Life in the shallows
It's 3pm on the hottest day of the year so far. Brockwell Park Lido is packed with hundreds of bodies, some slowly baking in the sunshine, a few are cooling off in the water. Not an awful lot for a lifeguard to do.
"So far this summer I have only had to dive in the water once," says Colin, surveying the shallow end from his high chair on the poolside. "That was when a boy in armbands went too far and got panicky."
A lifeguard's lot is not always the non-stop amphibian adventure of popular myth and prime time television. "The shallow end is the worst. You see kids playing, pushing each other in and and pulling one another under the water. It's hard to know sometimes what is a game and what isn't."
This is Colin's second summer as a lifeguard at the Lido after finishing a civil engineering degree. A promising rugby player - he's a flanker for London Welsh and has represented Wales at under-21 level - the job keeps him in shape and can accommodate his sporting ambitions.
"Engineering will be something to fall back on, but I want to pursue my rugby. Everything has to fit around training so it's difficult for me to have a 9 to 5 job."
He has worked as a barman, in a bookies and on building sites, but likes the Lido. "I'm a sporty person, I like being around sporty people so this is good job for me."
The pool was reopened last summer by Brockwell Lido Ltd, after lying derelict for four years. The London borough of Lambeth provided a start-up grant and an annual subsidy and the Lido, now restored, looks much as it did when it opened on a tide of municipal pride in the 1930s. Smart and whitewashed, it's like Brixton-by-the-Sea.
Not a bad working environment, then. "One of the nice things about this job is that I can invite my friends down for the day," says Colin. Another perk is free food and drink from the Lido's cafe while he's on duty. "One thing that everyone thinks you get as a lifeguard is loads of women after you but it's just not true," he laments.
In fact, his day-to-day duties can seem decidely humdrum. "I do a lot of first aid for stubbed toes and cuts, that kind of thing. But most of the time it is just precautionary -- you see something that could be dangerous and put a stop to it.
"We get some real cry babies. The worst are kids who won't put their heads under the water. And parents dragging their kids into the pool when they don't want to go in."
The 16 qualified lifeguards operate in shifts, with duties which include early morning cleaning of the pool and changing areas, watching the pool from 6.45am until 8pm, working on the turnstiles and occasionally helping out in the cafe.
Colin claims never to have seen Baywatch. "I'm usually playing rugby on a Saturday afternoon. Anyway, everyone says the way they do it on Baywatch is all wrong."
Realism never was American television's strongpoint. But Hazel Bradley, deputy director of the Royal Life Saving Society, isn't complaining too much. Since the sun, sea and silicone drama became one of the world's most popular programmes, the society has been inundated with would-be guardians of the surf. The RLSS's Rookie scheme, a new campaign to encourage youngsters to learn life-saving skills, trades heavily on the image, even though in this country most lifeguards work indoors.
"There are 30,000 qualified lifeguards in the UK and they have to renew their certificates every two years," she explains. "What a lot of people don't realise is that many of them work voluntarily.
"I don't mind Baywatch. A lifeguard is a reassuring presence and at least now people realise it's an important job. It's Pamela Anderson's chest we could do without."
Brockwell Park Lido: 0171 274 3088; Royal Life Saving Society: 01527 853106