The Return of the Brexicuted

Britain faces a hot political autumn. But right now it’s a warm late summer with a revolution at the ladies pond in Hampstead heath.

The day started with the explosion of a bombshell. No, not in a political sense. Yes, Queen Theresa told her three Brexiteers at the first cabinet meeting after her vacation that they needed to press on with Brexit. And that “Brexit means Brexit”. But we knew that.

Nobody says anything bad about this government by the way because everyone is happy that it does not look like the opposition under Jeremy Corbyn. Nobody smiles even dryly anymore about the sad fact that Britain’s new Prime minister Theresa May appointed three men as chief Brexit negotiators, who can hardly stand being in the same room. Let alone work together. Never mind. Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, will be busy trying to make up for all the insults he hurled against members of the international political class when he was still jester without portfolio. David Davis, special minister for Brexit negotiations, needs to hire McKinsey experts on EU law to find out what Britain will be negotiating about. And Liam Fox, international trade secretary, can go on a long holiday. Before Britain has not left the EU no country will sign a trade deal with the United Kingdom.

No, the bombshell exploded six miles North of 10 Downing Street. As it was a beautiful late summer day I decided to bike up to the ladies pond in Hampstead Heath. And what did my eyes see: The old shabby changing shack has been replaced by a sleek wooden modern structure. It catapults the ladies pond almost violently into the 21st century. To understand my mixed feelings you need to know this: Ladies have been swimming in this very special London institution – officially opened in 1925 – for almost a century. The writer Esther Freud – daughter of Lucian and great-grandchild of Sigmund – mentioned recently that “Katharine Hepburn once visited and brought a tin of biscuits for the female lifeguards to have with their tea.”

There is a sign at the entrance saying: “Women only. Men not allowed beyond this point”. I am not a fan of separate women swimming at all. As this was the summer of the Burkini battle in Europe it seemed to me almost comical that London has a pond restricted to women. Only in Britain old fashioned and modern co-exist without any tension. There is also a lake in the Heath only for men and a mixed one. At the men’s pond, I am being told, people sometimes get too much attention from their co-swimmers. At the ladies pond you can experience the opposite: Women here feel very comfortable walking around as they wish – topless on the meadow, bathing suits and bikinis of all variations in the pond. Some were probably designed in the early 20th century. Those who wear them, too. “I usually go to the mixed pond with my husband”, a skinny grey haired lady informs me while we get dressed in the new changing room, “but it is a little too muddy for me there. I prefer it here.”

Very sweet of her to say that, I must say, as I usually go straight from the pond to the chemical laundry down here on Abbey Road. None of the Hampstead Ponds in my opinion are clean. You always emerge with a thin layer of mud. But now the renovation came with three showers. They actually spray water on you. “Even hot water”, a woman squeaked in utter delight next to me in the shower room. She clearly got the better deal. My shower was cold. But what an improvement! Before the summer it was a rusty old pipe. On occasion it would distribute one or the other drop of water.

Luckily my blog has no readers otherwise the renovation disclosure would run the danger of flooding this hidden London treasure with too many bathers. It is crowded as it is. Today we had baby ducks swimming between the water lilies and us. Most of the swimmers look like Theresa May by the way. So did the lifeguard, except that she wore a baseball cap. There is something ineffably soothing about the atmosphere around the pond. Maybe the absence of competition? You can swim laps here, but most people come to paddle up to the life rings, which are spread out in the middle of the pond to hold on and chat. About life, men and politics. Not everyone of course can hold on and chat in rather chilly pond water. But British ladies can.

On my way out under the shady trees I saw a woman who seemed to wear, guess what, no, not a burkini. That would be much too modern for us here. She wore a wide black garment and a mismatching turquoise coloured headscarf. Before I could speed dial the mayor of Cannes to ask for his special anti-burkini strike force I took a second look. It crossed my mind that the wide black thing was maybe just an old men’s bathrobe. The lady in black might have just gotten out of bed in her house in Highgate nearby, walked over and jumped into the pond. (Not literally, jumping is not permitted of course.) Passing me the fake terrorist smiled at me broadly and said: “Isn’t this just paradise?”

“Indeed it is”, I answered. You can even forget about Brexit for a while.

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© 2018 Tessa Szyszkowitz