Sunday, 24 June 2012

Civilisations on sand

I wrote this about beaches a while ago. Jean Sprackland reminded me about it by kindly citing it in her book.

In Waterlog, an account of his wild swimmer’s journey through Britain, the late Roger Deakin observes the “hairless apes squealing with pleasure in the sea” at Porthcurno in Cornwall, and wonders why people are so playful and carefree on the beach. He concludes that our species emerged from the sea and our dry-land existence is a recent phenomenon, so we simply feel more at home on the shore.

The resurgent interest in “wildness,” among contemporary nature writers like Deakin, Robert Macfarlane and Kathleen Jamie, has often gravitated towards the beach. This is partly because many of our beaches, on the Jurassic Coast of Devon and Dorset or the great shingle peninsulas in the southeast, are such strange, otherworldly places. But it’s also because the beach is a point of accommodation between humans and nature. Deakin may have felt the call of the wild but he was also a dedicated beach anthropologist, wandering Monsieur Hulot-like among the tame holidaymakers with their windbreakers and Primus stoves.

The ideal of the beach in western culture is of a beautiful tabula rasa, a preferably deserted landscape of virgin sand and translucent sea where you can escape from the stresses of modern life – which is presumably why you can now buy a “beach in a box” for your office desktop, with a miniature deckchair, sea shells and sand. But as the BBC series Coast showed - once you got beyond its self-consciously stirring music and sweeping aerial views of our shoreline - the British beach is really a case study in cultural history. Our beaches have gone through all sorts of uses, including land speed record attempts at Pendine Sands in Carmarthen Bay, improvised airstrips at Southport and D-day landing dummy runs at Slapton Sands in Devon. More recently, beaches have become highly artificial environments, as tidal changes and coastal erosion force resorts like Minehead and Lyme Regis to import sand or dredge it from the sea bed.

The beach is a frontier not only between water and solid ground, but also between the wild and the domestic. It is where sandyachters and kite buggyers share space with picnickers and sunbathers, in states of proximity and undress they would never tolerate in their ordinary lives. As a self-policing community, the beach also condones a certain amount of low-level lawlessness, from nicking boulders for garden water features to scavenging for Nike trainers in the cargo ship containers that occasionally wash up on the southwest coast. Even Ian McEwan admitted to liberating a few pebbles from Chesil Beach, although he later returned them at the invitation of Weymouth and Portland Borough Council.

Deakin admired beaches as places where social hierarchies and arcane rules are temporarily suspended. So I imagine he would have disliked the current fashion, in newspaper travel supplements, for listing our “best” beaches. This trend for grading beaches began with conservation societies worrying about sea pollution. But it has become a beauty contest, as resorts compete over things like wave size and sandcastle build-ability. Some of this is less to do with the beaches themselves than the accident of location. Resorts that are within second-home distance of London’s middle classes tend to emphasise the clean minimalism of their beaches, because that is what appeals to busy professionals and downshifters. A side-effect has been the decade-long property boom in beach huts, which are disproportionately on the south and east coasts, and are now undergoing their own version of the house-price crash. The struggling seaside resorts in my own area of the northwest, like Blackpool, Morecambe and New Brighton, rely instead on council-led regeneration plans for casinos, outdoor lidos and refurbished Art Deco hotels, and don’t go on about their beaches so much.

Contrary to some reports, the recent Policy Exchange publication, Cities Unlimited, does not write off all the regeneration schemes in the north. It is fairly optimistic about inland cities like Manchester and Leeds, and gloomiest about coastal towns like Liverpool, Hull and Blackpool. In a motorway-based economy, it argues, these places are literally at the end of the road. Cities Unlimited is an anti-coast manifesto. All the places it commends for being well-connected, like Corby, Daventry and Oxford, are miles from a beach.

Fortunately, the beach has no truck with neo-liberal economics, or indeed beauty contests. Almost everywhere on the coast has a serviceable beach nearby, assuming you can refrain from giving the sand a star rating. And I will happily trade living in a motorway hub for living as I do within 10 minutes’ drive of Crosby beach. On late summer evenings when the day-trippers have gone, there is no one else about except some naked, cast-iron men staring out across Liverpool Bay. Anthony Gormley’s rusty artwork, Another Place, is a reminder that, even on a deserted beach, people have left their mark.

No comments:

Post a Comment