The Beach Diaries 2013 – #1 in an Occasional Series
I can’t switch it off. Over the course of two full summers spent people-watching and consciously tilting an ear towards the conversations of strangers, I’ve infected myself with an instinctive, unstoppable urge to be constantly gathering material while I’m at the beach. Like a sleeping dog who twitches upright at the rustle of a pocket, I’m in a permanent state of alert, never fully able to relax, and helpless to stop my inner voice from rambling off pretentious internal narrations about the things going on around me. As I’ve already said, there won’t be any more books, but an occasional long-form, long-winded piece on here, two or three times this summer, might act as enough middle-ground to keep me sane. So here we are.
The problem is that once you become aware of it, just like Roddy Piper putting on the sunglasses in They Live, it’s clear that there’s material everywhere you look, and you can’t unsee it. The world and its inhabitants and their actions are just too awful and beautiful to go unrecorded, even if you’re not going to stick it in a book. As if to prove a point, the first human voice I hear on leaving the house is shouted into the street through an open front door.
“… fuckin’ niggers…” it yells, with a “Cuh!” intonation, like he’ll add “Those cheeky little tinkers!” once I’ve gotten out of earshot.
Once at the beach, I wonder if I’ll feel any different than previous summers, having spent the last few months sweating out an intense, daily hour of yoga, and getting into semi-decent shape. Would I strut inside my lowest-waist-size-ever ¾ length shorts like a peacock, with an “Alright, ladies?” twinkle behind the shades, aggressively sunning myself dead-centre of the promenade while people step around me, feeling like King Sex of Fuck-Town? No, is the answer. I wasn’t aware of any great change in my self-image, or head-cocked puff of the chest when passing groups of sunbathing women. Perhaps if I eventually carve myself out a Ravishing Rick Rude torso, I might feel — or act — differently about my place in the social landscape, shit, I might even switch sides and become a shirtless lad; but for now, same old ‘ting.
Men occupy this strange space where they’re neither a victim of terrible body-shaming, nor afforded the idea that, no matter what, they’re all beautiful in their own way. Quite rightly, there’s a big movement against the terrible media pressure on women to look a certain way, with spreads of rake-thin ‘perfect beach bodies’ alongside gleeful exposés of some actress who dared to have a fat knee on the red carpet, but the strange flip-side of that is the idea of the beautiful snowflake, where every woman is beautiful, and should accept themselves as such. Men though? Get over yourself, fatty/baldy/you arse-faced uggo. Not that I’m one of those laughable Men’s Rights idiots, nor am I sobbing because nobody’s tossing roses in my direction, and I don’t even know what point my meandering beach-mind is trying to make. Maybe it’s just that men don’t have that weird entitlement or right to feel attractive unless they literally are the male equivalent of those magazine-cover model types that people (correctly) rally against. As I ponder this, I try to picture a Dove advert with a load of ‘real men’, consisting of sweaty builders jiggling about in their underpants, saying how confident and sexy they feel now they’ve learned to love their bodies.
All I know is that Bernard Manning (or any overweight male celebrity of your choice) was never considered to be a beautiful man who should be proud of his sexy curves, he was just a fat fuck.
Much as I’m trying not to slip into old habits, certain things just prick up my lugs, and form the words ‘Overheard Conversation Snippet…’ in my skull, and before I know it, I’m scribbling madly into my notepad like 2013 never turned. I’ve not even found a place to sit down when two women pass me.
“Her dad wanted her to marry a farmer, after her husband died.” Later, another woman, very posh, interrupts her friend mid-conversation and says:
“Darling, I know I work with the hearing impaired, but please don’t talk to me like I’m retarded.”
The first jarring sight at the beach is that of a day-tripping elderly man in a wheelchair being pushed by a care-home helper. The mental connection with my grandfather, who died since the last set of Beach Diaries were published, and who I’d similarly wheeled along the river, is so instant, the memories curl themselves into a fist and launch straight into my gut. For a while, I find myself emotionally winded, and I walk it off like you would a kick to the shin.
Later, a lad in a vest keepy-uppies a ball over the small wall and heads towards the sands. His phone blasts tinny, foul-mouthed gangster rap, all “fuck bitches” and stuff about money, guns and hoes. A severely handicapped man in a wheelchair squeals with abject delight at the sight of the football, and the lad freezes as he’s slowly wheeled past in his enormous motorised chair. Suddenly unable to cast his gaze from the floor, he clasps the football tight like a well-chewed security blanket, robbed of his urge to bluster as the grinning disabled man passes; the scene soundtracked by a raucous celebration of bullets and rough fucking in the toilets of ghetto nightclubs, blasting out of his pocket.
As I’m about to leave, a middle-aged man standing above me on the prom makes a phonecall to another man, called John. He’s the sort of man who says the name of the person he’s talking to constantly, with the word ‘John’ thrown around willy-nilly like punctuation. The purpose of the call is to alert John, at short notice, to a job interview tomorrow. He’s to give a presentation to the ominous sounding ‘financiers’, because the other candidate pulled out, for personal reasons.
“You’re the only one in the running,” says the man, in that upbeat manner people have when they’re gifted the rare task of delivering good news, “The job’s yours!”
But as the call progresses, John’s self-doubt kicks in, and the man’s voice takes on a firm but fair, fatherly tone.
“John, John, stop looking for gremlins. No, of course you’re not second best!” From there, it’s all downhill, as a quick, pleasant phonecall disintegrates into a harried counselling session, where one party suddenly finds themselves having to talk the other down from a metaphorical ledge. The man’s fraying patience manifests in him firmly using the word ‘mate’ twice as much as all the ‘John’s he’s been recklessly tossing about, as the latter tries to talk himself out of a £60,000-a-year position, up from his previous job’s mere £45k.
“You’re really winding me up,” says the man, with a threat of “driving round your place right now to bash you up.” This seems to pacify John, as the man’s voice drops out of the seething rage zone, and back into the sort of creepy business-speak pep-talks you see on The Apprentice.
“Look,” he says, “They don’t want pie charts. Just go in there with bags of positiveness; bags of business acumen…”
He hangs up on good terms, but I’d bet the farm on John ringing in tomorrow morning to call it off. “I’m in bed with bad guts and bellyache,” he’ll say. And that 60k a year will go wanting.