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

the beach
February 10, 2015, 9:51 pm
Filed under: departure lounge, the sweet life | Tags: ,





no siestas for me
May 5, 2009, 8:45 pm
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , , , ,

Here’s another quotation from Carlos Fuentes’ article How I Started to Write.  What a strange beast the mexican-calvinist!

Calvin has had enough influence, don’t you think, like Milton Freedman and Ayn Rand.  Time to just say thanks but we’re not interested anymore; to try out some better theories and try to salvage some balance in our early century lives.

From M. Fuentes article:

I also became the original Mexican Calvinist:  an invisible taskmaster called Puritanical Duty shadows my every footstep:  I shall not deserve anyting unless I work relentlessly for it, with iron discipline, day after day.  Sloth is sin, and if I do not sit at my typewriter every day at 8 am for a working day of seven to eight hours, I will surely go to hell.  No siestas for me, alas and alack and helas and ay-ay-ay:  how I came to envy my Latin bretheren, unburdened by the Protestant work ethic, and why must I, to this very day, read the complete works of Hermann Broch and scribble in my black notebook on a sunny Mexican beach instead of lolling the day away and waiting for the coconuts to fall?

keeping it regular with the knickered and provincial

M. Fuentes again.  I can’t figure out where the prevailing cultural myth of innovation came from when you consider how prevalent the blanket of stifling regularity seems to be — it’s a malignancy and at an advanced stage.  Fuentes equates popularity with ignorance.  The ancient Greeks did too: to maintain vitality in their senate they ostracized the most popular members; here it is the opposite.

This is DC in the late 1930’s where the school yard is full of fear of outside people and ideas.  How does what must have been a veritable flood of outsiders and their outside ideas into the American capital – the world’s nation of outsiders – not temper and calm this proclivity for fear?  Baffling …

“I believed in the democratic simplicity of my teachers and chums, and above all I believed I was, naturally, in a totally unself-conscious way, a part of that world.  It is important, at all ages and in all occupations, to be ‘popular’ in the United States; I have known no other society where the values of ‘regularity’ are so highly prized. I was popular, I was ‘regular.’  Until the day in march – march 18, 1938.  On that day, a man from another world, the imaginary country of my childhood, the President of Mexico , nationalized the holdings of foreign oil companies.  The headlines in the North American press denounced the ‘communist’ government of Mexico and its ‘red’ president; they demanded the invasion of Mexico in the sacred name of private property, and Mexicans, under international boycott, were invited to drink their oil.

Instantly, surprisingly, I became a pariah in my school.  Cold shoulders, aggressive stares, epithets, and sometimes blows.  Children know how to be cruel, and the cruelty of their elders is the surest residue of the malaise the young feel toward things strange, things other, things that reveal our own ignorance or insufficiency.  This was not reserved for me or for Mexico:  at about the same time, an extremely brilliant boy of eleven arrived from Germany.  He was a Jew and his family had fled from the Nazis.  I shall always remember his face, dark and trembling, his aquiline nose and deepset, bright eyes with their great sadness; the sensitivity of his hands and the strangeness of it all to his American companions.  This young man, Hans Berlikner, had a brilliant mathematical mind, and he walked and saluted like a Central European; he wore short pants and high woven stockings, Tyrolean jackets and an air of displaced courtesy that infuriated the popular, regular, feisty, knickered, provincial, Depression-era little sons of bitches at Henry Cook Public School of the Thirteenth Street N.W.

~Carlos Fuentes from How I Started to Write

zest! enthusiasm! poison!

In the Latin world intelligence is equated with malice; in America with cheerleading; in Mexico they would give out prizes laced with poison.

“The French equate intelligence with rational discourse, the Russians with intense soul-searching.  For a Mexican, intelligence is inseparable from maliciousness – in this, as in many other things, we are quite Italian: furberia, roguish slyness, and the cult of appearances, la bella figura, are Italianate traits present everywhere in Latin America:  Rome, more than Madrid, is our spiritual capital in this sense. For me, as a child, the United States seemed a world where intelligence was equated with energy, zest, enthusiasm.  The North American world blinds us with its energy; we cannot see ourselves, we must see you.  The United States is a world full of cheerleaders, prize giving, singin’ in the rain:  the baton twirler, the Oscar awards, the musical comedies cannot be repeated elsewhere; in Mexico, the Hollywood statuette would come dipped in poisoned paint; in France, Gene Kelly would constantly stop in his steps to reflect: Je danse, donc je suis.

~Carlos Fuentes from How I Started to Write