Before the Mall Was the Beach

At the mall today I noticed a shop employee dressed in what I could only describe as beach wear. This I noted some years ago to be a trend, the putting on of flip-flops and short shorts and tank tops for an on-concrete walkabout. It may merely be the return of beach weather, but whatever it is I have had the ritual on the mind for a while now. Allow me to pull my white cotton pants over my nipples as I settle into the plush rocker to address the under-thirty crowd assembled at my feet — for today I shall talk about the lost pastime of going to the beach.

I am aware that people today still do something that they call “going to the beach,” but that’s not the thing to which I refer. I have in mind a Saturday, the cooler full of alcohol and sugary (that’s real sugar, people) drinks, a basket of potato chips and sandwiches and cigarettes, and an impossibly large ghetto blaster all in the back of a gas-guzzling car whose trunk would comfortably accommodate a family of six, and their dogs also. The beaches to which we would drive were sprawling places, sand and lake for as far as one could see. It seemed an entire civilization would coordinate their collective visit, so that the water’s edge was a dense urban-like centre, bustling and brimming and as thickly populated as any main street could be. There, the masses from the smallest child to the superannuated would cover themselves in butter, better to concentrate the sunlight on their skin, and spend the day drinking and eating and swimming and smoking and playing very loud music. In the late afternoon, everyone, having become just a bit crispier, would drive home. The whole thing would then be repeated the next day, for as long as the Summer allowed. That, my friend, is what I mean by going to the beach.

Even this shallow overview suggests the impossibility of the whole lollygagging, for-its-own-sake affair of the beach in today’s world. Doubtless there are now laws against some of what I have described, and for the rest convention will suffice as a preventative force. Smoking and drinking have been placed under state proscriptions, and the food of yesterday has been re-engineered so that it is devoid of anything offensive, like everything else. The gas guzzling cars are now fuel-efficient, and their trunks are just big enough for a yoga mat and a Lululemon shopping bag of exercise pants, and no bigger. The ghetto blaster, or perhaps I should write “the Marginalized African-American community blaster,” is today an iPod: it takes up less real estate and, because it is made to be used with headphones, will not disturb the neighbours. Then there is the whole problem of sunlight and water, both of which are (as anyone knows) dangerous and to be avoided. That rather kills the whole enterprise, doesn’t it.

I feel sorry for anyone who didn’t get at least a small taste of what life was like before life as I knew it ended. I am well aware that many will read the words above and see only satire and irony. There is a good measure of both. But there is seriousness also, and I think my assumptions are sound and well-founded. The world took a conservative turn in the nineteen-eighties, which constituted a double assault. Just as the political left were introducing the essentially conservative and reactionary business of political correctness, actual Conservatives were undermining every positive advancement of the 1960s. Those of us who came into political consciousness at the end of the 1970s have known nothing, politically speaking, but contraction, fear, suspicion, mistrust, acrimony, and reaction. The 60s was in many respects a time of decadence and selfish indulgence, but the bit of it that was genuine and hopeful and politically progressive is now gone, and we are all less well off as a result. What has happened to the beach, in other words, is representative of Western societies as a category. We formulate our politics on the assumption that the world is dangerous, people must be policed and their behaviour subject to detailed and abundant laws, and that low-level cultural warfare with the internal and external enemy is therefore the prefered and normal mode of operation. In such a climate, a trip to the beach is worse than trivial, it is reckless.

It is however still possible to go to the beach, provided one does not stay too long and that the wise precautions are taken. This assumes there is sand on some piece of ground where condos have not yet been built, that the pollution levels have not rendered the water toxic, and that the UV rating is within bounds. The rarity of this trifecta, however, probably explains in part the fact that people now dress for the beach when they are at the mall: the latter has overtaken and subsumed the former. Nor is this, politically speaking, a matter of accident. An artificial environment where everything unpleasant is removed, the mall is the anti-beach and indeed an anti-space, by which I mean it is the antithesis of spontaneous public assembly. It is a task-directed private space, committed entirely to and engineered for efficient private consumer consumption. Is this not the direction in which everything is headed? In any case, so much now depends upon consumer confidence that such a thing cannot be left to its own development. That many people are at the mall for a common purpose ought not to mislead one about the fact that it is not a public space, nor an open one. To contrast the sociology of the beach to that of the mall, as I have only begun here to do, is to observe how much the world has changed since the 1970s, and for the worse in my view.

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