On Going To The Beach
Commonplace Newsletter #38
April is the cruelest month. This is what The Wasteland tells us. But so far it is proving to be kind, at least from my vantage point. Sunshine, clear blue skies, a world that is slowly but surely opening up.
And in such conditions, and with free time available, an Englishman such as myself gets the near-uncontrollable urge to head to the waters edge and roll up my trouser legs and paddle a while in the cold sea water.
So seeing as how I have plenty of time on my hands today that’s just what I am going to do.
The Ebb And The Flow
I was born and raised in the middle of the country, far from the sand and the sea. The only seagulls I remember seeing where those that circled and swooped vulture-like above the landfill a few miles from my school.
Childhood memories of local exploration- outside of standard urban and suburban troublemaking- all involve edgelands and bicycles and stinging nettles and blackberry bushes and stagnant canals and quarries and that sort of thing. Secret dens and pilfered alcohol and skinned knees and shared 10 packs of Rothmans superkings. Like a Steven King novella without the burden of a plot, the real horror being the vague looming spectre of an adult life working some crap job and vainly trying to scrabble together the deposit for a mid-terrace.
But outside of the local, most of my memories of youth involve the English coast and the faded glamour of seaside towns. Proustian journeys to the mostly forgotten past are induced in me not by madeleines (whatever they are) but by a 99 with a flake, by the pore-clogging heaviness and unmistakable smell of factor 30 suncream, by bawdy seaside postcards and their strange alternate world of twig-thin, knotted-handkerchief-headed men and their plump, in-command, sentimental and casually violent wives.
Maybe such art (if that’s quite the word I’m looking for) was once reflective of what the working class holidaymaker was about, but as I sit here with this takeaway coffee and notepad- two potent signifiers of my class betrayal- I can see this is no longer the case. For one there is no one in my line of sight who can be described as twig thin, be they male or female.
You can blame lockdown and Deliveroo orders and sedentary months of beer and box-sets but everyone strolling in the sand or lounging in the sun here could stand to lose a few pounds. Or a few dozen. The only exceptions that I can see are a young couple who are, I would say, coasting on borrowed time genetic gifts and one shirtless guy in the left hand edge of my peripheral vision who’s own lockdown experience was evidently a mixture of home workouts, protein powder, Veet waxing strips and exogenous testosterone. I’ve seen enough mafia backed Japanese mixed martial arts to be able to spot someone whose urine sample would cause an anti-doping agency’s testing cup to explode from a hundred yards away.
My point (if I have one) is this. Times may change, body shapes may change, but there is something about the seaside that is eternal. Even if the world around me is in flux and all of those details of the long gone boyhood world seem impossible* the sea remains.
(*did we really go out for hours and hours each day all throughout summer, with no adult supervision and no phones? Was this considered normal? Did shopkeepers really sell us cider and vodka and rizla papers and straight cigarettes with such youthful faces and without a scrap of ID, fake or otherwise?)
Ebb and flow, back and forth, high and low, forever. This is reassuring somehow.
No Fishing, No Litter, No Thinking
I remember during the largely unfortunate time I spent (Lord forgive me) trying to ‘build a brand’ on twitter reading hustle-culture brags about how the future millionaire in question couldn’t fathom the idea of going to the beach. How it was boring and how the supposed relaxation of it was nothing compared to the relaxation of payments going into their bank account. Or how the supposed fun of the seaside was nothing compared to the thrill that comes from making money via a laptop.
I didn’t happen upon any tweets that dismissed the building of sandcastles compared to the excitement of build a business but I wouldn’t be surprised if such a thing existed. At this point it is impossible to satirise the self-aggrandising depths of the hot take pedlars.
The point of the seaside is that it is an escape from doing. And ideally from thinking too. Of course, in writing about this now and doing so for the purpose of later typing up my impressions into an essay that has paid supporters, I am entirely missing and betraying this point. But it’s for a wider purpose. And of course I’ll come back here again tomorrow, this time notepad- free and intention-free and hopefully thought-free.
See, the beach is about freedom from all of the nonsense and expectation and hope and worry that occurs during non-beach hours. It’s a sanctuary from all of that. The things we do while at the seaside- surfing and sandcastle build and sunbathing- are all ultimately pointless activities, which is precisely why they are so great and so important. The guru with the laptop finds them boring because they are ends in themselves rather than a mere means to some (usually financial) end game. They exist beyond his instrumental Type A world of having and getting.
Perhaps he will come to realise the importance of such things post midlife crisis. Perhaps not.
All I know is this. If you can’t lie on a blanket on the sand on a warm spring day and feel the sun on your skin and listen to the tide as it moves, if you can’t do that and smile a half smile and have absolutely no thoughts in your head whatsoever, then you have problems. And these problems can only be fixed by more time on the sand, by more ends-in-themselves-activities, by less ladder climbing worldly pursuits. And if you allow the thoughts and the worries and the lists and the daydreams and the anxieties and the hopes and the lusts and the recriminations circle and fester and grow then they will come back and bite you in the end.
This has always been my experience anyway.
You get respite from them by burying them in the sand. By realising that like the tide itself they are simply something that is.
But I don’t want to talk about it anymore.
I am polluting this beach by turning into a place of thoughts and of work. So I’ll stop and I’ll resume my sunbathing and I’ll sign off, like all good postcards, by saying simply, that when it comes to both the coast itself and the beach bum state of mind:
Wish you were here.
Until next time,
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