A new book from the editor of gay magazine Elska, that has brought us the stories of men from across the globe, in photos and writing.
Imagine going on a winter trip around Iceland with a friend. Or better still: a gay friend, who happens to be a photographer and a writer. You have all the time in the world so you stop by most of the pools you come across, relax in the warm water, share thoughts and impressions and go through the occasional weird little adventure together. If that sounds like your kind of holiday, you should check out Liam Campbell’s newly released Fifteen Icelandic Swimming Pools, aka A Gay Guide to Swimming in Iceland. The concept is simple, but all the more charming. Liam, who’s also the guy behind Elska Magazine, tells us more about his new book and his experience going from pool to pool all around the country by himself a few months ago.
You’ve just published Fifteen Icelandic Swimming Pools, can you tell us what’s in the book in a nutshell?
“Essentially it is a travel memoir from a trip I took to Iceland last November/December that was meant to be a sort of mental health holiday. Inside the book are expanded diaries that I kept, lots of specific notes about the pools, and various snaps I took of the country, the pools, and one guy I met who fancied doing a nude photoshoot.”
“I do enjoy seeing other men in their swimmers or naked in a shower complex. I’ve seen a lot to admire and quite a bit worth storing in the wank bank as well.”
How did this project come to life?
“At first I had no intention of doing anything like this. I was feeling a lot of stress in my life and decided that a trip to Iceland would be the remedy, where I’d do nothing but read, drink coffee, and hang out in sundlaugar (Icelandic word for swimming pools). But sometime after visiting my third or forth pool, an obsession was born to visit as many pools as I could, and I started keeping notes about each visit. I thought maybe I’d put it all in a blog or something, but then when COVID-19 happened, I decided to turn all those notes and snapshots into something more substantial, this book.”
Why do you keep coming back to Iceland?
“Iceland was the first foreign country I ever visited, and my first holiday alone. I’d just turned eighteen and I wasn’t out, but when I got to Iceland, this place where nobody knew me, I felt I could finally be me, and that made me feel so at home there. For the years to come, and through another probably thirty visits to Iceland, I still feel comfortable, free, at home there.”
Did you know that cameras, or cellphones for that matter, were strictly forbidden in Icelandic pools?
“Absolutely, which is why I made sure that all the pics I took contained no faces, so privacy could be maintained. The only time when a person could be seen, I’d asked permission first. Really most of the pics are exterior shots, or images of some of the cute signs they have in the locker rooms. My favourite was the showering instruction cartoon by the shoe rack at Vesturbæjarlaug, which I put on the back cover of the book.”
No but seriously, nobody told you off? It surely happened to me.
“It happened to me too. And on the very first day. The reception lady working at the first pool I visited, in Stykkishólmur, gave me quite a stern lecture when I asked if I could take a quick snap. But well, I’m really not good with authority, so I took a pic anyway when she wasn’t looking.”
What’s the connection between Fifteen Icelandic Swimming Pools and Elska Magazine, if there’s any? Except from you. And Iceland.
“The most obvious connection is that the book contains a nude photoshoot of a guy I’d met up north. Before the trip there were some thoughts of doing an Elska issue up in Akureyri, which didn’t pan out, but I met one of the guys who’d been interested in potentially taking part and we did an impromptu shoot using my phone. This section of the book looks the most like Elska, albeit in a more lo-fi way. Overall, most of what you read in Elska Magazine is the words and perspective of the men I meet, but Fifteen Icelandic Swimming Pools contains all my words and thoughts, so it’s kind of an opposite or counterpart to Elska.”
The book is subtitled A Gay Guide to Swimming in Iceland. How is it gay? Should we expect cruising tips?
“Cruising tips? No, I’m terrible at cruising, and besides, one of the things I like most about Icelandic swimming pools is how uncruisey they are. If I thought people were looking at me, judging me, I wouldn’t enjoy it. I suppose one of the gay elements of the book relates to this, to how seeing other bodies of all shapes and sizes makes me feel more comfortable in my own skin – the sundlaug is like a therapy for a self-loathing that is rampant in gay culture. But also, I can’t deny that as a gay man, I do enjoy seeing other men in their swimmers or naked in a shower complex. I’ve seen a lot to admire and quite a bit worth storing in the wank bank as well, and some of those highlights are talked about in the book.”
“I suppose one of the gay elements of the book relates to this, to how seeing other bodies of all shapes and sizes makes me feel more comfortable in my own skin.”
Jokes aside, is there a swimming pool in Reykjavik where gay guys tend to hang out more? Rumor has it, Vesturbæjarlaug is the one.
“Vesturbæjarlaug is absolutely the one. In fact, I actually did get cruised there, which I wrote about in the book along with a little history of its queer legend. I really adored Vesturbæjarlaug, but not because of the gayness. It’s just so charming, the main hot pot is gigantic, and it was fun when I saw Auður (a famous Icelandic singer) there, though not in the showers, sadly.”
Any fun adventure happened to you while going from pool to pool?
“Each pool was special in its own way. Apart from Vesturbæjarlaug, I’d also have to highlight the pool at Ólafsfjörður for its unexpected queerness, Þelamörk for its steamy nighttime swim scene, and Hofsós for its incredible setting and for the white van man who tried to get off with me outside it.”