“These are not the English you read about or see on the telly” – Polly Devlin Observes Brits on the Beach

POLLY DEVLIN has the perfect vantage point to observe Brits on the beach all summer long …

Porthcurno beach, Cornwall, part of photographer Martin Carr’s recent exhibition “Only Human” at the National Portrait Gallery, London which includes his wry observations on Britishness.

I’ve always been somewhat frightened of the water and envy those people who plunge in arms soaring from their shoulders, and cut sleekly through the waves while I am doing a furious dog paddle and dabbing my feet to the bottom to make sure that I am staying within my depth. Pathetic and my family do snigger a bit.

I think paradoxically enough my fear is because of growing up beside the great watery expanse of Lough Neagh. You’d think we’d swim like trout but fresh water is much harder to swim in and the raggedy rush-riven shoreline dropped steeply without warning within the water so that one minute you were hopping on sharp rocks and the next you were waving and drowning not to mention yelling for help. It can’t help have helped that we wore baggy knickers and strange knitted garments which absorbed the water like sponges and dragged us down to the waterbabies underneath.

The briny held no attraction for me so I was a bit dazed and confused to find myself buying a house on the Channel coast in the south of England, so near the water that when the tide comes in it laps at the driftwood fence just in front though when it is out the sea almost disappears – over half a mile of golden sand stretches towards a distant
silvery glimpse.

In the winter, the weather is elementally stormy and I have no doubt the house will be swept away comparatively soon as water levels rise all over the world but I feel a bit prodigal and philosophical about it like Edna St Vincent Millay: “My candle burns at both ends; It will not last the night; But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends – It gives a lovely light!” So though the house may not last long it lights my life and it should see me out. (Never was après moi le déluge a more apposite saying!)

Living by the sea is unutterably beautiful and rewarding in every acute sense and the sunrises and sunsets are spectacular, violet and scarlet and turquoise with a volcanic red sun setting behind a gleaming empty beach that stretches for almost five miles. Usually, in the distance of a glimmering magical dusk, two black Labradors plunge in and out of the water before ambling home in the moonlight. There is a little stretch of shingle in front of the house which in the spring bulges forth with sea kale and horned poppy, mullein, viper’s bugloss, thrift and the gaudy erigeron, rosemary and thyme and echium which survive the salt water. All of this has made me busy and happy but what intrigues and astonishes me is the new perspective on life I have seen and what I learned here. Not just a different sort of garnering. I’ve lived in England more or less for nearly (how can this be) 60 years and I thought I knew the English pretty well by now and as sure as eggs is eggs I’ve never thought of them as a loving people.

I know the disaster of what is happening with Brexit has shaken those old cheesy beliefs about what constitutes Englishness/Britishness – the famous stiff upper lip (now twisted into a permanent rictus scowl of anger) and tolerance (hate crimes, including stalking, harassment and violent assault, have more than doubled in England and Wales over the past five years). But a different nationality is manifested here and I see it from my house – the old Customs and Revenue headquarters with a watchtower and from it I can see everything on the beach. It was famous in earlier times for its smuggling industry.
The sustaining industry now is simply holidays. Not tourism because that somehow implies visitors with money to spend, staying in hotels and going to look at Sights and eating out and drinking. None of this happens here. There no sights except the Scout Hut, for this is a resort for the low-income working class and people who are on benefits. Cheap holiday camps and huge caravan parks and tents surround the ugly little sea town and day trippers drive from the hard austerity-hit towns around. They come with a grim and wonderful determination to enjoy themselves without spending money. The only things on sale besides huge inflatable porpoises and boats, and buckets and spades, are toxic ice cream, fish and chips, and winkles and cockles sold in makeshift stalls – (one is called the ShellHole which of course is an invitation to have that S rubbed out, which it is all the time.) These delicacies augment the picnics hauled over the dunes in plastic bags and unloaded behind plastic windbreaks.

To get to their chosen spot the day-trippers, generally large families, their dogs straining at the leash, struggle past my house, carrying containers and pushchairs and so much beach paraphernalia that they look joyously comical as though in full costume for a themed Space Ball. Snorkels, goggles, beach mats, buckets, rubber rings, coil and dangle from every extremity. Their skins are goose-pimpled from the wind, as they anchor the beach to the sea and to the sky with their young or old, fat or thin bodies, or spindly, adolescent limbs. They run and jump and stamp their feet and bellow, and splash in the water with high screams and imprecations. They are – those old-fashioned words – jolly and merry.

Fathers and their children build elaborate sandcastles and naked cherubic children bury anyone trying to sunbathe (such hopefulness!) in their vicinity. They puddle about looking for minnows and shrimp around the groynes of the breakers, tear in and out of the water shrieking, play arcane ball games, write messages in the sand with pointy sticks, involving names and hearts and sometimes graphic outlines of private parts. It’s also naughty postcard land and though the men don’t wear rolled-up trousers and knotted handkerchiefs, they don’t wear Speedos either and there is still an air of double entendre amidst vast high spirits. I have actually heard someone shout: “I’ve lost my little Willie.” ‘Struth.

These are not the English you read about or see on the telly, these are not the people represented in the media, these are not the people I see every day on the streets of London. They are not fashionable, they don’t look as though they give a damn about status or keeping up or appearances – they are out to enjoy themselves and they don’t care who knows it.

I love their vitality, their ferocious excitement, their politeness – but most of all I love how they love their children. We’ve always been told how the Spanish adore their children and the French too, while somehow teaching them good manners (eh?) and that the English are cold, untalkative and undemonstrative. But I don’t see that here. Those fathers toiling along with all the paraphernalia to get to their little bit of sandy-castled territory they will call home for the day, are also carrying those fat smiling babies, complacent sultans of the beach, on their shoulders. Young mothers, overweight and harassed, bulging comfortably out of bikinis carry heavy freezer bags but also vast children on their hips, yet smiling and talking and kissing them while staggering under the burden. What I am witnessing – write it! – is love.

Polly Devlin

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