Graaff’s Pool

Before I dive in, some history.

No one is quite sure who built Graaff’s Pool. The most likely story is that it was built in the 1910s for a Mrs Marais, who was paralysed from the waist down and used it as a private bathing area for reasons of health. The pool was shielded by a wall because she was said to be embarrassed by her disability and her wheelchair. She lived opposite the pool in the Villa Bordeaux mansion, resulting in the pool being known simply at this time as ‘Below Bordeaux’. In the 1920s the mansion was sold to the Graaff family who granted the pool to the public in 1929, which is presumably why it is known as Graaff’s Pool today.

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To be frank not much of the pool remains today. It was largely destroyed in 2005 after a wave of moral panic swept through members of the Sea Point Ratepayers’ Association who claimed that it had become a hotspot for crime. Then local right-wing ideologue councillor, and now right-wing ideologue mayoral committee member for Safety and Security, JP Smith, was quoted as saying that ‘the pool isn’t causing problems, it’s what’s happening behind the wall.’ I find this a curious statement in that it gives agency to the pool itself. In fact what was happening behind the wall, and had been happening there for at least 30 years, perhaps longer, was the meeting of men. Some who were looking for a tan; some for friendship; some for love; and, steady yourself, some for just sex. The men had been driven behind the wall by the outlawing of homosexual relationships by the apartheid government. That the pool survived the fascist apartheid government, but not the democratically elected government of Cape Town makes one think.

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I spend one quarter of one hour, that is 15 minutes or 900 seconds, around Graaffs’s pool and I hardly know where to begin. I first spend ten minutes, that is 600 seconds, at the pool, then five minutes, that is 300 seconds, sitting on the grass on the promenade watching the pool. Despite visiting at a quiet time, 2:00 pm on an ordinary Tuesday, so much happened that I am at a loss as to where to start or when to stop. Add to this all that has happened there and I’m wondering if I have time for Graaff’s Pool.

I live a five minute walk away. The journey there is uneventful – tarmac, grass, paving stones and steps, a brief moment crunching shells and then lots of concrete. The weather is grey but bright, the wan sun sporadically emerging and withdrawing. Upon arriving the first things that catch my eye are the information signs from the City of Cape Town. One is specifically for ‘Graaff’s Pool’, the other for ‘Graaff’s Pool Beach’.

The former is aimed at dog owners, or perhaps literate dogs. It states ‘No dogs allowed’ in large bold letters, under which, in much smaller reticent letters, is the word ‘sorry’. It is accompanied by a stylized picture of a dog hanging its head in obvious disappointment.  So, no dogs at Graaff’s Pool.

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The latter sign, for ‘Graaff’s Pool Beach’, includes eleven pictograms of what is not permitted. No littering; no guns; no horse riding; no fires; no dogs; no broken glass; no drinking; no camping; no music; no cars; no squared-rigged sailing ships.

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You might logically conclude from these signs that you could do all of the above at Graaff’s Pool, aside from bringing your dog – the only instruction that they agree on. You could, in principle, bring your horse to Graaff’s Pool, as long as you didn’t let it walk on the beach. Given the pool’s history I wonder why there is not a ‘no fucking’ pictogram.

As my gaze drifts from the signs, it’s now a smell that captures me – the putrid smell of rotting seaweed, with only an underlying hint of salty sea air. It’s a thoroughly unpleasant odour, offensive somehow. Trying to breathe only the salty sea air I make my way down the steps to the causeway that leads to the pool. The word causeway has romantic connotations, think Meryl Streep in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, but there is nothing romantic about this causeway. It is gritty, grey concrete, devoid of personality in the way that only concrete can be. It is made up of sections approximately two metres long which have been laid end to end and enclosed on each side by other thinner and much longer pieces of equally dreary concrete. It seems to tilt very slightly down towards the incoming sea before it almost becomes impassable (at least for Mrs Marais) just before the pool begins.

Here the causeway has collapsed in on itself where one large piece of concrete has fractured into three pieces. Bits of supporting concrete have fallen into the sea and it will not be long before the pool is set adrift.

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I arrive at the pool and there is little to see. It is, as moral panic dictated, ruined. The huge slabs of concrete that make up the sides and bottom of the pool have been sledgehammer smashed. Bits of rusted rebar twist hopelessly here and there like roots seeking nourishment. Exposed and broken terracotta pipes lead away from the corners of the pool, draining nothing. Green marine algae in varying shades grows about, surely a sign of a place unused, abandoned. It’s lethal this algae, nearly sending me crashing as I step across the carcass of the pool.

Two things draw me in. The first are smatterings of paint in corners and crevices which are doggedly holding out against the forces arrayed against them. It’s the colour of the paint that really intrigues. It’s a bright turquoise, the kind of colour that was bathroom fashionable in the 1950s. I wonder if the pool was painted this colour at some point. The only colour photographs I have found are from much later and show a sterile whitewashed pool. This is a mystery, but not one I want solved as the idea of the pool as a giant turquoise bath delights.

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The second point of curiosity is the neat text that has been carefully graffitied on each side of what remains of the inner wall. The text faces the sea and is written in a permanent black marker pen by, I think, the same person. On the right it reads:

‘What lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters compared to what lies within us’.

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While on the left is written:

‘No one knows my struggles, they only see the troubles’

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The right quotation is from the nineteenth century American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, while the one on the left is from the twentieth century American rapper 2pac.

These voices of the dead indicate an author grappling with themselves, with the inner world of existence. Emerson’s is promise, 2pac’s despair. Read together they are a paradox. But if I read them from left to right, I am warily hopeful.

Four people visit Graaff’s Pool while I am there. Three early twenties, two men and a woman, arrive together. They look like they’ve been asked to look like what they look like; young urban trendies – sulky black jeans, Converse footwear, hair in buns (all three), facial hair (not all three). She sits and eats from a plastic takeaway tray with chopsticks, while one of the men rolls a joint. The sweet smell reaches me as it gets passed around. They have no interest in Graaff’s Pool other than as a refuge from authority, the role it continues to play.

They pass an amateur photographer on the causeway as they leave. He’s tall, touristy and keen. I sneer inside at his toy SLR, his giddy enthusiasm, and his failure to pause, breath and really work out what he is there to photograph. I was like this once, perhaps it’s that I don’t like. He rushes about, clicking here, snapping there. I’m secretly and shamefully egging on the algae, hoping it will end this headless rush. But no, he tires, spends some time joylessly chimping and them leaves. He’s not happy with his work.

I’m happy with what Graaff’s Pool has revealed in the ten minutes I am there so I make my way back up the causeway and sit down on the grass opposite. I get some strange looks from some pathological runners who seem to think that what I am doing is odd. I often wonder what it is that chases these people who run, what their ‘struggles’ and ‘troubles’ are. Then I’m suddenly Tippi Hedren waiting to be rescued by a bristling Rod Taylor, as seagulls mount a coordinated oral assault, a mugging by sound. I make the mistake of trying to shoo them away, but my exaggerated flailing of arms is misinterpreted by in-flight squadrons which wheel in to join the fray. I’m saved by an unlikely trio – a late middle-aged couple pushing an antique mother along in a squeaking wheelchair. There is something in the squeaking that upsets the gulls and they depart on mass.

Is my savour Mrs Marais? Has she come back to Graaff’s Pool to take the waters, to ease her pain? I want to tell her to pass by, she’ll only be disappointed at what the City of Cape Town has done.

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