Captain Moonlight: Sun, sand and a kind of hell

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The Independent Online
If you take only one book on holiday with you this summer, make it a copy of The Beach by Alex Garland. Forgive the adspeak, but it's true. The Beach is a classic beach book - a compulsive page-turner set in an exotic location and with the added bonus of an underlying theme which questions the very nature and implications of travel itself.

The sales figures suggest that the book has already made its way to a considerable number of exotic locations. Published in paperback in June and backed up by an aggressive publicity campaign by Penguin, it's now sold over 100,000 copies, and rising. The film rights have been optioned to the creative team who made Trainspotting.

"I'm not blind to the effects of advertising and publicity," says the 27-year-old author with somewhat undue modesty. We're sitting in a cafe in London's Belsize Park, just around the corner from his new flat, bought partly from the proceeds of his American advance. "You can write total shit and it can sell millions," he continues. "There are writers who are not just technically bad, they're telling boring stories, and they're selling a lot of copies. So the sales don't legitimise me in any way at all. But I hope The Beach is written in at least a workmanlike way, and I think it gets its job done."

It certainly does. The book is set in Thailand, where the narrator, Richard, arrives at the beginning of a backpacking holiday. He comes across a map showing the location of a legendary beach which represents a kind of Holy Grail in the traveller community. But when he gets there, this earthly paradise descends into a kind of hell. The Lord of the Flies seems an obvious reference point, but Garland cites JG Ballard's Empire of the Sun as his biggest influence.

When Garland was 18, he spent six months in the Philippines. He returned several times and toured in the rest of South East Asia. During that time he developed mixed feelings about the travellers' scene.

"In some ways I felt alienated from it, but I also loved aspects of it," he says. "When I first went, I thought there was some sort of qualitative difference between me staying in a small part of an island and someone staying in the Hilton, but the more I did it, the less those differences became.

"In Thailand I spent some time with a guy I'd met in England who came from a Thai hill tribe and he really politicised me about travellers. He took me along to his village and there was a small economy set up based on selling opium to the travellers. They were young, well-meaning, superficially liberal people, but there was something really ugly about what was happening."

When he left university, Garland worked for a while drawing comic strips (his father is the cartoonist Nick Garland) and at the same time wrote a "really disastrously bad" novel about a journalist in the Philippines. It was rejected, but not without a few encouraging words from an agent about not giving up. So he signed on the dole for a year and dedicated himself to writing The Beach. He's now about two-thirds of the way through his next novel, which is a love story. So does he see his future as a novelist? "No," he says without hesitation. "Well, I don't know. I've got to think hard about it because there are things about being a novelist as a career that I haven't sorted out yet. For a year-and-a-half you're stuck working on one thing and it's incredibly insular. It's a job that isolates you from other people. I don't mind a bit of isolation, but a lot can wear me down."

When we spoke, he was about to go on holiday. So what exotic location has this seasoned traveller chosen? The answer is a bit of a surprise: Spain.

"For ages I've thought I'd love to go on a holiday and be in a hotel and have a swimming pool with a bar," he says. "And so that's what I'm going to do and I'm really looking forward to it."


Let's go surfing - very carefully

"Yet another panty-liner in the face," said Chris Hines when I asked him what finally persuaded him and his friends to form the pressure group Surfers Against Sewage. "Yet another condom floating by," he continued, "and yet another evening of one of us being sick." It was in May 1990 that SAS began their campaign to clean up Britain's beaches and the organisation now has a full-time staff of seven, with 12,000 members. Turnover in the sales of T-shirts and other merchandising is around pounds l50,000 a year. Their main activities involve media-orientated demonstrations, usually involving their ten-foot-long inflatable turd. Chris told me they had it specially made, which is hardly surprising, since I don't imagine there's much of a demand for such a thing on the whole. "It's infamous," he said. "Last week we sailed a yacht into Cowes, towing the turd behind us. We raise public awareness by doing that," added Chris, who once stuck his head up Jersey's sewage outfall pipe. Over the coming bank holiday weekend, the Malibu SAS Ocean Festival will be taking place in Newquay and the event also incorporates the British Open Surfing Championship. "It's a good fun day out," said Chris, although he admitted that sadly the 10- foot turd will not be in attendance.

"The turd's in Edinburgh at the moment," he said. "It whizzes round all by itself."


Unreconstructed Penthouse

Penthouse founder, Bob Guccione, was in town last week to oversee the relaunch of the British edition of his magazine, which is trying to be fashionable and cerebral, and I'll give it six months if it's lucky. However, notwithstanding the dismal quality of this sad revamp, I felt obliged to drop round to Bob's suite at the Dorchester because it's not every day you get to meet a red-hot sex machine in the flesh (unless you're Robin Cook's girlfriend, obviously). He was wearing cowboy boots and his black shirt was open to reveal a large amount of jewellery. His hair looked like someone had knitted it. What I wanted from Bob was a few tips on how to seduce women. So hold on to your seats, here comes Mr Lover Man...

"If you approach a woman in a very macho way, there are women who'll stand for that, there are even women who enjoy it," he said, in his deep Brooklyn burr, "but the average woman doesn't like a man to think he can force himself on her. To me, the best way of seducing a woman would be to make her feel, make her believe, that you're genuinely interested in her as a person, not just someone you're going to bang for the night. It's like conducting a symphony. You've got to know when to raise the level, which instruments to bring forth, which to subdue. It's got to be carefully orchestrated. Women are very, very complex beings, infinitely more complex than we understand. We men are simplistic, sexually, next to women."

Bob went on to prove the point when I asked him a topical question about exams. (Topicality is the lifeblood of this page.) He said the only exam he ever failed was journalism. "And I'm sure it was because I went out of my way to look up the skirt of the teacher, a beautiful, librarian- looking woman who used to sit in a provocative way. I'm sure she knew she was turning everybody on," he said.

Bob Guccione is 67.


Beyond the Fayed fringe

NEXT week I shall be taking my revolutionary Mohamed Al Fayed "I'll- Scratch-Your-Back" approach to journalism to Edinburgh when I report on the Festival Fringe. You should all know the score by now. So if you're a tragic performance artist who cuts the heads off live fish while dressed as Michael Portillo in drag or even just a struggling actress doing a one-woman rendition of Cats while sitting in a bath of cold baked beans, feel free to contact me at the Best Western Roxburghe Hotel. If you buy me a drink I'll see what I can do for you. See you there...