A solitary magpie flaps on the fence of the caravan opposite as I close the gate and head for the cliff path. It’s the last day of the holiday, and the first of uninterrupted sunshine. Scots pines, seagulls and late afternoon shadows beckon. The camera and I are in for a treat. Down the steep, wooden steps and the beach is more or less deserted. It’s hard to believe it’s a sunny Sunday in July. Half a dozen would-be surfers stand waist-deep in the Mediterranean-blue water, chatting. A paraglider swoops and dives overhead. The gulls curve and cry above the beach huts, circling the sparse smoke of a couple of barbecues. Dogs chase and bark across the shingle. I take photos. Fading sea pinks. Bees on thistles. The changing curl of the waves’ breaking. The blue-and-gold vanishing point at the cliff’s end. This is my fifth summer here, and every one of them haunted by a sense that it might be the last. Maybe that’s why the compulsion to record every detail seems more visceral even than my love of photography.
This year it feels more urgent still. The pebbles slide from under my feet on the way down to the thin strip of sand. A hundred yards or so ahead two small children are testing the waves with their toes, squealing and laughing. The father with them seems barely more than a boy himself. He keeps firm hold of their hands, encouraging them whenever terror threatens to overwhelm delight. There are times I wish someone could still do that for me. I walk towards them, my feet leaving prints like a trail of scars in the wet sand. Tomorrow the marks will be gone, erased by the waves as if I’d never been here. I brought my broken heart to the beach four years ago. Barely twenty-four hours after your father and brothers carried you down the aisle of the chapel, I was here on different stones, watching the waves roll and curl, sucking on the shingle as they died. Everything had changed, yet somehow the sea remained the same.
The squeals have faded into the distance now. The sun’s strong and my shoulders are beginning to burn. I scramble up the slope of shifting pebbles toward the cliff. The rainbow of beach huts offers scant shade, but I find a cool spot and sit for a while. Back where I’ve just come from, a couple have settled on the stones, heads together in conversation. The small boy with them is staring out to sea, and the thought bubbles up that he’s looking at a future less constant than the shifting of the waves.
The postman was shovelling handfuls of mail into his sack as I steamed through the downpour to catch the afternoon collection. The postal vote, meticulously sealed an hour or so previously, was damp and dog-eared by the time I thrust it into his hand. I hoped and prayed the ink hadn’t run. That was it. I’d done all I could to avert disaster, and to secure a future for my children and my grandchildren. To be honest, I still believed in that moment that sanity would prevail. I had no idea that two weeks down the line I’d be listening from my narrow bed with horror as the results rolled in. A vote for isolationism, fear and xenophobia, for an imperial past over an inclusive future, for years of economic uncertainty and political instability. A vote where half the people had no idea what they were voting for, and even its proponents didn’t expect to win. I was already here by then – the sea at my doorstep and the forest all around – so it was hard to take in the change. Nevertheless, I could feel it in the wind on the beach the following morning. Later, a text from a friend called it a step back into the dark ages. Sorry it’s happened on your holiday, and no doubt spoilt your time away, she said. It took a day or so to see she’d hit the nail squarely on the head.
I glance at the time. Have I really sat here so long? The shrubs along the footpath home host a plethora of bees. Today at least three different types work head-buried in the purple flowers, side-by-side and spreading pollen for the next year’s crop. They flit and shift with no regard for boundaries or demarcation, or the fact I want to capture them on film. They’re not worried that there won’t be enough to go around. There’s plenty, and none of them takes more than they need. My lens is deep amongst the leaves when a family trails by, two squabbling children bringing up the rear. An impatient adult turns and snaps.
Can’t you two just grow up and sort it out?
I come back to the caravan to find a friend’s deleted me on Facebook. Apparently, even grown-ups can’t always sort it out.
Twenty-four hours on, and the train to Bristol’s crowded. I’m glad I’ve booked a seat. The lady opposite is near my mother’s age I guess, and half the table’s taken by her Daily Telegraph. I thank heaven for my iPad, get my head down and start to write. An hour into the journey, she pulls a pile of press cuttings from her bag and begins to scribble notes. I’m making up stories now. She’s a well-known writer, travelling incognito, an actress preparing for her next performance, or a member of the House of Lords perhaps. The story’s half written in my head when the woman beside me leans forward.
May I ask what it is you’re doing with all those cuttings? It looks fascinating.
She does it with that classic grace no-one could receive as unwarranted intrusion. Ten minutes down the line we’re deep in the most civilised discussion of the Brexit issue that’s ever going to happen. Our elderly companion has voted ‘leave’, but she and her son are at odds and she’s trying to muster an intelligent argument on her way to visit him. If the thought that she’s about ten days too late even crosses my mind, it’s gone before it’s fully formed, because this is the essence of all those British values upon which people love to pontificate. Tolerance, community spirit and individual liberty are happening right here, in a capsule in time, around this small table on a train out of Southampton. I don’t know it yet, but I’m going to wish I could have bottled this ready to hand out over the weeks and months ahead.
The political scrum of the past few weeks takes me back to my days in 1970s student politics. When it comes to rigid ideologies, it seems the grown-ups are no more capable of sorting it out than we kids were then. While I’ve been at my keyboard this morning, Andrea Leadsom has withdrawn from the Conservative Party leadership contest, and I’m left with a growing sense we’re in uncharted waters. An odd sense indeed, when I suspect what so many voted for was a retreat from the rapid pace of change. But change is inevitable. Nothing’s permanent. My favourite beach may have looked like the same place the other day, but not one stone of it had remained where it was last year.
The French have a saying that doesn’t translate succinctly into English, probably because we don’t value the intellectual exercise of philosophy so highly as they do – plus ca change, plus ca c’est la meme chose. Everything changes, yet everything stays the same doesn’t capture the essence, just as Cheddar doesn’t capture Camembert, fish and chips don’t capture paella and steak and kidney pudding doesn’t capture Hungarian goulash. We can’t even capture the correct spelling for that last. I love Cheddar cheese, fish and chips and steak and kidney pudding, but I want Camembert, Beaujolais, paella, gulyás and French philosophy too, and I don’t want to go back to a world where I need a visa or an import licence to get them. Some things simply work better in their original language and context, and when we try to shut them out, our lives become smaller and poorer. Instead of pulling up the drawbridge on Little England, isn’t it time to embrace difference? To respond with delight, rather than to recoil in terror? Isn’t life just a little too short for all this fear and hatred? Or am I just an utterly incorrigible hopeless idealist?