Beachlife: the eternal cycle of sand and sea

openDemocracy Opendemocracy Mike O’Brien
13 October 2004

Listen to part two of Mike O’Brien’s soundscape: ‘A Very British Seaside’, while you take a grand tour of beachlife past and present.




From this to this?

Humankind’s love of the beach started pretty early on. About 400 million years ago, or thereabouts, when our slimy forebears made the first step (or wriggle) from sea to shore. The rest – from Babylonian sun-worship, via Victorian bathing machine to Bardot’s string bikini – is history…

Birth of Venus (detail), Sandro Botticelli, c.1485 It doesn’t get much better than this: a perfect 10, the über-bathing beauty...

No, darlings, she’s out of your league...

USA beauty queens of 1949

Halo, sailor! Sun gods and parasols, the missing link?

LEFT and RIGHT: Sol and Shamash, Mithraic and Babylonian sun gods CENTRE: “The gateway to the mountains”, front cover Rhyl brochure

Ra, ra! Go Egyptians! Go! This is one ancient sun-god who knew a thing or two about the perma-tan. Still bronzy after all these years.

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Taperet praying to the sun at its zenith, and also to the setting sun Akhenaten and Nefertiti worshipping Aten the sun god Aten Akhenaten and Nefertiti Gilgamesh is awesome to perfection. It was he who opened the mountain passes, who dug wells on the flank of the mountain. It was he who crossed the ocean, the vast seas, to the rising sun, who explored the world regions, seeking life. From The Epic of Gilgamesh

A fourth century BC theory of the sea’s perpetual motion; or, how to DIY your waves, Aztec style.

Churning the ocean, 386 BC

And then God created woman... is this what he had in mind?

Brigitte Bardot

Civilising the sea? By the 1700s, Japanese women were anticipating Coco Chanel’s shoreline chic by two hundred years.

LEFT: The sixth month, from ‘Minami juni ko’ (detail), Kiyonaga ga MIDDLE: A fashionable young man emerging from a bath-house (detail), Shunro ga RIGHT: From ‘Twelve months of the south’, a view of the Tenno (raft) festival (detail), Kiyonaga ga

A beach at sunrise, Hyakurin Sori

The autumn breeze rises

Sugawara Michizane

The autumn breeze rises
on the shore at Fukiage –
and those white chrysanthemums
are they flowers? or not?
or only breakers on the beach?

Sugawara Michizane (845-903) was a Japanese scholar and poet of Chinese verse.

Interior of a women's bath-house

Private pleasures: stripping off, Victorian-style, was a complicated business.

TOP: Bathing machine at Ostend CENTRE: Beach at Trouville, Eugene Boudin, 1863 BOTTOM: Girls bathing in Wilson Beach, USA, c.1910s

George III at Waymouth, 1789

TOP: La partia di cricket sulla spiaggia, Franz Charlet, 1890 CENTRE: Playing ball on Wilson beach, USA BOTTOM: Healing sport, Tim Hetherington

Near contemporaries: fully clothed, or au naturel in Tahiti?

TOP LEFT: The beach at Trouville, Claude Monet, 1870 TOP RIGHT: Fatata te miti (By the sea), Paul Gauguin, 1892 BOTTOM RIGHT: Bather, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1882 BOTTOM LEFT: Le bagnanti, Pablo Picasso, 1918

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: South Beach, John Sloan, 1907 Untitled, Georges Seurat, 1886 Etretat, Eugène le Poitevin, 1840

And soon enough, it started to catch on…

TOP: Atlantic City, 1870 CENTRE LEFT: Coney Island, George C. Miller, 1932 CENTE RIGHT: Weegee, Coney Island, 1960s BOTTOM: Beach at Ratraf, Tunisia, Mark Affeldt

‘Move over Dali!’ Finding your patch on the beach ain’t easy.

Bagnanti, Salvador Dali, 1924

The Creature from the Black Lagoon

John Tranter

Sunbathing on deck’s the done thing,
but it makes the Brylcreem run
and stain the collar of your poplin
beach shirt. Palm trees drift by
as though your sins had turned vegetable
and semaphore. Sins of the laboratory, I mean,
not the confessional . . . yes, the engine room
looks suitable, and through the porthole
a wise old man waiting patiently
in the wavering water - that’s no priest!
Captain! But the Captain’s a gutless
foreigner, drinks gin, and never shaves.
You pity the girl in the bathing suit
she may be a palæontologist, but
sure as eggs she’s going to get
a terrible fright. And the ethnic extras,
they have to die on our journey
towards the knowledge that shimmers behind
the South American façade. The priest
turns his scaly back: that creature,
rising like a new disease from the gene pool,
why should we pity him? Deracinated,
maybe, but what a guy! No, it’s wrong,
don’t kiss him! I can feel it,
soaking through the blood-brain barrier...
he’s never known the touch of a woman’s...whoops!
Here’s the nut with the speargun on a hunting
spree - Duck, Tabby! Duck and cover! Here comes
the bolt from the blue, to shut up sorrow,
to stop up the barrel of fun like a dead king.
And what colour is the blood, Doctor? Red?
Can you explain that? And what of the offspring?

John Tranter is editor of Jacket magazine.

The beach, Moses Levy, 1919

Bathing beauties, sur la plage

TOP: Wallace Levison, Narragansett Pier, New York, 1889 BOTTOM: French postcard, 1900

TOP: Wilson beach, USA, 1920s BOTTOM: Italy, 1940

Help me! I’m drowning! The unsung heroes of the sands!

TOP: Dieppe, 1843 BOTTOM: Lifeguards testing a motor lung on a female bather, Clarendon beach, USA, 1929

Fast track to the seaside: the golden age of train travel opened up the beaches for a generation.

Coco Chanel launched her career in Deauville, 1913, with a shop selling pillbox hats. After the extravagances of Edwardian millinery, she announced: ‘How can anyone think with those great things on their heads?’ Then she got herself a tan, and brown became the new white.

Coco Chanel, Paris, 1959

‘Oh I do like to be beside the seaside...’ Joseph Conrad, Herman Melville, Ernest Hemmingway, Virginia Woolf to Scott Fitzgerald, or Tennessee Williams in his deck chair...

Tennesse Williams, Italy, 1956

Lights, camera, action! The sea shore became a ready-made movie-set for starlets and matinee idols. And where Hollywood paddled, the world followed…

TOP LEFT: Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney in Two for the road TOP RIGHT: Lolita, Stanley Kubrick, 1962 CENTRE: Rita Hayworth, Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe BOTTOM LEFT: Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster in From Here to Eternity BOTTOM RIGHT: Poster for The Little Hut, starring Ava Gardner, Stewart Granger and David Niven

Some like it hot: ‘Shell Oil!’ Was Marilyn the first globologger?

LEFT: Tony Curtis as ‘Junior’ RIGHT: Marilyn Monroe and Jack Lemmon from ‘Some Like it Hot’

‘By the sea, by the sea, by the beautiful sea…’ Beachlife and the body beautiful: striking a pose, perfecting your swallow dive, or making like a salamander, and just lying comatose…

ABOVE: Body builders, 1950s BELOW: The lagoon at the American University of Beirut (AUB) beach, Dr. Adib Abou-Haider, 1946

TOP LEFT: Dorothy Poynton Hill TOP RIGHT: Rimini, 1960 BOTTOM: Florida, 1950

For the more dictatorially challenged, spanning the shorelines became a point of pride (and propaganda).

LEFT: Benito Mussolini, 1926 TOP RIGHT: Saddam Hussein BOTTOM RIGHT: Mao tse-tung

Louis Reard, Paris, 1946

The first Bond movie. Ursula swaps scallop for conch, and does a latter day Botticelli Venus.

Ursula Andress aka Honey Ryder in ‘Dr. No’

From ‘Bobby’ to ‘Baywatch’: iconic Hindi film of the sixties, to Malibu beach kitsch.

LEFT: Dimple Kapadia as Bobby RIGHT: Yasmin Bleeth, Pamela Anderson, David Hasselhoff

From Hyundai, South Korea, to Brits at the beach, England. Photographs by Jin Kwon and Bec Wingrave.


John Masefield

I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.

I must down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

John Masefield was English Poet Laureate from 1930-1967.

The sea, Chile, Alejandra Millan Larivera

Until next Summer, kids, wherever you are. There’s nothing like sand between your toes and a clear view of the ocean. See you on the beach!

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