‘Oh, I do like to be beside the …’
… the what? ‘The seaside’ of course (apologies to anyone unfamiliar with English popular song). And it’s true: I do like it. So when invited to join acquaintances at the plage in lovely, quiet (at this time of year) Villefranche, I didn’t hesitate. Yes, I know the sea’s polluted, and I know we’ve ravaged this lovely planet to an extent that probably puts it beyond repair (who knows?). But to launch oneself into the sea, to float and swim to one’s heart’s content is such a delight that I hope to carry on enjoying it. As so many of us do.
For, once immersed, nothing and nobody matters, and all the while the sea supports the swimmer – such freedom! And after a certain age, you are – especially if female – in effect invisible. None other than Irma Kurtz declared it, before embracing her newfound invisibility by setting out with courage, vigour and humour to explore her native land by Greyhound Bus (and writing a fascinating book ). Invisibility is fine by me; certainly better than the usual fare.
‘The usual’? Oh, you know – maybe you don’t: if not, good. I mean the customary phrases employed to dismiss persons Over a Certain Age. I’m not going to quote any (and suspect I don’t need to). I’ve blathered on about this before, so I’ll simply say that each and every one of these dreary clichés, duly decoded from PC-Newspeak, turns out to pose exactly the same question: ‘Why aren’t you dead yet?’
Haven’t a clue. Stubbornly, I persist. Alive and kicking, even if my backstroke leaves much to be desired. And my crawl apparently constitutes physical comedy at either its best or its worst, depending on which end of the joke you sit (or splash). I’m fine with breast-stroke, though.
So there I was, doing the breast-stroke (another one ripe for euphemistic re-naming, surely?), when I came face to face – in a manner of speaking – with a pair of real ones. Breasts, that is. Large ones: think Venus of Willendorf. These splendidly-sized mammaries rested on the rib-cage of a woman whose age it was hard to estimate. Late 70s? Standing up to her thighs in the water, cooling off, the lady was blithely topless, what remained of her modesty preserved by a cache-sexe so modestly-proportioned as to be self-contradictory.
“The sea’s lovely (elle est bonne!”)!” I called, weaving my limbs about underwater and gurning heartily.
The older woman looked grim.
“Non,” says she, with an air of tremendous satisfaction. “It’s filthy! (elle est sale!)”
Well, yes. She’s right.
She hoiked her impressive bosoms up with both arms (a form of anaerobic exercise?), her expression resolutely glum. I wished her a good day and, swishing my legs luxuriantly, flipped around and swam away, still revelling in weightlessness, the odours of iodine and salt and the sense of freedom that comes from pure physicality.
‘The sea, the sea!’ A phrase recalling half-remembered lessons about the Greeks, and their complex mythology so close to human psychology. Or the Norse Gods and their Scandinavian sea-faring worshippers. One of the descendants of the latter among my group looked up as I approached after my swim. “You should wear a bikini,” she commanded before resuming her (serious) reading matter. No: here, the hidden is rightly concealed. Aside from the fact that a bikini necessarily breaks the sight of a body up in often unflattering ways. I prepared to argue. Then I remembered she is a successful illustrator, so clearly knows a great deal more than I about optical illusions. She is also authoritarian. The signals are familiar to the abused; the sequence predictably starting with ‘you are/you are not‘, progressing rapidly to ‘you should/not’ and ending with ‘you must/not.’ Control in the guise of helpfulness, frequently unhelpful – and never healthy*. I opted for detachment, humming idly instead. She pounced again, wielding her superiority complex: “Bellman,” she announced smugly, having correctly identified the Swedish composer. Nodding, I carried on, looking out to sea.
Carl Michael Bellman wrote of a ‘glowing nymph’ (Glimmande Nymf) whose physical grace evoked in his mind all the pleasures – and all the longing – associated with the idea of unrestricted nakedness. It’s the most tenderly lyrical account of a mental undressing I’ve yet seen/heard; if you don’t know the song, do seek it out. Bellman sang of woman at a stage in life when she is – as John Berger says, in Ways of Seeing – conscious of herself as an object, as the focus of the male gaze to an extent that she may see herself as thus defined.
But there, for a moment in the Mediterranean Sea by Villefranche, were two old nymphs, fully undressed, oblivious to the gaze of others. Independent, intent upon the moment and upon defying their respective ages – and even, perhaps, the age: one so eager to hide or bury us. Atavistic, symbolic figures: one, a swimmer, unabashedly ‘beside (myself) with glee’; the other, timeless and immobile like a sculpture, unequivocally pessimistic. Which of us was right? Both of us. For each view needs – and informs – the other. As we do, the sea.
* You know this person. The one who never says ‘sorry’. Ever. Because it is – always – your fault.
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