Revival [3]

I resolve to dive in. Not into the water—that’s way too cold for me, this time of year, early summer, just after the solstice and before the sea has been warmed by long days in the sun—but into the experience of it all.

There, inside the experience, may lie a clue. If not a clue, then perhaps an insight, a truth. It could be random, it could be real. My research has yielded nothing. I have spoken to cafe owners and life guards, to beach goers and hut holders. To dog walkers (where they’re allowed, the dogs) and to joggers. Hoteliers, I spoke to, two of them. And two police officers, one a young woman, the other a young man, both attractive, both friendly, both clueless as to the origin of this tradition that is still, after all, fairly new; but a tradition nonetheless. Age has no bearing on the soul of a matter, be that a culture, a person, a people, a place: roots burrow deep, far deeper, we know, than the living thing that we see may suggest.

Everybody, of course, has a story to tell. Most of them charming, some of them harrowing, all of them sad, in a way. I’m surprised to find that to be so. No matter whom I talk to, and for how long, there is always, always a moment of sadness. How did I miss that, in my perception, for so long? How sadness seeps through the seasons, irrespective of who you are.

Here, many remember, with a scarred sense of fondness for how it all brought them together, the Solstice Spectacle several years ago, when two youths had set fire to almost all of the beach huts along the seafront in the most brazen, most wanton act of arson anyone could recall. Nobody refers to it now—as some ‘newspapers’ did at the time—as a ‘massacre’; and few people, though the sadness naturally prevails, are weighed down now by sorrow over the girls, the twins, who’d perished, aged five, having been put to bed in one of the larger huts, while the parents were sharing a rare moment of intimacy, just outside, in the twinkling night of summery stars.

So into each other, so absorbed by their bodies, the parents had been at that time, that they didn’t notice the bangs, or the heat, or the flames from the beach in the distance at first, or the smoke: they took them for fireworks in the sky, for being at one with each other for the first time in ages; and the chain lit up so quickly, by the time the Calor gas bottle exploded and they’d rushed back to their hut, just a few yards, a few steps really, no more, it was way too late.

The devastation still registers in the young mother’s eyes; the young father holding her hands, as they sit, outside their new hut, overlooking the sea. They are no longer young now, these two, but they do have a son and a daughter, aged twelve and fourteen. They are not happy, but they’re content. And they have no anger now in their hearts, and no hate. Then, they did, they tell me, they wanted them dead, the two youths who had done this to them, who had taken their daughters. Now? Now they feel a kind of resignation, and calm. Life is like that.

‘Life is like that,’ the young father, no longer young now (maybe a little young, still), but proud of his son whom he shows me a picture of, after he’s shown me one of the twins, and before he shows me one of his daughter too, says: ‘life goes on; has to, really.’

The young mother, who I know, although she doesn’t tell me, feels guilty for having left the girls in the hut while stealing, for the first time in weeks, maybe months, a bit of time just with her man, to enjoy, to inhale, to taste and to have him, in the freedom of the seaside air and after the long struggles for daily survival, in and out of the sun, smiles a wan smile of undying regret. She could have saved them, her eyes—though they be adorned by kind lines after all—tell me, pleading for my forgiveness. I have no gift of forgiveness for her, it has nothing whatever to do with me: I only feel love for these people, and thank them their honesty and their trust.

‘Thing is, we couldn’t have saved them,’ her husband, squeezing her hands, so in tune he senses her anguish without needing to ask any question, tells me: ‘it was just too quick. When this kind of catastrophe strikes you down you have to, if you can, just get up again. Kids die in accidents. In a car crash. If we’d been lying there with them, and had fallen asleep, we’d both be dead too?’ His voice inflects a question. The doubt. The ‘catastrophe’. It sounds a little incongruent now, but true. Maybe he wants to be sure, more sure than he is. Who can blame them. I salute them, I wander on.

I do not find any relatives of the elderly couple, or the owners, at the time, of the dog. But, ‘Bournemouth & Boscombe has had its fair share of tragedy,’ an old lady tells me, ‘maybe more than.’ She sits further down the beach, in front of her own hut, that is hidden a little, tucked away behind a bit of a bluff, and she nods at me sagely. I expect her to go on, but she doesn’t. There is something in my memory that I can’t recall that makes me think that I know what she’s talking about, but the look she gives me suggests that the time isn’t right. And so I don’t ask, and she doesn’t tell. Some things are best left unspoken. Yet for a while. And so I take the plunge.

The Bournemouth & Boscombe Nude Beach Stroll. I have never been naked in public. I’m innately shy. People don’t think so, they think I am confident, bold even. I’m not. It’s the last Sunday in June and I’m curious: will it happen. And how? The weather is glorious, hot: more than thirty degrees. I shower, smear sun cream all over my body, wear shorts and a shirt and flip-flops; the near compulsory hat, and the shades, and head out.

It’s just gone lunch time and I expect to be disappointed. For a while it looks like I might be; and then, suddenly, unnoticeably almost at first, then more and more obviously and quite naturally, it happens. Here a naked person, another one there. A couple, a group, some talking, some smiling, without exception all sunning themselves and their bodies in the luxurious heat, they are strolling along the beach. As I get there, they are vastly outnumbered by clothed people, but the clothed people don’t bat an eyelid, with the exception perhaps of the odd tourist. I am on my own and I don’t know how to do this now, where should I stop to undress? I feel lost, I must look it, too.

I need not fret, it turns out. A big burly man with a lot of hair on his chest and a belly protruding far over a very small penis beams at me, baring the broadest of grins: ‘You look just like someone who’s come to stroll in the nude.’ For the duration of half a thought I want to say, ‘sorry? Who? Me? Oh no, don’t worry about me, I’m just looking for a place to buy ice cream.’ But his friend smiles at me too, and I like her for that. She’s generous, kind. Their mutual friend, I assume, seems to be thinking about something, but he too gives me a nod of encouragement, and so I say: ‘Yes. I am.’

‘I hope you’re wearing sunscreen?’ the big man, who steadies my arm as I step out of my shorts, asks me, and his friend cocks his head a little as if to comment, not strictly endorsing, but not dismissing either, my soft cotton trunks. I take them off too. And the shirt, and I put them all in a little backpack I’ve brought along for this purpose, and I step back into my flip-flops and put on my hat and say: ‘thank you. My name is Sebastian.’ We shake hands and they tell me their names and I put on my shades and we stroll.


< Revival [2]       Revival [4] >


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Revival [2]

I grow interested in the myth. More than interested, intrigued. Why is it a myth? Clearly there must be some foundation to it. But nobody knows. Does nobody want to know? Everybody wants to know everything, always; but do they really? Is it kinder on the mind, and warmer on the heart, not to be certain, about certain things?

Who, I wonder, were these ‘two guys in their twenties’? Shouldn’t there be a plaque to them? Should they not be celebrated as local legends in their own, quite literally, lunchtime? (It was around then, after all, that they stepped into leisurely ‘action’, in the nude.) Do they still take part now, many years later, perhaps in their thirties, or even forties? They could be dads, by now; in fact, if—as in any respect other than their initiation of this curious custom they appear to be—they are fairly average males then all likelihood suggests that they are, by now, also dads.

Do they live in Bournemouth, still, or Boscombe? Did they ever? That may be a clue: perhaps they weren’t actually from here. Maybe they were just visiting, this is a distinct possibility. Because if they were native to the Bournemouth and Boscombe community then surely, but surely, somebody would know who they are. Then again, if, as has been suggested, some ‘mates’ joined them on their first stroll, then there must have been mates to do so. Maybe they were visiting too? Perhaps they were part of a group, of an Australian sports team? Maybe a language school? They could have been hearty Scandinavians, here to learn English! Or maybe they actually didn’t have any mates here at all, maybe they were just talking to strangers at first, but became readily friendly with them, and these erstwhile strangers who were now effectively friends had mates and they joined them, impromptu, and that’s how it all happened. Who knows. Well, exactly: who actually knows?

My early investigation into this matter of waxing importance—waxing, in importance, at any rate, to me—yields nothing. Yes, the Bournemouth & Boscombe Nude Beach Stroll happens each year on the last Sunday in June; yes, it attracts a fair bit of attention nowadays: people come here from all over the region, even the country, maybe the world, but there is no website and no guide. No official history, and no reference to its founders. No club and no charitable foundation. More than intrigued now, I’m fascinated: how do these things come about?

My mind latches onto something, but it doesn’t know what. Maybe it’s my subconscious mind: it knows, it wants, it needs there to be more to this than meets the eye (though what meets the eye would, on occasion, seem to be quite enough…) and it thinks it knows that there usually is: so likelihood would suggest. And in the absence of certainty, likelihood is our friend. I want to go with that, that notion, that thought.

My mind senses, below reasoning, above intuition, that there is a connection and that this connection can be found. But not by ‘traditional’ means. (What, in any case, are ‘traditional’ means?) It realises, my mind, now, that it has to let go and take an approach that is not a route, that is not direct, that is not determinate or determined, that is neither logical nor pure, neither chaotic nor abstract, neither instinctive nor wise. So what is it? Perhaps I am overthinking it all, but that doesn’t matter: I stand on the beach looking out to the sea and I notice the air coming in from vaguely the right. Over there. By the headland. Is it a headland? Is it a beach? I like the waves, they are steady and impermanent at the same time. They are waves and they are particles too. They are full of tiny molecules, but that is not what I mean. They are wet but their power is implacable. If nobody knows, then maybe they need to be told.

I decide to delve deeper and take a detour, via the sea. There is something somewhere that somebody would rather were not the case. I shall find it and let it be so…


< Revival [1]       Revival [3] >


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Revival [1]

The Bournemouth & Boscombe Nude Beach Stroll is a joyous event that happens each year on the last Sunday in June. It starts at midday and goes on all afternoon, often into the evening, though not normally much beyond sunset.

Anyone can participate irrespective of age, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual, affective or otherwise expressed orientation, looks, or outlook: it’s really just an opportunity for anyone who wants to to wander along the beach in the buff and feel good about it, about themselves, about each other, and about the universe.

Since nobody organises it, nobody ‘owns’ it, other than the people who happen to be there taking part in it, and since nobody ‘owns’ it other than in the sense that everybody who takes part in it does, there are no rules, beyond those of common sense and kindness. What you wear or don’t wear is in fact up to you, but sunscreen is generally recommended. That said, The Bournemouth & Boscombe Nude Beach Stroll takes place in any weather at all, and it is not unheard of for everybody to get perfectly drenched, effectively taking a half-day long shower, naked in the summer rain.

Many people, especially the hardier ones who cover the whole stretch from Sandbanks to East Cliff, like to don some comfortable footwear; and hats, owing to their pervasive usefulness, really come into their own here. They also come in all shapes and sizes: something of a niche subculture thrives, and participants with time on their hands go to town over creating their own, but this is by no means compulsory. You don’t even have to wear a hat. You don’t have to wear anything, that’s the beauty of The Bournemouth & Boscombe Nude Beach Stroll.

Since carrying anything, including your phone and money, is such a pain when you wear nothing, there is hardly any trade or commercial activity that particularly caters to the nude strollers. Instead, a convention has emerged whereby the hundreds of beach hut owners—whether they themselves feel compelled to join in the general nudity or prefer to wear their usual beach attire, entirely as is their wont—provide cups of tea, coffee, biscuits, or, if they are of a particularly generous bent, glasses of Pimm’s to the strollers who stop by for a natter.

“There are,” after all, and as many a pub and cafe along many a coastline has written on a sign above the bar or on a chalk board by the entrance, quoting Yeats, “no strangers: only friends you haven’t yet met.” And indeed, lifelong friendships have formed here among people who have lived maybe three or four streets away from each other, but who have never found an opportunity to as much as say hello, until they stood on the beach by another near-neighbour’s hut, sipping from a mug or a cup and maybe dunking a biscuit or enjoying a vape or an old school fag, overlooking the rhythmic roll of the sea.

Some of these friendships flourish into love, and quite a few of the toddlers who run along on the pebbles here probably owe their presence to this fine, and, at the end of the day, very British tradition. In that same tradition, though, sex in public is frowned upon. That is not to say, of course, that after hours and after dark, in some of the huts, or over the water at Studland, behind some of the dunes, in the relative privacy of the midsummer moonshine, some love is not made in the old-fashioned way; but in the main, and certainly for as long as the sun sits anywhere in the sky, the day and the evening are fully family friendly.

Nobody really knows now how it all started, but legend has it that two guys in their twenties had entered a dare: to streak from the Jazz Cafe at the Sandbanks end of the bay all the way—some seven or eight miles—along the sea front to the Beach House on the Christchurch Harbour.

It was about lunch time, and they reckoned the sun was most definitely over the yard arm, so they had themselves a couple of cocktails for courage, stripped naked, and started to run. It took them all of about fifty yards before they were out of breath, and they thought that, while it is perfectly acceptable for mad dogs and Englishmen to go out in the midday sun, it was simply not the done thing to run. Instead, they eased into a gentle canter and then a trot, which readily transmuted into their stroll.

Strolling, they realised to their delight, had the immense advantage of allowing them to hold a conversation while progressing slowly but pleasurably along the beach, and of course their barefaced, bare-chested cheek and unclothed loins attracted a certain degree of attention. Also opprobrium, at first, it has to be said, but they were charming about it and talked to anyone who wanted to talk to them, answering offence with banter, and aggression with wit, and before long some mates and then some mates of theirs and some girlfriends and then some girl friends of theirs and then people who didn’t really know anyone but thought they were amongst a congenial bunch, started to join them, and by the time they all got to the Beach House they were having a regular blast.

Of course, the most committed of purists now follow the route in its fullness in the original direction, but there is absolutely no obligation to do so: if you prefer to stroll with the sun in your eyes and head east to west, that’s just as enjoyable, and if you simply want to sit on the beach or wander up and down a bit between the piers, that’s just fine.

The whole point, as anyone who knows The Bournemouth & Boscombe Nude Beach Stroll will tell you, is to be comfortable in your skin and to celebrate your communion with your fellow humans, free from stress or strain or pressure.


< PYROMANIA [8]

Revival [2] >


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Pyromania [8]

The police had no trouble getting the boys to confess to their actions, in detail. What they had great trouble with was understanding them: their motives, their emotions, their reasons; their unnerving casual calm, even now, even now that the extent of the damage, the depth of destruction, the heinousness of their deed was put before them.

The boys, in turn, seemed to understand and simply accept that all of this was exactly the case. They expressed no regret, or if so then only when pressed on an angry detail: the twin girls; these beautiful, lovely, five year old girls: did they not feel sorry for them? Yes, they said, they did. And the dog? The cute little spaniel? And the dog too, yes.

The police were not alone in being incapable of understanding the boys. The moment they issued a statement confirming their arrest, hate rose from the ground, like the stench of poison and decay. It spread, and quickly it turned into anger: fury against an incomprehensible evil that the people, the good people of Bournemouth and Boscombe, felt had nested in their midst and that had, as far as they could tell, nothing whatever to do with them. 

The Earnest Psychologist, who was not, by the way, one who ever spoke to the boys, invoked many possible causes: disillusionment, suppressed sexuality, self-loathing, confusion, disorientation, parental neglect, parental overbearing, nondescript feelings of persecution, projection, detachment, disenfrachisement, loneliness, boredom, ennui.

The words to the people who had lost their huts, let alone those who had lost an old friend; a sister, a brother, a mother, a father, a grandparent; least of all though to those who had lost their gorgeous twins, and also not to those who had lost their little dog, to them, these words meant nothing: they were just noise. And it made these people, these good people, angrier still, and more hateful. And the hate ate into them and turned their misery into madness: a kind of madness, an uncontrollable fear and loathing.

For their first court appearance, the boys were driven in two separate vans—why the two separate vans? some people demanded to know—the short distance from their cells to the court building, and angry, hateful crowds gathered and shouted vile words and curses at them and called for their heads, banging on speeding police vehicles, endangering their own lives, rather than keeping the peace.

The ugliness was pervasive: faces distorted in pain and wrath and dismay. Loud voices, high pitched declamations, over and over again: ‘They’ve ruined our lives!’ ‘They should be shot!’ ‘These two, they belong locked up and the keys thrown away…’

The Angry Prophet wasn’t having any of it: ‘Don’t you see,’ he berated them, ‘you made these boys and you will make more of them: unless and until you look into yourselves and begin to ask questions of yourselves and what kind of people you are that you ignore in your midst those you dislike, there will be ones at ever-recurring junctures that will do some unspeakable thing, just to be heard, just to be seen, just to know they exist. Wake up, you dull, you smug, you sleep-walking idiots and ask why you are so punished!’

The people did not like to hear this, they shut off his rants, if not from their ears—he was loud!—then from their minds: he has ever berated us thus, he is the madman here, this has nothing to do with us, these kids have gone wrong.

The Sacred Sage was silent for a long long time. He feared not for his life nor for his wisdom, he feared for the humanity in these humans. After the Messenger had been pushed to the ground in The Square and punched in the face and kicked in the guts and stabbed in the neck with a broken bottle and been left to bleed to death, the Sacred Sage knew: we’re undone. We’re undone: we need to redo ourselves.

She was just a journalist, but not of the kind that quickly make up a convenient narrative that is simple and clear and easy to understand and that puts the headline “MONSTERS” on the front page with pictures of the two young perpetrators, as others did, without hesitation; she was one who had spoken to George’s crestfallen, hollowed father, to Andy’s shellshocked mother, to one or two teachers and one or two friends, and who had written a piece that simply and plainly and in gentle, differentiated language, but clearly, had stated that these two boys, Andy and George, were not evil, or different, or monstrous or inhuman: they were simply two boys who had done a terrible, perhaps inexplicable thing, but that it was not unforgivable. That in fact perhaps the only way we who now grieve for the elderly couple, the twins and the dog, perhaps the only way we can now move on and make things better again is to forgive them. Soon. Not absolve them, not shrug our shoulders and say: shit happens. But forgive them. Step towards them, embrace them, comprehend them.

The people were not ready to hear this, to read it in their local paper. They let a day pass, then another, then their rage took over and they waited for her, in broad daylight: she stepped out of her office at the Bournemouth Echo on Richmond Hill and was making her way towards the Koh Thai Tapas on Poole Hill for a bite to eat with a friend, when they pounced on her in The Square and took her life for speaking a truth they were not ready to hear.

The Sacred Sage saw only sorrow. But he knew then that he needed to counsel, and be his counsel never heard. He knew that his lone voice would be drowned out and that the anger, the fury, the pain, and the hatred would stir these people and eat into them for a while, but if ever the anger was to surrender to wisdom, the fury abate toward knowledge, the pain ease into power, and the hatred reveal itself to be love, then he would, sooner or later, have to counsel, and this would be hard and seem futile but it was all he could do, and it was at the same time everything that he must.

And he spake thus to anyone who would listen, though nobody did:

‘You are these boys, and they are you. Every fibre, every molecule, every thought, every heartbeat, every quantum particle that they are is you. You have not made them, you are them. You are them as much as you are the lovely twins and the cute little dog and the beautiful elderly couple. Own this part of you. And then heal it. Heal it not by hating it or attempting to expunge it, heal it by accepting that you are capable of this. You are capable of building these huts and putting into them quaint souvenirs and enjoying them with your lover, your neighbour, your friend, your gorgeous five-year-old twins and your grandparents who have been together for sixty years and who have never done or said anything vile in their lives, and you are capable of blowing them up and burning them down. You and these boys are one. I and you, we are one. I am no wiser, no sager than you. I am you too. The Messenger, whom you destroyed: she is you. All is one. We are this. This is who and what we are. We are Boscombe Beach, we are Bournemouth Town, we are the country, the world, and the universe. We are God. And we are Andy and George. And Andy and George therefore, too, are God. Everything we do and everything we do not do and everything we say and everything we do not say and everything we think and everything we do not think is who we are. And since we are God, it is for us and for us alone and for us together to make ourselves Divine.’

And having spoken thus, the Sacred Sage, unheeded, stood, bare but for his simple attire, forlorn, and smiled. He smiled because he knew, being sacred, and sage, that no matter how angry, how furious, how pained, and how hateful these humans were now, they were also still God, and their godliness would one day—perhaps far into an unfathomable future not yet envisaged, unknown to us yet, and deep as the reach of the Thought of God itself—come true. For surely, but surely, it is so.


< Pyromania [7]

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Pyromania [7]

Morning crept up on Boscombe Beach like a girl, home late from a party: a little tousled, a little ablush; in the small hours, with a hazy memory at best of what happened the night before.

Andy and George had taken a boat from the boat house at Christchurch Harbour and tuckered out a bit to sea, not very far, just enough to get a good view. The completion that Stefano and Paul experienced on Studland Beach together in physical union, they, Andy and George, achieved on their boat in a serene, cerebral, perhaps even spiritual way: they sat next to each other, close, close enough to feel each other’s presence, but not holding hands or intentionally touching, just so close that what was between them was nothing more than proximity. And they watched in equal awe and wonder, equal to each other, equal to that of spectators elsewhere. They did not take pictures, or videos; they sat in the little boat they had ‘borrowed’, bobbing up and down a bit on the shallow waves of a calm sea with a subtle breeze coming in more or less from their left now, as they were facing the beach. They knew they had done a terrible thing.

Beautiful, outrageous. Gorgeous. And terrible. With dawn now creeping home on them too, George started the engine of the little boat and steered it straight to the shore where they landed not far from Boscombe Pier. Once again, nobody took notice of them, two pale, dishevelled teenage figures, as they wandered along the beach, absorbing the gash of a wound they had inflicted on it: hut after wrecked hut, smouldering in the morning haze. The odd fire still burning. Water puddles from where people had attempted to extinguish a blaze. Ruined belongings. Melted plastic crockery and disfigured chairs. Exploded gas bottles and broken glass. Splinters of wood, singed at the edges. Blackened, browned. And every now and then, not often, but here and there, the blue or amber flashing lights of ambulances and police. Surprisingly few fire engines. But ambulances and police. And yellow tape now, here and there, and blue and white tape too, and then, mixed into the smell of coal and sulphur and burnt wood and overheated metal, a different smell, an alien, unfamiliar one, sweet and pungent in equal measure.

Here is where George, instinctively, without noticing, took Andy’s hand, and when they had been walking slowly before, they now moved with hesitation, caution, peering between the people who in places gathered, in places stood forlorn, in places comforted each other, surrounded by those now busy, answering the call of catastrophe: the rescue personnel, the life savers, the paramedics and the competent bystanders turned volunteers. A sheet-covered body. A stretcher. A woman, terror in her eyes. The quiet, undramatic unfolding of disaster aftermath.

Moving through these scenes in silence, slowly, Andy and George, holding each other’s hands, began to sense that they had attained a kind of absolute: none, not one of the beach huts they passed was unscathed. All were damaged, most were destroyed. And the loss on people’s faces: they were only beach huts that had gone, not homes, not schools or hospitals, not museums, temples or shrines. But for the devastation written on these expressions, it might as well have been all of those. Cherished these huts had been, loved. The few, modest possessions each contained had meant more to their owners than treasures in a bank vault or safe. To some cynic much may have been tat, to these people—honest, unassuming people—they had embodied memories and harboured care.

Nothing epitomised their loss more poetically than a ceramic figure of a fat beach couple, grinning ear to ear, one a bucket in one hand with a shovel sticking out of it, the other waving a little flag, both arm in arm, both with their sun hats on, standing on a mound of sand with the omnipresent caption “Life’s a Beach” in thick letters embossed on it: its shards lay shattered on the ground next to the burnt shelf it had fallen from, and two disembodied chubby faces now simpered stubbornly from among char-stained debris.

George and Andy walked along the beach for a while, then went up to George’s flat, where his dad was out—presumably, they thought, outside somewhere, assessing the damage, talking to neighbours; they didn’t mention it or ask—they went and sat on George’s bed. Then George lay on his back and Andy did so too. And Andy turned over to his side and rested his head on George’s shoulder. And George put his arm around him a bit, and they fell asleep.

When they woke up it was four thirty in the afternoon, they had slept uninterrupted for nearly twelve hours. George’s dad sat on the sofa in front of the television, which had the news on, showing the scene outside no more than seventy yards from where he was sitting. George got up, used the loo, went into the kitchen, said, ‘hi dad,’ and poured himself a glass of water, took it back to his bedroom, where Andy now stirred. He gave him to drink from his glass, and Andy now got up too and used the loo, and then they both went into the living room and sat down on the other sofa, at a right angle to the one George’s dad was sitting on, and George’s dad looked at them both and said, ‘are you two all right?’

Andy nodded and George said, ‘yes,’ and then they sat in silence and listened to a reporter from the beach not seventy yards from where they were sitting, only outside, and there they remained sitting in silence as the reporter described the spectacular fire and confirmed that the number of casualties so far was twelve but could rise as there were some people missing, and several were in hospital with severe burns, and among the victims were two girls who were twins, aged five, and a picture came up showing two lovely, lively, smiling girls, aged around five, and there was also a dog that had died in the fires.

George’s dad was shaking his head in incomprehension and a nondescript anger, and Andy and George sat on their sofa at a right angle to him, and then George got up and went back to his bedroom and lay back down on the bed on his back again, and Andy followed him and lay back down on his back next to him, and this time George turned over and put his arm around Andy, and Andy turned towards him and put his arm around George, and they lay there, not really sleeping and not really waking and certainly not dreaming, their foreheads touching and their arms oddly entwined, but in a comfort all of their own, and an hour passed, or possibly two, and then the doorbell rang.


< Pyromania [6]       Pyromania [8] >


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Pyromania [4]

What little George needed to know about incendiary devices, he learnt very quickly; and Andy turned out to be an ideal accomplice. While George was methodical, wily, and determined, Andy was swift, small, and silent, and quite original in his thinking.

The biggest challenge, George surmised, would be to procure a large number of detonators and wiring without raising suspicion, let alone alarm. But in actual fact, this proved a lot easier than he had anticipated: relying mostly on the Calor gas bottles for the ‘bang’, George came to realise that with a few very ordinary household items and some basic physics he could most likely create simultaneous sparks, and if he could do that, he could ignite simultaneous boxes of matches and some firelighters or sponges doused in white spirit or petrol, and if he could do that, he could not, perhaps, cause simultaneous bangs, but the random series that would result in different huts exploding at slightly different times would lend the spectacle its own satisfying symphonic quality.

Conscious of the ‘one chance to get this right’ aspect to his endeavour, combined with a patent inability to do a test run, even on a model or an isolated, remote specimen, George felt there was a lot at stake and a lot that could go wrong. He confided this worry, such as it was, in passing to Andy. Andy was unperturbed:

‘Yeah you can run a test.’

‘Where would I run a test?’

‘There are beach huts on every other beach in the country: just go to a beach and do just the one, nobody will think it’s a test, they’ll just think: fuck, the hut blew up. Bummer.’

That made sense. It would be no more difficult than travelling to another beach, remote enough so as not to draw attention to Boscombe and Bournemouth and close enough so as not to take more than an hour’s travel or so, and a field test could be run on just one, perhaps slightly isolated beach hut that looked like it might recently have been in use and that fulfilled the principal criteria set by his actual target huts for reference.

‘Brighton.’ Andy did not need to think about this.

‘Brighton is miles away. And it’s extremely busy.’

‘Exactly. It’s miles away, and nobody would think anybody from Bournemouth would be stupid enough to go there just to blow up a beach hut. Plus there are any number of people off their heads enough there to set fire to one of their huts by accident.’

The reasoning was flawless. It was risky, George thought, but on balance, and thinking about it a bit further, longer, and more thoroughly, not as risky, most likely, as going to a remote beach where two teenagers, one lanky and tall, the other tiny and cute, would be instantly memorable. In Brighton, nobody would bat an eyelid. All they had to do was go there, find the right hut, maybe somewhat to the end of the beach, and run their test without getting caught. It would be like a rehearsal. It would be indispensable, George suddenly understood. Of course they had to do a test.

Now the question was: how to stay away overnight without raising eyebrows…

‘We go and visit my uncle, Edward,’ Andy suggested.

‘Great, where does he live?’

‘In London, of course.’

‘Of course.’

George told his dad, Andy his mother; they would spend a weekend in London with Uncle Edward. Uncle Edward was asked and readily agreed, he was looking forward to seeing them.

Once in London, they would simply go out, as you do of a Saturday night, and return very late or early next morning. Uncle Edward would not ask them where they had been, or if he did, he would do so in the way uncles do: all right boys, have you had a good time last night? Yeah. Where did you go? Oh we went out. Great. Help yourselves to juice in the fridge and whatever there is to eat.

There wouldn’t be much to eat in the fridge, and the juice would be something like ‘Açaí Berry’ or ‘Radiant Beetroot’, but no further questions would be asked. The thought that the boys might have taken a train down to Brighton would not occur to Uncle Edward, and if it did, he’d think that was a splendid idea. But they wouldn’t tell him, just in case by some freakish coincidence the ‘news’ of a beach hut in Brighton having blown up might reach London. They thought that was extremely unlikely, it would be more likely—though still wildly improbable—to reach Bournemouth, in a ‘typical: someone in Brighton blew up their hut…’ kind of way.

Time was tight, but Uncle Edward confirmed he’d be around the following weekend; and the weather, as if to order, was gorgeous.


Pyromania [3]       Pyromania [5] >


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Redemption

I forget about Bournemouth & Boscombe and dedicate myself to other matters, other places, other subjects, other themes. The world is a wondrous sphere, I am reminded, as I travel, as I learn. As I love: I meet new people, form new connections, find myself enthralled to new ideas and smitten by new beauty. New affections, new reciprocities, new inspirations. New experiences.

Out of the blue, an email arrives in my inbox, via my website: the kind of message that comes in the shape of a contact form. I get those now and then, though rarely. Seldom enough, in fact, for me to take note and think: ah, someone has gone to the trouble of writing to me.

This one is more unusual still: it’s a letter. Not a note or an enquiry, not a compliment or a rebuke, not a proposition of a collaboration or a proposal for a project. As I read, my hopes and doubts coalesce into a balm of both comfort and pain. The pain that has been caused and that has not been forgiven, the comfort of sensing that forgiveness may, after all, be attained. It is not, however, for me to forgive. I have not been wronged. No more, at any rate, and no less, than we all have by those who trespass not against us personally but against our understanding of what it is to be human, and to be good. The two don’t always go cheek by jowl, I know, but deep down, is it not the case that we would wish them to?

We know when our sense of justice, of respect and compassion is offended, and the offence this letter speaks to is a grave one, truly, genuinely. The way this offence offends is not the kind that we hear expressed now so often when somebody faces an opinion they don’t like or encounters an expression that is outdated maybe, even archaic. It is an offence that comes from a senseless act of destruction that ended and altered lives which had no reason and no need and certainly no desire to be so altered, so ended. It is the offence of an irredeemable act of violence, a cruel and wanton incision into a community’s whole existence.

The letter offers a kind of reconciliation. It is written in a direct, unembellished style, though carefully worded and a little formal. Its authors have clearly given it thought, and, by the looks of it, rather than simply typing it into the online contact form, they have composed it, edited it, spell-checked it: it contains no trivial errors as would be attributable to haste or lack of concentration. It is purposely positioned to be read and absorbed, not fired off as a quick response. It goes like this:

Dear Sebastian

We enjoyed your piece on the Bournemouth & Boscombe Nude Beach Stroll a lot. Enough for us to feel moved to break our silence. Our silence was part self-imposed, part decreed. We felt for a long time that no-one should hear from us, ever again. The anger we caused, and the pain. The loss. We don’t talk about it, ever, and we don’t like to write about it either. Words seem weightless, when put into the balance of what we have done. At the time of our trial, we were very young. Some people have taken us saying so as an insult. ‘You were young,’ they say, ‘but you knew what you were doing.’ We did, and we didn’t. When we say we were young, we don’t mean to make an excuse for our actions. We mean to say: we had very little experience of what it is to be alive and we had very little understanding of what makes us human. We had no excuse. Nor did we have a reason. But we did something we knew at the time was deeply wrong. We knew this, we just didn’t know how not to do it. That may not make much sense to you and you may wonder, what on earth does it have do with the Bournemouth & Boscombe Nude Beach Stroll?

You see, the hatred we faced and the anger that was vented against us, in words that were brutal and vicious, they shocked us. What did we expect? Praise? Obviously not. We didn’t expect anything. Once what we’d done and the effect that it had had sunk in, we didn’t expect any leniency or compassion. We couldn’t understand ourselves, how could we expect anybody else to understand us? But perhaps—just perhaps—it is true to say that we were hoping for some form of forgiveness. And we were frightened and perplexed that that wasn’t forthcoming. At all. From a society steeped in a religion that has sin and forgiveness at its core, we received no indication that this society at large was prepared to forgive us. Ever. There were some exceptions. But the general tone from the people, as far as we could hear, was a clamour for revenge. Newspaper journalists—again with some notable exceptions that you are well aware of—echoed this general people’s call for us to be hanged. And damned. Or, at the very least, locked up in eternity, ‘with the keys thrown away’. We were teenagers. Yes, we had taken innocent lives, including the lives of two beautiful girls. That that was not our intention is, we realise, irrelevant. We could have known, and we were old enough to appreciate, that setting fire to hundreds of beach huts with a series of small but devastating explosions would endanger people, and do so in a way that we could not control.

At our trial—it has been noted with disgust—we did not express any remorse, let alone ask for forgiveness. It is hard to explain why: did we not realise we had wronged people, and not just the ones who were directly affected, but also everyone who knew and loved them; in fact, everyone, because who would not see and not know that destroying people’s property while risking their lives is wrong? Again, we don’t want this to sound like an excuse. But expressing your sorrow, your remorse and contrition for something that is so obviously and so categorically wrong is almost impossible. If you accidentally make a mistake and knock into someone on the pavement or spill a drink and cause a little damage: that’s easy. It’s easy to say ‘sorry’ for a mini-misdemeanour. But for a crime against society? We didn’t have the words. We didn’t have them then, we barely have them now. When today we write to you to say: we are truly and profoundly sorry for what we have done, do you accept that as our apology? Maybe you do, because maybe you can, but you are just a distant bystander, an observer: a recounter of events, a narrator. What about the parents of the girls? The grown up children of the elderly couple? Those who loved and needed and cherished them? What about the owners of the dog? And what about those who nursed and attended the injured. In the end we were responsible for the deaths of two girls aged five, an elderly couple, and the little dog; and there were seventeen injured; two, we later learnt, with life-changing injuries. Can they ‘accept an apology’? Ever? Even we don’t see how. Even we don’t see how anything we could say would ever be enough. How anything we could do would ever be enough. We are unable to atone for our crime, because the crime was so futile, so pointless, so deliberate and yet so random.

Us being unable to atone for our crime, and there being no words that we can find to say we are sorry, it took us a long time—until now—to formulate anything at all. We have lived in silence, mainly so as not to compound our offence. We’d been separated at our arrest and were kept apart for a while after sentencing. But our social workers and eventually our probation officers agreed that we were not a danger to society any longer, and we were allowed to get back together. We have been together ever since: we live together, with our new identities that we were given to protect us from the wrath of the people, in a remote part of these isles, which of course we cannot and wouldn’t wish to disclose. And we thought: perhaps there is something we can try. It was, yet again, not something we fully thought through. But at least it was harmless. And we had to break the terms of our parole, but we’d been out of prison a few years by then, and we thought, perhaps this is not going to redeem us and it certainly isn’t going to make things good for those whom we’d wronged, but perhaps we can almost run this as a test. We will either be caught and found out and probably—so we felt—torn to pieces on the spot, or we will get away with it and that will be that. The world, we will then accept, has found a way to allow us to be now. We are, after all, now completely ordinary. Really. We both have jobs in our local community. Nobody knows who we are, and they like us. We are the kindly, now soon-to-be middle aged couple who shop at Waitrose together and go for walks. We admit it: we enjoy our lives. That alone, we also understand, will to many people be outrageous. It is unfair, unjust, even.

We have done time in prison, we have undergone many hours of therapy with our workers, we have cost the taxpayer hundreds of thousands of pounds. And we are happy. We are not light of heart or full of joy: that will never be possible. We are too conscious and too conscientious for that ever to be the case. The burden of our past and our offence will rest on our shoulders forever. But we are content. We are content that we have found a way now of being good citizens and of contributing to our community, without fuss. It is not atonement, so much, as it is a rational way of handling the day to day reality of being alive, after all. Was it worth sparing us, or would the world have turned into a better place if we’d been done away with? We can’t answer that question objectively, we’re too close to ourselves. But we like to think that the world is a slightly better place for having us in it, still. It can say: ‘These boys, they did something unforgivable, but in a way we forgave them. We rose above their crime, we allowed them not to be defined solely by their premeditated act of cruelty. Ours is a world in which that is possible.’ This, we believe, is a better world than a world that can only say: ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, and you wronged me so I wrong you back just the same, and your right to life is forfeit because you took life: you have no chance of redemption, ever.’

So a few years ago, when we were still quite young, but no longer the juvenile delinquents of yore, we did something we thought was worth a try. We took a train to Bournemouth. We were not strictly allowed to do so: we are not now and will never be allowed to set foot on the scene of our crime, but we did so anyway, because we wanted to test the water. Not literally, but metaphorically. We wanted to find out what the people of Bournemouth & Boscombe were really like. We’d seen so much of the ugly face of people’s understandable scorn and anger, hatred and pain, we had forgotten, we felt, what being normal, human and gracious would be. So we stripped off all our clothes. We were going to run, at first, because we were incredibly scared, as you perhaps can imagine. But within minutes we realised: these people, these good people of Bournemouth & Boscombe: they are not angry or hateful at heart. They were angry and hateful because we had wounded them so. But now, now that we laid ourselves bare and walked along that same beach in front of those same huts—the huts that had taken the places of those we’d destroyed—people smiled at us. They started talking to us. They even joined us. They had a laugh with us, and a banter. A pint and a stroll. All we’d really wanted to test was whether we’d survive the people of Bournemouth & Boscombe for half a day.

We did not mean to start a new thing. But here, and this is something we are today really glad to tell you, we were met with love. People were friendly and generous, good-humoured and kind. That’s what we will forever now cherish and what we will take to our graves. We are both not very religious, but we light five candles every night: two for the girls, two for the elderly couple, and, yes, one for the dog. That dog was somebody’s friend. It deserved not to die at our hands. And while until a few years ago that moment in the evening of honouring and remembering them was mainly filled with remorse and sorrow, since we went on our beach stroll in Bournemouth & Boscombe in the nude, it is filled now also with love. The love these people gave us—those same people whom we had so badly abused and who had therefore so understandably hated us so—sustains us today. We are grateful for it, and we appreciate it. And we love you all back.

We take no credit for having ‘invented’ the Bournemouth & Boscombe Nude Beach Stroll. If the people of Bournemouth & Boscombe didn’t have it in them to do this every year, it would not have caught on. The fact that it did and that it now attracts visitors from all over the world has nothing to do with us. Nobody even knows about us. It has everything, and only, to do with the people who make it happen each year: the people of Bournemouth & Boscombe. They own it, and for as long as they want it, they may keep and enjoy it.

So should we even tell you about us, if we don’t matter at all? We thought long and hard about this, and many times before we sent this letter to you decided against it. But there was something about your piece that convinced us, in the end, that the truth—even though it is painful and maybe unwelcome—still forms part of the picture, and the picture is only truthful if in the end, at some point, when it is ready to be so, it can be rendered complete. The colours, the layers, the light and the shade. And so we commend this letter to you to do with it as you see fit. But we thank you for having prompted us now to write it.

Yours humbly

Andrew & George

I’m struck by the fact that they’re signing it ‘Andrew & George’. Was not Andy the junior partner, drawn into the maelstrom of cataclysm by the older, more devious George? Maybe time has levelled their relationship, as it levels everything, and in all seriousness: does it matter? By sending me their letter they have given me two options only: to either be the keeper of their secret, or to be the agent of their revelation. It is a simple choice to make. I cannot be the keeper of a secret that was volunteered to me as a revelation. And as I believe in redemption, and in catharsis as a step towards it, I opt to let this stand now, here, as it is.

In my universe, hatred to love is as darkness to light: one may not exist without the other, but there is no question, ever, of which yields to which:

Love conquers all.