My worst ever beach was Brighton because it’s pebbly and cold and because I lived there. My first night in my seaside flat, the fire alarm went off at midnight and I never got settled after that. I loved the train ride there from my parents house in London – that always felt like I was on my way to some kind of teenage epiphany. But it would dissipate as soon as I got my key in the door. If you’re paying rent and getting itemised bills, then how is it a getaway?
You remember the worst people and places but, 18 years later, I’m trying to conjure the memory of my favourite beach and having a hard time. It’s one in New Zealand that I slept on, in a pick-up truck, when I was 25. I can’t recall the name, just the fact that there were thousands of stars instead of any other humans, and you could actually see the curve of the globe.
I’d flown there from New York, where I was living, and where my weekend getaway was the beach of Coney Island, a packed seaside parade of skuzzy glamour, as seen in Desperately Seeking Susan. Rosanna Arquette is running away from her life – she must be, because she ends up going from her suburban enclave to the beach! A dirty, run-down one but still, if there’s shore and horizon, it’s a getaway.
Whether or not we actually have the time and means to go away, the thought of sand and sea powers us through so much of the year. The beach trip was a staple of Carry On movies and of saucy Victorian seaside postcards; it launched the Eighties fantasy girl, Madonna ('If we took a holiday/took some time to celebrate') and was the crux of The Beach, Alex Garland’s bestselling novel where the hero’s search for the legendary, isolated beach led to nothing good (the way Carrie’s desire to attend prom led to nothing good).
Fragile as couples are after the birth of a baby, my husband and I thought we’d circumnavigate that risk by taking our new family on vacation – not to a beach, which is one thing if you’ve booked for, say, the Edinburgh Festival, but another when you’re going to Jamaica, home to some of most beautiful beaches in the world. It may sound strange, but I considered the beach a relic of my pre-married life, and that’s why I booked us high in the mountains.
The baby had, until then, been a lousy sleeper, but that first night we all passed out in one cosy, mosquito-netted bed overlooking a see-for-miles view, to the ambient noise of a babbling brook. As the sun rose, we started coughing and saw it wasn’t water we were hearing, but a serious brush fire encroaching on the property. We – very Britishly – went to have the included breakfast before hitching the first ride out.
And this is when – shelling out more than we’d ever planned, an amount we could only spend when threatened by fire – I accidentally stumbled on to my dream beach and our dream selves.
Maybe it was the white sands and perfect lagoon our cottage sat on, or Grace Jones pumping from the radio of the turquoise-walled hotel café, but our kid was better behaved there than she had ever been. We became more attractive, to each other and the world. Strangers kept asking if my husband was a rock star. Why else would a raggedy-looking, middle-aged dude with terrible teeth be in such a heavenly location, unless he was a rock star? Given the right context – the dream beach holiday – your shortcomings can only be a marker of your life success!
It’s hard to be completely comfortable with yourself when it feels like your skin shrunk in the English rain, which may be why the idyllic island getaway is so ingrained in our British souls. We travel to relax; yes, maybe. But we also travel to find out where we fit in. I think a dream holiday, like a dream lover, should reflect, in the shimmering sand and ocean, the best of you back at yourself.
It was lounging at our Jamaican beach paradise that I saw the Nick Cave documentary 20,000 Days On Earth. It must be a singular challenge to be an Australian goth, growing up with that beating sun and all those toned, tanned bodies. I was moved to see that the beach Cave found to soothe his soul and feed his work was… Brighton. There’s somewhere for all of us, if only we get lucky enough to wash up on it.