Each summer it seems as if France is tipped up from the north and all the people flow like marbles on a plank down to the south, to the beaches. From cool lavish villas or madly cluttered campgrounds or fully booked hotels, each morning they sally forth to epic traffic jams along the coastal road and then back when the sun wanes. The packed and overpriced restaurants, the concentration of high-end retail, the general social pressure are somehow mitigated by...the beaches.
Each year the traffic on the Long Island Expressway becomes ever more devastating to the human spirit as countless prospective bathers sitting in metal mechanisms shift eastward, to the beaches. The increasingly suburban nature of the terrain, the $4 artichokes, the $22-a-pound shrimp salad, the clotted automotive social life are somehow mitigated by...the beaches.
Spanish villages where once people caught herring, squid and rascasse are now barricaded from the water by vast high-rise apartment buildings, containing square boxes no different from those in Madrid and Munich, in which people reside when they come there...to the beaches.
Whole West Indian islands become fortresses of white high-rises to which people fly often at great expense on fiddly flights to consume oddly acultural, imported food and drink costly drinks protected by multicolored cocktail umbrellas. After, that is, they've been...to the beaches.
Extraordinarily luxurious resort hotels mimicking Laotian or Bengali palaces hover reclusively at the edge of sandy swathes so remote helicopters or launches or four-seater airplanes are the only means of access. People who expend thousands each month to remain in touch with the special people whose regard they crave spend hundreds each day to be away from them...by the beach.
What is this thing called beaches? What is their allure? What percentage of a beach holiday do people actually spend lying on beaches? How often do they take brisk morning walks as the tide flows in or out and be impressed yet again at the peaceful clarity of the ocean and its remorseless naturalness? What proportion of beach tourists take small children to play in sand with which they can do almost anything except throw it? And did the somewhat licentious mystique of the beach arise because it was the only place where prospective mates could inspect each other with a fair amount of both physical frankness and noncommittal independence?
The fact is beaches are highly favored, and there are many ancient reasons this should be so. Water is almost everywhere a protection, like a moat. It makes it harder for enemies to loom up too suddenly, and reduces their opportunities for swift escape if their campaign goes wrong. If an attacker does badly and can't gain land, he can drown in the water and simply?and helpfully?disappear. Under most circumstances the waterfront is one less side to guard against enemies. It is also a highly unlikely source of other predators.
So there is a sense of protection the beach provides, even though at the same time an escape route ends at the water's edge. The water also provides food in the form of fish or mollusks, or weeds if you like that sort of thing. If it is a river or a lake, then the water also provides water you can drink or wash in or wash things with. People seem to prefer cool water to drink, which in nature usually means that it is running, not still and brackish, and therefore safe. (Warm liquids are usually very warm; after the development of fire, boiled liquids presumably were understood to be safer than unboiled.)
You can float boats on water and paddle them and sail them, and if you're a real wretch and want to bother your fellow human with dazzling noise and some real danger you can even ride a jet ski.
But when all is said and done, does this explain the Riviera and Miami Beach and the Spanish Apartment Coast? All the evidence, except what people actually do, points to the fact this is a richly silly point in history at which to go to beaches. There are too many people with too much money and too many cars and frequent-flyer miles and too many days to spare to join the crowd at beaches. There are simply too many confected beach myths of idyllic embraces on the sand or joyously splashing newlyweds or ambling oldsters with their trousers rolled for it to seem to make sense to be drawn to beaches.
Some seem simply pathetic. Once a friend lent me a house her mother had owned in Wales, which was "on the beach," which was a collection of stones occasionally wetted down by ice water. Once we checked into a conference hotel in Florida to be advised to avoid the beach because of irritating other beings who would cause itching, and to use the pool instead. It is surely significant that so many people on or near the beach nevertheless create swimming pools when they can afford to do so. At least the pool doesn't bump you around, and there's none of that sand.
Maybe it's mainly the sex. The success of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue has of course nothing to do with sports and everything to do with permissible scrutiny of the bodies of unattainably lavish women?a carefully confected fantasy of the more normal cavalcade at Brighton Beach. There's little question that all the ads for health clubs in March are designed to lure in the men and women preparing for the cavalcade of summer. They will have to be in loving trim as they remove the clothes of town to expose their next-to-nothing selves to the competition and the prey. Ideally, they should be at what Colin Harrison calls their "market weight"?the best state of their physical nature for the ongoing skein of eager courting connections of boy/girl or boy/boy or girl/girl or take your pick. It was not for nothing that Charles Atlas got his start when the bully kicked beach sand in his face and stole his gal. And it was back on the beach when the newly bulked-up hero powed his enemy onto the sand and retrieved his comely prize.
And then there are the legendary places of the beach dreamworld, such as St.-Tropez, where formal female toplessness was born (or at least widely published) and where sexual imagination meets the tip of the pyramid of status. This is where Princess Di visited Dodi's estate, and where Joan Collins summers and Bardot lives, and where it is polite to replace one's top when entering the beachside restaurants for lunch. It is also a town that is unusually uncrowded, because there is no good nearby airport and it is two and a half hours by car from Nice, often more because of the fierce Riviera traffic. And the town council severely restricts large buildings or almost any change at all, so the town itself remains relatively calm and manageable.
But even there, getting to the beaches is another story, unless you're a student of cars parked in a highway. It will almost surely ruin your day. And then there's the hideous smell of that suntan oil made with coconut.
Somebody should do something about beaches.