I have always loathed sunbathing in public on the sand, even when I was young and very thin. At 13, my ribs were as visible as the keys on a xylophone. You could have hung suits from my collarbone, or played a timpani concerto on my vertebrae. The only muscle that I could flex visibly was the one that I took such pains to conceal, wrestling with yards of towelling and soggy costume, like Harry Houdini's incompetent younger brother. And aware - always - of the manifest absurdity of trying to hide what no one wanted to find.
When the clothes were off, all my cerebral advantages were effectively destroyed. The world ceased to be one where civilised and artistic virtues were applauded, even by the middle classes. Other boys were better swimmers, braver divers, or keener-eyed beach batsmen. With nothing on, we were - we are - all mere animals. Which is great if you are fleet of foot, svelte of swimsuit, and dull of mind. But not if you are svelte of mind and dull of swimsuit.
It is appalling that - nearly three decades later - my feelings about walking nearly naked along the soft strand have not changed at all. Next week, when the giggling, fighting, struggling band of mini-Aaronovitches can be seen on the coasts of Britain, observers will be able to mark the sad, unhappy figure trudging, fully clothed in their noisy wake.
What's my problem, now? It can hardly be my ribs. Those have not been seen for a long time. My eldest daughter is seven, she has four extant grandparents, but she has never met her father's ribs. Nevertheless, I am a fine figure of a man. In fact, I am nearly a fine figure of two men. For the truth is that my diet and exercise season is now out of sync with my bared-body season. In the past I have managed to ensure that the first roughly preceded the second, but this year I have failed completely.
All right, says the calming Voice of Reason, if you are so ridiculously self-conscious, are there not all kinds of little stratagems that you can affect? Such as wearing a voluminous black T-shirt, which can always be explained by the very sensible desire not to contract some virulent form of sun-induced skin cancer. Most large men have the legs of their thinner, former selves anyway. Women may put weight on around their calves and thighs, but men do not, their large tums teetering around on skinny limbs, like a whale on a stick. Cover the tum successfully, and you could be Damon Albarn. So put on your shades and swagger.
But this is a lie. And it is one that doesn't really work. In print I can fool myself - and you. I can be anything, and can represent myself as anything. Today I might wish to suggest physical prowess in sports or love, tomorrow, a life spent pole-vaulting and writing metaphysical poetry. As long as I know what to say about it, I can be it. This cannot operate in the flesh. The magic must be dissipated, however large the T-shirt.
So, asks the exasperated VoR, who cares? Who's even looking? I cannot be under the impression, can I, that all those bikini-clad lovelies - who trip through the dunes, a-wobble with beauty - are waiting only for a weight loss of seven pounds before casting their skimpy costumes aside and demanding satisfaction there and then, behind the beach huts? What would I be other than one more fat dad in a colony of fat dads, another beached sea-lion? The worst that could happen is that some Sunday newspaper supplement happens to send its photographer to do a picture feature on "the British by the sea", and one is immortalised on its cover, one's gut flubbering over the front of one's Speedos. So (insists the Voice) do what the others do, and go for it; exult in it. Stick that belly out as far as it will go, get it horribly sunburnt, and parade its piebald vastness in front of the whole beach. Hell, show it to everyone in the restaurant too. Everyone else does.
Well, I'm sorry, but I can't do it. Once you start admitting things to yourself, then you are on the slippery slope to senility. You stop caring about what you look like, what you wear and how you behave. And I do so hate it when men let themselves go.
Miles Kington is on holidayReuse content