∞² Revival

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

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

We are good people.

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

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

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

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

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

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

∞² Revival

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

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

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

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

My mind latches onto something, but it doesn’t know what. Maybe it’s my subconscious mind: it knows, it wants, it needs there to be more to this than meets the eye (though what meets the eye would, on occasion, seem quite enough…) and it thinks it knows that there usually is. So likelihood would suggest. And in the absence of certainty, likelihood is our friend. I want to go with that, that notion, that thought. My mind senses, below reasoning, above intuition, that there is a connection and that this can be found. But not by ‘traditional’ means. (What, in any case, are ‘traditional’ means?) It realises, my mind, now, that it has to let go and take an approach that is not a route, that is not direct, that is not determinate or determined, that is neither logical nor pure, neither chaotic nor abstract, neither instinctive nor wise.

So what is it? Perhaps I am making it all up but that doesn’t matter: I stand on the beach looking out to the sea and I notice the air coming in from vaguely the right. Over there. By the headland. Is it a headland? Is it a beach. I like the waves, they are steady and impermanent at the same time. They are waves and particles too. They are full of tiny molecules, but that is not what I mean. They are wet but their power is implacable.

If nobody knows, then maybe they need to be told. I decide to delve deeper and take a detour, via the sea. There is something somewhere that somebody would rather were not the case. I shall find it and let it be so…

∞² Revival

The Boscombe & Bournemouth Nude Beach Stroll is a joyous event that happens each year on the last Sunday in June. It starts at midday and goes on all afternoon, often into the evening, though not beyond sunset. Anyone can participate irrespective of age, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual, affective or otherwise expressed orientation, looks, or outlook: it’s really just an opportunity for anyone who wants to to wander along the beach in the buff and feel good about it, about themselves, about each other and the universe.

Since nobody organises it, nobody ‘owns’ it, other than the people who happen to be there taking part in it, and since nobody ‘owns’ it other than in the sense that everybody who takes part in it does, there are no rules, beyond those of common sense and kindness. What you wear or don’t wear is up to you, but sunscreen is generally recommended. That said, The Boscombe & Bournemouth Nude Beach Stroll takes place in any weather at all, and it is not unheard of for everybody to get perfectly drenched, effectively taking a half-day long shower, naked in the summer rain. Many people, especially the hardier ones who cover the whole stretch from Sandbanks to East Cliff, like to wear some comfortable footwear; and hats, owing to their pervasive usefulness, really come into their own here. They also come in all shapes and sizes: something of a niche subculture thrives, whereby participants with time on their hands go to town over creating their own, but this is by no means compulsory. You don’t even have to wear a hat. You don’t have to wear anything, that’s the beauty of The Boscombe & Bournemouth Nude Beach Stroll.

Since carrying anything, including your phone and money, is such a pain when you wear nothing, there is hardly any trade or commercial activity that particularly caters to the nude strollers. Instead, a convention has evolved whereby the hundreds of beach hut owners – whether they themselves feel compelled to join in the general nudity or prefer to wear their usual beach attire, entirely as is their wont – provide cups of tea, coffee, biscuits, or, if they are of a particularly generous bent, glasses of Pimm’s to the strollers who stop by for a natter. “There are,” after all, and as many a pub and cafe along many a coastline has written on a sign above the bar or on a chalk board by the entrance, quoting Yeats, “no strangers: only friends you haven’t yet met.” And indeed, lifelong friendships have formed here among people who have lived maybe three or four streets away from each other but who have never found an opportunity to as much as say hello, until they stood on the beach by another near-neighbour’s hut, sipping from a disposable cup and maybe dunking a biscuit or enjoying a vape or an old-fashioned fag, overlooking the rhythmic roll of the sea.

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

Nobody really knows now how it all started, but legend has it that two guys in their twenties had entered a dare: to streak from the Jazz Cafe at the Sandbanks end of the bay all the way – some seven or eight miles – along the sea front to the Beach House on the Christchurch Harbour. It was about lunch time, and they reckoned the sun was most definitely over the yard arm, so they had themselves a couple of cocktails for courage, stripped naked and started to run. It took them all of about fifty yards before they got out of breath, and they thought that, while it is perfectly acceptable for Mad Dogs and Englishmen to Go Out in the Midday Sun, it was simply not done to run. Instead, they eased into a gentle canter and then a trot, which readily transmuted into their stroll.

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

Of course, the most committed of purists now follow the route in its fullness in the original direction, but there is absolutely no obligation to do so: if you prefer to stroll with the sun in your eyes and head east to west, that’s just as enjoyable, and if you just want to sit on the beach or wander up and down a bit between the piers, that’s perfectly fine. The whole point, as anyone who knows The Boscombe & Bournemouth Nude Beach Stroll will tell you, is to be comfortable in your skin and celebrate your communion with your fellow humans, without stress or strain or pressure.