Shore things: The literary beach

You might say that modern English fiction begins on a beach, and with a mystery – or a menace. In 1719, Daniel Defoe has his marooned Robinson Crusoe, who thought himself so alone on that archetypal desert island, one day find himself "exceedingly surprised by the print of a naked man's foot on the shore, which was very plain to be seen in the sand. I stood like one thunderstruck, or as if I had seen an apparition." At least Crusoe's future companion Friday (for the footprint is his) didn't nick the sun-lounger or swipe that silly cocktail with a paper parasol.

If beaches mean a quest for refuge or solitude – getting away from it all – then what happens when we encounter humanity, in the form of Friday, on the sand? Stroll along the literary beach over the centuries, and you discover a less than idyllic scene. For a start, until the very recent advent of the slow-roasting sun cult, they never appear as friendly or attractive spots. If you have a beach then, in a seafaring age, you don't have a welcoming port, a harbour, a sheltered anchorage – just dead, marginal space, sun-baked or wind-lashed, with no cover. Who knows what dangers might lurk inland or surge from the sea? In Racine's tragedy Phedre, the dreadful climax comes when a sea-monster roars on to the beach and frightens the horses of the fleeing prince Hippolytus, dashing his chariot – with fatal results – on to the rocks.

For the modern greats, beaches incubate alienation and loneliness. "On Margate Sands/ I can connect/ Nothing with nothing," mourns TS Eliot in The Waste Land. The Kentish resort has since had an image makeover – but, yes, we do know how he feels. Among the classics of 20th-century fiction, the most fêted beach of all is Sandymount Strand in Dublin. There (in the 'Nausicaa' episode of Ulysses), James Joyce's Leopold Bloom cultivates his fantasies about a girl named Gerty McDowell, her scanties spied in the distance.

Post-Second World War, a frankly dystopian fog descends on the fictional beach, prompted in part by nuclear anxieties (all those scary tests on tropical strands) but also by a growing distaste for the costs of mass tourism. Nevil Shute's 1957 nightmare of Australian survivors after a nuclear war is called (what else?) On the Beach.

JG Ballard's versions of strangeness on the shore encompassed both apocalyptic fears, as in the stories "Terminal Beach" and "Vermilion Sands", and a vision of pleasure-seeking vacancy on meaningless holidays that never end, in late novels such as Cocaine Nights and Super-Cannes. Very much in the Ballard vein, French enfant terrible Michel Houellebecq sees only selfish, exploitative squalor in the sands of his novels Platform and Lanzarote. In the shadow of William Golding's Lord of the Flies, Alex Garland updated the terror of blood on the sand for the backpacker generation with The Beach.

That unpleasantness happened in faraway Thailand. This year, you might prefer a safe, nearby beach – maybe at cosy Aldeburgh? If so, don't pack the ghost stories of MR James – and avoid in particular "Oh, whistle and I'll come to you. My lad" (1904), with its hideous glimpse of a pursuing figure in "pale, fluttering draperies" that would "bow itself toward the sand, then run stooping across the beach to the water-edge and back again; and then, rising upright, once more continue its course forward at a speed that was startling and terrifying". Happy holidays!

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Bid Writer

    £25000 - £34000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in Manchester, Lon...

    Recruitment Genius: Membership Sales Advisor - OTE £20,000 Uncapped

    £15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

    £35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

    Guru Careers: Membership Administrator

    £23K: Guru Careers: We're seeking an experienced Membership Administrator, to ...

    Day In a Page

    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific
    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    Dame Colette Bowe - interview
    When do the creative juices dry up?

    When do the creative juices dry up?

    David Lodge thinks he knows
    The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

    Fashion's Cher moment

    Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
    Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

    Health fears over school cancer jab

    Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
    Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

    Weather warning

    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
    LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

    High hopes for LSD

    Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
    German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

    Saving Private Brandt

    A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral