Monday, 27 August 2012


Love and marriage.
Horse and carriage.
Pork and apple sauce.
Basil and tomato. 
Beer and BBQs.

You can’t imagine them apart. They are simply meant to be.

To an Australian, sand and sea is a given. 

Wide blankets of yellow and white stretched along the shore, wrapping around your toes ‘til you sink to the ankles… or warmed by the sun ‘til you hop from foot to foot before landing again in the waves which break for eternity. 

The beach.  The great Australian beach - loved by families, couples, tourists, surfers, swimmers, kayakers, life-savers, bird watchers, and anyone wanting fresh air, exercise and the invigorating smell of salt-soaked air.  A favourite place to walk, run, wander, rest, read, think, picnic, build castles, bury things, play music and watch the sun rise and set.  And always the reliable welcome of sand…

Perhaps you can imagine my surprise, therefore, when I found myself recently on Brighton ‘beach’, on the South East Coast of England.  Not a patch of sand in sight.  Not a place to lie and read.  Not a cushioned and inviting approach but rather a barrier of unexpected torture.  ‘Pebbles’ they say.  ‘A pebble beach’.  But that’s incomprehensible; an oxymoron; a perversion of all that’s natural.  For they aren’t pebbles, which suggest something innocuous, they are rocks – slipping, sliding, tripping, stony, sharp, torturous rocks – which cut you underfoot and then rebound and slap sharply against your ankles as you gingerly approach the shoreline.  And if, like me, you attempt your first swim at high tide, then the descending angle of this cascading obstruction will more often than not shift under your feet so that you are sucked under… or thrown off balance so that you’re tossed irreverently onto your side or hip in the shallows, only to be pounded by another wave of flying ‘pebbles’ until you realise your only salvation is to push through the pain barrier and somehow scramble into deeper water. 

My sweet boyfriend tried to hold my hand so that I remained upright long enough to acclimatise to the unusually low temperature of the water, but still I yelped and wailed with every abrasion to foot, calf and limb.  No doubt his English reserve left him slightly embarrassed and thinking my reaction was over-the-top; though the sincerity of our attachment meant he was keen to hide it.  But seriously – can cultural norms be adapted that quickly to process the co-existence of sun, summer, blue sky, sub-artic water temperatures and foot agony… when decades of prior experience has conditioned one to a warm, soft and gentle landing?

“OUCH. This isn’t a beach” I cried indignantly.  “How do people do this?... it’s TORTURE!!!”   I was not only in pain, I was in shock - that such a price had to be paid for a simple summer swim.  But that’s the thing, you see, it isn’t simple.  It isn’t an every-day-expectation in the Mother Country to skip onto the beach and enjoy the ocean without reservation.  That’s why so many Brits spend their holidays in Ibizia.  That’s why so many watch Neighbours and Home and Away.  For in all but a few counties, a few precious strips of coastline, they are seriously deprived!

Ok, I have no empirical evidence to back up that statement.  But no wonder strangers regularly say to me “what the hell are you doing living in London when you can live in Australia?”  They must have recently been to Brighton to the ‘beach’!

I admit to having a lovely time strolling along the promenade and drinking cocktails at the Grand.  I’d happily return to pretty Brighton now I’ve been warned.  But beaches are for basking, not blisters and bandaids.  The seaside is for smiles, splashes, buckets and spades, sunscreen and soothing sensations.  It isn’t meant to be sinister or complicated.

Needless to say by day two I had found myself some rubber thongs – aka flip-flops.  With this equipment, or a pair of jelly-sandals, crocs or scuba-diving shoes, you can get closer to the good life.  Then, if you really must pay to sit in those striped beach chairs, where you can read a book while saving your butt from getting unsightly ‘pebble dipples’, I get that.  Just, please, don’t look down your nose at the yelping Australians as they try to navigate a foreign boulder border, for they’re experiencing intense beach-culture-shock and deserve your empathy. 

And come on, we give more than our fair share of comfort to the visitors who land on Australian shores and forget to apply sunscreen, wear a hat, or swim between the flags.  In fact the famous rip between north and south Bondi so often captures Brits and pulls them out to sea, that the Australian Life Guards who risk their lives to save them call it the Pommie Express. 

And if the Brits have made it a national hobby to discuss the weather, you can’t begrudge the descendents of those you shipped to the other side of the world in ignominy and chains from a little whinge about Britain's less-than-ideal beaches.  

For only now does Churchill’s speech about fighting on the beaches ring with such a resonance of bravery.