Beach buoyed

by Graeme Lay / 27 December, 2008
Between land and sea is a natural place for most New Zealanders to be - writers included.

The beach, that special zone between land and sea, plays a significant part in the lives of most New Zealanders. That is perhaps unsurprising for a country with a 6000km-long coastline. Our forefathers - Polynesian and Pakeha - came to this land by sea, and most of them settled within sight of it. Consequently, down through the generations, the beach and its sister, the sea, have seeped into our consciousness and remain there, as indelible as a watermark.

The beach plays a prominent role in our literature, too. That became clear to me when I compiled The New Zealand Book of the Beach in 2007 and its successor, The New Zealand Book of the Beach 2, in 2008. Many short stories, novels, poems and plays have been inspired by our beaches, from Katherine Mansfield's At the Bay and ARD Fairburn's poems to Bruce Mason's The End of the Golden Weather and Witi Ihimaera's The Whale Rider.

For most New Zealanders, the beach is a playground, a place for camping, baching, swimming, surfing, sailing, fishing and hiking. But wading through our briny literary waters, I realised that the beach is much more than that. It also makes sensuous connections with us, its mystery and beauty heighten the emotions.

In our literature, the beach often becomes the setting for temptation and trespass, and even an aphrodisiac. I commented in the introduction to the first book of the beach: "Young love at the beach in high summer has been a rite of passage for New Zealanders for generations and it is likely that a significant percentage of New Zealanders have been conceived within earshot of the sea." I certainly was.

I was born in the Horowhenua town of Foxton, and Foxton Beach holds some of my earliest childhood memories. My father's truck, bogged down in the sand on a rising tide. Digging for fast-burrowing toheroa.

That apparently infinite expanse of West Coast beach, the desert-like dunes that lay behind it. Later, it was the rugged coast of Taranaki that my parents moved to, first Oakura, then Opunake. At the far end of Oakura Beach, out on a wicked reef, the bones of a wrecked ship were exposed at low tide. That sight captivated me. On one side of the bay at Opunake were the remnants of a wharf, built in the 19th century by men who had underestimated the power of the Tasman Sea. Opunake Beach became an integral part of my coming-of-age. However, I didn't lose my virginity at the beach, although I made valiant attempts to do so.

The iron sand of those Taranaki beaches is blue-black. In high summer, it scorches the soles, and after high tide it carries a crust that can be held like a piece of pie. Jackie Davis, another writer raised in Taranaki, writes in her Book of the Beach 2 story, Reading the Waves:

We dashed across the hot sand, racing to lay our towels down, our feet finding relief on the knobbly fabric after the burning of the black iron sand. Sometimes I took a magnet to the beach. I'd hold it just above the sand and watch tiny fragments of iron jump from the beach onto the surface of the magnet. Clinging onto each other like circus gymnasts.

It wasn't until I was 12 and holidaying in Auckland that I was taken to Cheltenham Beach and there made the remarkable discovery that sand could also be golden.

Most writers have an affinity with the sea. Novelist Maurice Shadbolt (1932-2004) wrote: "New Zealand begins with the sea and ends with the sea. Understand this and you begin to comprehend New Zealand and the New Zealander." Shadbolt lived and wrote within sight of a bay on the north side of the Manukau Harbour. Not the loveliest of beaches ("it had", his friend Kevin Ireland recalls, "as well as sand - shingle, rocks and mud").

But its serenity soothed Shadbolt's soul and the fish he netted helped sustain him.The power of the beach to arouse is exemplified in a short story by Alice Glenday (1920-2004), A Summer Thing.

The story's narrator, 16-year-old Emma, is staying in a bach with family and friends. One of those friends is Bill, an unhappily married man. An undeclared bond develops between Emma and Bill during their beach holiday. Towards the end of the story they swim, and:

A sudden fear that I was sinking, and alone, made me turn my head to Bill.

He was reassuringly there. When I lowered my head we lay facing each other. He reached out a hand and, lifting a strand of wet hair from my eye, let his hand rest on the side of my head. And then, although I'm sure I made no movement, the distance between our faces dissolved and our lips met. It was a kiss so right in every way, from its beginning to its lingering end, that we might have rehearsed it.

We hadn't. And we didn't repeat it. We drew back, looked at each other, and stood up. Without a word we walked side-by-side back to the bach.

With its delights, the beach also carries the potential for tragedy. Seduced by its natural loveliness, we underestimate its dangers.

This is another recurring theme in the Books of the Beach stories, in particular those by Carl Nixon, Owen Marshall, Charlotte Grimshaw and Christine Johnston.

At the beach, pleasure and peril are never far removed, these writers remind us. Contributors to the anthologies were invited to nominate their favourite beach. Their choices read like a Who's Who of the New Zealand coastline.

The writers' favourites include Hukatere and Whatuwhiwhi in the Far North (James George and Charlotte Grimshaw), Piha on Auckland's west coast (Fay Weldon), Wainui and Whangara on the East Coast (Lloyd Jones and Witi Ihimaera), Sumner in Canterbury (Carl Nixon), Caroline Bay in South Canterbury (Owen Marshall), St Clair in Dunedin (Christine Johnston) and Curio Bay in Southland (Sue Emms).

Of the 42 contributors to the anthologies, two writers, Sarah Quigley and David Hill, confessed (with disarming candour) they didn't much like the beach. Yet both produced terrific beach stories. The New Zealand beach - it's irrepressible.

THE NEW ZEALAND BOOK OF THE BEACH and THE NEW ZEALAND BOOK OF THE BEACH 2, selected and introduced by Graeme Lay (David Ling, $34.99)

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