Hot and Naked into 2019

In 1952, Rock Hudson was thrown out of a Turkish baths at 92 Jermyn Street, London, for importuning. Steam must have had an aphrodisiac effect on the Hollywood star, who prowled all-male baths in search of sex. Routinely raided by the police, in 1975 Jermyn Street’s hammam was eventually shut down. (The site is now occupied by Crockett & Jones shoes; no trace remains of the Saracenic hot rooms.)

 

 

With my friend Maurice I have long frequented the historic Ironmonger Row baths behind Moorfields Eye Hospital. As married men we liked the circumspect and respectful behaviour there; for a few quid we felt properly laved and rejuvenated. Nakedness is a great leveller. Posh cor-blimey City traders mingled in the tepidarium with taxi drivers; a High Court judge would “testiculate” (talk bollocks) with Maurice, who is a Labour peer. Afterwards in our towelling robes we liked to relax in the cooling-room over cups of tea; the steam had induced a state of blissful lassitude. On a New Year’s Day it was just the tonic for weary limbs. But could it last?

 

 

In 2012, after an ill-spent £16 m refurbishment, the baths were re-opened by Islington council as the Old Street Spa Experience. At a stroke, the local community was priced out: only transient businessmen and the most affluent Islingtonians could afford the exorbitant new entry fee. The art-deco baths, once so atmospheric, have lost their character. Customers are now expected to wear swimwear in the sauna, which is not only prissy, but unhygienic. The whole point of the Turkish bath or, in Yiddish, shvitz, is to enable the body to perspire profusely. No naked limb or nerve should resent the heat, wrote Anthony Trollope in ‘The Turkish Bath’; the clothes-free “sudation” was a thing of beauty. Trollope’s short story was contemporary with the Public Baths and Wash-Houses Acts of 1846 and 1847, which enabled local authorities to build sanitary facilities where the poor could wash themselves as well as their laundry. Brick Lane, east London’s most mythologised street, was dense with Turkish and Russian vapour baths. Orthodox Hasidim had settled in the area in the 1880s following the pogroms in anti-Semitic Russia; increasingly, shvitz signs were in both Yiddish and English.

 

 

By the mid-1970s, most commercial baths in Britain had shut down. As more homes came equipped with running water, so the necessity for public washing diminished. Prescription pain-killers moreover served to alleviate the rheumatoid tensions and distempers that previously only a sudorific hamman could put right. Today very few public hammams survive in Britain. The Porchester baths, a Grade II listed building with Islamic arches and star-pierced domes, will close this April for a £750,000 Westminster council face-lift. Once re-opened, the emphasis apparently will be on “mixed gender” sessions. This is all very nice and inclusive, but mixed sessions discriminate against Muslim women, Orthodox Jewish women and Orthodox Jewish men, who are not allowed to mingle in this way. Sexual separatism is essential in the bathhouse, where men are unable to relax unselfconsciously in the presence of women, and vice-versa.

 

 

I had almost given up hope when I discovered the New Docklands Steam Baths.

Situated in a Canning Town industrial estate, the baths are of no architectural account whatsoever. But there is no piped birdsong in reception or “spa experience” treatment room. This is the real thing.

All around is a jagged edgelands of car-crushers’ yards, vehicle hire outlets (“The Mutt’s Nuts”) and a notorious villains’ pub called the Durham Arms, where you can smoke. In this overlooked part of England, the Canning Town shvitz stands triumphantly above our emptier, more money-conscious times. It is in fact East London’s last authentic bath house. The Jewish purification ritual known as schmeissing is still practised here: men take turns to slap each other with well-soaped besoms made of sea grass. (Schmeiss, a term borrowed from Yiddish abattoir culture, means to “trim the fat” or “whip”.) East Europeans, Russians and old-time Yiddish cockneys sit on marble benches amid a picnic water melons and black bread. (You can take your own food and drink.) In the Russian baths or banya, meanwhile, the men wear pointed felt pixie hats against the heat, and pummel each other with fisftfuls of oak leaves. The gregarious atmosphere encourages a sprightly chitchat; talk if of the latest marital break-up, the planned holiday, the price of St Petersburg vodka.

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