I have always considered health clubs with deep suspicion. It comes, I think, from living in London for most of my life. In a city, you skirt around strangers, weigh them up, acknowledge each other's physical space and avoid eye contact - and then you go and take your clothes off and sit in a big, bubbling bath with half a dozen of them, all but naked. Why?
It's a false social construct, surrounded by as many unspoken rules as any office, which I can never quite work out, and as a result I have never struck up a conversation in a health club. Not once. So I was pleased to read a report by two academics in Scotland, David McGillivray and Matthew Frew, who spoke to health-club members and interpreted our use of these things as "aesthetic masochism" - a pursuit of the physical perfection embodied by the staff and the glistening bodies on the MTV screens (something that is rarely achieved). Members are "caught in a continual dissatisfaction of desire", trapped like hamsters on an endless treadmill. Which is what I thought, although I couldn't have expressed it like that.
I joined a health club last month, but not in London this time. The university where I study does its best to dissociate the academic experience from anything resembling real life, and hence had arranged a two-week holiday between "semester one" and "semester two" slap in the middle of school term time. Not even I could dredge up any enthusiasm for staring any longer at the bands of rain pouring over the South Downs, so I decided to go and learn yoga, another fad that had passed me by in life. And that meant joining one of these masochistic leisure zones, albeit a rather nicer, gentler one than those temples of sweat and self-loathing in London.
I was immediately plunged into a reverse image of the world I inhabit as a student. Instead of finding myself 20 years older than everyone around me, I was 20 years younger.
In place of the optimistic students, there were moaning grannies.
Generally, I find retired people to be fairly happy and relaxed. It is those in their early forties, like me, who seem to be miserable, terrified that just as everything appears to be coming together - family, home, career - it feels so close to falling apart. But these sixtysomethings were pumping up and down in an "aqua gym" and pursuing improbable stretches in front of young men with motivational jargon, so no wonder they were unhappy.
The biggest surprise was to find myself in deep conversation, within minutes, with a man in exceedingly small pants. Think of the wider variety of wrapping ribbon and you've got it. Fritz glided into the steam room and began to perform body stretches - in, out, up, down. Having got my attention (it is not a large steam room), he sat down opposite me and introduced his specialist subject: doctors who kill. A medic himself, Fritz was of the view that doctors are too specialised these days. "It's like the academics. They know a lot about very little."
Before I knew it, we were discussing the merits of earlier academia, of the days when a man could be a statesman, astronomer and professor, and perhaps scribble the US constitution in his spare time. As the issues have got bigger, academics have got smaller (like Fritz's pants). A life spent discovering the origins of the universe or working out the future of the welfare state, I can see the point of. But not theorising with like-minded academics about "neighbourhood informatisation". "Manufacturing esoteric discourses with high entry costs for outsiders", as Ian Shapiro, professor of political science at Yale, once put it in a book with the fabulous title The Flight from Reality in the Human Sciences. "All the better if they involve inside-the-cranium exercises that never require one to leave one's computer screen."
Estate of mind
This is why I enjoyed the health-club report: it didn't mince its words, and it involved talking to people. The university in which I study happens to be the one where I was an undergraduate, 20 years ago. It's just chance; it's the nearest one to me. There's a low-rise housing estate next to it that, two decades ago, we were told never to walk through. There was a gang there that liked beating up students. I think there's one of those near every university and I can understand why. Today, the university has expanded gleamingly into the streets around it but the estate is still there, looking exactly the same as it did, with the same pebble-dashed air of slight depression - and the students are still told not to walk through it. Two decades of clever thought has passed, all those social scientists beavering away at their books, and still nothing crosses that road.