The Weasel

How I swam with a barracuda, suffered a ghastly virus from an insect bite and survived spam haute cuisine
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
I SUPPOSE that three weeks on one's back at the seaside sounds just the ticket for a summer break. Admittedly, my incapacity resulting from an infected leg took the gilt off the gingerbread to some extent. Even it I were at the peak of health, I doubt if I would brave this summer's squalls and glowering skies to pitch camp on the splendid sands of Filey Bay. By way of compensation for my pallor, I've been glancing through a work called The Beach: The History of Paradise on Earth by Lena Lencek and Gideon Bosker. Despite its tantalising title, this chronicle of the littoral contrives to be both stodgy and glib. At times, it is mystifying, such as the statement that, "By 1841, Blackpool boasted 1,500 houses at the foot of its cliff." Unaware of any natural precipice in the vicinity of the Golden Mile, I checked with Blackpool Council. A puzzled spokesman agreed that any talk of a cliff was "stretching the imagination".

However, I learnt that Scarborough became the first seaside resort in 1667 when a sawbones called Wittie prescribed naked immersion in its chilly waters. A century later, George III was among those who took this somewhat daunting cure (evidently unsuccessful in his case.) Despite Dr Wittie's prescription, a list of "Paradises by the sea" compiled by Lencek and Bosker inexplicably omits Scarborough in favour of such mundane attractions as the Hotel du Cap Eden-Roc at Cap d'Antibes. In fact, Blighty's bracing resorts fail to rate a single mention.

I don't think we should be too distressed by this omission. For my money, a spell on the beach is too much like hard work to be called paradisiacal. After the tedious business of ladling on the Factor 6, it is a matter of moments before large areas are coated with sand, like a breadcrumbed plaice. Sooner or later, even hydrophobes like Mrs W have to take a dip. For some of us, breasting the waves is the whole point of being at the seaside, but may I offer a word of advice: don't plunge in if everyone else is hanging back.

You may cut a dash as a devil-may-care buckaroo as you bound into the briny but, depend upon it, retribution lurks in the depths. Once in the Aegean, I found that a flotilla of medusa jellyfish explained why I was the only one in the water. (Since ammonia counteracts their sting, the human body can generally be induced to provide an antidote.) Snorkelling off Cozumel in Mexico, I was mystified that the water was quite empty until I came eye-to-eye with a languid barracuda. Swimming near the Hotel Des Bains at the Venice Lido (which rates inclusion as a "Paradise near the Sea"), my solitary state was inexplicable until I encountered a bobbing convoy which I doubt if you would want me to particularise.

Even the emptiest of beaches can present unexpected problems. In her cruel way, Mrs W occasionally reminds me of an incident which took place on a vast golden strand on the Greek island of Seriphos. We were lolling side by side when a dark suited figure slowly approached, somewhat like Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia. When he finally hove to, his questions were addressed solely to Mrs W: "You English lady? You having good time here? How about disco with me tonight?" Like any true-born Englishman, I continued to scrutinise the Times Literary Supplement. Mrs W explained that she was associated with the great blob lying by her side and her suitor disconsolately mooched off. She asked why I hadn't interjected. My explanation that it seemed unwise to cross swords with the island's policeman cut little ice. Thankfully, constabulary lotharios are rarely a problem in Filey.

Though it might not be everybody's idea of paradise on earth, we once spent a sublime late summer holiday at Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, which is one of the low-lying islands known as the Outer Banks. This year, our American friends urged us to repeat the experience. It was a severe temptation. On our previous visit, the weather on this lonely finger of land was perfect and we were charmed by our oceanside accommodation, though its high-rise stilts came as a surprise. Similarly, the alarming road signs declaring "EVACUATION ROUTE" and "ESCAPE THIS WAY" seemed inexplicable. As we gargled margaritas and barbecued blue-shell crabs on the sun-deck, the notion of anyone wanting to escape was mystifying. A couple of days ago, however, a mandatory evacuation order left 350,000 residents and tourists with no alternative. Unfortunately, Bonnie was no longer lying over the ocean.

AS I remarked last week, I believe the cause of my recent malady was an insect bite contracted during an evening concert of ghastly light classics which took place in the cowplop-rich pasture of a local stately home. "There's a bigger one taking place at Castle Howard next Saturday," I was cheerily informed by various Yorkshirefolk, with the implied suggestion that, like an acrobat returning to the high-wire after a fall, I shouldn't let a little thing like 12 days in hospital put me off enjoying another musical feast.

Unlike my unexpectedly memorable evening, which culminated in Handel's Firework Music accompanied by some half-hearted pyrotechnics, the Castle Howard rave-up concluded with a rendition of that moth-eaten old warhorse, Tchaikovsky's 1812 overture.

The following day, a local paper reported the news that a ballistics specialist responsible for the percussive climax of this work lost two fingers when her cannon blew up. Maybe I'm a trifle prejudiced but this nasty accident only serves to confirm my heartfelt view that such philistine pastimes should be shunned as if they were the plague.

DID YOU know that Spam is mainly sold on a Thursday? I first discovered this intriguing insight a few weeks ago at a press conference promoting the American delicacy and it happened to be supported by a fellow patient in hospital "Aye, we always buy a tin on Thursdays," he volunteered. "Lovely in sandwiches." The reason is simple. After being curried, rissoled and otherwise inventively rechauffe, even the most diligently eked-out weekend joint has given up the ghost by Wednesday. Hence Spam on Thursday. "We want a new generation to feel comfortable with Spam," a PR woman enthused at the re-launch, which took place amid the louche luxury of the Atlantic Bar & Grill in Soho. "Anton Edelman and Albert Roux have cooked with it." Oddly enough, I recall no reference to the stuff in the published works of these luminaries. For the first time in perhaps three decades, I sampled a sliver. Despite containing a minimum of 90 per cent pork, it had a weirdly homogenised texture, as if pre-chewed.

But I must admit that the lunch prepared by the Atlantic's noted chef, Richard Sawyer, was most toothsome, if a touch Pythonesque: timbel of Spam with aubergine relish, spicy Spam rigatoni, tomato and Spam flan. Spanish rice with Spam and Spam stuffed peppers. Unfortunately, it has to be said that it all would have been greatly improved by the simple omission of a certain ingredient.

Comments