The Weasel

How I survived a British summer of razor-fish infested seas, cream tea excess and adolescent mating games with a tennis ball
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The Independent Culture
AH, THE British seaside summer! As I stand here at the paddling end of Porthcurno beach, nose flayed and volcanic with sunburn, jeans turned up to a circulation-constricting denim ruff just above the knee, stomach churning from a surfeit of Helston scrumpy and chin ablaze with more piebald stubble than a Hampshire meadow in September, it is hard to remember the impulse behind this uniquely traumatising experience is one of relaxation.

Maybe occasionally, as one furtively examines behind a pair of Roy Orbison sunglasses, the caramel loveliness of the young lady who languidly sprawls before me in the surf with a body-board handcuffed to her wrist and sometimes splashily mounted, in a sudden flurry of thoroughbred limbs, by her Amazonian frame (Oh fortunate beach accessory), it's possible to derive some pleasure from the whole ghastly enterprise. But it's soon back to normal as your spirits are assailed by the pitiless sun, venal car park attendants and vertiginous beachward climbs with umbrella/portable fridge/stroppy Weaslet/Bong- Ball impedimenta clenched in your straining arms, knowing that soon you'll have to plunge yourself into freezing Cornish waves for a token three minutes or risk having your offspring grow up all warped and peculiar because their father is a hydrophobic wuss.

Don't get me wrong. I've enjoyed a lot of the Cornwall Experience. I loved the Minack Theatre, that spectacular cliffside stage where a coastal helicopter made a welcome, if anachronistic, addition to the climactic chase in the Winchester College production of Great Expectations ("Give up, Magwitch - there's a police marksman in the Westland..."). I liked all 47 cream teas I somehow digested in the last two weeks, from Looe to the Lizard, without ever fretting about paying pounds 3.50 for two scones, some cream and a helping of strawberry jam. I've enjoyed the local hyperbole - the way the Aquarium at Fowey is described as "one of the finest deep- sea aquariums in the British Isles", although frankly, you could see more interesting creatures from the deep on the slab of the wet-fish shop in Nunhead, south London. I've noted the impossibility of explaining the work of Ben Nicholson and John Wells and Alfred Wallis and the other jewels of the St Ives Tate Gallery to a bored six-year-old, and marvelled at how English sporting culture has failed to come up with any decent adult surfboarders, even though the Atlantic waves seem a lot bigger than when I was in romper trunks.

And lastly, I've stared in wonderment at the expressions of British phlegm under duress: my favourite sight was of a lady at Perrin's Cove, a fifty- something matron ungainly kitted out in ruched aquatic bombazine (or whatever it is that matrons wear on the beach), who sat becalmed on the sand, oblivious to the larks and whoops and buckets-and-spades shenanigans around her, as she drank Thermos-flask tea out of a china cup and - calmly turned the pages of Rohinton Mistry's Bombay epic, A Fine Balance.

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THE COURTSHIP of young Brits are always worth watching. This summer, the paradigmatic encounter goes as follows. Girl A, 15, curvaceous but uncertain in gingham bikini, walks down beach with Girl B, bosomless but stroppy in crimson one-piece, talking earnestly about, ooh, I dunno, genetically modified food or some other staple of teen conversation. They walk through waves, engrossed in chat. When both immersed to waist-height, Girl B takes from bosomless one-piece costume a tennis ball (so that's what it was) and they listlessly play catch. Cue for cohort of four ghastly youths in black T-shirts and baggy shorts, like itinerant boy band, to plunge into sea, crazed with lust.

They will have an oikish leader, instantly identifiable by Gazza/Roman Emperor dyed-yellow barnet. "Ere," he will cry, "Chuck it over 'ere, then." Girls look horrified at such vile intrusion, then exchange glances, giggle, and Girl A throws ball to Top Oik. All participants then play catch, symbolising God knows what subtleties of Arcadian/Lawrentian mating dance. The ritual moves up a notch when ball thrown by either girl lands slightly short of one male participant, causing small splash of seawater upon his spindly shoulders. "Oi!" he cries, "What's yore game? I'm gonna get you for that...," a manoeuvre that enables Top or Minor Oiks equal chance of being first to up-end Girl A (the one with the bosom) in sea, thus guaranteeing onset of True Love as per all those teen magazines. When you've noted this maybe a dozen times, you think: "What grievous collisions of teenage emotion could be avoided if someone would just ban The Taking of Tennis Balls into the Sea."

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"JORDAN'S STILL limping on his foot this morning," said Mr Stephen White of West Bromwich, about his five-year-old son, "but we didn't think twice about coming back - it's so beautiful here and we are not worried." This seems a little hard on poor Jordan - one of 500 tourists on the beaches of Paignton, Preston and Torbay whose feet were slashed last week by razor fish. But as long as his dad gets to appreciate the scenery, who are we to comment?

More urgent for the flip-flopped masses in the West Country is the question of what exactly razor fish are, and what has made them emerge from the ocean floor and rise against homo sapiens as if directed by Alfred (The Birds) Hitchcock? They look like shoe-horns or switchblades, rather than living creatures, but they're related to cockles and mussels and therefore count as crustacea. Newspaper reports refer to "razor fish" and "razor shells", or even "razor shell debris", as if uncertain whether the things have any host organisms inside them.

My favourite explanation turned up in the Western Morning News, a paper that prides itself on knowing about the West Country. It dealt with the razor fish as though describing some delinquent youths down Paignton way, who'd been under surveillance for years: "The creatures live just under the sand and are normally out of harm's way, but the sensitive molluscs' feet were shaken free by surf whipped up by the wind and they rose up, where their razor shells ripped into bathers' feet...."

Well, whaddya know? Molluscs have feet. Those illustrations to "The Walrus and the Carpenter" you saw in Through the Looking-Glass, showing oysters walking about in shoes and socks, were, in fact, the documentary truth. As for that pesky surf-plus-East-Wind combination, well, I'm surprised the grizzled old seadogs of Torbay weren't warning us all about it a week ago, reciting bits of ancient wisdom like that old saying in these parts: "When surf be woild, and east wind blows, then razor fish will gash thy toes." Sorry, the Western Morning News.

Never mind. There's plenty of wisdom around after the event. The spectacularly well-named (under the circumstances) Kelvin Boot, a spokesman from the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth, warned that jellyfish and spiny sea-urchins might also pose a threat to bathers, but "by shuffling your feet, wearing shoes and keeping your eyes open, the beach is still the best place to be on a hot summer's day". Plus an overcoat, an aqualung and a pair of oven gloves, should you want to enjoy the English beach experience to the full.

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