2009 Brittany Beaches

Brittany affords an endless variety of beaches, and a large proportion of the summer population finds its way onto the beach after lunch; and it has to be said - after a few days of trying this beach and that (beaches with boats and wind-surfing facilities; beaches with droppings of boulders, tor-like piles of rock; beaches with open sandscapes shearing off for hundreds of yards towards grassy headlands; city beaches backed by housing developments and roundabout systems) it does seem as though there is a limit to how interesting this beach scene can be. For the writer on holiday there is a temptation to switch off; but in fact, the simplicity of the beach puts the human lot into perspective. All the ages are here, from the naked toddler with his willy and sun-hat, to the decrepit old dears with Rubensian cascades of cellulite, to the fat family Robinsons, to the professorial figure with the milky-white legs taking surf and sand in his pensive stride, to the groups of young men chucking each other into the water, to the dad and two sons playing football against the goal of a rock face; and there are women of all sizes and girths, offering generous portions of buttock and thigh to view; lots of taut brown skin, frankfurter smooth, oiled and shiny, lolling on towels. The spirit of Renoir hovers over the scene, an insouciant unabashed ease with the human form disporting itself in the tableau vivant of mums lurching around with bat and ball, nubiles promenading to the ice cream kiosk, and grannies supervising infants at the water's edge. All this display of the ages of man and woman, this democracy of flesh in all its stages and configurations reminds the observer of the conveyor belt of time, which transforms our bodies, agendas and desires inexorably, so that in one place alone can be seen all the periods of human life at a glance: my past, my present, and my future.


These two week holidays contain great cycles of emotion and reflection, much of it progressing during sleepless nights. Certainly, the movement from relaxation to refreshment is not straightforward or predictable. The pleasant shock of arriving on holiday begs a lot of questions about the rest of one's life. On the cusp of fifty I find myself subject to a millennial angst. In so many ways it feels like the end of an era. By fifty one should be where one wants to be in life, and no matter how much you count your blessings the revelation of a two week holiday seems always to question the future. However balanced life seems you only live once. Contentment is a flighty feeling. Equilibrium intermittent. So many highs are roller-coaster highs, preceded by troughs. Family life is pervasively emotional: if not your emotions, someone else's. Everyone's private cycle of feelings flows in and around the outer accord or discord, on the move the whole time. Always we are seeking a return to par, a basic recuperation.
Holiday time out airlifts you out of the mundane and initially one accelerates into the panoply of pleasures (light, landscape, cuisine, language, sun, swimming) with collision force. Two or three days of azure seas, and celebratory lunches, of sight-seeing and sensation and you have enough new information  to question whether you are living life in the fullest way the rest of the time, and this shock to the system sets in motion that undercurrent of thoughts and cross-eddies which become the true journey of the holiday. Inevitably you feel a yearning for this glimpse of life to be extended, before realizing – that it can't be. The point is that the life one craves is essentially elsewhere, an elsewhere briefly glimpsed on holiday. Thus holidays seem to be as much about crisis as recuperation and one of the hallmarks of an approaching fiftieth birthday is the realization that these crises have to be got through without any real prospect of change – the only consolation being the intensity of one's yearning itself , which at least transforms leisure into something more like a rite, an intense reminder of life beyond the limits of one's own.

From 'Travels and Trees' 2010