∞² Revival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

∞² Revival

I resolve to dive in. Not 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 who I talk to, and for how long, there is always, always a moment of sadness. How did I miss that, in my perception, and 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 now, 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 over the girls does prevail, 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, are weighed down now by sorrow.

So into each other, so absorbed by their bodies, the parents were at that time, that they didn’t notice the bangs, or the heat, or the flames from the beach in the distance at first, or the smoke: they took them for fireworks in the sky, for being at one with each other for the first time in ages; and the chain lit up so quickly, by the time the Calor gas bottle exploded and they’d rushed back to their hut, just a few yards, a few steps really, no more, it was way too late. The devastation still registers in the young mother’s eyes; the young father holding her hands, as they sit, outside their new hut, overlooking the sea. They are no longer young now, these two, but they do have a son and a daughter, aged twelve and fourteen. They are not happy, but they’re content. And they have no anger now in their hearts, and no hate. Then, they did, they tell me, they wanted them dead, the two youths who had done this to them, who had taken their daughters. Now? Now they feel a kind of resignation, and calm. Life is like that. ‘Life is like that,’ the young father, no longer young now (maybe a little young, still), but proud of his son whom he shows me a picture of, after he’s shown me one of the twins, and before he shows me one of his daughter too, ‘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 need, nor do I have any 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 inflexes a question. The doubt. The ‘catastrophe’. It sounds a little incongruent now, but true. Maybe he wants to be sure, more sure than he is. Who can blame them. I salute them, I wander on.

‘Boscombe & Bournemouth has had its fair share of tragedy,’ the 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’s something in my memory that I can’t recall that makes me think that I know what she’s talking about, but the look that 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 Boscombe & Bournemouth 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 approving, 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.