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Monday musings on Australian literature: The beach

February 8, 2011
South Coast Beach, NSW

South Coast Beach, NSW

Not only do the majority of Australians live in urban areas but, given that much of Australia is dry, the majority of these urban areas are on the coast. You can guess what’s coming next – yes, the majority of Australians live near the sea. And, if they don’t, they gravitate to it in their holidays. (Australia has, it must be said, one of the highest skin cancer rates in the world.)

The sea and the beach therefore are another significant aspect of Australian cultural identity … and probably the best known contemporary writer about the beach is Tim Winton. Breath is his most recent novel, but most of his works are set in coastal areas and deal in some way with their characters’ relationship to the beach. For Winton, the beach and the surf stand for – not to beat around the bush – the meaning of life. In an interview with surfing writer Tim Baker, he says:

To me, surfing has always been soul-business. It’s the pointless things that give your life meaning. Friendship, compassion, art, love. All of them pointless. But they’re what keeps life from being meaningless. Catching a wave and turning and dancing and looping in toward the beach is one of the nicest forms of pointlessness I can think of.

That’s not to say that the beach is always positive in his work. The people who populate the stories in The turning, for example, live pretty disappointed lives in their coastal town/s. Nonetheless, when we think of Winton, it’s the love that tends to come through in the end. This love has apparently been explained in his recent memoir Land’s edge (2010), in which, according to the promos, he “records his life-long affair with the sea”. This is a book I must read.

Robert Drewe, like Winton, is based in Western Australia and writes regularly about the beach. His memoirs, novels and short story collections include The shark netThe bodysurfers, The drowner, and the The rip. He also edited The Penguin (originally, Picador) book of the beach. He, like Winton, claims to be drawn to the beach, but his books and stories explore the dangers and traps (as is pretty obvious from some of the titles!) of the beach and sea, as well as the beauty. Here is one character in The bodysurfers:

Parnell gave the impression he was king of the beach as well as of the mutton birds. He was what used to be known as a man’s man, meaning that he was a hearty male chauvinist … (from “The silver medallist”)

and, another

The coast is not what I expected. Not only is the pace faster, but there is a careless violent hedonism that astonished me at first. … When I can’t face the beach night-life, the coarse aimless lives, I close my window … (from “Shark logic”)

This mention of hedonism reminds me of the way the beach can draw into sharp relief our Western culture’s obsession with body image. Here is poet Les Murray in “On Home Beaches”:

Back, in my fifties, fatter than I was then,
I  step on the sand, belch down slight horror to walk
a wincing pit edge, waiting for the pistol shot
laughter …

So far this post has been male-dominated but there is one particularly well-known “beach” book (and later film) by women writers, and that is Puberty blues by Gabrielle Carey and Kathy Lette. It’s about two teen girls who want to become part of the cool, in-crowd on the beach, the surfie gangs, and is pretty critical of peer group pressure and male chauvinism. It’s a long time since I’ve read (and seen) it but I still remember the pain of their desperation to belong.

Hmmm … I think I have somehow managed to convey more negatives than positives about the beach and beach culture in Australia, so perhaps I will return to Winton (and Breath) to end on a high note:

I will always remember my first wave that morning … I leant across the wall of upstanding water and the board came with me as though it was part of my body and mind. The blur of spray. The billion shards of light. I remember the solitary figure watching on the beach and the flash of Loonie’s smile as I flew by; I was intoxicated. And though I’ve lived to be an old man with my own share of happiness for all the mess I made, I still judge every joyous moment, every victory and revelation against those few seconds of living.

Now is the time for me to ‘fess up. I am not really a beach person – but if anyone could convince me, it would probably be Winton.

18 Comments leave one →
  1. February 8, 2011 6:43 am

    I’m currently reading “CloudStreet” where the boy Fish nearly drowns and always wants to return to the water, so am questioning that for Winton water is “the meaning of life”. I do have an Australia question. I know that now, February, in Australia is the hot season. Do you call this season Winter or Summer?

    • February 8, 2011 8:08 am

      Thanks Tony for the question/comment. My sense is that there’s a difference between “life” and “the meaning of life”. In Breath, many of the characters take great risks in the sea but they do it because it gives life meaning to them. They are drawn to it, while also being aware of its dangers. In other words it’s a bit about the idea that it’s death that gives meaning to life, but also in that the sea’s power and beauty also stand outside life and as a result give it meaning beyond the day-to-day?

      And in Cloudstreet, isn’t Fish’s relationship with water a complex one? Isn’t there a sense that he wants to return to the water because he lost half of himself there? It’s a while since I’ve read it though … and I think Winton would be a lesser writer if his symbolism were too simple!

      Oh, and we call it summer Tony … our seasons are the exact reverse of yours.

  2. February 8, 2011 10:27 am

    As you well know, I’m not a beach person either (Your fault! Genetics!), and so I’ve never gravitated towards novels set around the beach (novels set around travel or cooking, yes!). I do, however, love love love that quote of Winton’s. About pointless things that stop life from being meaningless. It almost made my breath catch in my throat!

  3. February 8, 2011 11:20 am

    I am absolutely not a beach person either. I don’t like sand. I am so pale I almost glow in the dark and it only takes 30mins in the sun to become burnt.

    Plus – I am actually scared of the ocean. Always have been. I panic in waves and especially with sea creatures. I have been growing out of it a bit with age but I am still likely to panic if anything unexpected happens.

    Fortunately my parter isn’t a big beach person. In fact, just before xmas we went to the beach in fremantly wa, and we realised that it was the first time in 6 years we had ever been in the ocean together!

    • February 8, 2011 1:28 pm

      Oh good Becky. I detest the sand too. My reading group friends who love the beach once made a human chair for me on a women’s weekend so carry me across the sand to a rock I could sit on!

      We go to the coast every year for a week – have since around 1998 – and almost never venture onto the beach. We find restaurants that look over the sea or a lake and that’s the best we do. I particularly like the lake ones, with lovely little jetties and pelicans.

  4. February 8, 2011 8:41 pm

    How different the Australian “beach” experience is to the English “seaside”. Images of the English seaside suggest it is sedate, run-down, popular with pensioners and generally rather un-cool. Fortunately there is enough beauty and wildness in other beach places to counter that impression for those who know it well. We have no sand – only pebbles!

    • February 8, 2011 10:05 pm

      Ah … you know, now you mention it, it is the “seaside” over there isn’t it? Must say that while I hate sand – it gets into everything – I don’t much like pebbles either. So hard under feet. But, your photos of your seaside are lovely so my next visit to the UK I will have to check it out for myself.

      I guess the image of the sea and the coast is somewhat different in English literature! I recollect novels about shabby boarding houses, and then there’s the windswept cobb at Lyme Regis. Somehow, I think of gloom/sadness (my most recent example is MJ Hyland’s This is how) or romance/adventure. Then there’s Iris Murdoch’s The sea, the sea OR Virginia Woolf’s To the lighthouse. Sea not beach of course, but different, eh?

      Thanks, Tom.

  5. February 8, 2011 10:38 pm

    I could only wish that I was nearer the sea. I’m no surfer, but I do love paddling, or rather walking along the seas edge, especially in the early morning or the late afternoon. I haven’t read Winton’s latest. Time to go over to the library and see if they have a copy.

    • February 8, 2011 11:05 pm

      I do like the sound of the sea … and love to look at it … but I’m not drawn to it the way some people are.

  6. Lithe lianas permalink
    February 8, 2011 11:01 pm

    I’ve read and enjoyed two or three Winton novels and always enjoy watching/listening to interviews with him but I’m not sure I would have enjoyed hearing him say ‘friendship, compassion, art , love’ were pointless. To me they, together with work (which contributes to making it possible to enjoy ‘friendship,… etc.’) are totally ‘pointful’.

    • February 8, 2011 11:11 pm

      Fair enough too … I had to stop and think. I think it’s in the definition of “pointless”. He doesn’t think they’re pointless either really … I read it that he’s using them as examples of things that aren’t concrete/measurable, as things that are nebulous – but recognises that in the end they are the “stuff” of life.

  7. February 9, 2011 10:55 pm

    Oh, me too, Sue, me too. I’m really not a beach person – much too fidgety for me and I don’t do too well in the salt water, mini particles of sand that gets everywhere, and the sun. Walks on the beach is as far as I can go.

    Books about the beach and surf simply doesn’t appeal to me. I would much rather, and prefer to, read about the quintessential Aussie bush and land (although, I must confess further, I’m pretty much a city girl through and through!). Makes me a feel a little ‘un-Australian’ to have never been surfing!

    • February 10, 2011 12:56 am

      Yep, it’s the bush and small cities for me! (I don’t like living in big cities, much – have lived in Brisbane, Sydney, and the megalopolises that make up LA and Washington DC).

      I’ve never been on a surfboard either – except for those kiddie polystyrene ones you lie on, that is.

  8. antipodeanowl permalink
    February 10, 2011 11:47 am

    And what about the inevitable swimsuit angst that dogs all visits to the beach?!

    While I enjoy spending time at the beach – the smell of the salt spray,the thrill of catching a wave,fish and chip dinners – trying to read there always seems like an exercise in futility to me.

    Sand trapped in the spine, sunscreened fingers leaving greasy mark on the pages, a face full of sand everytime someone lifts a towel, does not equate to ‘fun’ in my book!

    • February 10, 2011 4:31 pm

      Couldn’t have said it better myself. The swimsuit, the reading, the everything – except the smell of the sea and the fish and chips, enjoyed from the grassy verge near the sand or, better still, a deck overlooking the beach! I have no idea how people can read on the beach.

  9. February 11, 2011 3:50 am

    As someone who grew up in Southern California in the U.S. and spent her summers going to the beach and my family has property in Baja, Mexico on the beach, I thought when I moved to Minnesota I would miss the beach terribly but it turns out I don’t. I love the ocean and the sound of the waves, but it turns out that I like rivers and lakes even more. Plus I have fair skin and sunscreen and sand do not go well together. Here I can sit in dappled shade for hours and the only thing I have to worry about are the mosquitos!

    • February 11, 2011 9:21 am

      Ah, a woman after my own heart … a librarian (well near as …) and a lover of lakes and rivers. We lived in Southern California for 3 years. Went to Laguna Beach and a couple of others but more as tourists – let’s have a look at American beaches – than as beach goers. I did though enjoy some of the west coast tidepools. I don’t mind walking on the rocks but sand and that glaring sun that comes of it – not for me.

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