The Beach Diaries 2015 — #4 in an Occasional Series
The bigwigs of the local art scene have put on a festival in the field by the beach; the LOVE Littlehampton Festival. There’s a kind of seashells-glued-to-a-vase-in-a-gift-shop-window Burning Man vibe, all dreadlocks and body-paint, and men in rainbow tutus flinging diablos into the sky.
Alan proves his celebrity status from a previous entry, parking his car by the side of the stage, and with his arrival announced over the mic like he’s Hulk Hogan being talked to the ring to defend his sweaty belt against the Iron Sheik. Along with the grand entrance, he’s slightly playing up his status as a celebrity eccentric, barefoot in jogging bottoms and shirtless beneath his dressing gown, like how John McCririck amped the priapic sexism to 11 when he realised it had become a marketable character.
While laid back on the grass, waiting for my friend to show, a calypso band lull me to a sleep beneath the oppressive midday sun, leading to another summer where my sunglasses-tan morphs me into the negative of a panda. When I jerk awake, mildly disorientated, Alan’s at the front of the stage, grasping the stuffed dog usually tied to his roof, and making it dance to the music.
Overheard conversation snippets. Mother with a small child, to her friend.
“In my day, the seventies and eighties, the Pakistanis came over here and they slept with their own families. That’s why all the kids were born funny.”
Unusually for these pieces, I spend the day with people I know rather than by myself. This leads to my being corralled into showing off my juggling at the circus skills tent. I don’t have many discernible talents; certainly few that can be called on at random moments. Nobody ever asks you to write a novel on the spot so they can see if you really do have as good a sense of structure and pacing as you’ve bragged. But my juggling, which was a teenage obsession, has been played up over time. Any mention of circusy things sees me quick to throw in with a “Yeah, I’m brilliant at that. Give me a broom and I’ll balance it on my chin. Wanted to join the circus when I was 15. Got a unicycle for my 16th birthday…” However, to say that I’m rusty would be an understatement. While I can’t be trusted to pass a bowl of fruit without flinging them under my legs and putting them back bruised, I haven’t really done it for a good twenty years; certainly not with clubs or more than three balls.
Fliss has heard me talking it up for a long time, and in the shadow of a mini-big-top, is gifted the chance to finally call me on it in public. When the wiry little Circus-man with the missing tooth and ratty ponytail produces a stack of balls, I sense I’m seconds from the familiar sight of a pair of big, blue eyes dismissively peering over the top of some imaginary glasses. I’m hot and unprepared, and juggling muscle-memory takes a few minutes to kick into life, beyond the perfunctory basics, so I pick up three balls and clumsily run through a half-arsed routine of the tricks I can remember.
“You finally saw me juggling,” I say to Fliss.
“I saw you dropping things,” she says, strolling off to try the poi, and not sticking around to watch me pick up a set of clubs.
Later, as the circus skill people take down the tent, it’s announced over the PA that they’re headed off for a “fire show” in London. On this, a pair of small boys who’ve been practising hula hoops sprint over to ask the juggler if they can go with them. Some childhood fantasies are timeless. Although judging from my own pitiful display, I doubt they’d want me for anything beyond sweeping the turds out of the elephant enclosure with my bare, uncoordinated hands.
The name of the festival gets me thinking back to a conversation I overheard earlier in the week, between a group of teenagers who took a brief stop on the bench as I was reading on the other side of the wall. I could only pick out snippets of their mewing, but it was clear that one of their number was virtually radioactive with the first exciting flushes of reciprocated love. I’m sure these days that plays out in group snapchats, or lyric-quoting tweets they think are really vague but aren’t, rather than tippexed initials on a pencil case, but the grand emotions will never change. Presumably.
Having never had that, caught as I am in the midst of this weird existential crisis, I find myself wondering what it’s like; that thing of knowing someone you like likes you back. It’s a thing which drives so much art, with the entire world chasing that feeling of reciprocation; of a magnetic pull instead of push, even on the small, simple level where you’re aware that someone of whom you think “she’s nice” thinks “he’s nice” in return. I wonder if there’s a specific feeling tied to that; a unique emotion that can later be called upon with sense-memory whiffs of a familiar aftershave or the opening bar to a song you once listened to together in the dark?
Part of me is curious to feel that before I die, just once, as a vague emotional bucket listing, seeing as it’s clearly such a central and driving part of the human experience. But I think it’s better not to know. You never hear anybody say “Took a big puff of crack, but I decided it wasn’t for me.” They’re always toothless and sunset-eyed; a decade more haggard then their forgotten school chums, after years of the obsessive, elusive hunt to recapture the sensations of that first high. Who wants to spend the rest of their life weighed down by that?
At the point a local band announce their entire oeuvre of noodling, twelve-minute dirges of feedback and psychedelica are inspired by the original series of Star Trek, it’s time to go home.
The Beach Diaries have been running since 2011, spawning the two Kindle books you see above. Both are available on Amazon, for the price of a pint, and I highly recommend you buy them, because I like money.