This weekend, I nearly died of embarrassment – literally. I was making my way down to Bullslaughter Bay, a remote Pembrokeshire beach, with my father, sister and niece. As we scrambled down the path, we saw an elderly man sitting on a rock, staring out to sea – completely naked.
He didn’t hear our approach. How could we alert him? We couldn’t shout out “Hello!” That would have been too aggressive.
As we got closer, his wife came into view. On a hot day, she was fully dressed, in a shirt and jumper. Had they spent decades on holiday like this – he a naturist, she someone who feels the cold?
She spotted us and told him of our presence. He deftly managed to put on his swimming shorts while sitting on the rock, without, erm, exposing anything.
Weighed down with embarrassment, I slipped into the water without acknowledging the couple – it would have been even more embarrassing to say hello, with all of us so aware of the man’s recent nudity.
As I walked into the sea, I realised that the sand was dotted with sharp-edged, limpet-encrusted rocks beneath the water and that the waves were more violent than I thought. I swam out to sea to get beyond the waves and the rocks. But as I swam further out, the waves got higher, crashing down on me. I turned back, wanting to warn my family of the danger. But I was still too embarrassed to shout anything out in front of the recently naked man. I put my right hand in the air, making a thumbs-down gesture, but they didn’t see it.
As I swam back to shore, I was dashed against the rocks, my hand, back and left shin sliced into dead straight, neat gashes by the rocks’ parallel edges. At one moment, I plunged my leg between two unseen rocks but managed to withdraw it with only minor scraping. I sympathise with the man whose leg became trapped between rocks in Sheringham, Norfolk, at the weekend for five hours, as the tide rose (the fire brigade cut him free).
I clambered over to my family. They had bravely broken the embarrassed silence by chatting to the man.
The man and his wife came to the beach every year, he said, and swam only at low tide, when the safe sand was revealed. If I’d consulted him before swimming, I wouldn’t have dared go in. But then he had been naked and therefore impossible to talk to.
I thanked God I’d escaped the terrible fate that could have resulted from refusing to speak to a stranger. What an embarrassing way to die. Cause of death – acute Englishness.
On Broadhaven, a nearby much safer beach, I noticed a new arms race – in beach furniture.
When I was a boy on these Pembrokeshire beaches, 40 years ago, we seemed over-prepared with our blue and green canvas windbreak. These days, people bring mini-houses down to the beach, from one-man teepees to big tents to a sort of grey plastic Chatsworth with enough room to fit two big cars beneath it.
I’m all for people being comfortable on the beach. But surely the point of a beach is its closeness to nature; and the open views of sun, sand and sea – particularly in hot weather?
Then again, our homes are so much more comfortable than they were 40 years ago. We’ve become so insulated from the elements that we’ve grown scared of them.
Do you boycott people who’ve slighted you over the years?
My life is circumscribed by long-held grudges. I don’t go to the handy hardware shop on my high street after its boss was rude to me 10 years ago. I refuse to watch two news programmes because their presenters were high-handed with me, on separate occasions, five years ago. There are a dozen journalists who’ve slighted me over the years who often appear on the Today programme as guests. The moment I hear their names, I switch to Classic FM and calculate when it’s safe to switch back.
It’s all very exhausting. How much easier life would be if I were a little more magnanimous.
The new Prime Minister has a good memory for facts and figures – as I know from working with him at the Daily Telegraph for five years.
He will know that the shortest term in Downing Street was 118 days (or 119, if the days are counted inclusively), held by George Canning, the Tory Prime Minister who died in office in 1827.
To avoid taking Canning’s record, Boris must stay in Downing Street until November 21. He will be desperate to last longer than that.
Harry Mount is editor of the Oldie
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