I have on my desk a photograph of Miss Atomic Bomb, Las Vegas, 1957, captured in a bathing beauty pose with a bathing suit-sized cardboard mushroom cloud pinned to her front. So it came as no surprise to me to learn from Lena Lencek and Gideon Bosker in their recent book The Beach: The History of Paradise on Earth that the bikini bathing suit was named for a tiny strip of sand in the Pacific where the first post-war nuclear weapons test was performed, in 1946. According to Lencek and Bosker, the original bikini was actually called the Atome in honour of its size. Subconsciously, however, it seems to me to have been named also for its potential explosive impact: no one in 1946 could read the word Atome without thinking Bombe. Soon, giant women with the perfect bodies of goddesses, blonde bombshells, would parade before the public on billboards and in two-page spreads, covered by three little triangles of fabric that revealed, according to the famous remark by Diana Vreeland, everything about a girl except her mothers maiden name, the images immensity and near-nakedness a kind of fetish to ensure potency and ward off the threat of extinction.
I was three years old in 1946. I knew nothing about the invention of the bikini or the bomb, but I did know the pleasures of going naked on the beach. I knew the beach was an erogenous zone. The air caressed my skin; the sun warmed it; the waves stroked my toes; the sand scratched me pleasantly. My brothers treated me better than usual, letting me help dig the sand castle moat, waiting for the incoming tide to fill it, then swamp it, then wash it away. My mother relaxed, gabbing with her friends under the big beach umbrella. My father lifted me on to his shoulders and walked into the water, where the weight of my body lifted in the curious floatingness of the sea.
I had a sense of contact with another body, of which the beach was the skin. I thought the beach felt the same way I did, that it liked to be warm and scratchy, that it loved to be touched. When I sifted sand through my fingers, I thought the sand enjoyed it as much as I did. When I burrowed into it, it seemed to like being close. My footprints were part of the beach's memories.
These memories go back, Lencek and Bosker tell us, four billion years, to a time when meteors, striking the earth, began breaking up the earth's surface into boulders that ferocious winds gradually ground into sand. Waters burst from deep in the earth's body. The moon drove them this way and that, carving out the seas, shaping the continents. In the shallows, the beginnings of life were stirred by the conjoining of water and warmth. In the depths, shells and bones of evolving multi-celled creatures were pulverised by the action of the tides. When humankind emerged, we carried the evolution of the beach inside us. It was our own.
Zoom forward. Some fifteen thousand years ago, at the end of the Holocene Ice Age, the barrier islands of the south-eastern United States began to form. As glaciers melted, they caused sea levels to rise, flooding the eastern coastal plains. Over time, ocean waves piled up natural debris along the shoreline and winds crushed it and pushed it into ridges. Then, as sea levels continued to rise, water once again spilled over the ridges, turning them into islands along the shore with beautiful pink and pale yellow sands.
That's how things stood, more or less, until 1878, when, on Palm Beach, a Spanish brigantine foundered with its cargo of tropical coconuts. Suddenly coconut palms began to grow where none had grown before. Settlers built a small community with a post office for a barefoot mailman, who made deliveries south from here along the Atlantic beach. When visionary oil baron and real estate developer Henry Flagler convinced his friends, including my great-grandfather, to build their castles by the sea at the turn of the century (and for many years thereafter), the only way to reach the barrier island was by boat, after several days journey on Flagler's East Coast Railroad. From these inconvenient beginnings, a colony of wealthy patrons created an island fantasy where death could not enter. From the turn of the century through the 1920s and 1930s, they weathered hurricanes, plagues of mosquitoes, war and economic depression. They subdued, ignored, rode out, and laughed in the face of anything that interfered with their pleasure.
The Second World War, however, changed their tune. The history of the beach, which, since the Middle Ages, had been a history of taming, civilising, glamourising, and eroticising, took on - or reverted to - another, darker, meaning. It was bound to. Ideas are never one-sided.Paradise implies the Fall. The Florida castles blacked out their windows every night in case of prowling German U-boats. There were legends in my childhood of shipwrecked Germans on the beach. Much of the Second World War - at least, the American Second World War - was fought on beaches, from Normandy to Iwo Jima. The medieval mappae mundi show the waters of chaos, populated by sea monsters, lapping at the edges of the created world. Now soldiers rose from the deeps like creatures from the Black Lagoon.
The ocean is like the subconscious. It spits up on to its margins our deepest fantasies and fears of love and death: Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr on the beach at Pearl Harbor in From Here to Eternity, Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner in On the Beach waiting for the world to end. When I learned to swim in a salt-water swimming pool, fed by the ocean several hundred yards away, I felt landlocked, set in a wide green expanse of spongy crabgrass and surrounded by sea grapes bushes, cut off from the secret realities of my life. There were stories of sharks swimming through the pipes, but I wasn't afraid of sharks. I wasn't afraid of anything. I thought the pool was tame. Then one day, playing in the waves, I got boiled up in a breaker. I was tumbled over and over like loose laundry in a washing machine. I couldn't tell up from down, sand was harshly scraping my skin, I ran out of breath. I tried to fight, but fighting only frightened me more. Finally, just as I was giving myself up for lost, the wave let go and threw me on to the beach. I was already crying. No one had come to my rescue; no one had even noticed. When I told my brothers what had happened, they laughed. When I told my mother, she tsk-tsked and patted my bottom. When I told my father, he advised me to go back in. I was furious. I was frightened. I was alone. My aloneness gaped open in front of me like a shark's throat. I suddenly understood the vastness of the ocean because I had taken its vastness inside me. I was afraid of it, now, and of the monsters it contained.
Thats why I'm a lap swimmer. I swim in turquoise-painted, sparkling clear, rectangular swimming pools where I can get from one end to the other in thirty seconds or less and can see the stripes on the bottom, marking the lanes. Rational water. No weather. No waves. No ugly surprises. I can think clearly. I feel safe. Sometimes I'm bored, but there are worse things than boredom.
I only swim in the ocean in August, when it's warm and calm and as flat as Kansas. But I walk on the beach in every kind of weather. It was the Romantics, and especially the poets, who gave us the solitary walk on the deserted beach, with its erotic expectations of exquisite melancholy, ecstatic insight, and transcendental communion. We are so small, so naked, so fragile: nothing is sexier than the fact that were going to die.
The beach is that transition zone between sea and land, our origins and our fate, where issues of merger and separation, fantasy and reality, longing and fulfilment touch. It is the skin of the soul, mediating our sensual and spiritual lives, our sexuality and our mortality. We learn at the beach that high is followed by low and low by high, fullness by emptiness and emptiness by fullness, beginnings by endings and endings by beginnings. Even if we radiate each other to extinction and turn earth's atmosphere to sulphur, it is not necessarily the end. At the bottom of the ocean, near jets of superheated gases from the planets core, evolving, multi-celled, red-blooded creatures dwell, who breathe sulphur and can wait the half-life of plutonium to emerge. It may not be our idea of Paradise, but, hey!, as Lencek and Bosker point out, neither was the beach for most of the history of time. Paradise, after all, is real estate; it has to be developed.