On a beach

There is something particularly perfect about being proposed to on a beach.

A beach is the edge of the country, the crust of the British loaf. And it’s an edge that is changing, shifting. Sand moves along the coast, waves erode away part of the shore as new land heaps up further down. Where else in the world does the landscape change so visibly, so dramatically right in front of your eyes? It’s as though the earth is stripped down to nothing – no covering of trees, plants, grass, or even soil, just sand. No wonder it’s by the seaside that we strip off down to bikinis and swimming trunks, rather than, say, in the middle of the forest.

There’s something almost magical about beaches. I know it’s mega-pretentious to quote my own novel-in-progress, but this bit is from a scene when the main character goes to a beach:

Her feet sank into the damp sand, and the pale wet of the sea cooled her, soothed her frustration. Adele turned around for a moment and saw that her footprints had been erased by the sea. And now, looking down at her ankles, she watched the sand bleach itself as the water shrank back, out of the ground, back into the body of the sea. Again Adele felt sure there was magic here. As though whatever happened here, happened here only – no record of it could seep into real life.

Beaches really are the very edge; where things change almost magically. It’s as though, if you get close enough to the edge, all trace of real life might just vanish.

On the beach there is space. Flatness. Sea and sky meet in a blue horizon, only occasionally interrupted by a distant boat or, perhaps, the outline of France. All the reality of the world, every mundane concern, shoes and socks are left behind, back in the car, the other side of the dunes, nothing can get in the way out here, on the beach, by the sea.

I read On Chesil Beach last week, thinking that I might find similarities with my own situation of being in love on a beach in the south of England. And as everybody is saying how ‘abominable’ (as Florence in OCB would say) McEwan’s new book Solar is, I thought I should try to see if he has written anything better.

The beach, in OCB, is the place where the actions of a newly-married couple will affect the rest of their lives. The book is about one particular moment, lasting for probably no more than an hour. Either Florence and Edward will be affectionate towards each other and overcome the gulf in understanding that lies between them, or they will be rendered apart forever.

McEwan deftly moves between Edward and Florence’s points of view, their memories, their thoughts, musings and expectations. He shows, at once, the differences that are key to the characters – the disparity in their interpretations of each other and events – but also, in the ease and fluidity that he jumps from one mind to the other, that the differences aren’t insurmountable, that they can be overcome, that Florence and Edward could exist together.

It is on the beach that the decision is made, that the actions – or lack of actions – happen. It is in a place, barely of this country or this world, removed from the London and Oxfordshire lives of the characters. And it is at night, when the beach is deserted, empty, as though the two of them are completely alone in the world. And although this night will affect them forever, they will try to forget about it; the episode will almost completely vanish from their lives, like footprints in the sand, wiped away by the sea.

But as beaches are the end of the land, they are also the beginning, a point of arrival, an opening into a country. Washed clean of normal life and its mundanities, people are at their freest on a beach, stripped bare of worries, more themselves than at any other time, able to start something new and fresh. And so, on that beach in Sussex, on that sunny windy day just over a week ago, a wonderful, happy, new life together was begun.

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