OUT TO LUNCH
Every summer, the British dream of alfresco living confronts the reality - sand, wasps, recalcitrant chicken legs and body parts. Memories are made of this
Sunday 06 September 1998
How the teenage years can distort our perceptions! As children we explored the outdoors quite happily, ran on the sands and swam in cold waters in the days before mass foreign travel, before the world heated up. Then came the social agoraphobia associated with being outside where people are, and with your family. Like a knife, puberty whittles at our egos, honing them into sharp little sticks of self-consciousness. At that age we are characters in Frasier, horribly attuned to the naffness of it all, agonised by our own involuntary association with vulgarity. It is all so disgusting. Everything is best kept secret, behind closed doors.
But no such luck. The 13-year-old's plaintive and half- serious offer to look after the house while parents and siblings head for that campsite near Paignton, or that guest-house just outside Hastings, is always turned down. So here we are on the beach, all skinny ribs, luminous white flesh and untimely erections. Dad's jollity is forced, your little sister a pain, and your mother a lumpy sandwich-making machine. Look at us all, seeking the one hour of sun on a pebbly, jellyfish-strewn beach in North Wales, forced to pee in the sea (Concentrate! Is there some kind of decompression chamber at the end, that will not open underwater? At last!) and change, red-faced, beneath a postage-stamp towel. "Oh go on!" says Mum, "nobody's looking!" You are away from your friends. Back in London something exciting may be going on; something involving dark rooms, joss-sticks, cider and fumbling. And everybody's bloody looking.
Then there's the food! Sand has blown into every sandwich and every bag of crisps, and now forms a wet ring around the bottle-tops. If at the age of 100 you cannot remember any other taste, you will always be able to summon up the unique flavour of sand. As you will the sight of food on the floor, of cafes with processed peas ground into the carpet, of the drying, sticky splodge of dropped ice-creams.
Off to the beauty spot, in that small, quarrelsome car, for the family picnic. You unload the fold-away tables that won't, and the collapsible chairs that will. You sit in your family square, with the other terrible families in theirs, and begin your battle with the wasps. Here they come, those stripy aliens: wasps in the jam, in the sugar, tickling your lips with their black and yellow feelers. Half the family are wasp-stoics ("Don't wave your arms like that, it just infuriates them") and the other half are wasp-flailers ("Go away! Get it away from me!"). It is always the flailers' fault when stoics get stung.
Sand, wasps and erections. Three reasons why I think it is those still on the threshold of adulthood (i.e. under 40), who will see Martin Parr's photographs as somehow cruel, and satirical. They are reminders of painful times. But those who have passed, irrevocably, through the gateway of middle age could well view them differently. For us they may rather appear to be affectionate chronicles of the exterior pleasures of grown-upness. The capped teeth are not repugnant, because - by now - we all have them, and the unreliable display of over-colourful clothing is not (as it is in adolescence or courtship) to be taken too seriously. We have found our mates, and do not need to try too hard to please others.
So you will find us cosmopolitan bourgeois at weddings, seeking out a good table in the bridal dress marquee, from which to sup our salmon and champagne, dolled up in white tuxedos and silly hats. We are to be discovered on the lawns at Glyndebourne, pulling china out of Wind-in-the-Willows hampers like Ratty and Mole, worrying about grass-stains and waiting to be summoned to Simone Boccanegra.
Our more showy country cousins, the sporty ones, strut their stuff at the great calendar events. In blazers (Blazers? Have you worn a blazer since school? Can you pass that shop called Blazer without shuddering?) at Henley for the regatta, recalling strokes pulled on water ... and on land. There is no terrible self-consciousness here, merely a quiet satisfaction with rank attained and life still being lived. That explains the Kennel Club tie, the elaborate crest, the violently green hat and the large cigar. More Pimms?
The younger folk gather at Badminton, where their parents are the judges. But it isn't just the horses that are on trial. Genetic testing is going on, evidence is being gathered about suitable partners, using the sense of smell to locate the correct pheromones, and sight to compare sunglasses and thus assess wealth and social standing. Sex too, is vicariously on offer at the hunt. Young ladies with red lips and strong thighs and riding crops seek Reynard's bloody brush. If I were only 10 years younger, says the Master of the Hunt.
Quieter, gentler, less sweaty times at the village fete. One big tent houses the displays. Tom Forrest's marrow can be compared with Bert Fry's. Little cards with tart comments adorn the bowls of summer flowers ("Very nice, but the category does state red, rather than pink blooms"). The raffle wins you the fluffy dinosaur, the tombola nets you the bottle of wine that you yourself donated in the first place. Oh, and there goes that lady artist from Cedar Cottage, her red hair escaping from her garish scarf, like the wispy tentacles of a weird sea-creature. She sells her odd watercolours from the table next to the WI cake stall. You could have scones and tea in the tea-tent, but just a fast car-ride down the M40 will take you to the land of pavement cafes and mobile phones.
And it is food, of course, that is the great leveller. Treacherous outdoor food. Food that slides off the paper plate, that leaves sauce tracks down your chin and spots the pleats on your trousers. Hey, it was all going fine until you encountered that bacon sandwich with the impossible rind, resistingly unravelling, like heavy-duty elastic. The more you pulled, the more there was, until you were tugging at a metre and a half of unsightly gristle. All in front of that fabulous girl with the tomboy haircut and athletic legs, who will now forever see you as the bacon-fat guy. Only in the photos after the event does the elegant Lady Pamela (about whom everything else is perfect) see that she smiled at everyone with a nice bit of half-masticated bread between her teeth.
That is the condition humaine. Outside we must saw at slices of meat with plastic knives. Or else we are to be found, our little, stiff, harmless chicken legs on our laps, beside the tomato and the little bulse of wrapped ham sandwiches. A poignant metaphor for the comfortable harmlessness of middle-aged sexuality. After even that has passed, Granny sits contentedly in a deck-chair on the beach, no more aware of teenagers and their concerns than they are of her bunions. It is all on view when the world is turned inside out. !
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