Sarah’s photos – a number of water and pools.  And then last night I read a chapter towards the end of the book from Sarah entitled Cloudy Days, where she describes her love of water.

“I can’t be sure when or where my love of the water – watching it, being in it, painting it – began,” she writes. “But I can’t imagine it ever being unimportant to me. I love its cycle, moving from rivers and oceans, to clouds then rain, tides linking to the phases of the moon and the moon to the stars. If I can’t figure out what everything else in the world is about, I can always be calmed by the simultaneous predictability and unpredictability of water and the weather. Walking along a beach is the most soothing thing I can do.”

She also vividly recounts her love of swimming and the local pool.  So as a tribute to Sarah who died last Friday aged 53 and a thank you from me for your creative inspiration, here are a few more of her watery words (from page 210-211):

“...I lived for the pool opening day each spring and the worst punishment my mother could hold over me would be the denial of my season ticket to the pool. In the water I felt as fast and smooth as a seal or a penguin.  I loved it, loved so many things about it. Being weightless, unwatched. I felt graceful as I dived beneath its surface and curved like a dolphin through the deep, before pushing off and leaping out of the water briefly to dive back under to the quiet.

Moruya Memorial Pool
"I also loved swimming competitions – no talking, no one to witness my fierce competitiveness or giggly laughter, depending on the day. Swimming fast, swimming faster. No ‘Who’s got the ball?’, ‘Pass it to me, to me!’ or team selection, where I would stand unpicked and, in my mind, unloved. Instead, it would just be me up on the blocks, looking ahead, diving and swimming as fast as I could. Nothing but the black line, aqua water and the patterns and shadows of my movements on the pool floor."

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The politics of protesting at the public pool

Pools are not just places of pleasure; many times they have been the scene of protests and demonstrations.  As the editors of  Modern Times, The untold story of modernism in Australia state: “As a relatively new kind of social gathering place the pool emerged in the first half of the twentieth century as a unique arena that amplified political and social attitudes."
The public pool was also the place where race relations were played out particularly during the 1950s and early 60s when some Australian country towns barred Aboriginals from using the local pool. One of the most famous protests was in 1965 when Charlie Perkins and his fellow Freedom Riders picketed the Moree Artesian Baths in north-west NSW. 

Inspired by the US Freedom Rides, the group of 33 university students travelled to Moree and other NSW country towns to draw attention to the discrimination and inequalities Aboriginal people faced.  In particular the Freedom Riders highlighted the banning of Aborigines from local amenities such as clubs, pubs, picture theatres and pools.

In the 1993 Rachel Perkins-film about her father and the Freedom Ride, Moree-local Lyall Munro jnr remembers how the black children could only go in the pool during school swimming sessions.

“We were all lined up and scrubbed and washed and checked for lice before we could go in the pool,” says Lyall. “And then we were only allowed in a corner section and when school finished at 3pm we had to get out.”
Charles Perkins swims with Aboriginal children in Moree pool on Wednesday 17 February (The Australian, 19 February 1965, p. 4). The original caption read: 'Mr Charles Perkins, the part Aboriginal student leader, frolics with children in the swimming pool he helped desegregate'. (Photo courtesy of Newspix)

To draw attention to this inequality the Freedom Riders arrived at Moree Pool on 17 February with a group of Aboriginal children.  Ann Curthoys, author of Freedom Ride: A Freedom Rider Remembers says they were admitted in order to avoid a confrontation. "We later left town, believing that council management had agreed to desegregate the pool,” she says.

When they got word the council hadn't followed through with rescinding the ban, they headed back to Moree. On the way they picked up some Aboriginal kids from the mission. Lyall Munro jnr was one of those kids. He remembers the experience as one of the most exciting days of his life. Even at the age of 10 he says he had a sense that he was taking part in something historic.

“On the way we sang songs of the time, like Little Patti’s ‘Stomping at Maroubra’,” he says.

With the support of local Bob Brown, who had been agitating to over-turn the ban for some time, this time the Freedom Riders were successful. Ann Curthoys remembers an increasingly tense atmosphere with the council agreeing to abolish the regulation if the students promised to leave town immediately.

Sydney University recently held an exhibition on art and activism connected to the Freedom Ride.  One of the artworks featured in the exhibition was Robert Campbell jnr’s 1986 painting ‘Barred from the Baths’.  Robert Campbell states:

“I am painting to show people – Aboriginal people, and even the whites – what truths took place in my lifetime: for example, being fenced off at the pictures; the dog tag system. I am telling stories, the struggle of Aboriginal people, tribal and others, through my life.”

When we visited the Moree Artesian Complex in 2009 we met a number of Aboriginal people enjoying the mineral-rich healing waters.  Deanna Boney and Lesley Barrow soak in the centre's hot  spas or swim in the 50-metre pool most afternoons. “The water’s good for pains, good for everything, and it helps you sleep well at night,” they say.

Musician Gene Knox also usually visits each day. “I love the water; it’s so relaxing,” he says, as he chats to local identity Ron O’Mullane, known as the bard of the baths for his poems about his much-loved pool.

We can thank Charlie Perkins and his fellow Freedom Riders that times have changed.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Backyard pools, Burt Lancaster and The Swimmer

Watching the 1968 movie, The Swimmer the other night, got me thinking about backyard pools.

When my siblings and I were kids we constantly pestered our parents for a pool.  With a perfectly good salt-water baths down the road, they saw no need for one in our backyard. So with our friends the Hall girls, we turned our attention to the neighbours. Three families in our small crescent of about 20 houses had pools. We left one out as they were a bit scary but brazenly knocked on the doors of the other two and asked if we could have a swim.

Very quickly we developed a preference for one neighbour's pool over the other. We liked the one where the kids had left home as it meant we usually had their pool to ourselves. It was even better when these empty-nester neighbours went on holidays and asked us to look after their pool. We'd spend all day there playing games, having relay races, doing handstands and competing to see who could swim the furthest under water. It was like having our own pool.

When our friends the Halls eventually put in a pool, we stopped pestering the neighbours. The Hall’s pool became the new focus. And we didn't have to ask if we could have a swim. We just walked into their backyard and jumped in. 

That's what Ned Merrill, the main character in the film The Swimmer does when he arrives at his neighbour’s house. Before they can properly welcome Ned, who is played by Burt Lancaster, he jumps in the pool and swims a lap. Later as he gazes across the valley in affluent Westchester County, NY, he realises that almost all his neighbours have pools

“There’s a river of pools all the way to my house,” he announces to his friends.  He calls this river the Lucinda River after his wife and decides to swim the eight miles home.

As John Cheever says in the short story the film is based on: "He seemed to see, with a cartographer's eye, that string of swimming pools, that quasi-subterranean stream that curved across the county.”

Along the way, Ned swims in some very glamorous backyard pools where he seems to be quite well-known to most of the ladies. There's lots of martini and champagne drinking going on and more lounging and partying round the pool than swimming.

At one house Ned meets a lonely boy who explains that his parents emptied the pool because he's bad at swimming. Determined to swim a lap, Ned lowers the boy into the cavernous space and they mimic swimming freestyle, backstroke and breaststroke up the pool. "I've done it the boy says at the end. It's the first time I've swum a whole lap. But I suppose it's not true because there's no water," he says despondently.

Flying into Sydney recently over the north-western suburbs down through Hunters Hill and Drummoyne, a little boy in the seat in front of me exclaimed: “Look Mum. They’ve all got pools!”

Dotted all over the landscape below were rounded, rectangular and curvaceous shapes of turquoise blue.  It was a spectacular sight that made me ponder emulating the eccentric Ned Merrill and dipping in to all those sapphire jewels below.  Hopefully my journey would end more happily than it does for the delusional and broken Ned.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Petersham Pool re-opens for the summer season

As local Insey informed me, Petersham Pool (Fanny Durack Aquatic Centre) re-opened last weekend. It appears that the redevelopment that was meant to be carried out over winter has been postponed.

A life guard at the pool said Marrickville Council has put the plans back a year. So for all us locals who are quite fond of our daggy, patched-up pool in the park, it's good news.

The 33-metre pool is a warm 28 C at the moment. You can swim from 6.30am to 7pm Monday to Saturday and from 8am-6pm on Sundays. Hope to see some of the regulars back there including Lu, long-time Petersham resident and patron of the pool.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Video records Leichhardt aquatic history

To celebrate the 50th birthday of  Leichhardt Park Aquatic Centre (LPAC) in December 2010, Amie Zar, Leichhardt Library's local history librarian produced a video on the pool.

The short film showcases photos of the pool over the past half century, and images from the municipality's original Tidal Baths (1905-1959). The early baths were located just below the current pool on the Parramatta River at Iron Cove. Bathing beauties and bronzed Aussies who swam at the tidal baths are also on show.

As well, there's a lovely reflection from regular LPAC swimmer Ken Jones on the joys of swimming.  Here's what he said:

The joys of swimming

"I awake early at the crack of dawn ... the clear blue water beckons. I gather myself together and make my way to the pool ... the pool where the breeze from the harbour blows gently across the lawns onto the mirrored glaze of water.

"There is a special moment when I first get in the water and push off the wall. It feels just like flying. Swoosh and I'm off completely submerged, weightless, gliding through the soft water. The only sound is that of the bubbles as they rush past my ears. The outside world is completely gone. It is just me, in my own cocoon as the water wraps my body.  This moment lasts for a time ... a time that I treasure before I must submerge to take my first breath ... and so my morning starts."

I can relate to that. Can you?

Sunday, August 28, 2011

A perfect spot for a Sunday swim

Relaxing on the deck at Leichhardt Park Aquatic Centre (LPAC) is a nice way to spend an hour or so on a sunny Sunday like today.  It's even nicer with coffee and cake from the complex's Blu Aqua Kiosk after 20 or 30 laps up and down the 50-metre pool.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Diving in to London's lovely lidos

Tooting Bec Lido. Photo from http://www.candykittens.co.uk/blog/rediscoverthelido/

There was a good story in last weekend's Travel and Indulgence section of The Weekend Australian on some of London's outdoor swimming areas.  Headed London's Liquid Assets, Rosamund Burton's story features Brookwell Lido, Tooting Bec Lido, Serpentine Lido in Hyde Park and Hampstead Heath Ponds.

In the United Kingdom and some other countries, the word lido refers to a public outdoor swimming pool and surrounding facilities, or part of a beach where people can swim, lie in the sun or participate in water sports.

Wikipedia says the term lido is the Italian word for beach and forms part of the place name of several Italian seaside towns known for their beach, e.g. Lido di Venezia, the barrier beach enclosing the Lagoon of Venice. Possibly the term found its way into English from returning English visitors to Lido di Venezia, where sea-bathing took place from the late 19th century.[1] The word was first used for a public outdoor swimming pool in the UK in July 1935, in London.

As Rosamund Burton says in her article: "On sunny summer days these pools are packed with people of all ages, but the rest of the year it's only the eccentric cold-water swimmers, exhilarated by a cool dip, who keep these pools open."

Monday, August 15, 2011

Pool spotting from the French alps to the coast

Being slightly obsessed with pools, I did a lot of piscine (France) and piscina (Italy and Spain) spotting on our recent overseas trip. In the French Alps and the Alpes de Haute Provence we came across a number of municipal pools in picturesque locations. Unfortunately our timing in mid-May meant that most weren't open.

In Barcelonnette the local pool was in an elevated position overlooking the town and up to the snow-capped mountains.  Not far from the Italian border, Barcelonnette is a centre for mountain sports.

It is also famous for its Mexican connections with a number of its citizens emigrating there between 1814 to 1955 to set up textile businesses.  About 90 per cent  remained in the country and became citizens. The ten per cent of prosperous families who returned built huge mansions in the town which you can see today.

South from Barcelonnette we visited the lovely village of Castellane in the Alpes de Haute Provence. Here the piscine was in a picturesque location by the river. 

It would be a perfect place to float on your back and gaze up to the Notre-Dame du Roc chapel perched high above the town.

In 812 when Castellane was totally destroyed by Saracen invasions, survivors took refuge on the rock. The Notre-Dame du Roc chapel was added in 1703.

From Castellane we travelled on to the Gorges du Verdon, the largest canyon in Europe. On the way there were many camping grounds, including some with pools.

When we walked down into the gorge which stretches for 25 kilometres, groups of German teenagers were enjoying a dip in one of many natural pools created along the Verdon River.

The final pool spotted on our journey from the French Alps to the Cote d'Ázure was on the outskirts of Grasse. Perched high above the perfume-producing city, the pool is aptly named  La Piscine Altitude 500 for its breathtaking location. We will have to return for a swim. You can find information on all 2528 piscines in France here.