On the Beach

Aug 11, 2014

There's something magnetic about the sea. A third of all Americans choose to live on or near the coast, even though there are vast empty spaces with plenty of parking out in the middle of the country. We are especially lucky on Long Island. Because the island is just a narrow finger of sand, getting narrower with every storm, we are never far from a beach, just as we are never far from a pizza.

The beach is a symbol of fun and relaxation, but also of endings, and lost causes.  On the Beach was the title of a 1957 nuclear war thriller by Neville Shute, in which the beach becomes a metaphor of desolation and loss.  On the beach means washed up, hopeless, finished. Beachcomber and beach bums are losers, people you wouldn't invite to your wine tasting event. In J.G.Ballard's apocalyptic novel, The Terminal Beach, the beach represented the end of everything. In other words the beach is not so much a place as a concept that looms surprisingly large in our culture, even if we spend scarcely any time sitting on it.

None of this discourages the hordes who head for the beach in summer. Every grand beach in the world, from Miami to Waikiki, Copacabana, and Monte Carlo is fringed by huge and ugly skyscraper hotels, the attraction presumably being that vacationers can get out of bed, take a few steps to the beach, and lie down again.  The luxury of lying down during working hours seems to be a big part of the attraction, and of course the outfits that people wear or forget to wear on the beach are a more astonishing spectacle than anything you will see on television.

But somehow I have lost my enthusiasm for beach life. When I was five or six years old I liked it well enough. It was something different. Many and many a childhood summer I played on the beaches of southern England - the British Riviera as they ironically like to call it. I remember sitting there in my little plastic raincoat and watching the rain make interesting patterns in the sand. It was a wonderful climate for making sand castles, and even better for digging deep holes for unwary adults to fall into. My early memories of the beach are a blur of rain and wind, and occasional triumphs when someone fell into one of my beach holes. I felt the same exultation our ancient ancestors must have felt when a mammoth stepped into one of their traps.

It's hard to recapture that feeling. Beach traps are probably illegal, and the whole business of having fun on the beach is more complicated than I remember. It was easy when I was five, but now it’s hard to get comfortable and hard to read, I can’t forget that the water is full of unpleasant things, both living and dead, the sun is fierce and as I now know dangerous, and trekking around in soft sand just reminds me that my ankles are not what they used to be. Still, I do enjoy looking at the sea. Perhaps that's what it's all about - not the beach but the sea -that sensation of being on the edge of things, having all your troubles literally behind you, and the feeling that the sea is a place to escape, because it can take you anywhere in the world. That’s what’s magic about a beach. I must go there sometime, when the weather is cooler.

Copyright: David Bouchier