The Godfather: Peter Corris on the beach
In 2006 Robert Drewe, whose books – like A Cry in the Jungle Bar (1979), The Bodysurfers (1983) and The Shark Net (2000) – I admire, edited a collection of stories entitled The Penguin Book of the Beach. I wasn’t a contributor but I could have been because beaches have been important to me for most of my life.
My first memory of a beach is of the one at Lake Lonsdale, not far from Stawell, the town in Victoria’s Wimmera where I was born. The memory is shadowy – my parents were not enthusiastic beachgoers so I imagine they rigged up some kind of shade and paddled with my sister and me in the shallows – except for one thing: among those on the white sand was a man who had lost both legs above the knee. This must have been 1945 or 1946 so it’s likely he was a war casualty. I remember feeling curiosity, not alarm or distaste.
My next beach memory is of Williamstown in Melbourne. My Uncle Philip took me to Williamstown beach several times. We travelled by tram. The beach was crowded and I can’t image that the water was pristine. Uncle Phil, dressed like me in the thick woollen costume of the time, with a skirt for extra modesty, plunged into the water and swam a few stokes. He was a nuggety man who’d been a preliminary-bout boxer, and he left a churning wake. I couldn’t swim at the time and played in water no more than waist-deep.
Cut to the mid-1950s. I’d learned to swim in the school campaign sponsored by the Herald and Weekly Times newspaper, and friends and I cycled to the beach baths at Middle Brighton and North Brighton. I’m not sure whether these facilities – massive wooden structures extending out about 100 metres from the beach to the deep water and equipped with walkways, diving boards and lower jumping off places for the less intrepid – still exist. They provided a beach experience safe from rips and sharks, and we stayed for hours, with no thought of UV-ray protection, getting sunburnt and consuming ice creams. Entry was cheap and provided a locker key, which we pinned to our bathing trunks, now daringly skimpy synthetic fabric Speedos.
Canberra may be inland, but in the 1960s many residents were coast-oriented. Affluent public servants and academics had houses on the coast and these were often available for rent or loan to us postgraduate students who, thanks to our generous scholarships, could afford the tariff. CP Fitzgerald, eminent sinologist, had a house with several outbuildings and a team of us spent sybaritic summer weeks there several times. This was at Guerrilla Bay, where the head of my department, JW ‘Jim’ Davidson, also had a house, which he made available. Guerrilla Bay had golden sands, limpid waters, a rocky coastline in a bush setting – paradise.
The Illawarra beaches, Coledale, Wombarra and Bellambi, were central to my quality of life when I lived there. Younger then, I jogged between them and later walked. They were each accessible from the houses we had and of everlasting interest as they changed according to the tides, storms and the creeks that ran into them. They were playgrounds for the children, visitors and ourselves – beach cricket, frisbee throwing and shell gathering. And places for reflection, especially at dusk when a beach becomes a magic place.
Of course the beaches were at hand when we lived on our Moreton Bay island and at Byron Bay. They were part and parcel of everyday life, obligatory.
There were many episodes, some comic, some serious, some sad, and I could certainly have written a story for Robert Drewe’s collection. As it was, I’ve lost count of the number of times Cliff Hardy and characters in my other books found themselves on the beach for good or ill.