Trust Me, I`ve Been There
Zoe Williams is not proud of British beaches.
ILLUSTRATION: TOM PERCIVAL / ADVOCATE ART
HERE’S MY BIG CONUNDRUM: YOU GO to a beach in the Algarve, sift through the sand, and all you find are tiny, beautifully formed ocean shells. You go to an English beach, sift through the sand… 35 cigarette butts. And yet, from what I gather of Portuguese culture, they smoke way more than people in my country do. So there must be some disruptive factor between smoking a cigarette and throwing it in the sand. What have they got – better bins?
So I have come up with a theory about English beaches. And let’s not kid ourselves, they are pretty filthy. According to the UK’s Marine Conservation Society Good Beach Guide 2010, 420 of 769 beaches tested did not meet their standards for water quality – and in the past three years it has been getting worse. Storm pollution and sewer overflow pipes are the prime causes of the mess but, ultimately beach-wise, Britain is the dirty man of Europe.
It’s like being called the obese man of Europe: you kick yourself a little bit, but also take a rueful pride in it. The rest of the continent can keep its washing and dieting, we have backbone (underneath all our lard).
But this has gone beyond a joke – even the beaches that we call the cleanest are about as savoury as candyfloss. Naturally, I love it anyway; super-pale English pre-teens, on fire with enthusiasm, giving everybody attitude. I called a kid on the beach in Ramsgate “kid” the other day. He replied: “I was born in November 2001. So you just think about that!” I love the 20-year-old bouncy castles, the permeating smell of onions – hell, I love the fact that everybody still smokes.
And as for the dirt, my theory is that it’s all a weather thing. Every time we consider picking up our own rubbish, or mending our slovenly ways, we think: “Well, we’ve got plenty of time before the sun comes out. We’ve probably got about seven years before the sun comes out for a whole day.” And then we go back to other matters of town-maintenance, such as the hanging-baskets outside pubs. Suddenly, the sun comes out. It is so unexpected it’s like an affront. What to do?
We can’t go on to the tatty beach, we haven’t cleaned it! But we can’t stay in, we might not get another day like this before the children leave home. Sod it, if there are enough of us (and there always are), we can just pack the beach and you won’t be able to see the fag butts.
And that’s how it happens, every single year. And local councils have the brass neck to ban dogs, as if they’re the dirt-monkeys of the marine experience. The whole beach business is a lot of fun, combined with a shocking lack of self-awareness – like morris dancing.
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