Will Self: PsychoGeography

Sand and deliver

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I myself did do some beach stuff last summer, at Bingil Bay in Northern Queensland. This beautiful tangle of palm, mangrove and eucalyptus, has since been utterly mangled by Hurricane Mitch. We didn't actually lie on it reading paperbacks and basting ourselves in factor 40, because it was too bloody cold. Instead, we spent long afternoons labouring strenuously to dam the little freshwater creek that snaked down to the sea. I far prefer to work on the beach anyway; perhaps because the sand reminds me of the time I spent as a builder's labourer. I often think all beaches should come accompanied with a few bags of cement, a mixer, and thousands of stock bricks. Then us podgy desk workers could both tone ourselves, and defend the land from rising sea levels.

My friend Peter reports from Whitstable, where his house hard by the sea wall has been receiving regular inundations: "The Council is spending millions on raising the beach level. They've built up the groynes, and now they're bringing in hundreds of tons of sand and shingle. Where'd you think they're buying it?" "Garden centres," I replied, laconically. But wherever Thanet Council is buying their ballast, it won't be Hampstead. This posh north London suburb isn't usually associated with beaches, yet the famous Heath is actually a rich source of sand. During the Second War this was gouged out, bagged, and used to protect vital government buildings from German shells. When the Blitz was over the pulverised tenements of the East End were swept up and trucked back up to Hampstead, where they were used to fill in the holes. Thus the city practised a bizarre form of auto-cannibalism: throwing up beaches, then ingurgitating the wrack of war.

Every year there's talk in London of a riverine beach being constructed. Every year it fails to come off. Personally I don't know what the fuss is about; the Thames's flow has become so restricted in recent years that at low tide the channel resembles the urinal of some vast and seedy boozer. Either side of the scummy brown water are yards of muddy beach that you can comb in search of toxic trinkets. My favourite stretch is immediately in front of the MI6 building by Vauxhall Bridge. It is here that the remains of oldest bridge across the Thames were discovered - Neolithic piles hammered into the sludge. The waves of deep time breaking over the bar of high-tech surveillance make this one of the finest beaches in the British Isles for psychic surfing.

Still, if you want a properly poisonous beach excursion you have to head up to Suffolk. I've written about Sizewell Beach in earlier columns, but with the Government now fully committed to building more nuclear power stations, it's well worth taking a swim in the sub-tropical marine environment created by the cooling of Sizewell B. For this, surely, is the beach experience of the future. In another 50-odd years, there won't be a mile of the British coastline that doesn't have its own reactor. The sea will be hot, the land will be hotter and we'll all have mutated so that our feet have built-in flippers. Even small children will have the cherry-red complexions and swollen heads of Donald MacGill postcards.

Christ knows where I'll have to go then, if I want the chilly beach experience so beloved of my own childhood. Probably Baffin Island, where I'll sport with suffocating narwhals and ride piggyback on moulting Polar bears. It's touching what little children will put up with when it comes to a beach. The West Indies is entirely wasted on them. My older kids had to put up with the Orkneys when they were little, and I'll never forget the sight of them valiantly struggling against a Force 7 gale, while trying to build a pathetic sandcastle in the lee of one of the Churchill Barriers protecting Scapa Flow. They knew no better, the poor mites, and my daughter even insisted on taking her tights off and paddling in the sea. Until, that is, her legs turned a rather livid blue.

A final word on beaches: if you want to beat the Germans to them this year, why not go to Germany? The Baltic has hundreds of kilometres of beaches and during the World Cup games you can be virtually certain they'll be empty. Granted, they aren't exactly picturesque, but the opportunities for acting out scenes from Günter Grass novels are unrivalled. Bliss.

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