A painting called, ‘The Bathers’ by Sangallo, a pupil of Michelangelo, painted in 1542 is extremely unpleasant but fascinatingly mysterious; it shows a bank of the River Arno crowded with writhing men, struggling in or out of their clothing. The amount of twisting buttocks displayed suggests the artist might have been gay, attracted to the scene for the human anatomy on show. Having no camera he summoned up the erotic in paint.
The artist also relished the dark side as the naked youths seem compelled to dive into the water which obviously threatens them. The hands of a drowning man already lost below the water reach up imploringly, and are completely ignored.
The bathers seem to have been taken by surprise, by what it’s not clear. Perhaps it’s a metaphor about the riptides of life which can so easily catch one out. What is obvious is that the image is not about bathing but sex and death.
Camber beach is also a mysterious stretch of water where young foreign men go to die. Five Tamil men perished there last August after wading far out to sea to play volley ball on a sandbank. An Indian and a Brazilian died there a month earlier. In 2015 Thatchayiny Segar drowned there as did Tanzeela Ajmal in 2012. No white people have met the same fate despite the vast numbers of people who now go there, upwards of 25,000 on a hot day. This is inexplicable and perhaps more puzzling still no one will ever find the answer.
In winter Camber Sands contains a few hardy dog walkers and a local artist, but on summer days London now decants swathes of its population there; the only sandy beach on the south coast, easily reachable from the Great Wen. Two years ago I was astonished by the crowds. The beach had to be closed at 4pm as it was so packed. I couldn’t swim more than a few inches in the sea without banging into human legs. Asian girls in bikinis stood in the waves, not moving much, not swimming but obviously keen to show off their lithe bodies. I was also surprised to see so many young black and Asian men setting up barbecues and speakers blasting out loud music.
The Indian attitude to beaches had obviously changed since I visited Goa, south India, thirty years ago. Then the only people lying on the sands were foreign tourists. Local fishermen, their wives and children regarded us with amusement and sometimes hostility because of our skimpy costumes. I saw a few Indian boys in boxer shorts swimming but girls were not allowed to do so, even wading in wearing their saris was forbidden as the water showed the shape of their bodies. So unusual were we white sun worshippers from the UK and Germany, that we were visited by wealthier Indians down from Bombay, bearing cameras. They politely asked us if they could take photos of us as we lay on the sand or sported in the sea.
Over the next few years the situation in Goa became more tense. Patrols of young men began attacking western women for threatening the local culture. Physical attacks on women tourists have continued, in fact got worse. Last winter, Irish backpacker Danielle McLaughlin aged 28, was murdered in Goa. The Irish government warned western women on Indian beaches to be prepared for, ‘verbal and physical harassment’ including being photographed, and to ‘travel in groups.’
I asked my Indian friends, one of whom is Tamil, about current beach culture in India and Sri Lanka.
‘The behaviour on Indian beaches is terrible,’ said one, explaining that the voyeurism I experienced goes on more intensely. According to her it now involves gangs of young men from the cities, travelling to beach resorts mainly to take snap shots of women.
‘There is a lot of harassment and foolish behaviour,’ said another. ‘Swimming is not important in our culture. Young Asian men go to the sea-side to show off and look at women. They are usually from the city leading lives cut off from nature. They reject the natural elements as part of the primitive rural past they’ve left behind. They have no idea about the dangers of the sea.’
Indian beach culture is an increasingly complex mixture then, involving a recent shift from country to town, an urban would be sophisticated culture displaying itself and according to my friends increasingly to do with class. In Asia the poor stay behind as farmers and fishermen whilst more able people move to cities where they are seen as winners of a higher social group. Migrating to cities at home and abroad they lose touch with the ‘realities of the natural world,’ as Sir David Attenborough recently put it.
Migrants to Britain are probably even more self-confident, a winner caste able to freely flash cash and flesh as never before. Perhaps their attitude is that the beach is a playground for showing off to women, where nothing can harm you. We are talking about males of course whose behaviour seems radically different from that of their sisters.
I haven’t been to Goa lately but my friends’ descriptions do tie in with reports from people who know Camber well. Robert Cass, a coastal officer, said there had been a rise in the level of ‘naivety’ about personal safety among beach-goers at Camber in recent years amid a ‘changing demographic.’
When he started in 2004, the beach goers were predominantly white British staying in the nearby Pontins holiday park or at caravan sites. Beaches are about class here too. In recent years he said large groups of people from ethnic communities had started flocking to the beach from London, forcing beach staff to take ‘adaptive measures.’
Last summer there were manned beach patrols there, set up after the death of Ajmal. They gave advice to the public about observing the warning flags, only swimming between flags, and not striking out to sea to sunbathe or play about on sandbanks, which is exactly what the most recent victims did.
In his log Cass commented: ‘There are also London communities, specifically Asian communities, coming down to enjoy a nice day on our beach. That progressively has been for those of us who work on the beach, a significant change. Unfortunately the observations of all of us are that specifically, for whatever reason, Asian communities are far more vulnerable in terms of water safety.
‘We are again faced with incidents of non-swimming persons of a certain culture that enter the water in great numbers with deadly results. The combination of a beach as shallow as Camber attracting predominantly non-British visitors has been an increasing issue over the last ten years and the risks that these people create upon their lack of ability in being tempted in to such a shallow bay are becoming unsustainable and unfair for us to deal with or carry the burden of responding to.’
He was suddenly in very deep water himself. Patrick Roche, the barrister representing the relatives of the five men, furiously challenging him: ‘Are you going to stop attributing the deaths to the race of those who died?’
Cass very bravely replied: ‘My job is to tell it as it is. I put that message to everyone in good faith.’
He and other council representatives were criticised for ‘stereotyping,’ which is only slightly less damning and dangerous than being accused of the ‘R’ word. As usual with cases involving ethnic minorities questions cannot be asked, opinions even from experts and eye witnesses cannot be accepted. Instead there is a plan to change the beach where no one has died except Asian men.
There are going to be more life-guards, costing over £50,000 at local expense, ‘Baywatch towers,’ and life saving boats moored out to sea. There has been consensus on the need for ‘pre-arrival’ education. But of course no one will specify who needs to take those lessons or where they will be given.
At the inquest last week, Senior Coroner Alan Craze said that full time life-guards might not have been able to prevent the deaths, and gave a ruling of ‘misadventure.’ The men’s families are deeply dissatisfied and crave some other cause of the accidents which gives no blame to their sons.
Professor David Ball, professor of risk management at Middlesex University, said there was a one in a million risk of drowning at Camber which he termed ‘a very safe beach.’ So why young Asian men and sea water just don’t mix must remain a mystery. Some will drown again soon no doubt, this year or next, but that is considered preferable to asking difficult questions and upsetting a minority culture.
More terrible than preventable death; the charge of racism. Let the mystery stand.