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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Thank you for sharing about the beauty of going to the beach. It is currently the only place my mind fully becomes freed of the mind-pollution that we all (?) allow ourselves to wade through every day. I took up shelling. My husband too. Now we drag home bags of shells and dream of finding the elusive Junonia one day. The sound of the sea erases all worries. I sometimes think about the factoid I once picked up about how our tears and the amniotic fluid have the same salt concentration as the sea. Like a Conor refuses to look up Namaste, I also won't look it up. I just know that I belong by the seaside.
Arrived back home from a day surfing at the beach on Sunday to find this sitting in my inbox. Wonderful.
It might be a meme at this point (isn't everything?), but there is a fundamentally spiritual nature to going surfing. There's something immensely refreshing to your soul about going to beach and spending an hour or two in the water. Refreshing enough to make the idea of 9-10 hours in front of a laptop tolerable anyway.
Because I prefer to believe I'm favoured by the Gods, a quick story about how fate guided me to surfing. I bought my first board from a guy randomly offf of a listing site (DoneDeal), and rocked up to his house with a hatchback that I ambitiously expected to handle a 9ft board.
We hit it off immediately, he was in his 50's but looked 20 years younger, which lends some credence to the hypothesis that fun hobbies keep you young (golf doesn't count folks), and his garage was full of surfboards, mountain bikes, windsurfing sails - he had it all. After about 30-40 minutes talking about surfing, business etc, I found out that he had been a patient of my mothers (doctor) for 30+ years, including 3, now adult kids.
Naturally, this meant the conversation extended another half an hour or so, before he told me he'd have to apologise to my mother the next time he saw her. I asked him why, and he told me "because the first time you stand up on the board and properly catch a wave you're going to end up selling everything and buying a van". After that he sent me on my way with a sizeable discount and a 9 ft board crammed into my car, with roughly 3 cm to spare.
Thankfully for my mothers sake, I'm terrible at surfing so I'm typing this from my desk, sadly vanless. But if I do disappear off the face of the known Earth, now you know why.
The piece you've written here is fantastic Tom. Too many great lines to point out, but this paragraph in particular stood out to me:
"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."
I can't help but worry for the people that will never realise that. Make money, ideally by building something or helping people in some meaningful way (Twitter gurus don't seem to get that this is the core of all business - yes, I am a filthy capitalist), work hard, fast, intensely and all the rest of it, but head to the beach to get in touch with your soul again when you're done.
I've used the word soul twice already in this comment, which strikes me as a step in a worryingly esoteric direction, so I'll leave it here. Always great to read these pieces on a Sunday, even if it's Wednesday before I get around to commenting. Cheers for writing them Tom.
Namaste. (Not sure what it means, and I refuse to look it up.)