The joy of being beside the seaside

Review: Vivien Horler

Land’s Edge – a coastal memoir, by Tim Winton (Picador)

Any half-awake policeman based at Muizenberg has only to look out of a window of the splendidly positioned police station to know that that the regulations against going on to the beach under Level 3 are being widely flouted.

At first it was just the surfers, scuttling across the sand with board under arm to get into the waves, but now it’s everyone: walkers, sandcastle builders, paddlers, dog walkers, even, in late June, the occasional swimmer.

Maybe the police have better things to do, being out looking for murderers, gangsters and cigarette smugglers, or maybe they’ve just given up. Because it’s not easy, or even very sensible, to keep residents of a coastal city away from the sea.

The Australian writer and environmental activist Tim Winton would understand the drive to be in or near the ocean, to be close to its wildness and unpredictability, to feel the wind and swirling water at a time when nothing is guaranteed.

Winton grew up in suburban Perth and still lives in Western Australia. Today his home is in a small coastal town in a house within walking distance of the beach. (He is a very successful writer.) He writes that while he remembers the Perth house, his childhood memories are not of the suburbs but of the smell suntan lotion and the sea, the blinding light and his bare back “a map of dried salt and peeling sunburn”.

Australia is a very paraat country and today his children probably aren’t allowed to be sunburnt, thanks to the success of the Oz anti-skin cancer campaign “slip, slop slap” (“slip on a shirt, slop on sunscreen, slap on a hat”). But many of us oldies remember the deliciously prickly feeling of sun and salt and a peeling nose.

The sea, he says, swallowed up all his primary school anxieties and allowed him to be his real self. He dived, he snorkeled (this gave him, he says, a good chance to observe girls’ bums), and with the sea breeze at his back he had a life and a place.

Much of what he writes will resonate with many South Africans’ memories of childhood beach holidays. For several years his family spent Christmases in a beach cottage near the beach, a tatty old place with a big veranda, a grumbling fridge, rooms filled with ratty furniture, and shelves of old books. In the mornings they fished, dived for abalone, caught crayfish, surfed and swam. In the afternoons, when the Fremantle Doctor came up – which sounds very like the Cape Doctor – they’d retreat indoors to read.

It wasn’t just the afternoon wind that made it all sound a bit like home; the house was set in a field of doublegees that no thong (read slip-slop) could protect you from. Doublegees? I googled it and I was right – that’s an Australian pronunciation of duwweltjies, a plant native to South Africa and an unwelcome alien in Western Australia. (They’re pretty unwelcome here too, I’d say.)

His relationship with the sea has continued all his life, and he is always aware that while he may love it, it doesn’t love him. He knows it is beautiful and wild and free, but also dangerous, and he has come close to drowning more than once.

But it is where he is most at home. Following a trip to Europe he goes down to the beach and observes: “It’s alive out there. After the still, exhausted Aegean, where nothing moves but the plastic bags, it seems like a miracle… There is nowhere else I’d rather be, nothing else I would prefer to be doing. I am at the beach looking west with the continent behind me as the sun tracks down to the sea. I have my bearings.”

This review is almost as long as the bried book. It’s just over 100 pages and the font is large, but it’s a loving ode to the ocean and a beautiful read.

  • Land’s Edge was not sent to me as a review book – I bought it from Kalk Bay Books with my own money. And it was only when I finished it that I checked its publication date: 1993. So this is not a new book – but it’s one that’s well worth reading.





One thought on “The joy of being beside the seaside

  1. David Bristow

    Alas I did not grow up at the sea, but I’ve worked hard to make up for that lack of judgment. I’ve long thought Muizenberg-Kalk Bay would make a splendid setting for a “Cannery Row” type book …. just putting it out there.


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