The Naked Democracy of the Swimming Pool - actor and activist Jonathan Blake
Updated: Mar 24
I like to be in the pool early, it’s like a meditation - just me and the water. I have a new routine – first a cold shower to prepare my body, then I dive in! I love the initial shock, it can feel like you are shattering glass. Then it’s the most glorious, fulfilling feeling, just being there.
I swim rather slowly, I have my own version of the crawl as my right arm is stronger than the left. I also sometimes do breaststroke and like to finish with a length of butterfly.
One of the most memorable times I’ve had at the Lido was the gala in 2018 when I entered the 800m. Julie (another regular) was determined to come last so she waited for me to finish although had misjudged how many lengths I’d done (as I said, I’m not fast) and I still had 100 metres to go! She did it with me and we finished together.
I wasn’t sporty at school, I was quite fey and here I am entering swimming galas in my seventies! I’ve missed the Lido during Lockdown and have felt somewhat aimless without the swimming, it certainly aids my health and wellbeing. (interview continues below)
I enjoy going in the little wooden caravan sauna post-swim for the bonhomie and to wave a little towel around to create some hot air and warmth. I’ve been going to saunas and spas since I started coming to London from Birmingham, where I was brought up. I was a regular at the Porchester Baths from 1969 until very recently when the regulars were priced out. We’d keep the Jewish shmeissing tradition going (an all over, soapy body exfoliation with a rough raffia brush). When I lived in New York I used to go to the Continental Baths as I lived in an apartment above them. That though was a completely different experience!
I’m now a carer, looking after my partner Nigel, who I met when I was personally in a dark place. I was one of the first people in the UK to be diagnosed with HIV, back in 1982. I was convinced I only had a few months to live and felt like a modern day leper. The press, especially the Sun and Mail, wrote about the gay plague. I had no self-esteem and decided to end it all. I ran a bath, took the pills…it was only thinking of my mother saying that someone would have to clean up the mess that stopped me.
My life changed when I met my partner Nigel. I’d seen a tiny advertisement, ‘Gays for a Nuclear Free Future’ on Saturday April 1st. It caught my eye and that it was also All Fools’ Day appealed. I nearly didn’t get on the bus though and turned to go away, when I then bumped into Nigel. We subsequently supported the miners during their strike. (The film Pride is based on Jonathan, Nigel and friends and their support for the Welsh mining community. Dominic West plays Jonathan).
I decided this would be my re-entry into society – my adventure with Nigel began. I suppose I was ever hopeful since I knew I couldn’t kill myself I had better get on and live. At heart I am a positive being and an optimist.
I love to spend time in the community garden I helped create for residents in Mayall Road. It’s a passion of mine and an absolute lifeline. It really helped me deal with my diagnosis - having access to a garden where you see bulbs start into leaf, then the flowers bloom and then dieback is a wonderful miracle. In 1987 Nigel and I planted some Twisted Hazel and seeing it now is quite something, I really never thought I would live this long.
I love the theatre and opera too, particularly Wagner. I’ve also been lucky to perform in some wonderful plays and venues throughout my acting career, as well as tour and see much of the world. I was in a feature film shooting in Poland at the end of Communist rule; I was in a performance of Othello in Regents Park that subsequently toured Europe. I’ve also been in the Sweeney!
I like having something to look forward to and am excited about going to see Leopoldstadt, the new play by Tom Stoppard.
I’ve worked in restaurants for a big period in my life including Allen’s in New York and then the London version (Joe Allen’s) when it opened. I recently went to their 40th anniversary party with some of the original staff. Home cooking though is best for me.
To relax in the evening I might put the telly on. I watched It’s a Sin, my favourites though are the classics – I Claudius and Glenda Jackson as Elizabeth.
The perfect day ends with a blissful sleep.