It is that time of year when it used to be traditional to go to the seaside for your summer holidays – well here in Europe anyway.
I was one of those lucky children who actually grew up with the sea and the beach just a minute’s walk from home so it is an all year memory for me and, even now, I am only a fifteen minute drive away from the grey-blue English Channel and one of those great Victorian seaside promenades.
So the seaside is a special environment for me.
Buckets and spades, sandcastles with little paper flags on top, long dripping seaweed round my shoulders sending shivers down my back, crab bites on my toes, those first weightless moments when the waves lifted me off my feet and filling my nose with salt water and, yes, the pain of sunburn – those are just some of my earliest memories.
When I was very little there was always an adult watching from a deckchair sometimes with clicking knitting needles and sometimes just gazing into space whilst we, my brothers and I, ran wild and free.
Later, on a day when the sea retreated nearly all the way back to France, I met a nice man in a polo neck jumper who wanted to know where I lived but I got called away by an anxious relative. I was told never to speak to men like that again.
Men in polo necks were an object of fear to me for some time afterwards.
Mostly though, my childhood was sunny, sandy and ozone powered and, when I moved away to the grown up world inland, I never quite lost my need for crying gulls and the sound of waves crashing against the shoreline. I felt claustrophobic without that land edge, that escape route, the sea.
So I returned and this time I stood looking on that waterline with adult eyes which were trained in wonder by my rural-bred Springer Spaniel who on his first meeting with the sea just sat and stared, ears pricked, eyes wide open, amazed at that vast expanse. He was looking, I liked to think, at our shared pre-evolutionary origins, when all life was underwater.
I was living in the saucily elegant Regency town, now city, of Brighton one of the earliest of the seaside resorts which chose to marry an elegant spirit of civilized recreation to the primordial waters that still speak of danger as well as fun.
It was, naturally, not just sea bathing and walks along the promenade that attracted our forebears to these places. The poet Philip Larkin’s mordantly ironic line remind us that every new generation has to rediscover life’s power-force for itself:
“Sexual intercourse was invented in 1963, a bit late for me.”
The seaside has, I suspect, always been, since those days at least, a way of getting away from it all, of being wild and free in that most adult of ways.
A seaside promenade is also just a nice place to stroll and to think, to watch the rising and setting suns as they define the horizon of our planet, to fill our lungs with air that feels as if it is a virgin to human lungs and, of course to indulge in simple pleasures.
Promenades are cycling and running tracks, and for me at least until recently, roller-blading circuits where you can race for miles with the sea-breeze in your hair, dodging pedestrians, ignoring their annoyance and laughing just as if you were that child again whose world was defined by sea and sand and unending freedom.
If you are going to the seaside this summer, go wild in one way or another. That is why it is there.
If you can’t go but you want to know what I mean then there is always Debussy. Ensconced in his hotel room in Eastbourne Sussex, in 1905, a few miles from here, he was putting the final touches to one of my favourite pieces of music, his symphonic suite, La Mer (The Sea). It is all there, the primitive and the wildly sociable, the excitement and the languorous beauty.
Why was he in Eastbourne, this most urbane of Frenchmen? Well, escaping from a sexual scandal of course!
But if you want to hear my all time favourite piece of seaside music then it has to be that other tearfully joyful Frenchman, Charles Trenet singing, of course, La Mer
Qu’on voit danser le long des golfes clairs
That one sees dancing along the clear gulfs
A des reflets d’argent
Has silver reflections
Des reflets changeants
Sous la pluie
Under the rain
Au ciel d’été confond
In the summer sky merge
Ses blancs moutons
Its white sheep
Avec les anges si purs
With such pure angels
La mer bergère d’azur
The sea, shepherdess of azure
Près des étangs
Close to the ponds
Ces grands roseaux mouillés
These large wet reeds
Ces oiseaux blancs
These white birds
Et ces maisons rouillées
And these rusted houses
Les a bercés
Has rocked them
Le long des golfes clairs
Along the clear gulfs
Et d’une chanson d’amour
And with a song of love
A bercé mon cœur pour la vie
Has soothed my heart for life