Matthew Engel was about to jump into a swimming pool in southwestern France, he writes, when "the attendant rose to his feet, waved his hands forbiddingly and pointed towards my crotch."  --  Later, he reflected in the Financial Times of London that "swimming pools are always the most rulebound places in the world not directly controlled by the military.  Sensibly so, you might think.  Actually, pool-law turns out to be very culture-specific."[1]  --  Before becoming a Financial Times columnist, Matthew Engel spent twenty-five years writing for the London Guardian and is best known for his writing on cricket....


By Matthew Engel

Financial Times (UK)
June 23, 2007

Temporarily weaned from this column, I found myself in south-west France, and -- a little early in the season for my delicate constitution -- nervously contemplating the idea of entering an outdoor swimming pool.

At that moment the attendant rose to his feet, waved his hands forbiddingly and pointed towards my crotch. Or to be exact at my swimming trunks: navy and white oak-leaf design, rather fetching actually, and not wholly unfashionable. Then he pointed to the sign: caleçons interdits. My dictionary translates caleçon as underpants -- but in this case it evidently meant boxer shorts, or specifically my boxer-short-style swimming trunks.

I was just about to explain to my nine-year-old that poor Daddy was banned from joining her in the chilly water, and would just have to go back on to the sun lounger and have another nap, when the attendant beckoned me. He had a supply of alternative swimwear for occasions like this.

And so I was ushered into a small room to choose from a selection of scanties of the kind that I thought were worn now only by gays, Germans, and Olympians. As I headed uncomfortably back towards the water I kept thinking of the European flying beetle melolontha melolontha or melolontha vulgaris -- otherwise known as the cockchafer.

But why? The attendant shrugged. Later, another official mentioned something about propriété, which was baffling. How could this skimpy attire be considered more proper (and less vulgaris) than my demure oak-leaf shorts? Mais non, some friends explained later: it was not propriété but propreté: cleanliness. Apparently, French youths lounge round all day in their shorts then jump in swimming pools, allegedly making them dirty. Hence the ban.

Even so, you would think they could distinguish between my pristine shorts and some scruffy kid's filthy Bermudas. But swimming pools are always the most rulebound places in the world not directly controlled by the military. Sensibly so, you might think. Actually, pool-law turns out to be very culture-specific.

My colleague Michael Skapinker was once turfed out of a hotel pool in Osaka for not wearing a bathing cap. And it was in the YMCA in Bethesda, Maryland that I first encountered the American 45-minute rule: the stipulation that all children must get out of the pool every hour, at quarter-to-the-hour, and sit around, bored witless, for 15 minutes until the whistle blows again.

This applied even though the pool was carefully segregated by age and swimming speed, and (there and elsewhere) even when there were no adults in the water at all. Why? To protect the kids from over-exertion? Or the grown-ups from over-irritation? No one could ever explain it.

Mind you, I have been in high-security jails (voluntarily, you understand), and the Bethesda YMCA was far more heavily regulated. The pool was policed by fierce young women, one of whom perpetually twirled her whistle on its string while ferociously peering round for violators of all kinds.

I assume it was a holiday job prior to her posting to Abu Ghraib.

One does wonder about the French sometimes too. My well-meaning Nemesis was sitting in front of the poolside bar which, a large sign informed us, was a restaurant under "le loi du 24 septembre 1941." Which makes me think: who was passing French laws about restaurants in 1941? On whose authority? And to what end?

The incident did seem rather unGallic. The French are supposed to hold petty regulations in contempt. See a notice, take no notice: it used to be the national motto. It is the English-speaking democracies, which even in 1941 had no experience of totalitarian dictatorship, who have succumbed most willingly to the imposition of ever more day-to-day thou-shalt-nots. There is always a good reason for another rule being pinned to the wall: fear of litigation; "health and safety"; "security," or just yourowngoodism, the guiding principle of Tony Blair's nose-poke administration.

But France is also now finally being governed by a man born after the Second World War, and even that memory is fading. I strongly suspect that it is the countries that have only recently shrugged off totalitarian rule that are most willing to let their adult inhabitants live their lives (and bear the associated risks) than those countries that take their liberties for granted, and are heading towards day-to-day dictatorship by default.

The swimming pool is a global front-line in this battle. Further information is needed on this point, but my suspicion is that the pools of say Ulan Bator or Bucharest or Tiblisi may be less pristine, but also less infuriatingly bossy.