This is Sydney’s Bondi Beach, normally adorned in fine weather by a cornucopia of flesh. But the beach was recently closed by authorities due to Covid-19, after crowds flouted bans on gatherings.
A strange quiet fell in the following days, punctured only by the clatter of parrots and the screeching of cockatoos. There is a strangeness in looking out on a forbidden shore.
The ocean is visible from almost every window of my flat, a constant presence. Coming from a surfing family, I swim year-round in the ocean, even when the temperature drops to bracing and the crowds disappear.
Bondi and its surrounding neighbourhoods have been my home since I moved back to Australia from the UK. There I lived in land-locked Oxford. The river Thames has to wend its way, higgledy-piggledy, to London before it can even think about emptying into the North Sea.
With swimming off the agenda, I’ve been musing on the shore in literature and history. Coastlines are liminal places — liminal coming from the Latin limen, or threshold, a point of entering or beginning. They are sites of escape, transition, sublimation.
Bondi’s history, for example, would tell us to expect it to break the rules, without regard for public health. It has a hedonistic streak.
The poet Robert Gray has written of his grandfather and father’s revels here. Gray’s well-to-do grandfather used to escape for rowdy nights at his shack at the ‘bucks’ camp’ at north Bondi. He claimed he once out-drank Jack London, the American novelist and tough man of the Klondike, at the camp, landing him in hospital (he omitted to mention that London had TB at the time).
Likewise, Gray’s father, ‘a young hedonist of the Jazz Age’, was drawn to the beach, with his friends. ‘They came to Bondi to go surfing,’ Gray wrote, ‘the men leaping from the running boards of the trams, and the young males met outside the dance halls, carrying their black jackets and ties.’
The age put its stamp on Bondi: the first flats, like the one I live in, were built behind the dunes, sharks were culled to protect sea-bathers, and pleasure-seekers thronged the sand. ‘At times the beach was so hot it stung,’ wrote another chronicler, ‘and the sturdy brown girls in their grooves of sand looked as if being cooked in some crystal oven of Venus.’
Now, stripped of people, the beach can be seen on its terms, as the land’s border with the ocean, a pale diaphragm at work. All shorelines are borders of a kind. It is in these coastal zones that we most often experience the ocean. Only five per cent of the deep ocean has been explored, but coasts are familiar, sites of intimate knowledge and memory.
I’m put in mind of shorelines I have known, places of my childhood. We sailed at Twofold Bay, Eden, the third deepest natural harbour in the southern hemisphere. Eden was a nineteenth-century whaling port, and it’s said that the Yuin people, the Aboriginal inhabitants of the area, hunted whales for at least 10,000 years before Europeans lobbed up.
I’m reminded as well of the bay of Naples, a city I’ve visited with my partner — his mother was born in the Neapolitan countryside. The islands of Capri and Ischia form the far rim of a submerged volcanic crater, but who can feel touched by peril when riding a bus on beautiful Ischia, passing white villas splashed with bougainvilleas, and strolling past rows of sun lounges to dive into the Mediterranean?
Secretly, though, I have always had a love-hate relationship with coastal life. This is the result of having spent too much of my childhood in the back of a car, on long drives, while my father checked surf spot after surf spot. In my teens, I was turned off by macho, self-aggrandising surf culture.
But the ocean exerts a powerful draw. It makes me think of a passage from Joseph Conrad’s memoir, The Mirror of the Sea, in which he described his relationship with the sea as being ‘like any great passion the inscrutable Gods send to mortals … unreasoning and invincible, surviving the test of disillusion … full of love’s delight and love’s anguish’.
Conrad is describing a complicated love — a sentiment I can get behind.
My dad took to surfing in a bid for freedom: he grew up in working class Western Sydney, a land of red-brick postwar homes. Buying a motor scooter, he rode it to Manly, stuffing newspapers inside his jacket to cut the wind. Retrieving his surfboard from a storage shed, he rode the waves with the other bleach-haired boys of the Seventies.
My younger sister became a surfer too. Julia competed at a high level through her teens, and then on the pro junior circuit. One summer, I went with her as her roadie to a competition at Bells Beach, where a vast grey ocean stretched away toward (eventually) Antarctica. It was a thrill to see her make her deep bottom turns, her signature manoeuvre, on those big Bells Beach waves.
We tend to think of a quiet shore as a consoling place. Yet being stuck by a beach can also be deeply tedious, as I know well. The poet Ovid remains the authority on this experience. He viewed it as a ghastly punishment.
In 8 AD, he was banished from Rome to the shores of the Black Sea, for a crime that remains obscure. His Black Sea Letters are a cry from exile. He complained that the locals were barbarous, the wind fierce, and that snow lay on the ground year-round (a dubious claim, this).
In Sydney especially, the association of the shore with banishment is strong. The Fatal Shore is the title that Robert Hughes, the art critic and writer, chose for his history of the colony at Sydney and the brutal convict transportation system.
This was a shore not of pleasure but desperation, as is plain in the many accounts of attempted escapes from the colony. In 1792, twenty-one convicts fled with a hand-drawn compass on a piece of paper, intending to walk to China. Four men died; the others were discovered, naked and starving, eating poisonous berries.
Some escapees were taken in by Aboriginal groups and lived among them, only to later betray their hosts, trading what they had learned of the terrain and its resources for a pardon. Knowledge of the coast was a valuable currency.
When it comes to the shore in fiction, the ur-text is Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, a contender for the first English novel. It inspired countless tales of tropical shores, outside time and geography, palm trees swaying under amnesiac skies. But in writing fiction, I have found myself drawn instead to post-industrial coastlines.
In the book of short stories I recently finished, the Basque coast surrounding Bilbao, in Spain, is one setting. It is renowned for its surf, but unemployment ran high until the cleanup of the polluted river at Bilbao and the opening of the Guggenheim art museum.
Another setting is the similarly gritty Wollongong, in Australia, where I was born. There a copper smelter towers over a promontory and the flame of the steelworks still burns.
These places are not fantasies of themselves in the way some beach towns are. They are peopled landscapes, coastlines transformed by humans, marked by the histories we have imposed on them.
This march of man-made progress — and damage — has not ceased. Our shorelines are changing, and fast.
In parts of the UK, the North Sea is reclaiming up to 20 metres a year, prompting one radical proposal from a Dutch government scientist to enclose the sea between two vast dams. In Sydney, there were dramatic images in 2016 of a swimming pool being ripped away from a multi-million dollar oceanfront home, as a storm surge buffeted the coast.
The warming of the oceans has given us other images: those white coral skeletons of the Great Barrier Reef, which has just suffered its third mass bleaching event in five years. Sydney’s temperate ecosystem is also threatened, as the great kelp forests that bracket Australia’s southern shores are eaten away. Herbivorous fish, moving south, proliferate in the absence of natural predators.
We do not yet know what future discoveries these underwater marvels promise. Coral is the medicine cabinet of the sea: it has given us medicines to treat cancer, infections, heart disease and viruses. Some discoveries will be denied to us by these losses; we risk making such knowledge another sort of forbidden shore.
Looking out over Bondi today, I guess at the marine life beneath the surface. Schools of garfish, silvery, long-nosed. A territorial ray by the rocks. Perhaps a seasonal school of salmon pursued by a shark.
We’ll soon be approaching winter, but the shore will not be forgotten. If cities are defined by the possibilities they offer, as journalist David Marr once wrote, ‘the point about Sydney is that the beach is there, always, in our imagination.’
And, for now, imagine we must. *