Summertime means that many, if not most, of us will be heading for the beach to recharge our batteries. Whether we go to Spain or to the Seychelles, Brighton or Bondi, Kerala or Cape Town, the experience will be remarkably consistent as we relive treasured seaside memories, childhood adventures, teenage romances and perfect moments spent alone on deserted shores. An annual dose of beach culture has become a fixed feature in our calendar, but what lies behind our mass migration to the seaside? What explains the beach’s appeal, across generations and cultures?
ROMAN BEACH BUMS. Traditionally, the beach was seen as a hostile zone, and the dangerous workplace of fishermen. Island cultures, from the ancient Minoans to the modern Balinese, often shunned the beach, seeing it as the home of monsters and demons. It took a highly urbanized people, the Romans, to invent beach culture as we know it today –even down to the bikini, which is depicted in ancient mosaics. Wealthy Romans escaped the summer heat by flocking to the bay of Naples, where they swam by day and partied by night. The top resort, Baiae, was the Rio of its day. “Baiae, the golden shore of blessed Venus, the bewitching gift of proud nature!” was how the Roman poet Martial described it. The more sober Roman thinker and writer Seneca the Younger dismissed it as a “resort of vice”. Even today, the beach retains this ambiguity: natural and wholesome on the one hand, indulgent and naughty on the other.
IT’S GOOD FOR YOU. In cool climates, it was the pursuit of health that started a craze for sea bathing, in 18th-century England. At first, such jaunts were confined to the rich, but the Industrial Revolution soon created a new class of factory workers, keen to escape briefly each year to the beach resorts that now mushroomed around the coast. The beach became synonymous with health, relaxation and leisure, “nature’s most potent antidepressant”, as Lena Lencek and Gideon Bosker call it in The Beach: The History of Paradise on Earth.
This is no empty claim. Sea air is rich in particles known as negative ions, which increase our ability to absorb oxygen, refreshing mind and body. They also help to balance our levels of serotonin, the “feel-good” brain chemical. In addition, just listening to the sea crashing onto the shore seems to alter brainwave patterns in an effect remarkably similar to meditation, lowering blood pressure, slowing the pulse rate, and reducing anxiety.
SOCIAL STRIPPING. Nevertheless, health alone hardly explains the beach’s key place in modern life. More powerful is the beach’s role as a social liberator. The sand is a blank canvas, washed clean by the tide each day, where we can paint whatever reality we want. We escape the city, shops, the normal rules of dress, eating and so on. We leave formality for a self-regulating world of freedom where work is impossible. The beach forces us to do nothing –and we don’t even have to feel guilty about it.
The beach is also a great leveller. You find anyone and everyone there, stripped of all the trappings of power, money and social status. The atmosphere is unique: people are at leisure, not hurrying, not competing (unless in terms of pure physical beauty, or possibly, swimwear), playing, and relaxing. There are no authority figures, unless you count deckchair attendants or lifeguards, so beach culture organizes itself, and it does so beautifully and peacefully –the reason why sociologists have flocked to study our behaviour on the shore.
EDEN ON EARTH. One of them, Orvar Lofgren, professor of European Ethnography at Lund University, Sweden, sees the modern beach holiday as the ultimate search for Utopia. According to him, the beach is “a cultural laboratory where people are free to experiment with new aspects of their identities, their social relations, or their interaction with nature, and also use the important cultural skills of daydreaming and mind travelling.”
The beach, it seems, is a modern Eden –a kind of paradise lost in the everyday world of corporations and commerce. Though it is used to sell a range of products, most of which have nothing to do with it, the beach is a refreshingly brand-free zone. No wonder then, that we not only keep coming back, but even try to take it with us. Some cities, like Paris, have built artificial beaches to relieve the stress of the urban summer. Japan’s Seagaia on Kyushu Island is a 700-hectare indoor paradise that maintains tropical beach conditions all year round. And, if all else fails, we can wear our surf brands and flip-flops in the city, eat beach-style barbecued food, drink fresh juice cocktails, and indulge our imagination –until it’s time to hit the beach once more.
HOLLAND HERALD, August 2005