I forget about Bournemouth & Boscombe and dedicate myself to other matters, other places, other topics, 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 to think: ah, someone has gone to the trouble of writing to me.
This one is more unusual still: it’s a letter. Not a comment 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 gel 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, 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that we hear expressed now so often when somebody faces an opinion they don’t like or encounters an expression that is outdated maybe, even archaic.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:
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 effective 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 as you see fit. But we thank you for having prompted us now to write it.
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. And so I know and want this to be known to be true: love conquers all.
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 further 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 something, some uncomfortable truth? What could possibly be uncomfortable in a truth about an event as friendly and as inclusive and as welcoming and as joyful as the Bournemouth & Boscombe Nude Beach Stroll on the last Sunday of June each year?
I resolve to let 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, against our own soul, 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 is still remarkable.
This, I decide to hold on to. As a thought, as a hope. I know some will find me naive or deluded. I realise at this time of confrontation and conflict and unbearable regression into isolationist rhetoric; in this feverish atmosphere of allocating blame and guilt and shame while searching for simplistic solutions, 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 dreadful things we see? Then whatever makes whomever 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 still. 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 Bournemouth & Boscombe and its famous Nude Beach Stroll. 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 wish you well!
As the day draws to a close, and the sun now lingers—mellowed by the dusky haze—over the horizon a while, down vaguely to the right, 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 Bournemouth & Boscombe 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’ again.
Of course, 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 people—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 closed 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 defined by nothing so much as by 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 Bournemouth & Boscombe Nude Beach Stroll on the last Sunday in 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 with 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?
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 a verb? As in ‘how do they sex?’) And with whom? What do they look like, and sound like, and feel like, during their sexing, and 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’? What is?
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 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 shirt, and put them back 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 at this time I don’t, ‘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, and 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 & Hove is a haven for the Rainbow Community, there is no real reason why Bournemouth & 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 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 conversationally stimulating, who knows…
Before I can do so, we are joined by another friendly couple who are participating in the Bournemouth & Boscombe 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 demure friend who has not been saying much since I tagged along with them, and their sunny woman friend whose welcome it was that had won me over so quickly and convinced me to join them.
The British ritual of kissing friends and close-enough friends of friends, even if you have never met them before, on the cheek, once—or twice? you can never be entirely sure—here 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 friend who turns out to be 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 Jane’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 I imagine her offering me a seat.
There are many things inherently impractical about being naked. You don’t want to, for example, sit down on 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 indeed carpentry. Now, in some respects that makes a little more sense: making furniture is proper physical exertion, and why should a carpenter not wish to do so free from textiles. But perhaps, for reasons primarily of personal safety, no more than topless…
I like his chest, Paul, the carpenter’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 reassurance. I like that. His living partner (of many years, it transpires) is the exact opposite. Dry and wry and analytical. They obviously complement each other, and although he, the boyfriend—yes, you see, it really doesn’t work for him, ‘boyfriend’—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 that 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 Jane and the one, I believe, in the host couple 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.’
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 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 incongruous 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.