Pyromania [3]

George knew nothing about incendiary devices. What he noticed, however, over the next three or four days, as he walked past these huts during the daytime, up and down the beach in both directions from his flat near Boscombe Pier, was that not all, but many of them must have, tucked away inside them, a bottle of Calor or similar gas, used to fuel the mini-stoves.

This would make his task—and that it had already turned into a task, of this he felt pretty certain—so much easier. It also prescribed his window of opportunity. The bottles, he reasoned, would be unlikely to be there, or come into much use, out of or towards the end of the season. And the season was not yet in swing. It was early June, the sea temperature at around twelve degrees Celsius was not yet attractive to casual bathers (even if some hardy swimmers could always be spotted taking a late afternoon or early evening dip in the water), and so it would make sense, he believed, to strike at a significant-enough moment, soon. 

George’s one or two friends at school were not the kind you could make accomplices in what he knew was not going to be an easy undertaking, and also not one designed to make him popular with his relatively new neighbours or the holidaymakers who rented the huts for the summer or part thereof. He had no confidant either. The time frame he had just set himself was clearly too short to acquire one too, and so he would have to rely on his own resources and relish the moment, when it came, most likely on his own. This did not make George sad, he was used to doing things on his own.

Except, there was a boy at school who liked and watched him more than he knew. Whether it was a teenage crush, or simple idolisation of an older, cooler, more worldly youth, or whether it was something else, neither George, nor the boy, nor their parents, nor the Earnest Psychologist would ever be able to tell with any degree of certainty, or authority, though the Earnest Psychologist most certainly tried.

The boy’s name was Andy, and he was two years younger than George, just turned thirteen. He’d been aware of George for a good few weeks now, ever since George had arrived at school, as it happened, and he’d known, instinctively, that there was something special, something noteworthy, something edgy and therefore interesting about him. He half expected to find that George owned a snake or collected spiders or kept a diary in Esperanto, none of which George did. Still, Andy’s young, distant assessment of George’s character was not altogether wide of the mark.

Little Andy—he was remarkably short and remarkably nimble on his feet, and swift with his hands—surprised George just as he was looking up small detonators on the school computer. George used the school computer for doing his research because he reckoned that on a computer used by teenagers of all predilections there were bound to appear search terms associated with blowing up stuff, without attracting the immediate attention of MI5.

‘What are you doing?’ Andy asked, in his forthright, unawkward manner that stood in such contrast to his shy demeanour. George looked up (only a little up: Andy standing virtually came face to face with George sitting) and fixed his eyes straight into Andy’s:

‘I’m going to make some beach huts go bang.’

‘Really?’

‘Yes.’

‘How?’

‘I’m just finding out.’

‘Which ones?’

‘Ideally: all of them.’

‘Wow.’

‘Yep.’

‘All of them?’

‘Can you imagine?’

‘You’d see that for …miles.’

‘Exactly.’

‘When?’

‘Summer Solstice.’

‘Summer Solstice?’

‘Summer Solstice.’

Andy was already a conspirator. He didn’t know it yet, the Judge, on the counsel of another, quite equally earnest, psychologist, with appalled leniency in her eyes, would later abnegate it, but Andy knew, and George knew, they were now in this together.

‘That’s soon, isn’t it?’

‘It’s in three weeks.’

‘Wow.’

‘Yup.’

‘Better get a move on then.’

George shut down the computer and stood up, now in his moderate but lanky length towering over little Andy. He ruffled his hair. Andy felt a shudder of delight charge through his young body. The fear of the forbidden, paired with a ripple of inexplicable lust.


< Pyromania [2]       Pyromania [4] >


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Pyromania [2]

To his left, the sand, brought here from elsewhere to cover the shingles; beyond the sand, the sea, unceasing in its undulation. Wave upon wave, ripples upon ripples. The constant sound of undramatic motion.

To his right, the beach huts. All locked up, this time of day, bar two or three: exceptions. They were modest huts, almost sheds, really, perhaps four feet wide and six feet tall, barely tall enough for a grown man to stand up in. George was no grown man, and at 5’7” he was unlikely to turn into a giant among them. He had a slim and slender stature.

The huts all carried numbers. Here, they were in the low to mid-hundreds. They lined up one by one, not in clusters but in single file segments. Sometimes a dozen, sometimes two. They seemed of an ilk, though occasionally George walked past some newer models, ones with roll-down shutters, or wooden roofs, instead of the black rough material most were covered with. They were not deep, maybe another five or six feet. Inside, there was room to stow away some deckchairs, some wind breaker thing or some chairs and a parasol. Mostly it was too windy for parasols here.

At this time in the early evening, when the sun is beginning its hesitant descent, not over the sea but behind the slightly elevated land, most people have either not been here or they’ve already left. Only now and then do you walk past someone putting away the things they’ve been using during the day, or reading a few more pages in their book, or sitting with two or three friends in chairs outside the open hut, drinking cider.

Many, though by no means all, of the huts have a little gas stove, with only two rings: enough to heat up a kettle or a tin of baked beans. The huts all sit off the ground on stout ledges made of brick, and they are very close to each other, nearly touching, but not quite, unless there’s an actual gap, in which case it’s mostly several huts wide and there for a reason: a public convenience or a small ice cream parlour, or some similar unflattering, utilitarian structure.

Sometimes there is a long gap with no huts for a few dozen or a few hundred yards, and then they start up again. There is nothing strange or exceptional about these beach huts, except perhaps their very existence. It is a little miracle of quaintness in an otherwise strident world. They are so small, these huts, so modest, so impractical, in a way, and they’re not even directly on the beach, they’re on the other side of the promenade: everyone can partake of them, the people sitting outside them watching the people go by, and the people going by watching the people sitting outside them. They are not private. There is nothing exclusive about them, let alone glamorous. Some have whimsical, punning names: “Mad Hutter,” for instance, or “Seas the Day.” Inside the odd one, with its wooden shutters open, you spot little signs or postcards that say things like: “O I do like to be beside the seaside,” or “A day at the sea is good for the soul.”

They can’t be argued with, these huts, they are part of the seafront, like seagulls and groins and the piers and the surfers and the signs listing all the things you can’t do, now that you’re here.

George knew these huts, of course, he’d walked past them innumerable times: he was hardly surprised by their presence. Nor was he annoyed. Nor was he thrilled. Or even delighted. Yet into his mind slipped a thought that put a smile on his face, that was almost a grin. How easy it would be to set them on fire. All it took, he immediately recognised while walking by, was for a small incendiary device to be placed in the gap made by the pedestal each sat on, and within seconds the thing could be ablaze. What’s more—and this thought followed on directly from the first—no sooner would one have caught fire, than the two next to it would do too.

In fact, and George who had a visual brain imagined this as a diagram straight away, you only had to light numbers 2, 5, 8 and 11 in any row of twelve to be sure they would all go up in flames almost simultaneously:

1 – 2  – 3 – 4  – 5  – 6  – 7  – 8  – 9  – 10 – 11 – 12

o – √ – o  – o  – √ – o  – o  – √  – o  –  o  –      o

That’s one in three, George thought, and the smile on his face broadened; and his eyes, dulled by the ordinariness of his life thus far, lit up, just a little.


< Pyromania [1]       Pyromania [3] >


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Pyromania [1]

It was a particularly pointless but spectacular crime that shook the town, the nation, the world.

It could not be explained, even though the Earnest Psychologist tried, on TV, to find reason for it, or if not reason, then at least rhyme. It could not be put to use, even though the Angry Prophet admonished the people for failing to see its hidden purpose; and it could not, so it seemed—oh could it ever?—be forgiven.

The Sacred Sage counselled thus, but the offence was so severe, the laceration so visceral, and the shock so unshakeable that the hand of mercy may not extend for millennia. As for the Messenger? The furious rabble killed her on the spot.

George had recently moved to the area, and he was in no way unusual, other than in the ways that everyone is a bit, especially when puberty all of a sudden gives way to sullen teenage anguish.

George’s anguish was no different to most, so most would have said, but he alone had to bear it, and he knew that nobody knew what it was. Nor did he care. Nor did he think about it or dwell on its nature. He felt an ache of malcontent with the world that was heavy and sad, and he didn’t have words to talk about it, nor did he have friends who would have responded in terms of pure friendship if he had ever articulated it.

The Earnest Psychologist, in retrospect, tried to reason that the breakup of his parents two years prior would have been an incision of trauma and separation in his life. The Angry Prophet berated the people: your passive aggression, your smug disengagement, your unbearable peace! Someone needed to come and infuriate you! Shake you! His pain is now yours. Own his pain! And turn it on the system that pains you!

The Sacred Sage knew not of pain or system, but he knew of love. ‘Love this boy, he is your son,’ he said, as they shouted him down. ‘The world you are part of—that you are a creation and at the same time creators of—is the world that has all of you in it and all that you hold dear, and it has also him in it, and all that you despise; if you despise him, you despise part of you: the hatred that pains you is the hatred for the part of you that you don’t want to know. Love him like your son; more than your son! Love him and forgive him: extend the hand of friendship to him and say these words: “you are forgiven.”’

But George was not forgiven. They cried, ‘he has not atoned, and he has not shown remorse, he has not begged for our forgiveness, on his knees, as he must, since the horrendousness of his deed has no bounds.’ The Sacred Sage sighed.

George had been wandering along the beach that he had recently moved to, with his father, a spruce man called Mark. Mark was a good dad to George, and he loved his son in an uncomplicated way that as far as he knew and was able to tell made sense and sufficed. It was not an ungenerous love, it was genuine. Real. George had no reason to doubt that his dad loved him, and his dad was far from his mind.

On his mind was nothing specific as he ambled, listlessly, on the promenade from his new flat—he did not think of it yet as his home; events he himself was about to unleash were to make sure that he never would—by Boscombe Pier towards Bournemouth town. He wasn’t thinking of his friends (he had one or two), or his class mates (he was mostly indifferent to them), nor was he thinking of any girl.

Sometimes he thought of a girl; there was one in his class who was undeniably pretty, and sassy too, and whose lips curled up by the edge of her mouth when she smiled, which he thought was attractive, and her name was Sarah, which reminded him of his aunt, who was also called Sarah, but he was not thinking of his aunt either that evening, making his way slowly towards Bournemouth.

He wasn’t thinking of homework, nor of any sports team he may or may not have had a passing interest in, and he wasn’t thinking of a nondescript future. Nor was he thinking there was no future, or that the future would be nondescript. (As it turned out, the future for George would be highly specific.)

He was moving at the languid pace of a lanky youth westwards, and he was going to meet up with some mates. This thought, such as it was, neither uneased nor excited him: it was one of those things that you did. So George’s head was not filled with anything in particular at this time: he was neither angry nor sad, not lonely nor elated. He hadn’t had anything to drink at this point, and he had not taken any drugs either. The Earnest Psychologist found this hardest to deal with in retrospect: there was no trigger, no immediate cause. Not now, and not in the hours and days that followed. The Angry Prophet disagreed: the cause was all around! The cause was there right in front of everyone: just look and you see it, open your eyes!

The Sacred Sage knew not of any cause or what causes might be ‘good’ or ‘sufficient’ or ‘real’; he spake unto them: ‘have done with fear and loathing and hatred and cause. Love him as if he had given or needed no cause.’ They yelled at him chants of shame and abuse.

What caught George’s eye and his attention, and filled his head with a leftfield thought—one that seemed to come out of nowhere and should have fleeted through his mind without trace, but didn’t: it lodged itself there and nested, and laid its eggs and sat on them, warm and soft and heavy, till these thought-eggs hatched, and they were not quiet or timid, but loud and vigorous and demanding to be fed with action—what ignited the spark of mischievous unrest that would have to (there already was no escape) yield onto abject disaster, but also glorious ecstasy, if but for one moment: what was on his mind were the beach huts.


< V RANDOM — {Coda}

Pyromania [2] >


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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.

Revival [6]

I decide that the origin is clearly not what matters. It goes against my grain somewhat to accept this, because wasn’t that what got me onto this story in the first place? Wasn’t that the intriguing question: how did it all begin? Still, nobody knows, and no-one I met and talked to about it was able to give me any more hints or pointers.

There’s the legend of the two guys in their twenties and their dare, and there is the tradition that has established itself over time, and that’s all there is to it. Does there need to be more? Of course, everything has a cause and an origin somewhere, and probably this is somehow known: in the fabric of the common consciousness, unspoken, unexplained. It just happened, we all know it just happened, we kind of understand how it happened, and we’re all right with that. Or is it a case of avoiding uncomfortable truths? What could possibly be uncomfortable in a truth about an event as friendly and as inclusive and as welcoming and as joyful as the Bournemouth & Boscombe Nude Beach Stroll?

I decide to let it go. This obsession with clear causes and rational effects. I’ve had, against all my expectations and severe reservations, a marvellous time in the unclothed company of strangers who turned out very much to be friends I hadn’t yet met. This belief I’ve held always, borne out by experience. We are good people. Yes, we do terrible things—the litany of our offences against each other, against the planet, against the animal kingdom, reads like a catalogue of monstrosity, and we’re never more than an inch away from some appalling misdeed or other—and yes our history is littered with catastrophic failures of humanity, and yes: you watch your news and you feel a moment closer to despair before you’ve had a chance to change channels, but… take a Sunday afternoon like this in almost any town in England, or in any country, really, and, away from the agitation, unstirred by some cause or other, some issue or concern, given a set of basic parameters —that the fundamental needs be covered, that the fabric of the community be intact and healthy, that the framework that allows human beings to feel safe and appreciated be in place and not threatened by crime or corruption or despotic politics—you will find us getting on with each other, pretty much. Across generations, across creeds, across ideologies, across gender, across ethnicity, across religion, across our own little preoccupations, and large ones too, across the spectrum. It’s not spectacular, and it’s not difficult. It’s human, it’s normal. And yet, it still feels amazing.

This, I decide to hold on to. As a thought, as a hope. I know some will find me naive and deluded, I realise at this time of confrontation and conflict and unbearable regression into isolationist rhetoric, simplistic solutions and the allocation of blame, guilt and shame, it may sound almost glib to say: ‘we are good people.’ But think of the alternative.

Think of what it means if we decide, in the face of everything, that we are as terrible as the worst things we see? Then whatever makes whoever among us do wrong, in whatever way, will have won: we hand our worst version of ourselves victory over ourselves. Because yes, the bombing of children in war zones, the dumping of plastic by the container load in the oceans, the burning down of refugee centres, and the shooting of students at high schools: they’re all done by us. People. Like you and me. That is the horrendous truth, but it’s also—and that’s much harder to comprehend and as difficult to accept—the reason there is hope yet. The people who do the most terrible things from which we recoil in disgust, they are not a different species. They are innocent when they are born and grow up with hopes and dreams of their own. And then things go wrong. Over time, bit by bit, through circumstances, through personal choices, through the need to survive, through the culture we’re born into, through what behaviours are reinforced. Through illness. Through despair. For every person who does something destructive, violent, inhuman, cruel, there is also the person they could have become. May yet turn into, given the chance. And vice versa.

So if we give in to despair, surrender to cruelty, and accept violence and destruction as the norm, then we feed them. We give our energy to them, we make them stronger. We start to meet hatred with hatred, instead of with love. We start to build walls, instead of dismantling borders. We start to arm teachers, instead of disarming society. We crank up the tension, instead of defusing situations, we add fuel to the wildfire, instead of extinguishing it, and planting new trees.

They’re simple choices, really: whichever version of ourselves we nurture will grow strong. And so I take my leave of Bournemouth & Boscombe and its famous Nude Beach Stroll, on the last Sunday in June. I salute you, good people, there, by the coast: I thank you, you’ve given me much food for thought and made me see my world differently. I do wish you well!


< Revival [5]

 

Revival [5]

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

Much as there was no gong and no whistle, no starting gun and no fanfare to announce the beginning of the 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 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?


< Revival [4]       Revival [6] >

 

Revival [4]

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 demur friend who has not been saying much since I tagged along with them, and their sunny woman friend whose welcome it was that had convinced me and won me over so quickly.

The British ritual of kissing friends and close-enough friends of friends, even if you have never met them before, on the cheek, once—or twice? you can never be entirely sure which—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 indeed about being naked. You don’t want to, for example, sit down in a leather chair where you know someone else has just sat, for maybe half an hour or longer, talking to their Human Resources manager about a recurring health issue. What exactly is the issue, you wonder, and is it contagious?… Or the carpenter. Now, in some respects that makes a little more sense: making furniture is proper physical exertion, and why should he not do so free from textiles, but perhaps, for reasons of personal safety, no more than topless…

I like his chest, Paul’s, as it bounces when he laughs at a joke I wasn’t quite listening to and therefore didn’t quite get, and I like his magnificent belly which doesn’t seem fat so much as voluptuous. He is wholly, and wholesomely, attractive, though not in a classical, or traditional, or obvious way. His personality beams and bestows on the people around him 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 the host couple and the one, I believe, whose social work is more statutory. I’m momentarily startled, and before I can prevent myself from thinking the thought, I wonder, but for a fraction of a second, what happens when nudists get involuntary erections, but I gather my senses and I reply: ‘I am a writer.’


< Revival [3]       Revival [5] >