Two years ago, I wrote a book called The Great Abdication. I make no great claims for it. In it, I set out a case for the communal assertion of proper values in the face of bad behaviour. Most of all, I tried to set out the extent to which British society - particularly, the behaviour of British children - had declined.
Perhaps foolishly, I’ve always thought that Australia had it a little better than the Mother Country. This weekend, I had an experience that suggests that I’ve been wearing a pretty heavy-duty pair of rose-tinted spectacles.
The weather on Saturday was fine in the morning, so we took ourselves off to Curl Curl, a pleasant beach I hadn’t been to before. It’s overlooked by a convenient café and surf-life saving club, which sits on the cliff behind the beach.
The club and the cliff - with commanding views of the beach - were both occupied by gangs of teenagers. Some might find them intimidating, but - I thought - kids have to go somewhere, and it was the weekend. Harmless, I was sure. Anyway, I represent the worst of such scamps in court every day back home without fear.
We headed down the steps to the sand below. As Poms are wont to do, I flung myself into the sea immediately, emerging a few minutes later to lie in the sun.
A few moments later, there was a heavy thud, and a few specks of water fell on me. I looked up, to see the man a few feet away from me sitting up, mopping at his book.
“What was that?” I asked him. My fellow sun-bakers hadn’t reacted; I seemed to have been the only one that noticed.
“Water balloons,” he said, resignedly. “They’re firing them with a catapult.” I looked to the cliff - there were the kids, a large catapult evident in the hands of one of their number, another ferrying ammunition, a third putting a new, swollen balloon in the bombadier’s hand, the rest jeering them on and jeering down at the man they had just hit.
I realised, incredulously, that this was no new game - that the beach’s occupants had been stolidly enduring this without doing anything about it. For how long, I didn’t know. But judging by the rate of fire now on display, a few people must have been hit. Now, as I watched, one young woman was hit in the face. Red swelling began to emerge immediately. At this distance, with the benefit of height, the large balloons were capable of harm.
Not really thinking about it, but sure that it was the right thing to do, I walked up towards them. The balloons stopped. I reached the top. Of course, said children had scattered as I had lumbered my way up the cliff towards them. There were several grown-ups drinking beer outside the club, who seemed surprised when I asked if they knew who’d been firing the balloons down onto the beach. “They’re all over the place around here, mate” they replied. The band of children that remained in view denied all knowledge with the surly mixture of shyness and defiance familiar to teachers the world over, the latter quality expanding at the expense of the former as the figure of authority (I flatter myself) retreated once again. Of course, once I was back on the beach, the fusillade recommenced.
As I and the other grown-ups left the beach under fire, crossing one another’s paths, we sought in our shame to avoid making eye-contact. Perhaps we hid from ourselves the reason for departure, using the excuse that the weather was worsening; but the truth was that we were retreating, yielding what should have been communal ground.
On the way, I thought I would try one more thing. I went to the lifeguard, the beach’s guardian. He was standing on the sand with three of his colleagues, doing nothing.
Comically enough, when I asked him if this was normal, he barked with the same kind of passive-aggressive attitude as the children, “what catapults? What balloons?” Just as he said it, with perfect cinematic timing, a big fat one exploded by his foot. Though the mass and weight of the balloon had vanished in a watery moment, a shard of shriveled rubber remained, almost between his legs, a ghost of the explosion, resolutely undeniable. “Oh - right. Well, I didn’t know about that - I might try to sort that out for you [as if it were only me that was put out] - but of course it’s nothing to do with me, I’m here watching the waves, that’s my job.”
And, gesturing to the three or four hardy surfers coping very well in the surf without his ministrations, he turned his back on the pandemonium behind him once again. I looked back at him as I left the beach. Heavily muscled and capped with red and yellow, sternly guarding against the threat that wasn’t there, he reminded me of nothing so much as the guns at Singapore, facing in the wrong direction, falling to the enemy approaching from behind as they resolutely pointed out to sea.