DEATH SEX IS FOR LIFE
The swimming pool at the Shangri-La Hotel, The Shard
From London Review of Books:
I came here to swim in the highest pool in Europe, 52 floors above the station. The surface of this infinity pond, shivering with reflections like a Fun House mirror, memory-ripples of exercisers now taking their ease on Roman couches, sampling complimentary goblets of fruit-flavoured iced water, was a quotation labouring to attain a modicum of reality. Not so much a dry David Hockney splash as Richard Wilson’s site-specific installation 20:50: his tank of sump oil, miraculously transubstantiated into this brilliant new substance, a liquid thicker than jelly but lighter than air. A seductive mosaic carpet across which you cannot walk without sinking. A slick platform leading into the cloudscape just beyond floor-to-ceiling triple-glazed windows across which planes and helicopters are creeping. The silent choppers are not so much a threat as a specialised form of surveillance: protection against base jumpers, eco abseilers and urban exploration collectives. They cruise like outriders at a royal funeral. When you are swimming at the same altitude as a helicopter, the sight offers reassurance that overrides the recollection of those rare collisions with construction cranes hidden in fog. The circling police helicopters, making their rounds of Hackney’s last vestiges of public housing, are another thing. They are low and loud, blades set to maximum volume. An assertion of power. A jolt of paranoia. They have cruised down the Lea Valley from Lippitt’s Hill Camp at High Beach, a base right beside John Clare’s Epping Forest asylum, and they’ll be back again tomorrow. Sukhdev Sandhu, who flew with the sky cops for his book Night Haunts, called the experience ‘the panoptic sublime’. The machines cost half a million pounds each, a sum that pays for a lot of clatter. Sandhu revealed that ‘high-power lenses and thermal imagers allow them to … look through the windows of Canary Wharf and spot canoodling office workers from eight miles away.’
Lotus-eaters of the Shard, drifting in the slow motion that seems to take effect forty or fifty floors above the agitated shuffle of London Bridge, are always on show. And they know it. As they stare out, trying to identify buildings or districts, state-sanctioned voyeurs are gazing right back. The downforce of the helicopter blades doesn’t ripple the blue water. As we float in our infinity tank, we do not notice the acoustic footprints of the city, the sighs and grunts of the trains, or the bone-shuddering din of the guardians in the sky. ‘They do use sound as a weapon,’ Sandhu says. But what do the helicopter jockeys see that is available only to an avian elite? ‘You can see everyone’s swimming pools.’
A few days before my encounter with the mysteries of Shangri-La, I was invited to inspect another swimming pool, a little closer to home. In February 2000, a notice of temporary closure, for reasons of health and safety, was fixed to the padlocked doors of Haggerston Baths. I remember my annoyance, towel roll under arm, clutch of ice at the heart, after too many previous experiences of how elastic that ‘temporary’ qualification could be. Schoolchildren arriving for their weekly session were turned away. They would never return. The site of their school, Laburnum, would be translated into the hardnosed contemporary world as a launch platform for the Bridge Academy, which opened for business in 2007. The academy, like the Shard, is an alien bristling with intent. The Shard is about being taller than anything else in London, but slender as a surgical blade, where the Bridge is a bulbous plank-ribbed nest, an infolded mass crushed into a space barely capable of tolerating its overweening presumption. The central section is under permanent plastic wraps. It looks, from the far side of the Regent’s Canal, like a piece of kit from Ikea that nobody can figure out how to assemble. It is sponsored by UBS, the financial services operation based in Switzerland. As the world’s largest manager of private wealth assets, UBS suffered heavy losses during the subprime mortgage crisis. But the academy thrives.
Haggerston Baths in October 2014
In the meantime, health and safety issues kept Haggerston Baths in limbo for 15 years, adrift in a fairy-tale suspension of cobwebs, rust showers, slipper baths dressed with a tilth of fine grey dust. Through dim corridors, ghosts search for the prewar EXIT sign and a pointing finger stencilled on cold white tiles. When I came east in 1968 and moved into a terraced house on the other side of the canal, Haggerston Baths became a feature of my life. Our new home had an outside lavatory and a tin bath hanging on the wall. Neighbourhood loyalties evolved around certain pubs and convenient bathhouses. On weeks when there were no opportunities to visit the flat of a better-provided friend, we luxuriated in the deep tubs at Whiston Road. Soap and towel supplied. There were 91 individual slipper baths and a 60-stall washhouse. But there was no topping up the bathwater, no time to read a book. You hauled yourself out before the attendant rapped on your door. Suicides in Hackney tubs were not unknown. Haggerston Baths, with its soft red brick laid in English bonds, its Portland stone dressing, was a marker for the territory, from the 90-foot chimney stack for coal-fired boilers to the golden galleon that caught the wind as a weathervane. This craft was a symbol of locality by which those staggering home from a cluster of pubs could safely navigate. Ships on weathervanes and pub signs confirmed London’s self-confidence as a world port. But the tarnished galleon on Whiston Road was empty, its immigrants dispersed.