Brancaster beach is three thick splurges of colour, fudged onto a canvas by a thick-fingered God. Marked in front of me is the deep royal blue of the sky, the muddier cobalt of the ocean, and the creamy-yellow of sand metres deep. The tide has receded far out towards the horizon and instead of hearing the crush of waves against the shore, you hear the dangerous sibilance of sand, snaking out of formation and whipping across the shoreline onto bare legs. The hissing is mixed with the chatter of homo-sapiens and the screeching of gulls. But walking East, away from the chaos, the voices slowly drain away.
My picnic comprises of homemade strawberry lemonade, held in a flask with ice; a caramelised onion burger fresh off the griddle, topped with melted cheese on a bed of slaw; a jar of artichoke hearts in oil, eaten liberally with bare hands; and the whole feast is sprinkled with the salty crunch of sand. It isn’t the beach without a picnic and I like to pack well.
It was Sunday. The heat in the back garden blistered, so I decided a quick jaunt to the coast was in order to escape the mugginess of the inland air. The journey was uneventful. It was all screeching around corners on two wheels and overtaking traffic at 125 miles an hour. This was, of course, all undertaken on small country roads, in order to avoid the crawling A149 from Kings Lynn to Hunstanton. At Sainsbury’s, we picked up food supplies and the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack. So with Mr Blue Sky rising out of the speakers, we descended through the small village of Brancaster and towards the dusky dunes.
Contemplating the roll of the ocean is rather a solitary habit – but kites and splashing and picnicking are group affairs. I am always torn between these social aspects of the shore and the introverted appeal of being alone with nature. I appreciate that other people want to go to the beach, but I wish they’d pick a different time to do so. And sometimes their conduct is baffling. Take for instance your typical beach seating arrangements.
Imagine – it’s 28C, the queue to the carpark takes 30min, the entrance paths are busy and filled with the stench of humanity, the toilets are badly cared for – someone has urinated everywhere. Where should I make camp for the day? You certainly wouldn’t pick that exact spot, would you now? Where the constant crush of the semi-dressed multitudes will traipse past you all day, and stare at your every move, scrutinising your pale flesh as it bakes in the heat. Thinking – are you sure you want to eat that? Are you sure you should wear that? Are you sure you should be shouting at your kids like that? Where the sand is saturated in sweat, cigarettes and other human debris. Where the natural beauty of the landscape is at its lowest. And yet that’s what everyone does – sitting on top of each other like the inhabitants of a Mega-city from Judge Dredd.
Why not walk for a few minutes? – could be five minutes, could be fifteen. Watch as the landscape changes and the beach gradually reveals more pristine sands, less clamour, and less screaming. Keep walking and the beach will clear completely. You’ll have your pick of the dunes to nestle into for the day; surrounded by a cocoon of sand and tranquillity. So I ask you, why sit by the entrance? I mean, I don’t really want to dissuade too many people from doing this – after all, this means I don’t have to walk as far to gain paradise. But, honestly? Why? And I don’t blame some – some cannot walk, have babies, are elderly or unwell. The rest of you though, I simply cannot fathom.
I want my beaches to be white on blue – lapis-lazuli on marble.
Take a look at the picture above (excuse my charming sister circa 1996); this is my definition of a beach. This is the white sands and turquoise waters of a beach on the Western Isles of Scotland (I suspect Hosta or Sollas). It is a remote and out of the way kind of place. Unspoilt beauty here isn’t something that anyone has to hoard or fight over. It is provided free of charge, unasked for, and I was spoilt. In England, I’m hunting a rarity. Am I harking after this golden period – searching for what once was and will never be so again?
As I examine the picture more and more, I notice the fly tipping on the dunes, and remember the half-burnt rubbish, the rusted bed springs and chunks of charred fence posts. Funny how I’d forgotten about all that. The distance of memory having swept away the little details and left just those three crisp lines of colours.
In my search for this beach though, am I seeking out the ideal photograph, the ‘grammable jealousy maker? I’m not really a victim of FOMO (fear of missing out) – except on the sort of grand scale which is in no way created by social media. I get FOMO over the fact that I’m not sitting on the iron throne already, that I haven’t climbed Everest, that I’ve yet to circumnavigate the globe in a hot air balloon, that I haven’t survived a zombie apocalypse, developed superpowers, saved the world or won an Olympic medal. Even in 1890, I’d have been a FOMO suffer, but I’m not a 2020 FOMO victim. I don’t really care about people’s terribly staged Instagram photos, or spending hours getting the perfect shot – or wearing a summer dress on a hike so I look good at the summit. I don’t feel like I’m missing out when I see these pictures. On the contrary, I think they are image hunters, as opposed to photographers enjoying their art. Never-the-less, is that me? Is this my mirror?
Instagram is an envy machine – it’s the green-eyed-monster from Shakespeare’s pen. It’s a creation that robs people of their happiness. Instagram is the external embodiment of jealousy. A few weeks ago I was in Tynemouth and a friend of mine asked me to take a picture of her – but it wasn’t just any old photograph. It was the perfect photograph. 150 tries later she was finally satisfied with the attempt to emulate another Instagram photograph she’d seen. She had a collection you see, of photographs that she wanted to copy, each one was beautiful, but I felt like she was missing the point. Thinking carefully about it though, I guess we were just telling different stories. One is weaving tales of other places and people, and one is about weaving a tale of self. She was telling a story about herself; there was an internal purpose. Whereas I always feel motivated by the other – an external purpose. Both narratives are as interesting and varied as each other, and yet strange when you don’t understand the other’s motivations.
There is, however, also an issue with perfection. The perfect gram versus the everyday snap. I preferred the old Instagram when the photographs were mundane and every day – they told stories of imperfect places, people and things. The artistic qualities sometimes weren’t there – but that didn’t matter because they said more than the studio staged and photoshopped lollipop coloured grams we are saturated in nowadays. I don’t think taking a hundred pictures to ensure you look perfect is the best way of going about it – but I guess that’s because my motivation is recording and not creating a story of self..
Where I am?
No, where am I? I’ve woken up bleary-eyed, my sunglasses askew. I’m lying in a sand dune, the breeze blowing across my crisping skin. The sweet smelling sun lotion filling the air.
Beaches in the public consciousness are different to beaches in reality. Beaches in stories tend to kick start or end a story. In the Tempest, Robinson Crusoe, Coral Island, Lord of the Flies, the T.V. show Lost – they all start with their protagonists being washed-up on the beach – like a re-birthing in salt and fire. It is a transitional area of arriving and departing. In many ways, visiting a beach is like visiting a train station, but instead of staring at that Teletextesque screen revealing all the destinations up and down the country, we stare at the ocean.
If our geography is good, we can have a pretty good guess at where we will end up if we take a boat to the horizon and sail in a straight line, but if we bathe in ignorance, then the possibilities are endless. As we look at the horizon line, the one that marks the end of the known, we realise we are looking into the land of the imagination. This wonder is a far stronger lure for our brain to mull over than any memory of a real beach – than arguably the very physicality of being there. Being at that edge is a moment of potential. A moment of imagination. It fills us with the power of possibility.