Swim #29, Malmo, Sweden, Ribersborg Kallbadhus
Today I am in Malmo, which they say is in Sweden, but some (many here) would say Skane. There is a very strong Skane identity – the poorest part of Sweden, they sometimes resent the rich Danes who “come over here and buy our property, because it is cheap for them”, as one fellow in a sauna conversation earlier this year put it. This was in Springtime, and Jeremy and I took a few days for a Swedish / Danish swim break. We were in Palsobad, North of Malmo, on the Swedish side of Hamlet’s castle (when fact and fiction meld seamlessly) at Helsingor. But really we were in Skane, the place with a dialect that proper Swedes, Stockholm Swedes make fun of. But a place with firm regional identity. With that buzzing around my mind, I got off the train at Malmo Central and took the bus down to Ribersborg, mindful of time because I was meeting a researcher who wanted to work with me in Oxford. She was at the University of Lund and seemed to fit – we discussed this possibility when I was in Uppsala during the Summer, and she followed up, with a strong research idea. So, mindful of time, on the bus, at Ribersborg, walking the long jetty to the historic bath house. And what a bath house! Men to the left, women to the right. Naked to the core, stripped of pretension and affect, sauna conversations are huge equalisers. I had a conversation about winter swimming and saunas with a pompous medic at the sailing club in West Oxfordshire. “Of course, we British don’t go in for that sort of thing”. No, I thought, you don’t. In my mind, as a generality, the class system would get in the way of the democratic sauna idea. This doesn’t apply to swimmers, which is one of the things I find intensely pleasing – when down to your togs (or less), it is just you and your body. Outdoor swimmers in the United Kingdom are not given to hierarchy, and are among the very loveliest people I have ever met.
I launch into the water at Oresund, off the steps on the rocky bank. Enough to take pleasure at feeling the cold seep slowly into my body, swimming far enough out to feel in the ocean, and not just ‘off the sauna’, feeling the incoming tide pushing me back, swimming carefully not to come close to the women’s swimming area, admiring the ‘Turning Torso’ building in the distance. This ikonic building symbolises the entry of Malmo into the modern world, after decades of urban decay. The Turning Torso is a residential skyscraper designed by architect Santiago Calitrava and is the tallest building in Scandinavia. It was completed in 2005, and sits on the harbour front among much lower lying residential apartment blocks. I didn’t like it at first, because it really is the tallest thing around, but since I have gotten to know a little about Scandinavian cities and how they are planned as far as possible for livability, I can see its bold ingenuity. It is the first twisted frame tower block in the world. The winds of Oresund can be fierce in Winter. In Chicage, the grid structure of the central city make for wind tunnels and a bitterly cold walking experience when the winds whip up across the land, or the lake – either will do. We went to Chicago as a family one winter when the kids were younger, and ‘enjoyed’ that experience – sub-zero, it feels like having the skin stripped off your face. The Turning Torso is built so that the wind is deflected sideways rather than downwards (as with conventional cuboid tower blocks). This is huge in terms of the on the ground environment – you can walk and cycle without the tallest building in Scandinavia creating an unpleasant micro-environment. Out of the water, the sauna block has two saunas for men, two for women, and one mixed sauna. The only person that gets to move around both areas is the young women in the red hoodie, whose job it is to keep the huge wood burning stoves in each sauna stoked, all day long. Once ‘cooked’ I sit outside alongside a couple of older men, who look like they do this every day – “yes we do. It keeps us young”. Last Spring, at Palsobad, Jeremy and I were asked if we did sauna in the UK. We replied, not really, but there are a small number of places in London we know of, that do winter swimming and sauna – Parliament Hill Lido, and Tooting Bec Lido came to mind. He replied “rather than do you do sauna, how could you not do sauna, for all the good things it does to mind and body”. Indeed. Yes, we agreed. I thought of the pompous medic at the sailing club, and his mental deficit. Imagine if the British did sauna, how much happier everyone would be.
I swam, I sauna’d, I swam, I suana’d, I dipped to finish cold, took a cold shower, bid my goodbyes, and took to the clubhouse café. No time for lunch, although they do great food there – fish fried in butter with a big handful of capers on boiled new potatoes has come to be my nostalgia dish here – so good! Last time I came with Jeremy and I had this perfect fresh plaice and Jeremy a bowl of bottomless tomato soup. But before leaving I got distracted in conversation with the sauna fire stoker lady and the café staff. They asked about my project – “is there really so much to write about swimming in these places?” Yes, I responded, there is the place, there are people, there is art and architecture, there is nature, there is history – everything is layered. Then the café attendant opened up – “Yes, history! Ghosts! Hilda and Hulda!” The stoker-women was clearly surprised, with an eye-catching glimpse that seems to be perfected in Scandinavia. “And peppercake”. OK – there is cake in this account and I am immediately alert. I must try some, if they have some – pepper cake. Did they have pepper cake today I asked. “No, sorry”, they said in a very happy ‘you misunderstand’ kind of way. The two young women loved working at Ribersborg, and it showed - I could see why. “No, no, Peppercake, not pepper cake. We don’t usually have pepper cake. But Peppercake, she was an attendant at the bathhouse in the 1930s, around the time that it was built, along with Hilda and Hulda. Peppercake got her nickname because she was a red-head firebrand who had a heart of gold, both flames and sweetness”. I was disappointed in the absence of pepper cake (must look out for it) but pleased to have been introduced to Peppercake, I pictured her swimming Winter and Summer and the seasons in between. So Peppercake, Hilda and Hulda, built into the fabric of the bathing house. According to some, they can sense the stern brooms of Hilda, Hulda and Peppercake sometimes at the end of the day, cleaning and tidying away. It’s comforting, says the café attendant “to know they are still with us here – they must have loved it as much as we do”. I am certain of that and concur with them. I look up at the clock and realise that am late. There can be no excuses to make. I can’t let my possible future research colleague, Esther. Know that I have been distracted by stories of ghosts, however interesting it has been to me. In the 1990s, I was in Kyoto on a Fellowship, and I got to see a lot of the city. There I sensed ghosts, from time to time, stepping in front of me, brushing past me, a kind of pressure against the skin in a similar way to being able to sense the end of the swimming pool, even with eyes closed. This was very comforting and calming in Kyoto. I mentioned this to Keiko, a Japanese doctoral student at Oxford, and she agreed. People sense ghosts in Kyoto, in a very good way, feeling the past living among them. “You are very lucky” she said “to have felt them”. I take that as a complement. Maybe Esther would understand, but I really can’t say anything today. Maybe that is something to say if she comes to Oxford and I get to know her a little. Maybe she might surprise me with stories of ghosts in Lund.
Swim #30, Louisiana, Humlebaek, Denmark
Wild(ish) grey-white horses, rolling in from Sweden, tussling into shore. That’s what it looks like from the top of the hill, grey into the distance. On a clear day, you can see across Oresund to the Swedish side. Today it’s as though the waves are sent in beating just to punish me for going to the other side to swim. Yesterday I was in Malmo, at Ribersborg, enjoying one of the most civilised practices known to Northern humanity – winter swimming and sauna. Today I am here, off the train at Humlebaek to visit Louisiana, one of the very best small modern art museums in the world, where they mount exceptionally curated exhibitions, usually thought provoking, always something to learn, never dull. But also to swim, on the Danish side of Oresund. The waves appear to have punished more than me – I look for the distinctive slate grey steel bathing platform, jutting out as a work of modernist sculpture / architecture, on the beach at the foot of Louisiana. It has gone. The first mental form of how the day would shape up, has gone. I meet Ghada down by the water – “are you swimming?” Yes, I say. She prefers to watch the water. I can’t say I blame her, but swim I must, across the peddle/stone/rock beach/floor, tripping and stubbing toes, finally tossed into the water and away, pushed back again by the Swedish wild(ish) grey horses. I felt like I was in a Kandinsky painting, tossed around by the colours, coming in from the right, from the left, from below, swirling from behind. This was a dream I once had – wrestling within a Kandinsky painting, one of those from around 1916, after the expressionist landscapes and before the ‘geometries of the universe’ kinds of paintings. These were blue riders, in my dream, storming in, and I was twisting and wrenching, thrusting and parrying. I woke in a sweat, bed covers wrapped around me, witnesses to the night struggle. Then I needed a cup of tea – I was exhausted from dreaming. Now, I can see the cup of tea in my mind’s eye, in my thermos, on the shore, as the grey riders of Sweden topple in on me. Muscular waters, today.
The absent bathing platform was a mentaljolt, but then it should not have been. Bathing platforms are solid things, posted and stumped very firmly in the ocean. as are bathing houses, larger and appointed with changing rooms, saunas and platforms. But they still get worn out or torn apart by storms – on the Swedish side of Oresund, Landskrona bathing house was ripped up by an ocean storm in 2013. This is a natural hazard, and it doesn’t stop the rebuilding of them, but this takes time. Decisions need to be made, people consulted, planners brought in and architects involved sometimes – to build new or old, or somehow something in between? Palsobad in Helsinborg is just that, something in between – on the outside view, as tradition would have had it. On the inside, the best new technologies – glass, steel, top of the range wood burning stove heating, the best seasoned arctic pine for the sauna cabins, a café with a view to Hamlet’s castle. Go out if you like, but if it’s too fierce, gaze to the Danish horizon from a deck chair behind the floor to ceiling plate glass, in the super modern café, supping hot chocolate after swimming. Building a good bath house needs proper planning. As the red-hoodied stove stoker at Helsingborg said to me “sometimes I wonder as I put wood into the stoves, what would it take for the whole thing to just go up in flames?” Ribersborg is almost totally a wooden structure, but this and similarly structured bathing houses never seem to burn down. Yes, it all needs planning. To be able to relax in such conditions, it very is important to have the planning, the rules, done properly, but in the background not in the foreground. I am sure the Louisiana bathing platform will be built back, but I can imagine the debate in the committee, especially where art is concerned – should it reflect on Louisiana’s past? Should it replace what was there? Should it be cutting edge? If so which edge should be cutting? Concerns over the masculinity of the platform, over gender neutrality, would be voiced more than once. Anne Katrine, who lives in Norreport, Copenhagen, once said to me with the look of wisdom “democracy takes time”. And she was not begrudging of time for doing democracy. The Louisiana bathing platform then – the thinking, maybe it should be commissioned to an artist? Would it then be an art work? And if it were an artwork, what about the insurance? Or would it be a public work? I imagined someone on the committee saying “Olafur Elliason would do a great job, but is it the turn for someone emerging, rather than established”. “Or to Pipilotti Rist – she loves water…”
Speaking of which, Louisiana put on the very best Pipilotti Rist exhibition ever, last Spring . I am a huge, huge fan. I have seen her exhibitions at the Hayward Gallery in London, at the Sydney Biennale, and her street architecture / sculpture in St Gallen, Switzerland. At Louisiana, I was floating in and under the Rhine, down streams, in dreams. If I had a Pipilotti Rist dream, I would wake up relaxed – I look forward to that. This time, Louisiana had a video installation that included polar bears swimming (what’s not to like about that?), a video of Marina Abramovic talking about how to drink a glass of water (thoughfully, appreciatively), Yayoi Kusama’s installation of little lights and mirrors (where I took a photo of many-me’s, since for the first time ever I got the room to myself). And another video installation, more than life-sized, of an empty McDonalds steadily flooding. This is art that dares to do what some would hestate to say – it attracted many, and was compulsive viewing. Watching a huge Ronald Macdonald topple and float seemed pleasing, until I thought ‘what if it ends up in the ocean (most things do), and if all the MacDonalds flood, then what if there is a place in the Pacific Ocean that has a swirling whirlpool of big plastic Ronald Macdonalds, weathering, but not degrading. I imagine myself in a Kandinsky-style dream, swimming in the whirlpool of Ro Mc-Do’s. An ugly thought – they are big, and in an angry clown way, could bruise as they swirl. My dreams offer no protection against the forces, in the same way that only in togs do I swim at Louisiana, no gloves, surfie socks of wetsuit. Related to this Ro McDo thought, that evening I read in the New York Times that Burger King has announced that it will stop giving out plastic toys with its children’s meals in the UK. Only in response to strong opposition to single use plastics. McDonalds, too big to fail, is hedging its bets and doesn’t seem to be able to commit. There has been too much to think about - , for one day – I hope I don’t carry this into my dream world tonight. I leave Louisiana mentally stretched, but having seen again some of its ikons – the café overlooking Oresund, the sofa room, also overlooking Oresund but without its diving board sculpture (this is a diving board that is set inside the glass room, whose diving board cuts through the glass into the open air, as though you could get off the sofa get on the board and swallow dive into the ocean). Louisiana is in a perfect setting, so perfectly planned and built into the landscape. The bathing platform at the foot of this great museum will undoubtedly reflect this ethos of doing things well, not merely well enough.
Swim #31, Klampenborg, Denmark
I got off the train at Klampenborg once previously, for another purpose and not to swim. This was to go to the art museum Ordrupgaard with Pauline, and my niece Ella. On that day I saw the ocean a distance from the train station, blue grey, at the end of a road lined by white modernist apartments. Ordrupgaard is a story for another time, but without having gone to Ordrupgaard, I would not be coming to Klampenborg today. The link is Danish modernism, which I have spent decades admiring, and the designers Finn Juhl and Arne Jacobsen. I feel sure most people outside of Scandinavia would not know who he is, but he has almost certainly impacted their everyday world, that is unlkess unless they live in a part of the world where people do not use chairs. Chairs – modern, mid-century Danish – is what Finn Juhl designed, from the 1940s, one of the great pioneers of Danish Modern design. Ordrupgaard is a manor house turned art museum with one of the best collections of impressionist paintings outside of France. It has an environmentally sensitive extension designed by Zhara Hadid, a sculpture garden with works by many of the great contemporary artists. And at the bottom of the (big) garden is a little house, Finn Juhl’s house. Despite his huge success across Europe and the United States in getting people to buy and sit on his chairs, influencing generations of designers in his wake, Finn Juhl liked to live modestly, as most Danes do. His little house was designed by him, built for him, was furnished by him, and many of the art works were also made by him, aside from the ones given to him by his now famous artist friends. Entering Finn Juhl’s house was an instant revelation – domestic modernism in a nut shell, sea shell or conch. Modern didn’t have to be monumental, although it could be – I struggled with the scale of modernism when in New York or Chicago. The first time I went to Chicago, I felt oppressed by the bigness of downtown – it was all too big. Chairs, however, structure everyone’s lives, and a chair done well is a service to humanity. Domestic modernism took my mind to St Catherine’s College, Oxford (Catz), where I have dined and lunched and had meetings pretty well for two decades. Even one Vice-Chancellor’s Garden Party. Catz was designed by Arne Jacobsen, another more famous modernist, taking the structural idea of a traditional Oxford college and redesigning it for the present-day, being opened in 1962. Jacobsen was a renaissance man of an architect designer , designing most of the interiors, furniture and cutlery, as I was told every time I ate there. The knives and forks are indeed very distinctive. There is a room devoted to Jacobsen at the Design Museum in Copenhagen, and I first took note of his work, not because of the buildings he designed (the first modern skyscraper in Copenhagen among them), but seeing the very cutlery I have used to cut, push, prod and put in my mouth, in a glass case with an elegant descriptive label. Jacobsen also designed the waterfront and bathing area at Klampenborg – was he a swimmer? He can’t not have been.
Jacobsen had a complete vision for Klampenborg and its beach front, which is why I came here. In the 1930s, he won an architecture competition to improve the water front facilities at Klampenborg. He responded with enthusiasm and a new eye for reinvention. Belle Vue beach was the first to get the modernist turn treatment, with jetties, walkways, and bathing steps. Then he did here what he later did at Catz – the changing rooms were Jacobsen, the refreshment stands were Jacobsen, the life guard towers were Jacobsen. If ice cream needed a spoon to be eaten, it would have been Jacobsen too. Good job he did what he did and did it well. His water front was liked, and was popular – he was asked to design the White City, the modernist apartments that one goes past to get to Klampenborg water front, then the Bellevue Theatre and the Bellavista apartments. Klampenborg is like stepping into Finn Juhl’s house, but at a community scale. This isn’t Chicago in its grandness, but it is modest, domestic modernism, very Danish in its way of fitting the local environment. It feels like it has always been here, and like it should always be here. People like it, and I can see why – just being here, even on a blustery day like today, you get a sense of simple well-being. There are no cafes, no amusement arcades, just simple elegance.
Yes, I did swim. I changed on one of the Jacobsen benches on the Jacobsen jetty, and walked to the end of the jetty, to descend the Jacobsen steps next to the Jacopsen life guard tower, holding onto the Jacobsen rail, as the waves tried to tear me away from modernism. I was then into the muscular water, getting out, out quickly, to try and get beyond the waves. A sandbank nearby didn’t help me, grounding my body, with the associated waves pummelling my body. I didn’t have the mental space to be cold or even to think about being cold, I had to get past the waves, which of course I did. I swam along the coast about fifty meters out, far enough out to have some water deep enough to swim in, and to be able to admire the blue and white striped life guard towers like nothing else I have ever seen of its kind on a water front. As I returned, a man, perhaps in his forties greeted me as he removed his towel and negotiated his way into the rolling waters, naked. As I changed, another man, perhaps in his sixties came and did the same thing, with a certain elegance – he walked to the steps into the water, shed his towel, and naked, dropped into the water, but not for long. He walked past, “fresh today”, he said, a man of few words. Then Trine, having finished running, opened her backpack and pulled out a flask of tea and a towel – it was her turn. In Summer, I am told, it is a very popular beach. Today it is the singular souls of Klampenborg that show their particular way of performing swimming in the ocean. It occurs to me that Finn Juhl and Arne Jacobsen did much more than design things – they structured how people perform their everyday lives. Here at Klampenborg I felt less to be swimming than performing the activity of swimming, so wonderful was the stage set for it. Anne Katrine, an historian friend in Copenhagen, recently quoted Churchill, something she is not usually prone to do, but this was very Anne Katrine – “First we structure our buildings, and then they structure us”. In the present local context, first Klampenborg was structured by Jacobsen, and ever since, it has structured the people that come here – it truly invites you to come to the water and to stay here.
Swim #33, Dodo!
Dodo – December Outdoor Dip Oxford; Dip Outdoor December Oxford; December Oxford Dip Outdoors. I am never sure how it goes, but however it goes, this is Dodo. A dip/swoosh we look forward to, as the opener to the Christmas season. This year there were over 40 people signed up, as Walton Well Car Park filled up. It is a merry-happy raggle-taggle gaggle of shabby chic swimmer-dippers that awaits the call from Jeremy, as he ticks people off the list and Emma hands out swim caps to those who have ordered and bought them, The caps are new, this year black, last year pink. Night and day. This year the dodo design has the Oxford Dodo swimming against a full moon, the Dodo Tree sending a tangle of branches and roots into the River, entwining the Dodo. Thus we dodos are entangled with the Thames/Isis day and night, moonlight or not. The moon-dodo design acknowledges that many who swim in and around Oxford swim with the full moon, probably more so in Winter than in Summer. When day length is short, clear moonlight is an enchanter. Helen designed the Dodo cap this year, another magnificent design, her labour of love. Helen loves swimming, loves the River, and has an amazing eye for what is around her in this natural environment. She is close to finishing her third year of swimming every single day of the year – Winter-Spring-Summer-Autumn, rain or shine, day or night. On Saturday next, we celebrate her third year. I have swum many times and many kilometers with Helen and Jeremy, and today is a reunion for some, such as the Swim the Thames Group, a new place for winter swimmers coming from elsewhere for the day, and a new challenge for some. Great to see a group of students coming for their first time Winter dip– they add a bubble of young enthusiasm to the proceedings. We walk to the Dodo tree, across Danger Bridge, a huddle-muddle of people dodging puddles to the Dodo Tree. The Thames/Isis at Port Meadow has broken its banks with so much rain in the past few weeks, making it seem Amazonian in proportion, fast and wide. This swim marks the tipping point of my 65 swims, already looking forward to Summer before Winter has properly bitten. Dodo has a history, Jeremy started Dodo several years ago, and now it is tradition, and Jeremy, the Chief Dodo presides with great skill, charm, and good humour.
We change in the shadow of the tree, in the sun after the downpour earlier. The rain was pouring at seven in the morning as if the sky needed to clear everything away for a clear-sky Dodo. The swim/dip takes time and consideration, thoughts of how to, amid further greetings and meetings of people acquainted /long-time friends/new friends. Then its on, and in, and off and an Olympian pace set, as the River takes us, and them, off. “Be careful not to overshoot!” “Keep an eye out for the get-out!” And we were there, almost sooner than setting off, but a little cooler, but deeply energized. Then again, and for some, again, again. Sitting in the water, feeling good, smiling to each other, laughing.
Lewis Caroll’s ‘Lobster Quadrille’ from ‘Alice in Wonderland’ loops around in my mind with each swoosh, once, twice, three times – ‘will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, won’t you join the dance?’ Caroll’s ghost walks the bank, again in my mind’s eye. He is the original Dodo (Charles Dodson his real name, he had a stutter and couldn’t finish saying his name, so he was nicknamed ‘Dodo’), and we are proud to memorialize him. The Lobster Quadrille fits the occasion – we look very much like cooked lobsters standing on the bank. Then a flurry of changing, drinking tea, passing it around, fumble-fingered dressing again, raggle-taggle shabby-less-than chic, but happy-silly-shiver-giggling, off, off – some to the Victoria Arms, some elsewhere, some have things and people to go to. But all have agreed that it is most very satisfyingly worthwhile, and Dodo must happen again in 2020.