Culture //

Spartans in Speedos

By Marcus James.

Summer is around the corner and the mercury is already beginning to creep towards 30 degrees. That’s all that’s needed for the beaches to become packed. Flesh and bodies are everywhere, whether you want to see them or not. It’s loud, it’s sweaty and it’s gaudy. The beach is perhaps one of few things that actually captures that elusive notion of Australian-ness. And increasingly this is a multicultural experience.

Now stereotypes are bad and should never define people, but at Manly Beach where I live, stereotypes are a vibrant reality. On any busy day you can see an infinite number of Poms as red as boiled lobsters; big, happy extended families of Lebanese and Polynesians; Chinese tourists with their killer parasol and sun-visor combos; filthy rat-tailed, footy-shorted lads, and so on and so forth. To many locals, this is all a bit much. They feel encroached and threatened and mutters of “fucking westies” are not uncommon. A year or two ago, I ran over a “westie” when I was surfing. “That’ll teach them not to hog our beach,” I thought.

There are many reasons that show the absolute stupidity and vileness of this thought. Localism is simply invalid. Beaches are public property. Localism is often thinly veiled racism, and also leads to incidents like 2005’s Cronulla Riots: an event unjustifiable by anyone with a brain and a moral compass. And then there is the question that must be asked. What exactly is the ideal beach?

The artist, Charles Meere, had a stab at answering this question in his 1940 painting Australian Beach Pattern. It is a heroic utopia of sun, sand and sculpted bodies. Men, women and children play on the sand and in the water, throwing beach balls and making sandcastles. It is as if Meere has painted these figures suspended in time, all of them frozen in action and pose with arms raised, legs forward, chests back and eyes gazing into the distance. If the painting wasn’t so plastic and inhuman, you could imagine that Meere’s scene would sound no different to today’s beach.

The work is often looked upon proudly as a symbol of national identity – the epitome of the happy island nation from a time when we were at war, ripe with Anzac spirit but still comfortably far from Europe. Fondly referred to as Spartans in Speedos, Meere’s Australia is young and virile, healthy and carefree. In fact, Australian Beach Pattern was so well-liked, it was paraded about at the opening ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

Could the organisers have chosen a more embarrassing, let alone insulting representation of Australia than Meere’s beach? Probably not.

You see, Australian Beach Pattern is pretty much Nazi in its conception. The figures are blonde, straight-limbed Aryans. There is not a single dark-skinned or even dark-haired figure in the composition. You could well argue that this in fact was what Australia looked like in 1940, and maybe you’d be right but only because the White Australia Policy reigned back then. The painting itself bears resemblance with fascist art and propaganda at the time. Youthful bodies with chiselled physiques exemplify fascist obsessions of virility and health. Arms are raised as if in salute and direct our eye to the right of the painting facing out to the ocean. The figures either gaze or march towards it because they must protect their shores from any threat to Meere’s eugenic paradise.

With my mixed background, I am clearly not part of Meere’s vision. Nor are most people at the beach today part of this vision. If there is one lesson to be learnt from Australian Beach Pattern it is that no one should be able to impose their ideal of the beach onto anyone. Not even locals. While we may not find it pleasant that “our” local area gets overcrowded, well, tough titties. There is no ideal beach. The beach is the beach and it’s for everyone to enjoy.