Books: Paperbacks - Life's Been a Beach for Years

By pizzichini, Lilian | The Independent (London, England), July 18, 1999 | Go to article overview
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Books: Paperbacks - Life's Been a Beach for Years


pizzichini, Lilian, The Independent (London, England)


The Beach: The History of Paradise of Earth

by Lena Lencek and Gideon Bosker Pimlico pounds 10

Every August, cars full of Romans decant on to the 2,000-year- old Appian Way that takes them to the ancient port of Ostia, and its beach; a summer migration that has been in practice since 15BC.

As nature's most effective anti-depressant, the beach is a site of transformations - both psychic and geological - and, as American academics Lencek and Bosker point out in their social history of beach bummery, it has been thus since ancient times. Jesus began his ministry on a beach, Noah built his ark on a beach, and pallid Englishmen and women go there to enact wild mating rituals.

But back to the oiled and perfumed Romans splashing around on the Mediterranean coast of Baiae, much to the irritation of Seneca the Younger. For 500 years, Baiae reigned as the most fashionable beach resort in the world, a place where otium cum dignitate - a break from the pressures of city life - could be pursued, where social conventions broke down. For Seneca, it was a "vortex of luxury and a harbour of vice", but then he hadn't seen Ibiza and, anyway, his room overlooked the great bath and he was constantly distracted by the noises of merriment. Party-pooping Christians would have sympathised with his distaste - piety demanded the "odour of sanctity", so sea- bathing was out and, of course, hedonism was a definite no-no. Only masochistic hermits braved the barren outposts of terra firma.

This erudite and witty study charts the evolution of the seaside from its place in Graeco-Roman mythology to its present role as the central staging ground for humankind's diversion. The diverse rituals of daytrippers to Blackpool and surfers riding the waves in California are set in their socio-historical context with a lightness of touch and a judicious choice of illustrations. Bosker and Lencek employ various fields of study to define anything from the mechanics of sand formation to the restorative effect that seaside holidays had on shell-shocked troops returning from the trenches of the First World War. An illuminating byproduct of their analysis is an account of how beaches divided, figuratively as well as literally, England from the rest of Europe. While 19th-century British "aquatherapists" were strapping themselves into their bathing machines, the louche habitues of the Riviera were seducing and swindling each other - thereby converting "this shifting margin of land" into a moral touchstone. Lencek and Bosker cover a lot of ground, so you'll need at least a week on the beach to catch up.

Stop Press

Tim Heald

Orion pounds 5.99

Most former Fleet Street hacks have scores to settle with someone or other, and Tim Heald is no exception. The only difficulty in this romp through the fast-moving world of newspapers lies in determining exactly whom Heald's invective is targeting. The sole goody in this sea of thinly disguised "foreign parvenus" and "hard-nosed Thatcherite millionaires" is a sacked lit ed who cunningly transforms himself into a media consultant. The observations are spot-on, the humour broad, but so broad it blunts the satirical edge.

Pears on a Willow Tree

Leslie Pietrzyk

Granta pounds 6.99

American writer Leslie Pietrzyk has taken as the theme for her first novel the divisive changes in women's lives wrought by the 20th century, particularly as they affect mothers and daughters. But this is clearly a personal testament that expresses the author's longing for this distance to be filled. Four generations of Polish-American women illustrate the forces that have shaped women's lives and the compromises they have to make. For great-grandmother Rose, an immigrant to Detroit, each day is a struggle to survive. Cloistered in the shadows of this harsh existence, her daughter Helen stays close to the family and its traditions, suffocating her own daughter, Ginger, to such an extent that she runs away to Arizona.

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