Peter Martin: We’ve lost the knack of innocent enjoyment

The beach at Elie. Picture: Ian Rutherford
The beach at Elie. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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ARE you going out tonight?” Why do hairdressers assume a new hair-do suddenly makes you one of the party people?

Young crimpers appear especially disappointed to discover that both you and this line of questioning are going nowhere. Silence falls around you like hair trimmings till your salonist can stand it no more. Then they reach for the question that will curl your toes, if not your hair: “Going anywhere nice this summer?”

Isn’t the question both insulting and cruel? First, it implies that where you are isn’t “nice”. Second, it holds out the hope that, like bears, wolves 
and elks, the almost-extinct idea of a sunny day might be re-introduced into Scotland. The hidden assumption, of course, is that “anywhere nice” is abroad. But that’s not summer; that’s just hot.

At home, we now seem to have only two seasons to endure: autumn and winter; grim and grimmer. In between, there’s just a slow transition where every day twitches between sunshine and showers, gales and hail.

But, if we truly put our minds to it, we can all still enjoy a summer in Scotland. Because it’s not a season, it’s an idea.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, I must have holidayed in every small coastal village in the East Neuk of Fife and further up the north-east coast: St Andrews, St Monans, Crail, Elie, Montrose, Stonehaven et al.

To say my mum was fond of caravan holidays would be an understatement. Quite why I’m not sure – perhaps the proximity of the stove to the seating area was ideal for making endless cups of tea. She did always maintain that she wanted to be a gypsy. In later life, she was a huge fan of Jess Smith’s series of Scottish “travelling folk” memoirs, so maybe she wasn’t kidding.

One summer, we even kept a caravan at Inverbervie, until it became obvious that the sea front was designed by a Presbyterian God. Like a ham-fisted 1970s home improver, he had pebble-dashed the entire beach into an unforgiving, uncomfortable, grey vista. The finest fish ‘n’ chips from award-winning local eatery The Bervie just couldn’t compensate.

For a kid though, there’s something of the Transformers about staying in a caravan. I always thought it was clever and futuristic how a dining table turns into a bed. I liked the fragile gauze of the gas lamps as they glowed too, and how the tap in the tiny sink was really a pump. But what I liked most about the seaside was how different it felt from home, how distant from everyday life. Even though the Fife coast is not far away at all.

Today that’s the problem for a small seaside resort like Elie. The smell of the sea has been replaced by the smell of money. Nicknamed Edimbourg-Sur-Mer, Elie has become a ghost town for much of the year. With 80 per cent of properties now used as holiday homes, locals have simply been priced out of the property market by the capital’s wealthy classes. But, despite the 4x4 drivers and golfers, I’ve still got a soft spot for the East Neuk.

As a boy, I loved the long beaches and the blast of sea air, the dark rippled sand when the tide’s out, the tiny ships on the far horizon. I even liked the weird salt-wracked seaweed smell. You were allowed to clamber over the green slippy rocks, peering into sea pools without a health and safety briefing. You could spend a long time looking for starfish and tiny crabs. On a hot day, you’d swim in the sub-zero sea. On a blowy day, you’d huddle behind the windbreak. And no amount of Tupperware could ever keep the sand out of your sandwiches.

Despite the tendency towards sun-drenched memory, though, my Dad’s old photos show that the weather was variable. Above the beach, the bluest sky is frilled with white clouds. In one picture, my wee brother is wearing an anorak, so maybe the Scottish summer always blew hot and cold.

But I was perfectly happy. (And I don’t mean that in the way you sometimes say someone seemed “perfectly happy” when all you mean is that they didn’t complain.) If you had the Beano or Dandy holiday special, all you needed was a dose of tooth-melting tablet and the promise of Janetta’s ice cream, and life was complete.

You could be forgiven for thinking it sounds like a rubbish holiday. But you’d be wrong. Everything was better back when everything was worse. Nowadays, you can fly all over the world. You’ve been to places your grandparents had never heard of, and stayed in hotels they would have considered impossibly swanky. But, wherever you go, there you are. And you can find yourself strangely unchanged, unmoved, by the experience.

According to American psychologist Barry Schwartz, there is a reason so many of us have lost the knack of innocent enjoyment. It’s called “too 
much choice”. The proliferation of choice in modern life bewilders and stresses us. But more, once we’ve made a choice, it fills us with regret. We remember all the options we didn’t take up, and feel short-changed. Worse, if the choice proves genuinely disappointing, we’re faced with two choices. We either accept that it’s our own fault and feel bad about ourselves; or we write a vile review on TripAdvisor and reveal that pettiness is part of the baggage we carry around.

And so, the modern malaise grows out of more choice and rising standards. Disappointment, discontent and depression are the strange, bitter fruits of economic growth.

Perhaps there’s a simpler answer to summer fun. Maybe we don’t need the weather. Maybe we don’t have to be “going anywhere nice”. Maybe we just need to remind ourselves that, come rain or shine, there are a few lovely places and simple pleasures on our doorsteps. As Professor Schwartz says, the secret of happiness can be summed up in just two words: low expectations. And, on that front, surely the Scottish summer couldn’t let us down?