Beache HoWeren’t Always Paradise
The strange utopia of golden sands and lapping blue waters
Earlier this summer, I spent a week stretched out on a Spanish beach. When I wasn’t sprawled on its supple sands, I was walking up and down it, stepping over swimmers and paddlers who idled along the water’s margin, supine, lost to the swells of the sun and the loose nakedness of it all.
The pleasure of being on a beach belies the very strange nature of the environment. As well as the people, one comes across inflatable rubber rings, buckets-and-spades, beachfront cafes with overweight habitués sucking on plastic straws, a little pretend train hooting and wriggling along the promenade, graceless nik-nak stores selling all things plastic, bars with wicker seats and neon signs, tattoo parlors, the smell of cooking fats sliding through the air, volleyball courts and exercise parks where only the beautiful dare to venture, hawkers, masseuses and water-sports guys — all these things constituting a place where thousands come to prostrate themselves in strange reverence. To what exactly?
The beach I was enjoying — because I was thoroughly enjoying it — was the 12km long Alcudia Bay, a beach on the Mediterranean island of Majorca.
It is something of a miracle among beaches because of its length and also the gentle gradient of the sand into the sea, meaning that swimmers can wade out some 50 yards before their toes no longer touch silky terra firma.
A beach like that is no secret. It gets so amassed with people that, as you approach it from a distance, it looks like a great earthworm stranded on dry ground, one great twitching pink-and-brown eel.
So as I stripped off and paddled in the twinkling waters, I started to wonder why so many of us had chosen to spend our time here — and how close to paradise a beach like that really is.
Beaches are, above all, simple places that give rise to simple pleasures. For one thing, nearly everyone is nearly-naked, which helps to remove all the usual markers of wealth and status. You feel free to disrobe, and in doing so you shake off the first measure of civilized society. You walk barefooted over footprints left by others; somehow the salty water and the dry sand or pebbles sanitize the environment. People stroll, or sometimes they run, but without a destination in mind, merely up and down. Sport is played: hampered by the unstable situation underfoot, it is rarely taken seriously.
Adults tend to spend their time mostly occupied with staring. In huge numbers they stand in the waters up to their knees and stare across the blue like statues. At other times they sit on sunbeds and adopt the same far-away gaze. For hours and hours, the same demeanour persists.
It is not boredom. It is a chance to be listless and stupefied when the rest of life demands minute-by-minute engagement.
For the children, their contentment is intimately related to the cessation of rules, since their sand-and-water mess is so easily integrated back into the environment. A type of exultation takes hold as they discover how a bucket of water can be collected and wildly tipped away without reprimand, or else a sandcastle can be built with fingers deep in the sand and destroyed again. I watched a sister and brother spend five minutes euphorically thumping to oblivion a castle they’d spend the morning dutifully constructing.
Advertisements tells us that beach-life is about finding a paradise, but I wondered if, for most people on this crowded stretch of sand, the idea was more about personal clemency, a self-forgiveness for the worst sin of the 21st century: that of inactivity. For one week out of the year we go all-in with laziness and call it Eden.
Why go to the beach? It was a question that our forefathers would have found strange to ask. The cult of the beach idyll is an urban phenomenon — a necessary place of escape from workaday routines — in the same way that the bucolic countryside was once the invention of the city-classes. Moreover, before the twentieth century, few people would have possessed a notion of turquoise waters and gentle lapping waves: such imagery just wasn’t in existence. To willfully overheat and darken one’s coloring under the sun’s gaze would have been seen as eccentricity at best. For many centuries, sun-tanned skin was associated with toil in the fields and serfdom, nothing more than a class prejudice that would lead the upper-crusts to use whitening makeup to accentuate their position in society.
Moreover, the coastal landscape was for centuries synonymous with a dangerous wilderness, a place of pirates and bandits, shipwrecks and natural disasters. It was only after the Industrial Revolution, in Britain first, that a trip to the seaside become something to be desired. 19th century aristocrats preoccupied with their own health were taught by physicians that a dip in the bracing waters had curative properties. As historian Daniela Blei says, sea-bathers sought treatment for a number of conditions, including melancholy, rickets, leprosy, gout, impotence, tubercular infections, menstrual problems and “hysteria”; the notion of the “restorative sea” was born.
Mass beach tourism grew with the advent of train travel and then, later, the astonishing growth of modern air travel. On this island of Majorca, the hotel boom came in the 1970s, and now most of the coastline is fringed with expansive hotel resorts. Today, the modern beach holiday is advertised as an ideal retreat, where the shoreline is less of a wilderness than a place of benevolent connection with the elements — albeit one that is groomed and spruced with imported palm trees and sometimes imported sand too.
What all this means for me and my fellow beach-sleepers, as we baste ourselves in lotion and lay our towels out as a means of grabbing a temporary plot of land for ourselves, is that our versions of paradise are as much a contrivance as a reality.
But then, we knew that already. After all, it’s hard to look across a crowded stretch of sand like this and recognize the same paradise as the adverts promise. We learn to ignore the ice cream cone floating on the water and the nearby wail of an overtired child. We put to one side the fat man moaning to his wife and the smell of fried burgers wafting over the sands.
Like so many things in modern life, we filter in only those parts we want to see. Then we are ready, so when the sun splits the sky and the water glows azure, and the distant mountains glisten peach and you wade into the gentle surf, you are free to think, “Yes, this is what I came here for.”