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The lady at the till was absolutely positive I’d made a good buy. I was the first person to buy it and she’d quite fancied it herself. She hoped I’d enjoy it and she smiled and I did too. Oh lordy hot weather!. I was off work and it was sunny, a lady had smiled at me I was heading for Whitley Bay so the book just seemed so apt. Sandychips a la scrumpy it was the start of a nice couple of days. The cover told me it was an anthology of contemporary short stories based loosely around beaches. Travelling on the train my mind began to pre-empt it. I had images of bandstands and sticky rock, I foresaw sand in the sarnies and I could feel it in my whatnots. My tongue was a file and my hoo haas were emery boards. Yet despite my discomfort I couldn’t have been further off the mark The book grabbed me instantly. Any thoughts that the book was going to be a plodge in the rock pools were sent to Derby for the day. The opening story reeled off a fascinating tale of a marriage held together by contempt, enacted brilliantly against the backdrop of a child’s reluctance to swim. It was a fantastic start and it just got better. After a few stories I sat bolt upright and put down my pint. What I had in my hands was a brilliant piece of cohesion. This compilation, that could oh so easily have been a low-tide of flotsam and jetsam, resonated with one common voice. It was as if a great swathe of twine had rafted each story together binding them into one buoyant whole. I picked my pint up worriedly. My mind had gone annoyingly nautical aaarrgggh shiver me timbers it had. I drank. Scrumpy. Still this one voice rang through the stories. Yes it had a different accent here and a different sex or age there, but the voice was common. Yes each story was wildly different -one minute telling us of a young boy learning to fly, a woman meeting her dead husband and a moving account of an octopus’ de
ath- but they all had a strong coherent thrust stringing them together. I wondered what the binding force was and I came to the conclusion that it was humility. Humility that is and simplicity. The contrast of the human stories and the environment -whilst an easily overplayed theme- just seemed to work. The sea imbued a tremendous sense of humility, then innocence and then fragility, both by its power and its constancy and also its irrelevance a strange blend and not necessarily in that order. In many cases the sea didn’t actually need to do anything, it was sufficient to act as a backdrop to the events played out around it. Working silently in the background the sea and the beach allowed the tragedies and joys that befell the human occupants to unravel at a pace that sat wonderfully with the air of summer. This pace and its consequent delicacy gave the human stories within it an air of being at once trifling and significant. They seemed tragic and inspiring yet uniformly simple, verging on naïve despite their weighty terrain. Picking my way through each tale I met all of the lovely L’s, there was love and laughter and longing and loss. Their cousins long and lazy and languid had came for tea too and in the corner, keeping himself to himself, was old uncle loathing wondering where the hell was lament?. Just about every human emotion thrashed itself around, yet uniformly it resolved itself into a sense of calm. But pleasingly I don’t mean I was conned by happy endings. What el nino’d me of my seat was a sense of acceptance as a feeling of disordered calm soothed over me. I think I was left with the impression that for oh so many things in life bad and good are not so different, they are simply matters of perspective and when you get right down to it perspectives can change just like the sea. And so the book carried on until just about halfway with the voice narrating as if one interlinked sequence of chap
ters rather than a collection of disparate tales. Then, at halfway, the mood began to change. It somehow seemed to mature. The voice in the first half had been that of a child, fighting and kicking, full of discovery and awe. This slowly began to change as the voice in the second half had a more reflective air. It was a voice that had its own set of keys. It became a mature voice, a sense of “had a good innings,” but “there’s still wood in the fire to burn.” With this change in voice came a move in the stories. Some of the stories were inconsequentially majestic, they began to transcend the everyday moving from the human condition -the obsession of middle age- and delving into fantasy – the pleasure of the content and relief of the riled. The offering by Gabriel Garcia Marquez was one such tale, forsaking pain and joy for a good old ripping yarn. Even the stories that “I-didn’t-like-the-look-of” were great, in fact one was my favourite in the book. “Unnamed Islands in the Unknown Sea.” by Kerri Hulme had question marks flashing after the first paragraph. Ordinarily I would have dismissed its style as lyrically inaccessible but soon I dived into its rhythm and I was off. It turned out to be mysterious, passionate, tragic and open-ended and it was a delicious centre point for the collection. But that is the great thing about anthologies isn’t it! It gives you the chance to read people without going to the time and cash investment of umpteen novels. I’d read some work by the contributors but the majority were new to me. Now I’ve read this collection new book paths open up to me. It’s like having a taste of that god-awful cheese that they offer at the end of supermarket aisles. You’ve looked and wondered and now you know keep clear, but in this case I want to dive in. I want to goggle up, don some cut-offs and dive bomb in for some forbidden heavy petting wi
th a few of the authors herein. Spladooosh, Ho hum. And then, inevitably, after a few sittings, the book ended and I gave a sigh. The notes on the back of the book tell me there is a Penguin Book of the City, also edited by Robert Drewe. I think to myself that if he’s edited that book as skilfully as this one then its well worth a shot. I slapped the book shut and supped up my pint. I was inland and pondering. Something in me felt refreshed; some dark little cranny that had needed a blast of ozone was sparkling and ship-shape. I was sorry it was over; it had been a fun few days and I suddenly realised that I was being nostalgic about an episode barely minutes old. Lords NOSTALGIA that’s what it was Nostalgia, nostalgia, nostalgia how fitting for a book about the beach. It may be because I live near the coast but this compilation spoke to me, it tugged at something fundamental in my being. It summed up my adult life and plonked it right in front of me in the setting of my youth. Nostalgia and optimism, drowning in divorce, sunburn and swimming, death’s dark course, Ice creams and sand castles and dog poo and glass and speedos and sun burn and sand up my . . .
In this illustrious international selection, Robert Drewe has drawn together twenty-five of the finest contemporary writers whose stories represent the most stimulating, startling, deeply moving and humorous writing about the beach. Contributors include Paul Bowles, Italo Calvino, Raymond Carver, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Nadine Gordimer, Ian McEwan, David Malouf, Frank Moorhouse, Graham Swift and John Updike.