First published on Asylum.co.uk (May 25th 2011) //
Standing on a beach next to the Thames I consider my options. I’ve got a black bag of seven warm Kronenbergs (that are not fresh from the fridge), and I don’t know what to do with them; I bought too many, after underestimating the amount I’ve already had, and after having diagnosed myself with a form of IBS that doesn’t swill too kindly for carbonated drinks, I plan on making the money back.
Everyone here seems to realise they do not belong here, but should. The ‘beach’ is wide open, though the gates are locked because of one unfortunate fellow tumbling down them after one warm beer too many. But this year’s first ‘Reclaim the Beach’ is undoubtedly under reclamation, locked gates or not, as the music re-announces itself, as do the crowd, as we all drop back in with more dribbling over the right side of the gate.
The event’s organisers have unleashed on the Thames what they envisioned for the perfect party spot; unlicensed, free and more in the centre of the city than you’d ever hope to be. Campaigning to, yes, ‘reclaim’ that small space available, for that short stretch of time when the tide is out, the campaign group has organised only a handful of raves/free-for-alls since its inception in 2003; but all these parties have been etched into the sand of every attendee’s memories, their popularity growing.
‘I can get beer from the bar,’ one potential buyer says.
‘Over there,’ he points (while I sigh), ‘They have a fridge,’ the mission drowning in shallow water. The muddied nail of his finger directs my eyes to an undulating mass of people and, sure enough, frosty Red Stripes are being handed over, along with coins coming back the other way.
He shakes my hand and spreads mud all over it. ‘Thanks anyway. Maybe throw them in the river to cool them down,’ he advises. The music switches to something heavy on the bass. I opt not to touch the river.
Back on the sparsely pebbled sand and dirt, finding itself just under Festival Pier, I still have 4 beers to sell, my sales tactics evolving to a nonchalant: ‘You don’t want a beer, do you? They’re not that warm. Only 99p.’ But it seems to work, the weighty jangle of thin coins solidifying in my pocket tells me so, and soon I’m down to only one.
I meander through the makeshift dance floor, weaving between a mode of dancing that hints at something else, chemically foreign, fizzling delightedly in their stomachs. Bewildered faces turn down Kronenbergs and squeeze closer together as the stone-faced clock of the Savoy Hotel winds closer to 3.30am, when the tide will run in.
I rejoin the group as we point fingers at my friend’s casual but unwise decision to wear flip-flops (for he took the term ‘beach’ too literally whilst neglecting the ‘Thames’ part). He flip-flops off to get some much-needed laughing gas from the unveiled hood dispensing it by the green sewage river wall.
‘I thought it was going to be imported sand,’ Lukasz says, ‘this is mud and rat piss.’ He isn’t wrong. A Spaniard runs past, down the steps, through tourists curious but unwilling, bounding toward the sound system: ‘Reclaim the Bitch!’ he screams. People cheer.
‘Just remember someone swam this river, and they didn’t die,’ Jay says, comforting us, a balloon in his hand upon his return; the walls of his inner sound system echoing his own words back to him.
A man in a leather jacket looking lost and thirsty strolls by uncoordinatedly measuring steps in between pebbles.
‘Beer?’ I ask.
’50p,’ I offer, accepting the loss.
‘Let me see,’ he gurgles, as he searches his pockets, head down deep in his chest, his feet jigging away from him toward the water. His head resurfaces. ‘I’ve only got this.’
He holds up a small bag of prunes.
‘IBS?’ I say.
‘Done.’ I fish the last warm beer out of the bag, stuffing the sack in my back pocket, hoping it has not acquired the germ of some invisible army of rats, and conscious of ‘Reclaim the Beach’ rules of not leaving any litter behind.
My final customer walks off cracking the beer, joining the spatter of people lined up far along the wall, all the way to Waterloo Bridge, pissing against it.
‘I wouldn’t eat those.’ Lukasz says, nodding at the Sunrize prunes. I concur.
After taking a half-can gulp, the same leather jacketed man is seen leaping up the steps and hurdling the gate, presumably searching for the quickest route to the station’s 30p-a-pop toilet. His time, like ours, melts in Dali’s molten clock; found somewhere else, somewhere hygienic, along the South Bank. The Savoy tells us, more accurately, it is 3.30am; Stevie Wonder’s ‘Superstitious’ signals the end to this river’s reverie; the tide slides up close to the last man’s feet. He is barefoot anyway, and loves it.
It will be the morning before you remember the Thames-washed handshakes. When you look at the generous selection of shrapnel spread out on your floor, and empty your pockets of scrunched up black bags, you will decide London has no need for a beach. All the other memories are washed somewhere in the sand, back safely under 300 million tonnes of water.
Until you get the word again. Just remind the newcomers not to wear flip-flops.