what we once were


I read the passage below on a beach in Mexico; it was written by the English playwright Simon Gray on a beach in Barbados. I sat observing the beach life around me while reading his descriptions of the beach life he saw.

He writes about civilization – which today seems like an anachronism – and, in his description of school girls on the beach, his yearning for lost civilization is an inspiration.

My Mexican beach is mostly urban and wealthy Mexicans, Americans and Europeans. There are poor Mexicans selling peanut brittle and beads and collecting cans, but really very few of them. They are intruders on the beach in their ethnic clothing and inability to jet in and out and to pay for expensive amenities and refreshment.

On Gray’s beach the school girls are kind and together and happy in a way we don’t see any more in our own crass countries – England and America. Their relative civilization is a welcome intrusion into our fighty, greedy, selfish state.

In Playa, in the mornings, nineish, I wander around the corner from the hotel for a coffee and cuernito, and then walk to Mamita’s beach club before all of the umbrellas are gone, thirty pesos for the chair and thirty for the umbrella for the day and then higher prices for sandwiches and beer, all worth it for the beauty of the Caribbean Sea in front of me, brilliant azur, light, frothy – from what exactly? Bits of coral and gypsum that reflect pure sunlight and blue sky. Science is magic.

At noon a dj starts to play trance and drum and base; in another time and place I will find this annoying but not here – somehow it works with the beer buzz and sea and bikinis. The Mexican club kids show up in the late afternoon and gather in their thongs – men and women – around their curtained lounge beds and bottle service tables. The umbrellas and beach chairs are for the gray hairs in the morning who don’t have hangovers, and the curtained beds for the kids who don’t get up before noon.

I’m sure there are other groups I am not seeing: from the cruise ships docked in Cozumel, travel and tourist professionals, and -. There are groups of twenty something girls in neon hats that say ‘team wedding,’ either from the travel professional group or are they a wedding party? They are like Gray’s school girls: of a unit, for the good of a couple who has decided to marry in a very public way with family and friends at a big, significant, social event. It seems like civilization again.

A girl with a hula hoop and a boyfriend starts to dance just at the edge of the water, gyrating, swaying, moving the plastic disk up and down her lithe body effortlessly, while he sets up the beach cloth and their things. There are flashes of timelessness here on this beach – people responding to an invitation to life where the Caribbean Sea meets an ancient land and dance, drink, love –

Simon Gray’s passage from Wish You Were Here:

This morning a boat arrived, full of schoolgirls on an outing, about thirty of them, between nine and fifteen, I suppose, all wearing traditional brown uniforms, their hair in pigtails, children of a sort I haven’t seen in England since my own childhood. They leapt squealing and laughing off the boat into the water, carrying their shoes and socks in their hands, and scampered on to the beach. A young woman, presumably the teacher, got off last, her skirt hiked up. She splashed after them, calling out instructions which she really didn’t expect them to follow, but at least reminded them that she was there. They poured up the beach and into the changing rooms in the small park, a sort of compound, that also has a café, benches, swings, little shops. A few minutes later they poured out again, into the sea, heads bobbing, screams, shrieks of laughter, splashing each other ducking each other, an absolute rough-house of girls at play but not a swear word to be heard, nothing bad-tempered, ill-natured, brutish about these children, and it struck me with a pang that such a sight and such sounds would be impossible in the England of today, wan will soon be just a folk-memory among the elderly, for what authority would dare to allow thirty children to go on a trip to the beach, to plunge into the sea, with only one teacher to supervise them? indeed, what authority could muster thirty children who would play freely and joyfully, without bawling out obscenities and threats at each other, and at the teacher, probably. When you live in a barbarous country, it’s educative, if painful, to spend a little time in a civilized one, to remember what we once were, to think what’s become of us.

Wish You Were Here, Simon Gray, Granta


Leave a Comment so far
Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: