The Beach Diaries – Epilogue
Much like it did for the meat of the summer – the coldest since 1993 – the weather has called the shots, and brought an abrupt end to this project. I figured I’d get in another one or two seafront sojourns and wrap this up, but Autumn bumrushed itself in the door, and outside, an apocalypse is brewing. Sheets of violent rain and 60mph gusts of wind drive away that most important ingredient of people-watching; the people. So here we are, some months, and close to 20,000 words later.
The problem with any kind of episodic storytelling, factual or fictional, is that everyone’s conditioned to expect the narrative playing out like it does in movies. The familiar Hugh Grant rom-com structure insinuates that by the time the shutters are pulling down for the year, some readers – presumably those who didn’t know me that well – are thinking that me and Hot Lifeguard will magically hook up, just as the credits roll. But real life isn’t Hollywood. We never spoke, or even exchanged glances, and even if she’d been on duty on what I’d known was the last day, I’d have just scribbled in my now-almost-full notebook and slunk away for the season. Likewise, Big Shirtless Ron, who was such a presence in those early entries, what seems like an age ago, disappeared altogether. I’d assumed he’d take on a starring role throughout the summer, with various adventures and sightings, but after that final, rain-soaked appearance, I never saw him again. Although from that, perhaps we can deduce that he decided he was too old for this shit, and that the life of fast women and no shirts was a young man’s game. Or maybe he died. From wanking.
Set by the tone of those early entries, I had envisioned a revolving cast of familiar faces, but that didn’t really happen either. Mostly, I’d guess, due to regular people having better things to do than hang around the beach all day like some fucking surf-hobo Samuel Pepys. But also, that’s just the nature of a tourist town. For nine months of the year, she lays asleep and grey, with the beach itself, some ten minutes sign-less walk from the town centre, ghost-town quiet, with imagined candyfloss tumbleweeds blowing along the promenade. Only when the summer hits can she truly be who she is; alive, vibrant, colourful, and filled with outsiders who wouldn’t dream of giving her a second look when she’s not in full pomp, each leaving nothing behind for the year-round residents but piles of filth, in the overloaded bins and blowing around on the common.
The true familiar faces of Littlehampton Beach weren’t included exactly because they’re familiar. Hot Lifeguard is a safely vague title, considering there’s a big team of them, but once you start riffing on the guy who rents deckchairs, or the woman who drives the little train, you’re asking for it. This is all pretty Google-able, and I’ve had a ton of search hits and the odd email from locals who’ve stumbled on the Beach Diaries.
As a related aside to this, I’ll tell you what The Beach Diaries wasn’t. Two of the most familiar faces around the beach are a couple of local tramps-cum-outsider-types who I have personal BD-style nicknames for, due to certain traits, but these same traits are what make them too identifiable. Despite seeing them constantly, they deliberately weren’t included for fear of tonally emulating those hateful Facebook groups devoted to local “legend!” tramps or mentally loose types, with photo after photo of sneery, ironic drunken students posing next to them with their thumbs in the air, like they’re a fucking tourist attraction. “Here’s me with the Shaky Hand man of Luton! LEGEND, LOL! Some years after he had a breakdown or bout of mental ill-health that put him on the streets, probably… And here’s a pic where I pretend to fuck him from behind!”
One of my favourite moments of the summer concerned these two chaps. One, let’s call him Chap A, has been a regular around the beach and river area for years. He was wandering the prom and snoozing in the shelters well over a decade ago, and he’s still around today, treading those same paths. I’d take an educated guess that he’s not fully homeless, but in some kind of hostel that requires him to be out from dawn til bedtime, and he has the deep, leathered tan of a man who’s never indoors. Recently I overheard him referring to a family he used to have, and possibly, like me, the beach is the place he feels most comfortable, and most at home. The other, Chap B, is another face that’s frequented these streets since I was at school. There’s probably only ten years between us, and he’s not homeless, just a little strange, and very quiet, and with a rather eccentric physical appearance, and a head down, march through the streets to get where he’s going urgency that suggests a wariness of others, and an unspoken throng of horrible incidents involving the cruelty of people. Chap A is generally seen to be alone, but if Chap B is around, they’ll be in each other’s company.
A couple of weeks ago, Chap A was fast asleep on a nearby bench, in the sun, sitting bolt upright as he slept. A little later, and now awake, Chap B appeared on the prom, and joined him in sitting on the bench. As Chap B sat down, his concentration quietly rapt in the task of removing the cornucopia of ever-present bags from his shoulders, Chap A’s hand went up, as if wondering whether to shake B’s hand, high five him, or salute. Instead, with B still absorbed in his task, Chap A patted him gently on the back. A tiny gesture to most, especially in a summer filled with all manner of ape-ish louts hitting or groping each other like it weren’t no thang. But even for the most sarcastic of observers, this little moment couldn’t help but elevate them from “Mr. Nickname and Mr. Other Nickname” to People. Friends. Two strange souls who may not have stable addresses or a ton of buddies on speed dial, and might not have more than one set of clothes, but who at least have each other.
In all those years, it was the first time I’d seen Chap A smile.
And that’s what The Beach Diaries was about – little moments. Finding the narrative within the mundane. That clichéd interview question I always find so bizarre, as it’s thrown at writers and artists “Where do you get all your ideas?” Look around you. People are so weird and awful and funny and disgusting and tragic and vile and beautiful, how can you not be inspired? Whether it’s someone pretending a Pepsi bottle is an ejaculating penis, or an old lady whose wheelchair is laden with stuffed toys from the claw machine, there’s a story behind it all, real or imagined. Werner Herzog’s ecstatic truth.
In writing these, I felt an obsessive, OCD drive to be there whenever I could, to catch and preserve these moments, and when I wasn’t, I’d be imagining all the glorious material that was going lost and unseen forever. This was actually more than just paranoia. I managed to miss a body washing up at the exact time and spot I usually eat my lunch, and the boat that made national news by running aground at the mouth of the river, as well as countless Overheard Conversation Snippets and who knows what else.
So now what? It’s dark, and wet, and cold, and the beach is back in snooze-mode, waiting for next June. This shit for another nine months? I can’t take it. The beach is the only place I feel sane. If I can’t bask in the little moments of others, I’m stuck with my own. As you may have noticed, I have the worst seasonal mood swings ever. I’ll be fine by the time October gets here; then, the wind, rain and darkness is perfect for creepy books and horror movies, and the world takes on another feel that, while contrasting wildly with the summer sun and hope, is fun all the same. But that first month after summer, I’m wearing a noose as a neckerchief. It also feels unsettling that I didn’t drag myself down there out of the weird sense of obligation to tie everything up by tipping my hat adieu to the shingle. Maybe I’ll find a couple of days to be down there if there’s a break in the weather, but that’ll all be off the clock, so to speak, and for 2011, we’re done.
Oh yeah, and if you enjoyed these (totally free) pieces, don’t feel bad about showing your appreciation by buying my books so I don’t inadvertently scupper next year’s follow-up by dying of starvation before 2011 is out. I half-arsed the pimping of the Kindle books this summer, because I spent so much time at the beach, so a shill at the end here isn’t too whorish. For non-Kindle owners, Amazon do a swanky free app for PC/Mac/iPad/Phones, and the books themselves are the price of, or cheaper than, a pint.
Alright. See you all next year?