Insomnia

Five o’clock in the morning: I lie awake, worrying about Edgar. Not about Edgar himself, obviously, Edgar is the last person I need to worry about: I worry about the fact that Edgar of all people can’t sleep, and what that means for someone like me, who normally sleeps without a hint of a problem, when I thought Edgar was the kind of person who did so too; does that mean I have to worry about not being able to sleep, all of a sudden, just like Edgar?

It’s the kind of worry I least appreciate and am least able to see any sense in: it’s worrying about worrying: it’s a meta-worry. It’s a preposterousness, and that is in itself a worry: I now worry about the fact that I worry about worrying.

My lover doesn’t notice I’m lying awake next to him, worrying, he just rasps a contented snore. He’s an uncomplicated sleeper. Sometimes he has nightmares that wake him up briefly, but he goes back to sleep easily and quickly. I think it might just be my clamping onto him that occasionally sets off a nightmare in him, but I don’t ask for fear that he’ll confirm that, yes, that’s what it is, because I like snuggling up to him: I spend the whole night resting my head on his chest, holding him; he holding me.

I arrange to see Edgar for a drink and he seems very happy. Tired, but fulfilled. In the course of our conversation—it’s been a while since we last met, so we have some catching up to do—I realise he’s become an expert in about a half dozen subjects, and he does not seem the least bit worried, about any of them, or about getting enough sleep:

‘Oh no,’ he laughs: I nap.’

‘You nap?’

‘Yes.’

‘When do you nap?’

‘When I’m tired.’

‘And then you sleep?’

‘No I nap, there’s a difference…’

‘I realise there’s a difference, but then at night, do you sleep?’

‘Oh no, at night I lie awake, reading.’

‘What are you reading about?’

‘At the moment I’m learning Rumantsch.’

‘You’re learning Rumantsch by reading?’

‘I read it at night, and practise it during the day.’

‘Rumantsch?’

‘Yes.’

‘So you speak Rumantsch now?’

‘I read it quite well.’

I feel a little tired just listening to Edgar, as he tells me he has taken to translating a Rumantsch story into English.

‘Aren’t you tired?’

‘No, I’ve just had a nap.’

‘I mean generally: how much sleep do you get?’

‘It varies: between four and five hours a day, enough to survive.’

‘And you’re not tired? You look a bit tired.’

‘Oh that’s probably because I’ve just woken up from my nap: it takes me a while…’

‘What are you going to do with your Rumantsch story, once you’ve translated it into English?

‘I can read it to you.’

‘Yes you could: that might actually send me to sleep.’

The experiment is not a success. I am too weirded out by the fact that I have a man twice my size but effectively my age sitting in my living room, reading me a story. Also, the story is quite interesting. When I tell my lover, he suggests I read it to him: he dozes off straight away.

I sit awake, reading the rest of the story that Edgar has translated from Rumantsch into English, about an alp farmer and his three sons, who all become mercenaries, fighting wars for foreign lords in far flung countries, for remuneration. One dies, one is captured and spends a long time being held hostage because his family can’t afford the ransom, and one comes back, traumatised, but determined to bring home his brother. He sets off again on what turns into a riveting adventure of selfless bravery, Helvetian heroism and blockheaded stubbornness. He finds and liberates his brother, and his brother is grateful but also sad: he does not want to leave his fellow prisoner of war behind whom he has become close friends with: as close as brothers, closer even. Blood brothers. I think lovers, but the story doesn’t spell that out. It was written by a descendant of the older, stronger, rescuing brother in the early part of the 18th century, and they didn’t so much go in for the gay theme, at the time. To me it’s pretty obvious. My lover is fast asleep, so I can’t ask him. I phone Edgar, sure to find him awake: he answers the phone straight away:

‘Of course, it’s obvious!’

‘Do you think the story would make a good film?’

‘Of course it would make a good film!’

‘Do you think I should write a treatment?’

‘Why not? I’m not going to!’

‘Who owns the rights?’

‘I don’t think anybody does, but I can find out for you!’

Edgar is full of exclamation marks this time of night, but I’m glad that what keeps me awake now is no longer my meta-worry about worrying about being worried about Edgar, but thinking about how to frame this fabulous tale into a good, solid, rustic, heroic love story. Between a Helvetian mercenary and his lover in captivity. Over the next couple of weeks I write the treatment during my night time waking hours and show it to Edgar.

‘It’s quite good.’

‘Quite good.’

‘Yes, but you’re missing something.’

‘What am I missing?’

‘You’re missing the Rumantschness.’

‘The Rumantschness?’

‘Yes. You’ve got the Helvetianness all right, which is not surprising, seeing you’re Helvetian yourself, but you’re missing the Rumantschness.’

‘How do I get the Rumantschness?’

‘I don’t know: go there, talk to the clan, learn Rumantsch…’

‘You want me to learn Rumantsch?’

‘I don’t want you to learn it, I want you to get the Rumantschness of it: if you want someone to finance this project for you so you can turn it into a film that will be shown at the Locarno Film Festival, and be owned by the people you’re talking about at the same time, then you’ve got to get the Rumantschness of it all.’

I hadn’t thought anywhere near as far ahead as that, but of course he is right: this is exactly the kind of film that should be shown at the Locarno Film Festival, preferably on the Piazza Grande, and be both good enough to be able to win a jury award and have enough of a broad appeal—with its Helvetian 17th century prisoners-in-captivity-brothers-in-arms-but-beyond-that love story—to have a fair crack at the audience award too. It has to be thoroughly Rumantsch.

‘What if we shoot it in Rumantsch?’

‘That would go a long way to getting the Rumantschness of it, yes.’

‘But?…’

‘But it would obviously entail you speaking Rumantsch.’

The prospect seems daunting, but I speak fairly decent Italian, workalike French and a little Portuguese. I once studied Putonghua for a while. And, it occurs to me now, a little Latin, back at school, which I didn’t enjoy then, but that’s a long time ago, and I didn’t particularly see eye to eye with my teacher, except when we both agreed I should probably cease coming to his Latin class…

‘I think the film needs to be trilingual,’ Edgar offers into the silence that has briefly settled over my brow as I am contemplating my linguistic predisposition towards learning Rumantsch (I tried Spanish once to, but that didn’t get very far: the Italian kept interfering).

‘What, Italian, French and Portuguese?’

‘No, of course not: English, Swiss German and Rumantsch.’

‘Why would anybody in this story speak English?’

‘Because it’s an English researcher or journalist or distant relative who happens upon it and tells it, from his perspective, today.’

‘Like a meta-story.’

‘A bit like a meta-story.’

‘It’s been done before.’

‘Everything has been done before.’

‘It’s probably less of a meta-story, this, than a straightforward framework device.’

‘It could work: you can write the English and the Swiss German dialogue, and I can translate the Rumantsch bits.’

‘Is your Rumantsch good enough for that?’

‘It will be by the time you’re done with your script.’

‘But you’re not a writer.’

‘No, you are.’

That’s true. I am. It’s a fascinating idea. I could write the script in English and Swiss German, and he could translate the parts of the dialogue that need to be in Rumantsch into Rumantsch, and then we’d obviously need somebody whose mother tongue is Rumantsch to check it for its overall Rumantschness, maybe one of the descendants, one of the clan. I am beginning to imagine the kind of conversation I would be having with an alp farmer descendant of a Helvetian 17th century mercenary who goes to rescue his brother from captivity in a foreign land, only to find that his brother doesn’t really want to leave because he doesn’t want to abandon his lover, because he is concerned for his safety and fears, quite reasonably, that he will never see him again if he now joins his brother and escapes back to his village high up in the mountains, across the St Gotthard Pass. It sounds like an intriguing story to me. Has it got legs, though?

I think I’d need to sleep on it. At the moment, though, that’s problematical…


< Insomnia

 

Insomnia

I never lost much sleep over losing sleep. Doing so seemed, well, counterintuitive. Illogical. Self-defeating.

Those friends – one or two – who complained of restless nights, of tossing and turning, of simply not switching off, baffled me: why not just get up, if you can’t sleep, and do some work, I would wonder. Or if you don’t do the kind of work you can pursue in the small hours of the night or the morning, why not, maybe, read? Or watch a film? Watch a documentary for example, or a history programme? Phone a friend in New Zealand, or in Australia: there’s bound to be one you’ve mostly forgotten about, because they never comment on social media. They’re actually there: just call them up out of the blue and say: hey! It will be a lovely surprise.

‘Oh, but then I’ll be tired in the morning,’ they would say. But you’ll be tired in the morning anyway, I’d think and say: ‘I see. That’s inconvenient, certainly.’ I didn’t really see. Though I realised it would be inconvenient to be tired in the morning. Then again they were tired in the morning anyway, because they couldn’t sleep, so why not be tired having done something useful, or interesting?

A very good friend of mine who often found it difficult to sleep told me she worried a great deal about it, because it made her feel neurotic. I half bethought me there was perhaps a seed of self-knowledge contained in this sensation. I didn’t think it friendly to say so, so I said, ‘I’m so sorry to hear that.’ She would go to bed at nine thirty, ten at the latest, and then lie awake. She used to use earplugs and a sleep mask and close the heavy curtains of her bedroom. And not sleep. ‘You never have that problem?’ I never had that problem. I can sleep in any kind of setting, light or dark; I have a high background noise threshold (I mostly just zone out of it), I sleep any time, day or night; my window, except during coldest winter, is always ajar, my blinds don’t darken the room, they just afford a bit of privacy; I usually go to bed about three, three thirty in the morning (sometimes, if it’s been a heavy day or an early start, or an early start is impending, an hour or so earlier), I sleep until ten, maybe nine-thirty; I don’t set an alarm unless I absolutely have to: my body appears to require seven hours of sleep now, almost exactly, to wake up, slowly and a little reluctantly, always, but essentially to fully functioning order restored. So long as I’m warm enough, I am fine. I don’t even mind my lover snoring. I simply clamp onto him and fall in with his breathing, no problem.

The problem started when Edgar, my most sensible friend, told me he couldn’t sleep. ‘Why not?’ I asked him. He said he didn’t know, he just couldn’t. It was annoying. Beyond annoying, it was tiring: he’s a university lecturer, he needs to be awake during the day, to do his thinking, his preparing of lectures, his reading, and his lecturing. Being tired is not just inconvenient for him, it’s debilitating. Suddenly that made sense. And now I was worried. If Edgar, my least neurotic and quite possibly most intelligent friend, suddenly, out of the blue, simply can’t sleep, and for no particular reason, but to the point where it interferes with his operability, then who is safe from this menace? I decided, uncharacteristically, to probe further: ‘Has anything happened to make you lose sleep over it?’

‘Not really, no.’

‘Your relationship is going well.’

‘Splendid. Except we sleep in separate rooms at the moment, because I can’t sleep. And I snore.’

‘Aw. – Ah well, many couples sleep in separate rooms.’

‘They do.’

‘Your children are healthy?

‘They’re excellent, thanks.’

‘Your daughter-in-law has calmed down a bit.’

‘A bit. It’ll take her a while, I suppose.’

‘I suppose. – University not undergoing too many changes, no upheavals?’

‘Just the bureaucracy, it’s creeping in, it’s taking over. It’s a nightmare.’

‘Ah! There you go! You are worried about the bureaucrats taking over!’

‘No I don’t worry about them, I’ve got tenure. They just annoy me, they have no imagination.’

‘Of course not, they’re bureaucrats. How about… how about… food? You eat well, don’t you?’

This is an unnecessary question: Edgar eats exquisitely: he is one of the best chefs I know.

‘There really is no obvious reason,’ he says, a tone of resignation in his voice. That worries me: if Edgar, of all people, quite possibly the most up-for-it, can-do person I know, is sounding resigned over being unable to sleep, then who can fight this disease. Disease!

‘How is your health?’

‘My health is all right, thanks, how is yours?’

‘Mine is just dandy, thanks. Do you take any exercise?’ I’ve recently latched on to the need to take exercise, it’s an age thing; has Edgar?

‘Of course not.’

‘Maybe that’s the cause of your inability to sleep.’

‘I have never taken any exercise in my life, I burn all my calories in my brain.’

This is probably true. The brain uses a lot of energy, and Edgar is one of the most avid thinkers I know; but thinking doesn’t aid circulation.

‘You maybe should go for a walk now and then.’

‘I go for short walks all the time.’

‘Maybe you should go for a long walk, every day.’

‘You do that, don’t you?

‘I do. And I sleep like a baby.’

‘What, wake up every few hours and scream your head off, until somebody rocks you and gives you some oral gratification.’

‘I walked right into that, didn’t I.’

That’s why I like Edgar, he doesn’t take any nonsense from me, or from anyone. And he’s brought up a whole brood of children, he knows what he’s talking about.

‘Have you thought about therapy?’ (Of course he hasn’t.)

‘Of course not.’

‘Then I don’t know what I can recommend. Read, maybe. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. People rave about it. I tried reading it five times, I fell asleep every time. It’s like a switch: I get to about page three, four, maximum five, then I’m out. Just like that.’

‘I’ve read it. It was entertaining.’

‘Maybe try reading it again… – or: maybe try reading something you’re really not interested in, at all.’

‘Like what?’

‘Like the Spanish Civil War.’

‘The Spanish Civil War?’

‘Yes: are you interested in the Spanish Civil War?’

‘I have never given it a moment’s thought.’

‘Try that.’

I meet Edgar for coffee about two weeks later, as we are both in town. (We are not that often both in town at the same time, we lead busy, cosmopolitan lifestyles that involve being out of and in other cities and towns respectively all the time.)

‘How is it going?

‘Fine thanks. Just very tired.’

‘Still no joy with the sleep?’

‘It’s getting worse.’

‘I’m sorry to hear that.’

‘Thanks. You are, of course, to blame.’

‘Me?’

‘Yes.’

‘How come?’

‘Well, I started reading about the Spanish Civil War: it’s riveting!’

‘Oh, but that’s great, isn’t it?

‘Yes and no: I’m learning about European history, which, frankly, I knew little about, but the books now keep me awake even longer.’

‘Ah. Well. That was an unintended consequence. Maybe you have to find something less stimulating to read, and less likely to be of random tangential relevance to you. How about botany?’

‘Botany?’

‘Yes, you don’t have a garden, do you.’

‘No.’

‘And you don’t want one, do you.’

‘Absolutely not.’

‘Well there you go: why not read about botany, that will send you to sleep.’ (If that doesn’t send him to sleep, I think, then nothing will. Then again, there are botanists, so who knows…)

It’s nearly the end of June and I’m about to go on a lengthy trip, so I forget about the business of sleep for a while as I cruise around Europe in an open top car. This feels both extravagant and romantic. I’m doing it on my own, because I don’t currently have a partner (I haven’t had a partner in years) and I’m enjoying the freedom, the spirit, the air. I sleep in a different BnB every night, almost, and most of the time on my own. Only on one occasion the host is so flirtatious, so attractive, so sexy that we end up spending the night together. In Bordeaux. I eat well, I drink well, I sleep well.

Edgar and I are having dinner, on my return. He’s cooking, the way he usually does, in passing. He has the knack for rustling up something delicious as if it weren’t happening, while we’re talking. It’s fascinating, and a little disconcerting. When I cook (which I only do since recently, thanks to an online service that sends me all the ingredients in a box, together with clear instructions), I have to give it my fullest attention. I follow the steps. My cooking is in essence a connecting of dots. With some success, I might add. Edgar’s cooking is all jazz and improvisation. The steak is particularly juicy on this occasion, and the roasted vegetables with fresh herbs are out of this world!

‘You’ve surpassed yourself, Edgar! This food is amazing!’

‘Thanks.’

‘The vegetables, they are so tasty!’

(I notice I’m discoursing in exclamation marks, all of a sudden! But they’re warranted!)

‘Thanks.’ Edgar is humility personified. ‘I grew them during the summer.’

‘You what?’

‘I grew them, in the garden.’

‘You don’t have a garden.’

‘I do: I asked the neighbour down on the ground floor, “who tends the garden?” and he said, “nobody does, it’s a crying shame,” and so I said: “let me.”’

‘But you know nothing about gardening.’

‘Well, I’ve been reading a lot about botany lately, and it’s really quite the most interesting thing. And stimulating.’

‘O-oh.’

‘I know, it doesn’t send me to sleep, of course; it keeps me awake, but hey: we have exquisite vegetables now, and those herbs.’

I fear me I may have to change me my strategy…


Insomnia >

 

{The Fire Breather}

Though he be strong, he is not fierce; though he be powerful, he is not violent. Although he be dependable, righteous he can’t be; though he be wise, he is not heard. He is a Fire Breather: his word burns like a torch; like Elijah’s does it purify – but can it ever be understood? By whom?

He casts a curious figure in the wilderness, as he stands by the shore, by the riverbank, on the mountain, on the traffic island in the city; in the square; shadowless, peerless, ageless. The inner beauty of his mind obscured and masked by the dust on his brow and the mud round his ankles. His hair all a-tangle, his white beard streaked now only with the occasional charcoal, with a strand of dark blond here, or there ginger. His scent is not sweet, nor is he at first glance a joy to behold. 

At second glance the wrinkles around his eyes show as laugh lines, and they are merry with wisdom. At third glance the light in his eyes shines bright as a flame: the oxygen of an insight beyond.

Through meditation and study and practice he has mastered the art of putting his mind above matter, and so he has learnt to walk on water, but he can only do so when nobody watches because he knows that if anyone were to see him, they would turn him into a miracle worker, a prophet, a freak. A messiah. A wonder of no more worth than that it defies the simple laws of contemporarily understood physics.

He will not have it. He will not be entertainment. He will not speak of his understanding, nor will he surmise his premonitions other than to those who are able and willing to pause. And stay silent, but for a while. Ere they ask questions. Those who are capable of phrasing these questions from a hunger for knowledge, a desire to learn. They are not many. The shouting, the screaming, the screeching, the demands for explanations, the sarcastic tones and the jibes, the heckling, the laughter, the desire—the instinct—for tearing him down, the lust for his failure, for his destruction, for him being hung drawn and quartered, for his undoing, are great.

He knows this, and he inwardly smiles. He has the capacity in his heart to forgive. He is magnanimous in his disposition towards those who hate him, who wish him silenced, who relish him misunderstood. Because he knows: one day something or someone will catch fire from his word and the fire will spread and will cause a great conflagration from which the lands will emerge purged and fertile for new thought to grow.

That is not his aim nor his goal nor his intention, that is just his purpose. His purpose is to quietly whisper into the din of the crowd that will not heed him, and plant the seeds he was given to sow. Until one takes hold. Until from just one or just two or just three or four first, and then four or five more, some thing starts to grow. He doesn’t even know what that could be. He has no certainty that it will not be dangerous, poisonous even, or be made such by others who will take what they find and turn it upside down, inside out; who pervert him and his gentle teachings into dogma and strife. He cannot prevent this from happening, if it must. He can only be true to his purpose, his purpose being his word.

Fear not the Fire Breather, but neither dismiss or ignore him. And doubt not the might of the Word.

∞² Revival

I decide that the origin is clearly not what matters. It goes against my grain somewhat to accept this, because wasn’t that what got me onto this story in the first place? Wasn’t that the intriguing question: how did it all begin? Still, nobody knows, and no-one I met and talked to about it was able to give me any more hints or pointers. There’s the legend of the two guys in their twenties and their dare, and there is the tradition that has established itself over time, and that’s all there is to it. Does there need to be more?

Of course, everything has a cause and an origin somewhere, and probably this is somehow known: in the fabric of the common consciousness, unspoken, unexplained. It just happened, we all know it just happened, we kind of understand how it happened, and we’re all right with that. Or is it a case of avoiding uncomfortable truths? What could possibly be uncomfortable in a truth about an event as friendly and as inclusive and as welcoming and as joyful as the Boscombe & Bournemouth Nude Beach Stroll? I decide to let it go. This obsession with clear causes and rational effects. I’ve had, against all my expectations and severe reservations, a marvellous time in the unclothed company of strangers who turned out very much to be friends I hadn’t yet met. This belief I’ve held always, borne out by experience.

We are good people.

Yes, we do terrible things – the litany of our offences against each other, against the planet, against the animal kingdom, reads like a catalogue of monstrosity, and we’re never more than an inch away from some appalling misdeed or other – and yes our history is littered with catastrophic failures of humanity, and yes: you watch your news and you feel a moment closer to despair before you’ve had a chance to change channels, but… take a Sunday afternoon like this in almost any town in England, or in any country, really, and, away from the agitation, unstirred by some cause or other, some issue or concern, given a set of basic parameters – that the fundamental needs be covered, that the fabric of the community be intact and healthy, that the framework that allows human beings to feel safe and appreciated be in place and not threatened by crime or corruption or despotic politics – you will find us getting on with each other, pretty much. Across generations, across creeds, across ideologies, across gender, across ethnicity, across religion, across our own little preoccupations, and large ones too, across the spectrum. It’s not spectacular, and it’s not difficult. It’s human, it’s normal. And yet, it still feels amazing.

This, I decide to hold on to. As a thought, as a hope. I know some will find me naive and deluded, I realise at this time of confrontation and conflict and unbearable regression into isolationist rhetoric, simplistic solutions and the allocation of blame, guilt and shame, it may sound almost glib to say: ‘we are good people.’ But think of the alternative. Think of what it means if we decide, in the face of everything, that we are as terrible as the worst things we see? Then whatever makes whoever among us do wrong in whatever way will have won: we hand our worst version of ourselves victory over ourselves.

Because yes, the bombing of children in war zones, the dumping of plastic by the container load in the oceans, the burning down of refugee centres, and the shooting of students at high schools: they’re all done by us. People. Like you and me. That is the horrendous truth, but it’s also – and that’s much harder to comprehend and as difficult to accept – the reason there is hope yet. The people who do the most terrible things from which we recoil in disgust, they are not a different species. They are innocent when they are born and grow up with hopes and dreams of their own.

And then things go wrong. Over time, bit by bit, through circumstances, through personal choices, through the need to survive, through the culture we’re born into, through what behaviours are reinforced. Through illness. Through despair. For every person who does something destructive, violent, inhuman, cruel, there is also the person they could have become. May yet turn into, given the chance. And vice versa.

So if we give in to despair, surrender to cruelty, and accept violence and destruction as the norm, then we feed them. We give our energy to them, we make them stronger. We start to meet hatred with hatred, instead of with love. We start to build walls, instead of dismantling borders. We start to arm teachers, instead of disarming society. We crank up the tension, instead of defusing situations, we add fuel to the wildfire, instead of extinguishing it, and planting new trees. They’re simple choices, really: whichever version of ourselves we nurture will grow strong.

And so I take my leave of Boscombe & Bournemouth and its famous Nude Beach Stroll, on the last Sunday in June. I salute you, good people, there, by the coast: I thank you, you’ve given me much food for thought and made me see my world differently. I do wish you well!

∞² Revival

As the day draws to a close, and the sun now lingers – mellowed by the dusky haze – over the horizon, down vaguely to the right, for a while, before bidding the shore goodnight, I start feeling just a tad chilly, and I’m not alone.

Much as there was no gong and no whistle, no starting gun and no fanfare to announce the beginning of the Boscombe & Bournemouth Nude Beach Stroll this midsummer Sunday, so there is no clarion to call people back into their clothes, or to summon them into the pubs and the bars, or back to their houses, should they have no friends, and made none during the day, or simply show no inclination to hang out into the evening.

Instead, with the colder air breezing in from the sea, and the rays at their acuter angle subdued, you start to spot a jumper here, and a cardigan there. The hats come off, for a while, as they are no longer needed for shade and not yet against wind, and the T-shirts go on, and once you’re wearing a top there really is not much of an incentive not to also wear something around your wriggly rump any more. So on come the shorts, gradually, and the jeans and the chinos, without anyone making a deal of it, big or small, and by and by, the beach and the seafront, the deckchairs, the benches, the plastic seats outside the beach huts, and all the promenade, they start to look ‘normal’. Then again, I’m bound to find myself asking, what’s ‘normal’? And it’s not a facetious question, this, here. A Sunday talking to people – all kinds of them – strolling and pausing, stopping here for a drink, there for a tea, meeting friends of my new friends and their friends who introduced me to theirs, my frame of reference for any such thing as normality has been blown wide open, and it hadn’t exactly been narrow to begin with.

There was a university lecturer from Leicester whose sister lives in the country with her husband and their three kids; they all were out and about, the kids mainly playing down by the water, the adults mainly standing around, nursing pints. There was the former MP whom I thought I recognised, but I didn’t: I got her mixed up with somebody else, and from the wrong party. She was there with her boyfriend and he had bumped into some mates who were actually kicking around a ball for a while. That was quite a sight, for, I warrant, these were not athletes… There was a bus driver and the obligatory cab driver too, and several nurses and teachers. Some middling managers of one enterprise or another, and a sizeable contingent of hipsters, in every sense of the word.

The overriding feel of the entire day was nothing so much as its extraordinary ordinariness. Perhaps it’s the mindset: the easing into this ease, the deliberate nonchalance of letting it all hang out, quite literally, and not paying attention, to any of it. All day long. I suspect that regular goers to nude beaches find none of this anywhere near as noteworthy as I do; I imagine that they’ve been saying so, all along.

For me, it was new. Though not, hand on heart, entirely unexpected. I don’t know what I expected, but planted in my mind from somewhere had been a vision of a perfectly normal day in the sun, with perfectly normal people doing perfectly normal things, in the nude. And that’s just exactly what it was. More or less. Of course, there was something of a garden party atmosphere, with all this milling and strolling and stopping for chats and Pimmses and fruit bowls and the ubiquitous tea. Of course, it was an especially leisurely day. In an especially ordinary way.

Is nudity a great leveller? Of course it is. Is it liberating? In some sense, no doubt. Is it practical? Absolutely not. Do I wish me more nude days in more towns of this world, just like this? I’m not even sure. One of the things that makes the Boscombe & Bournemouth Nude Beach Stroll on the last Sunday of June every year such a special occasion is, perhaps, that it is, after all, special. And it really helps being by the seaside. Near a small town. (Or a couple of them, to be precise.) It helps being in England, maybe, I don’t know. There is still – after all – an unruffled no-nonsense albeit quaintly eccentric friendliness in this country that, with all the madness in and around it, manages just about to keep it sane. At least so it feels. Especially on a day like today. Or is it all just nostalgia? Am I hankering after a world that has changed beyond recognition, that simply no longer exists, and projecting upon what is there my idyll, in a quirky distortion?

Not from my experience today. The people I met and spoke to today are just exactly as I’ve always experienced them, only more so. Maybe that’s what the nudity does, more than anything: it lays us bare, of course, that’s pretty obvious, but does being bare make us more vulnerable? Certainly. In every way. Does being more vulnerable make us more honest? Very possibly. Does being more honest make us better humans? I like to think so. Honesty in all cases in all circumstances in all situations? Maybe not. Maybe a civilisation needs to mask part of its face some of the time (maybe some part of it even all of the time?), maybe in order for it to be civilised in the first place, it needs to be clothed, in something or other. Skins, textiles, manners, etiquette, agreed upon forms of conduct, the compact of the exchange to make it bearable, pleasant even… I’d been taken, all through the day, with how civil everyone was. How unirritable, how forgiving.

Perhaps that’s what it does to us, being naked: could it be that perhaps it encourages us, allows us, even, to forgive?

∞² Revival

I imagine the woman sitting across a small plastic table from me, wearing clothes. I confess I have done the reverse thing before. Of course, who hasn’t? Or hasn’t anyone, ever? I don’t even know. It’s not something I talk about to my friends: have you ever sat on a tube train or on a bench in the park or in a cafe, or stood in a pub, and imagined the people there naked? All of them? Or even just some of them? And taken the thought further into their world and wondered: how do they make love? Do they ‘make love’, or do they have untrammelled, wild, passionate sex? (Why do we have to say ‘have sex?’ Why, in a language that verbs like no other, have we not adopted ‘to sex’? As in ‘how do they sex?’) And with whom? What do they look like, and sound like, and feel like, in the shower, afterwards? What will they have for breakfast, if anything? Who or what do they see when they cast a glance in the mirror, naked? Is it normal to ask yourself these questions? Or is it weird. What isn’t ‘weird’?

Now, I’m sitting opposite a middle aged woman who has a certain amount of volume to her body – her breasts sag a little, her tummy folds over the patch of pubic hair that adorns her vagina, her arms wobble a bit as she gestures, which she does a fair bit – and I wonder what does she wear, normally? She has spread towels over a half dozen plastic chairs on which we all sit. My small backpack leans against mine, and part of me feels tempted, still, to just reach down now and take out the shorts and the T-shirt, and put them on. Part of me though feels relaxed. Quite remarkably so. Her ‘girlfriend’, the woman’s, is pouring tea from a pot into half-size colourful mugs which have on them motifs of beach life in England. They’re handcrafted and pleasant and add to the general feeling of familiarity. There is nothing remiss with this world as I see it, it seems, and I wonder why do we call our partners, if we have them, which I don’t (or still don’t, I’m hardly ever entirely sure which), ‘boyfriend’ and ‘girlfriend’ when they are clearly way into their forties or fifties, and what, then, is a transgendered friend. Surely not my ‘transfriend’? The ‘girlfriend’, who is certainly nearing her mid-forties if not in fact pushing fifty, is of a similar build to her partner/lover/otherhalf/technically-wife-though-they-be-not-married-even-though-now-of-course-they-could-if-they-wanted-to, while pouring tea into the mini mugs that are more sturdy than dainty, but lovable all the same (a bit like the couple themselves), recounts the story of their progeny – the mugs’ – and how they – the couple – got them from a friend of theirs who in turn had made them herself especially for their beach hut here, outside which we are sitting, as a present. But my mind isn’t on tea or on mugs or even on the extraordinarily large buttock that advances on me alarmingly as she bends down to pour the sixth mug.

Instead, my mind briefly wanders into un- or only tangentially related territory, and I wonder can we not just call this, ourselves, the Rainbow Community. We’ve adopted the flag, we enjoy the concept, it’s served us well, it does the job and it’s friendly. LGBTTQQIAAP sounds, frankly, ridiculous. It may be inclusive, but as a word it’s unpronounceable, and as an acronym preposterous. And though it list everyone anyone can currently think of, it’s bound to be incomplete. There is certain to be someone out there somewhere who does not feel their gender or sexual identity adequately represented by either ‘lesbian’, ‘gay’, ‘bisexual’, ‘transgender’, ‘transsexual’, ‘queer’, ‘questioning’, ‘intersex’, ‘asexual’, ‘ally’, or ‘pansexual’. Rainbow, let’s face it, does the trick, as in: “Brighton and Hove is a haven for the Rainbow Community, there is no real reason why Bournemouth and Boscombe shouldn’t be too.” I have a feeling the idea can hardly be new, and I surmise it has probably been tried or at least aired before and for some reason or other rejected, or dismissed, by at least some. But, my mind goes: we need better than a string of letters that looks like an unsolved Enigma code and has no sound. ‘Rainbow’ is fine, seriously, it may have hippie connotations, and the peace movement of the 1990s may have a claim on it too, but so what. It’s embracing. It’s non-ethnicity specific, it’s even pretty. It’s natural. Rainbows happen all over the world. All the time. Like living, like loving. Like questioning, querying and doubting. Like being naked under the sun. For whatever reason, to whatever end.

We could call ourselves the Turing Community, with a reference to the unsolved enigma that is being LGBTTQQIAAP, and to honour a human being who has done more for humanity than most others and suffered terrible injustice as his reward. I resolve to try it out on my new friends here, at the next opportunity and say something like: ‘The Turing Community has really made great strides this century, but the struggle is by no means over.” Upon which they are bound to ask: “What’s the Turing Community,” to which I’ll reply: “us, the Rainbow Community,” and there’ll no doubt be a long discussion about what we should call ourselves, and whether we can even think of ourselves in any way as a ‘community’. And that could be fun, or at least diverting. Or stimulating, who knows…

Before I can do so, we are joined by another friendly couple who are participating in the Bournemouth and Boscome Nude Beach Stroll together with their little dog. The dog is panting a bit in the heat now, so he gets a bowl of water as a priority. Everybody gets up – that is my big burly new friend, who’s effectively adopted me as a Nude Beach Stroll newbie, his somewhat demur friend who has not been saying much since I tagged along with them, and their sunny woman friend whose welcome it was that convinced me and won me over so quickly. The British ritual of kissing friends and close-enough friends of friends even if you have never met them before on the cheek, once, takes on an additional layer of ‘slightly awkward’, because parts of peoples’ bodies that are usually unnoticeable enough, wrapped in some clothing, now dangle and wriggle, and you just have to get used to the odd nipple or tip of a cock brushing against you, and make nothing of it. As do these kind folk, whom to be with I feel happier and more comfortable about all the time.

There is now a veritable plethora of people represented around this little impromptu tea party, and instead of toying with gender nomenclature, I imagine them going about their ordinary business during the day naked. That’s just as entertaining, I quickly realise, as imagining them clothed. The host couple, it transpires, are both social workers of some sort, though one, it appears, in the statutory, the other in the voluntary sector. The mixed couple who have just arrived are semi-retired, it seems, but I can’t quite disentangle their various community involvements and interests from their part time professional activities which lie broadly in the region of ‘consultation’. My burly new friend is a carpenter, and his partner – the one who strikes me as a little suspicious, or possibly simply wary of me – a lawyer. Their woman friend works for a big company on the outskirts of town. In personnel.

I imagine being employed by her big company on the outskirts of town and needing to see her about my annual leave or my P45, and wandering through a large open plan office full of naked people sitting at computers doing things that to me are incomprehensible in the way, say, cricket is, but not quite as fascinating or soothing, and knocking on Sarah’s door and hearing her friendly, warm, sunny voice call, ‘come in!’, and finding her sitting there at her own desk with her big broad smile, and her very red lips and her quite strawberry hair and her freckled nose and her large-nippled breasts, and her necklace that has a Buddhist, I reckon, symbol on it, or maybe it’s just generically spiritual, and her interesting silver green-shade coloured nails, and her offering me a seat.

There are many things inherently impractical indeed about being naked. You don’t want to, for example, sit down in a leather chair where you know someone else has just sat, for maybe half an hour or longer, talking to their Human Resources manager about a recurring health issue. What exactly is the issue, you wonder, and is it contagious?… Or the carpenter. Now, in some respects that makes a little more sense: making furniture is proper physical exertion, and why should he not do so free from textiles, but perhaps, for reasons of personal safety, no more than topless. I like his chest, Paul’s, as it bounces when he laughs at a joke I wasn’t quite listening to and therefore didn’t quite get, and I like his magnificent belly which doesn’t seem fat so much as voluptuous. He is wholly, and wholesomely attractive, though not in a classical, or traditional, or obvious way. His personality beams and bestows on the people around him assurance. I like that. His living partner (of many years, it turns out) is the exact opposite. Dry and wry and analytical. They obviously complement each other, and although he, the partner, hasn’t warmed to me yet, I sense his underlying suspicion, if that’s what it is, slowly ceding. It’s maybe the tea, maybe the realisation I am not going to be a threat to him or his relationship, ever; or perhaps it’s the cookies. I wonder could it possibly have happened that we’ve been served hash cookies, without being told, but then dismiss that idea as absurd. I would have fallen asleep by now, because my tolerance of dope is practically zero.

I suddenly long for a prosecco and wonder is that an option, when I’m pulled out of my disjointed but pleasurable reverie (in the nude) by hearing my name spoken, loud and a little provocative: ‘and what is it you do, Sebastian?’ Clare asks me with a look of frank expectation. She’s the girlfriend of the host couple and the one, I believe, whose social work is more statutory. I’m momentarily startled and before I can prevent myself from thinking the thought I wonder, but for a fraction of a second, what happens when nudists get involuntary erections, but I gather my senses and I reply: ‘I am a writer.’

{QED}

now the problem of the giraffe taking a shower is a very serious one which has never really been solved. it is also very much doubtful whether it ever will be solved, since it is such a great one.

the giraffe taking a shower has the great problem that the water running down his beautiful long ears, down his beautiful long neck, over his delightful belly and down his beautiful long legs, reaches his beautiful long toes when it is not likely to be quite as warm any more as it was when it rinsed over the beautiful long ears. in fact is is very likely to be rather cold. thus the giraffe taking a shower finds himself confronted with the everlasting difficulty of an undisintangleable dilemma. this sounds unlikely, i know, that is we all know, you and i know it sounds remarkably unlikely, but it is nevertheless very true: should he, the giraffe taking a shower, risk burning the tips of his beautiful ears, or perchance freeze to the bone his beautiful toes. if he sets the water temperature too high he will invariably burn the tips of his beautiful ears, or at least get very hot in his head, which is almost equally uncomfortable; does he, however, try to avoid this by tuning the water a little colder, he will of course not burn his ears but by the time the water will have run down all his beautiful long neck, his delightful belly will already shiver a little and when the water finally reaches his beautiful long toes it will be plain cold and he will awfully chill his sensitive footends.

so this, as most easily can be understood, is the problem of the giraffe taking a shower. what is he supposed to do. should he drop the idea of having a shower altogether and instead take the occasional bath? that, of course, might seem like a sensible alternative. but how complicated a thing to do. for a giraffe. no one could expect him to just simply fold his neck when he wants to wash it, and how can he reach his beautiful ears when his beautiful long legs still are not half as long as his beautiful neck. oh i can tell you, a giraffe has no easy life to live. his problems are many and none of them is a small one, let alone short. he or she, the giraffe taking a shower, is a poor creature just like you and like me…