A picture 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, some 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 terrifies 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 rip tides 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 place 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 a month earlier. In 2015 Thatchayiny Segar drowned there as did Tanzeela Ajmal in 2012. No white people have met the same fate in living memory, despite the vast numbers of people who now visit, upwards of 25,000 on a hot day. This is inexplicable and perhaps more puzzling still no one can ever find out why.
On hot days London now decants its population onto Camber, 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 4 pm 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 barbeques and speakers for playing loud music.
The Indian attitude to beaches had obviously changed since I used to visit Goa, south India, about twenty 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 lads 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. Last winter, Irish backpacker Danielle McLaughlin, aged 28, was murdered in Goa. The Irish government warned Western women to travel in groups in India and on beaches be prepared for, ‘verbal and physical harassment including being photographed.’
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 still goes on, more intensely. According to her, it now involves gangs of wealthy 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. Another explained, ‘Swimming is not important in our culture. Young Asian men go to the seaside 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.’
A 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 while more able people move to cities where they are seen as winners of a higher social group. The wind and the waves mean nothing more than fields of crops left far behind. 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, the winner caste able to freely flash cash and flesh as never before. 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 Sands 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 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 lifeguards, 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.
Tristan Cawte, manager of the Camber Kitesurf Centre, told the inquest he believed lifeguards and watchtowers would benefit safety, but on their own would not prevent future deaths at Camber. Senior Coroner, Alan Craze agreed that full time lifeguards might not have been able to prevent the deaths, and gave a ruling of ‘misadventure.’
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 may drown again, this year or next, but the prospect of such tragedy is preferable to questioning a minority culture. More terrible than preventable death; the charge of racism. Let the mystery stand.