Duncan Minshull

History of Idleness

The Beach: The History of Paradise on Earth


Secker & Warburg 336pp £15.99 order from our bookshop

The authors refer to the ‘beaching season’, and it is with us. A towel hits the sand, we go horizontal, we roast for two weeks. As self-confessed beach bums, Lena Lencek and Gideon Bosker pay homage to the ritual; as academics, their account is keenly researched and tightly chronological – with its roots in mythology, history and sociology.

But geology first. What do we actually put our towels on? A grain of sand is a million years old, it measures a sixteenth of a millimetre and has a pillow-shaped centre. Yellows, pinks, purples, reds, blacks make up the mix – depending on location and the substance eroded. Some are alabaster smooth, some jagged. And when these grains scrape, they ‘sing’: silky rustles come off the dunes of Hawaii, the sands at Oregon emit high-pitched squeaks, the beaches of Jebel Nagous groan in the wind.

The Romans were quick to exploit the yellow stuff, breaking a multitude of superstitions that linked the shore with malign spirits. They built fashionable Baiae, which prospered for 500 years. (It still stands as the longest running resort.) Here, a notion of otium was played out: constructive recreation in the form of bathing, boating and barbecues. A sort of ‘awayday’ experience. Seneca the Younger thought Baiae vice-ridden; he booked a holiday above the notorious Great Bath and was constantly distracted.

Then Christianity ushered in a ‘ dark age of the ancient beach’ . Monasteries replaced resorts as centres of paradise. You did not bathe anymore, you wrapped up. Dirt prevailed. It became a sign of sanctity. When the Plague swept medieval Europe, disease was thought to have entered through the coastal ports. Never before was splashing around in the sea so morally and hygienically frowned upon, and attitudes remained that way until the sixteenth century.

Beach life has always defined moral character – take a look at Britain and southern Europe. A Brit would walk on a beach; he would be daunted by the sea’s elemental power; he would swim in it for ‘aquatherapeutic’ reasons; he would even drink it. France, Italy and Spain resisted this rigorous ‘beach-cultism’ of the late 1800s. They looked to Riviera culture:

Princes, princesses, marquises and dukes, real and false, bankers and swindlers mixed indiscriminately and joyously while moneyed widows and neglected wives passed their days sightseeing and bathing, and whiled away the nights waltzing with danseurs mondains hired by the hour.

It wasn’t until the 1920s that sunshine complemented sea and sand . The nineteenth century had been mainly heliophobic – for medical and aesthetic reasons – and it was the Germans who revived a Nietzschean zest for nature. ‘The sun healed their bodies of the years of war,’ observed Stephen Spender of an obsession for lakeside tanning during the years of the Weimar Republic. And the sun shone symbolically: baking you back to good health, also nourishing the ego.

Sea, sand and sun bring us to the modern beach. And Lencek and Bosker pack as much information into the more recent coastal phenomena of California (surf), South America (music) and the Far East (sex). Their survey is always elegantly and entertainingly conducted, and augmented with useful illustrations – including women on a Roman mosaic, sporting the world ‘s first bikini. It was all the rage at Baiae.

Enthusiasm flags when it comes to the 1990s. Development and pollution have taken their toll in the last twenty years. The real problem, though, is electronic. Office equipment is now so compact, so portable, that we are bringing to the beach the big taboo – work. Beach life should only offer escape.

But the book concludes on a positive note. The authors generously – and perhaps unwisely – list their favourite resorts. Mostly unknown, pretty much unspoilt. So, you should book early.

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