Ian Thomson

Steamy encounters

You can’t beat a session of naked kneading and flailing at a hammam

With my friend Maurice, I have long frequented the Ironmonger Row baths behind Moorfields Eye Hospital. As married men, we appreciated the circumspect and respectful behaviour; for a few quid one felt properly laved and rejuvenated. Nakedness is a great leveller. City traders mingled with taxi drivers; a High Court judge might ‘testiculate’ (talk bollocks) with Maurice, a Labour peer. Afterwards in our robes we relaxed in the cooling-room over cups of tea; the steam induced a state of blissful lassitude.

In 2012, after an ill-spent £16 million refurbishment, the baths were reopened as the Old Street Spa Experience. At a stroke, the local community was priced out: only transient businessmen and affluent Islingtonians can afford the exorbitant entry fee. The art-deco baths, once so atmospheric, have lost their character. Islington council recommends that customers now wear swimwear, which is not only prissy, but unhygienic. The whole point of the Turkish bath — in Yiddish, shvitz — is to enable the body to perspire profusely. Anthony Trollope, in his short story ‘The Turkish Bath’, commended the clothes-free ‘sudation’ as a thing of beauty. He was writing in the aftermath of the Public Baths and Wash-Houses Acts of 1846 and 1847, which enabled local authorities to build sanitary facilities where the poor could wash both their laundry and themselves. 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 Russia; shvitz signs were in both Yiddish and English.

By the mid-1970s, most commercial baths in Britain had closed. As more homes came equipped with running water, the need for public washing diminished. Painkillers served to alleviate the rheumatoid tensions and distempers previously put right by a hammam.

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