Northside - Andrew Martin tries to avoid looking at a naked woman

The test of a man: what to do when you see a woman changing on a beach?

I have been in the country in North Yorkshire and southern Devon, trying to finish a book. In Devon especially, the summer seems far from over. Walking down a lane, I thought of putting on sunglasses to keep the butterflies out of my eyes. In the hedgerows, only a few ferns have turned brown; the wild flowers are trying to die but are like polite guests unable to find an excuse to leave a party. The holiday season, however, has definitely finished. I was also in North Yorkshire and Devon in midsummer and, compared with those days, a new sanity and order seems to prevail. Why? No children. And hardly any people at all.

Walking around a headland in Devon, I saw a woman climbing into a bathing costume on a deserted beach with no towel around her. This is a big test for a man. Do you look away? I like to think I found a midpoint between pervery and prudishness: some ferns were coming up that would obscure my view, and I continued walking towards them, only quite slowly.

I became accustomed, when walking into deserted pubs or shops, to ringing the bell for service. "Bash it with a hammer," advised one sole drinker in a North Yorkshire hotel lounge. All conversations rang out clearly. Here's a sample of off-season banter from one Yorkshire pub. First man: "I had two slices of toast for breakfast, as I always do." Second man: "Oh yes?" First man: "At lunch, I had a chicken sandwich." Second man: "Where?" First man: "At home." Second man: "Oh really?"

In Devon, working my way through a plate of fish and chips in the "eating in" part of a cafe, I listened to a very leisurely conversation indeed between the proprietor and a man who said he might be able to sell him a power hose that could remove grease but only if combined with the right detergent. I sat in that cafe, eating and reading Autosport, for almost an hour, and only four people came in to order food. It was all marginal stuff, I noted, like saveloys, chicken breasts, curry sauce. Surprisingly few people go for the "normal" thing: straight fish and chips, just as very few people have 2.2 children. I put this to the proprietor, and he said: "Yes, you could be right"- which was exasperating, because surely, if anyone was in a position to say for certain whether I was right or not, it would have been him?

From the window of the coastal house I was staying at in Devon, I saw a boat take a whole morning to cross the horizon. A hawk would hang motionless over a field for ten minutes at a time. The idea was that I would get away from it all, but I found all the stillness and silence quite distracting. Perhaps I'll get more done back in the maelstrom of London. I'd certainly better do, because this book's overdue already.

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