In Roman times, a swimming pool was a sign of taste, style and affluence, and in some of the biggest Romano-British villas you can see where Roman nobs frolicked and enjoyed the pleasures of water and nakedness. These days it would be fair to say that a swimming pool is a luxury – but not an unheard-of luxury. In the past 10 years there have been plenty of middle-class punters who have decided that they want a touch of Beverly Hills about their homes – and I know why they did it. They thought it would be nice for the kids and the grandchildren. They thought it might conceivably add to the value of their homes. In their secret hearts they hoped, forgivably, that it might provoke the envy of their neighbours.
But then there was an extra spur – the new and unanswerable imperative to find a way of keeping wet and cool. For more than 20 years now, we have been told that this country was going to get hotter and hotter and hotter, and that global warming was going to change our climate in a fundamental way. Do you remember that? We were told that Britain was going to have short, wet winters and long, roasting summers. It was going to be like 1976 all over again, with streakers at Lord’s and your Mr Whippy melting before you could even lick it, and Hyde Park scorched into a mini Kalahari.
They said we were never going to have snow again, and that we should prepare for southern England to turn gradually into a Mediterranean world. There were going to be olive groves in the Weald of Kent, and the whole place was going to be so generally broiling in summer that no one would be able to move between noon and 4pm, after which people would come out to play boules and sip pastis, to the whine of a mandolin, in the dusty square that had once been a village green.
That’s what they said: the BBC, and all the respectable meteorologists – and I reckon there were tens of thousands of people who took these prophecies entirely seriously. Omigod, they said to themselves, we are all going to fry. The only answer was to build a source of permanent refreshment – and so they did. They saved up, and they remortgaged, and they got in the diggers. They moved huge cuboids of earth and used them to create curious berms at the bottom of the garden, and then they lined these trenches with tiles (jolly expensive) or with a kind of blue plastic sheeting (virtually indistinguishable and much cheaper) and then they filled these holes with thousands of gallons of water that circulated endlessly by an unintelligible process known only to the people who had installed it but who seemed unfortunately to have gone bust.
They fought gallantly but in vain against the green slime, and to understand the balance of chemicals that the pool required; and they watched baffled as it oscillated – now choking with vegetation, now a glorified sheep dip of eye-stinging acid. Year after year they summoned up their courage, choked back their nausea and fished out the dead mice and the pallid corpses of worms bleached white by the chlorine. They sieved for leaves; they flipped out bugs with their hands; and all the while they were comforted with the thought that it was a sound investment.
They imagined the poolside parties they would have when the warming really kicked in: the barbecues; the bikinis; the pina coladas. They saw themselves on their lilos talking to their brokers on their mobile phones or getting up early on a glorious summer day and diving in unclothed when no one else was around. They thought they were doing the sensible thing and getting ready for a Californian lifestyle – and they were fools! Fools who believed that the global warming soothsayers really meant what they said or that they had a clue what the weather would be in the next 10 years.
I hope I don’t need to tell you that we have not experienced a Mediterranean climate – not since they started to tell us to expect it. On the contrary, we have had some pretty long and miserable winters – including the last one, in which I saw snow settle in London on four separate occasions – and our summer is at risk of becoming a bit of a farce. As I write these words, I am looking out yet again at lowering grey clouds, in what should be the peachiest time of year – and now these so-called weather forecasters and climate change buffs have the unbelievable effrontery to announce that they got it all wrong. They now think that we won’t have 10 years of blistering summer heat; on the contrary, it is apparently going to be 10 years of cold and wet.
It is outrageous. Think of all those honest hard-working folk who have sunk their resources into a pool, only to find they use it only a couple of times a summer, and even then the wind-chill is so bad that the swimmers get goosebumps as soon as they emerge. I am generally against the compensation culture, but in my mind’s eye I see a class action: aggrieved English pool-owners against the global warming prophets and the erroneous meteorologists who have, frankly, been taking the piscine.