Absolute Beginner: The Adventures of a Middle-Aged U.K. Newbie

[Blogger’s note: I was born and raised in America, moved to Canada for love early in the new millennium, and recently relocated again, in my 50s, with my British-born spouse to the southern coast of his homeland. This is an occasional series about learning new tricks in Merry Old England.]

A Bloke Afloat: Getting Chummy with the English Seaside

btyWith the hottest summer on record in the UK nearing its inevitable end, it’s time to take stock of the personal highlights and lowlights of these past few muggy months. One definite lowlight: no central air conditioning in our flat! In the sweltering American South, where I grew up, central air is as essential to life as grits and saying “thank you, ma’am.” Here in England, the climate is usually less steamy. Most of the time my partner and I feel sufficiently cooled at home by opening windows and, of course, downing a few icy gin and tonics. This summer, as the weeks dragged on without any hint of rain and temperatures hovered in the high 20s C/mid-80s F, I was an ever-moist mess. All of my beloved concert t-shirts bore unsightly salt stains from the sweat. The pillowcases on my side of the bed went directly into the wash after each clammy night. Cuddling with the spouse became uncomfortably humid and we were reduced to touching index fingers, E.T.-style, for affection. Even that was too darn hot. I longed for the frosty relief of standing under a ceiling vent and feeling its arctic blast. Our local cinema got a lot of my money in June, July and August because it’s air conditioned. On a side note, was Oceans 8 crappy or what?

One upside to these higher temps has been the proliferation of unclad flesh in and around our seaside city of Portsmouth. Prior to moving to the UK, we lived for more than a decade in Toronto, where for many months annually, peeling off woolen scarves and doffing toques is as close as Canadians get to the Full Monty. In Portsmouth the locals wear far fewer layers in general, and this summer fewer still. The epidermal parade along our seafront has been endlessly fascinating. I haven’t seen so many men in so little fabric for ages and the spectrum of my reactions, depending on the dude, can best be summed up by this handy Venn diagram:

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From what I can discern, British beachgoers of the Caucasian variety tend to come in two basic skin tones: the delicate pinkish-white of the interior of a conch shell and the deep, leathery tangerine of a Naugahyde ottoman from a 1970s rec room. (To be fair, my Scottish-heritage hide is ruddy, conspicuously freckled, and can burn so easily I shouldn’t sit too long near a reading lamp.) One trait a great many of them share is a penchant for inking up their bodies. I’ve always wanted a tattoo myself, but I’ve never had the cojones to actually go under the needle. People around these parts aren’t so skittish. I’ve spied all kinds of eye-catching designs etched on body parts from forehead to foot. Recently, I passed a burly, shirtless bruiser who had branded his broad tummy with the likeness of a grinning genie rising in a swirl of smoke from his navel. I was tempted to rub his “magic lamp,” but since none of my three wishes was a trip to the emergency room, I kept my hands to myself.

But for me the most significant highlight of the sizzling summer of 2018 has been my reconnection with the sea. When I was a young lad in the far-off, fantastical realm known as Florida, the sea and I were something of an item. Throughout my childhood, my family moved all over the state, but we were never far from some beach or another. Many if not most of my weekends and summer holidays were spent happily bobbing in saltwater. I can vividly recall the exhilaration of diving head-first into a crashing wave and feeling the whoosh of the ocean wash over me. Then as the wave waned, I’d pop to the surface with a mouthful of brine, giddily spitting and sputtering.

But as I got older, the sea and I grew apart. I turned inland, dazzled by the neon lights, pulsating rhythms, and Waffle Houses of terra firma. And of course, with adulthood comes the sobering realization that the sea is not so benign, that it’s rife with riptides and tsunamis and sharknados. (Admittedly, that last one has yet to be verified by science, but hey, I’ll take Ian Ziering at his word.) I remember a fateful trip I took as a twenty-something to the North Carolina coast, one of my rare seaside sojourns since my carefree days as a Florida fish-boy. After an afternoon of splashing about in the frisky waves of the Atlantic, I toweled off and took a stroll out to the end of a nearby pier. I peered over the railing and saw, to my horror, countless bell-shaped jellyfish floating where I had just been dog-paddling. How my chunky bod escaped being stung by these diaphanous devil domes is a miracle, and a bit of an insult – I’ve always considered myself to be tantalizingly sting-able. It’s possible that holiday trauma left me with a mild but enduring case of thalassophobia—that’s a fear of the sea to you and me. These past several years, my travels have become more and more city-centric and I’ve given the sea little thought.

But since moving to Portsmouth, which lies on an island bordered by harbours to the east and west and a strait of the English Channel to the south, the sea has become impossible to ignore. (A narrow tidal creek separates the island’s northern border from the mainland.) We live just a short walk from the Channel strait, called the Solent, and though you can’t see it from our flat, frequent foghorn blasts, screeching seagulls and families trundling down our street with their beach gear are daily reminders of its presence. The quickest route from our neighbourhood to the Solent is to cut across the eastern end of an expansive green space known as Southsea Common, then join a path that runs alongside a lush public garden near the water. You round the hedged boundary of the garden and pass under its entrance arch to get to a paved promenade that spans the length of Portsmouth’s seafront. Once on the promenade, you’re rewarded with a breathtaking panorama. Just across the Solent is the Isle of Wight, with its easy-rolling hills and Victorian church spires. Linger long enough and you’ll witness a steady procession of passenger ferries, cargo barges and military vessels sailing in and out of Portsmouth Harbour. (Our fair city is home to one of the UK’s oldest and largest naval bases.) East of the public garden is the picturesque South Parade Pier, where you’ll find arcade games and carnival rides for the kiddies, a cavernous bar and a mighty fine fish-and-chips restaurant for the grown-ups. Oh, and if all that wasn’t enough, there’s also a castle.

On either side of the pier are designated swimming areas patrolled by strapping lifeguards. Many of the local beach nuts congregate near the pier, where they sprawl on blankets, huddle around portable grills, and take refreshing dips in the bracing Solent. For a while I was reluctant to join the fray and kept to the safe confines of the promenade. Occasionally, I’d catch a glimpse of someone wading into the gentle Channel surf and I’d feel a faint twinge of nostalgia, but then vile, gelatinous sea-demons would waft through my thoughts. This summer, the heat forced my hand. As I trekked up and down the promenade covered in a patina of perspiration, it dawned on me that the folks frolicking in the water just a few metres away seemed to be rather enjoying themselves. At any rate, they weren’t screaming in agony. My standoffishness began to seem silly. But there were still some preparations to be made if I was going to get in on the fun. For one, I needed appropriate bathing attire. I dug out an old pair of board shorts, which I’d worn maybe twice in the past 15 years, and I bought a pair of thick-soled flip-flops, a must for Portsmouth’s pebbly beaches. I also compiled an inspirational music playlist on my phone, including such seafaring ditties as “Sloop John B” by the Beach Boys and “Son of a Son of a Sailor” by Jimmy Buffett. Somehow, the Little River Band’s sappy hit “Cool Change” found its way onto the list. I don’t know how that happened. I think there’s a glitch in my phone.

One day at the height of the heatwave, sporting my board shorts and flip-flops, with “Cool Change” emanating from my ear buds, I veered from the promenade and onto the beach. Heart aflutter, I crunched over the pebbles down to the shore, where, after a fleeting moment or two of panic, I eased a foot into the water. It was shockingly cold, but I held my nerve. After a minute, I adjusted to the chill and lowered the other foot in. I grinned. It felt good. It felt familiar. And there wasn’t a jellyfish in sight. This was going to be okay. On each subsequent Solent visit I waded out a little farther. By the time the weather broke earlier this month, I’d made it in all the way to my thighs. I couldn’t quite muster the courage to take that crucial step and let the brisk water douse my “delicates,” which is how my euphemism-prone pal Craig refers to a man’s, er, twig and berries. And with autumn closing in on us, it doesn’t look like that intimate act will happen anytime soon. But I’m hoping for another scorcher in 2019 and I’m already stocking up on SPF 50 and pondering whether to add John Denver’s “Calypso” to my playlist. Come next August, if the sun is shining and the sea is not too frigid and I’m struck by a surge of bravery, perhaps I’ll go all in. I wonder if I still know how to swim. Guess I’d better stick close to one of those lifeguards.

2 thoughts on “Absolute Beginner: The Adventures of a Middle-Aged U.K. Newbie

  1. Pingback: Absolute Beginner: The Adventures of a Middle-Aged U.K. Newbie | dugoutdiscs

  2. Pingback: Absolute Beginner: The Adventures of a Middle-Aged U.K. Newbie | dugoutdiscs

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