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!