Status anxiety

I swam up to a beautiful girl on the beach, and my life changed

If I hadn’t summoned the courage to speak to her, I wouldn’t have managed all the other things I’m thankful I’ve done

1 November 2014

9:00 AM

1 November 2014

9:00 AM

I’m writing this from Portugal, where I’m staying with my old friend Sean Langan. His family has owned a farm in the Algarve for several generations and I first came to stay with them when I was 18. I continued to spend every summer here for the next five years and, together, they represent some of the happiest periods of my life. This is the first time I’ve returned in a quarter of a century.

Wherever I go, the memories come flooding back. There’s the veranda where I sat with a bucket of warm water and a Bic disposable razor, shaving off the hairs that had appeared on my chest. There’s the car park where Sean and I raced around in our Mini Mokes, practising our handbrake turns. There’s the cave that I swam out to with Mandy, a freckle-cheeked brunette. We made out on a tiny stretch of sand, unseen by our friends on the beach.

I’d like to be able to say that I fell in love for the first time during this period, but the truth is my heart had already been broken by the time I arrived in Portugal. Those summers were an opportunity to rebuild my confidence — a kind of sexual therapy. There was one two-week period in particular in which I enjoyed a degree of success that I’d never experienced before. By the time I left, I felt as if I’d finally become a man.


It all revolved around a girl. Gaby was a 19-year-old German and so dazzlingly beautiful you couldn’t stare at her for more than a few seconds without having to look away. She had a 21-year-old German boyfriend — the sort of strapping, muscle-bound Teuton that made you wonder how we won the war — and, as far as anyone could tell, she only had eyes for him. Sean and I would sit in the beach bar, stealing glances at her, and raging at the injustice of a universe in which the two of us would never possess a girl like that.

Then, one afternoon, I swam about 200 yards out to sea and remained there, treading water, staring back at the beach. I looked at Gaby, lying with her head on her boyfriend’s stomach, and decided I didn’t have to accept the hand that fate had dealt me. I might be short and fat, but if I put my mind to it there was no reason I couldn’t steal her from under Fritz’s nose. I swam back to the beach, introduced myself to the German couple and spent the rest of the afternoon regaling them with funny stories. They both thought I was hilarious.

Turned out, Fritz wasn’t her boyfriend but her brother, and when Sean and I offered to take them on a tour of the local nightclubs they leapt at the chance. I can remember the song that was playing when I first took Gaby in my arms — ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’ by Simple Minds. A couple of nights later, as we lay beside each other on the beach, I remember feeling a tremendous sense of opportunity. If I could seduce a girl as beautiful as this, anything was possible.

Almost 30 years later, I swam out to the same spot and took stock of my life. This time, the woman I was staring at on the beach was my wife, along with our four children. I realised that if I hadn’t summoned the courage to talk to Gaby all those years ago, I wouldn’t have been bold enough to propose to Caroline, or embark on a career as a freelance journalist, or set up a school. It was a pivotal moment, the point at which I decided to become the author of my own destiny.

In some ways, it was an expression of appalling egotism. Why should a German goddess give herself to an Anglo-Saxon homunculus? It was the sort of arrogance that, in a Greek myth, would be punished by some terrible ordeal. Yet, at the same time, it’s a rush of blood to the head that I want my children, as well as every other child, to experience. If you’re going to become a fully realised human being, you have to experience a moment of defiant self-belief in which you convince yourself you can be the master of your fate, whatever the odds. I realised all those years ago that it is only by reaching for the impossible that you discover what’s possible

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

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Show comments
  • jonathan_smith

    “It is only by reaching for the impossible that you discover what’s possible.”

    OR

    It is only reaching for the sick bucket that you can get through this self-indulgent tripe.

    • Nobody forced you to read the article. What is this widespread need to abuse total strangers? How utterly vile. It’s a good point, Toby, makes, and it echoes the old saying “faint heart never won fair lady”.

      • jamesdelingpole

        Lovely piece, Toby. Ignore the trolls. They’re a) repellant and b) wrong.

        • bruce

          James this is written by an Englishman and commented on by the same.
          Given the above how can Toby expect anything except a right royal p##s take at one of us showing his emotions and talking about his “conquests”.
          Anything else and we would just be, well, German.

        • jonathan_smith

          Oh do shut it Dellers, you of all people! I am very disappointed.

          If taking the rip out of a bloke [FOR THAT IS WHAT HE IS] embarrassing himself by gushing about some ancient conquest is sufficient to reach the elevated level of ‘trolling’, then surely the biggest irony is that you are the greatest troll of all.

        • dalai guevara

          Lovely post, James. I’d refrain from calling third parties trolls if I were you. Remember this: either a) Homo Faber or b) Homo Fabian is right about everything.

        • global city

          c) pulling the boy’s plonker……(actually, see my previous post about that)

        • justejudexultionis

          I thought you were made of sterner stuff, pole.

      • jonathan_smith

        You really are a bit sensitive aren’t you? If my post is abusive, so is yours, and you are a total stranger to me.

        Your petard – over there. You – hoisted on it.

      • global city

        You can never know what a piece contains until you have read it…then once read, it can’t be unread….or expunged from the mind.

      • StupidWhiningMen

        The public is simply aping the media, but with less verbal skill due to their different career choices. They started it.

    • Callan

      Well said sir, does this chap write for Woman’s Own?

    • global city

      Sick bucket? Just think, he was probably masturbating as he wrote!

  • UnionJihack

    I sense a worthy replacement for/ heir to Taki has been found.

    • Cim Thayne

      An heir to Taki? The man’ll be around forever.

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  • William Corbett

    Humblebrag: ‘A statement that purports to be self-effacing but in fact reveals a person’s wealth or importance (noun).

  • John Court

    Use of “possess” above will get you into trouble I think.

  • Samson

    It seems The Spectator is now the sister magazine to the Daily Star, with added teenage philosophy straight out of an eighties pop song. Toby Young must surely be the front runner for this year’s unique snowflake award.

  • David

    Well I like this Toby, but maybe I haven’t completely lost touch with the inner me yet. It’s so true, and a great lesson in more ways than one. Don’t waste a chance, don’t put yourself down, always try to open doors you had thought were shut. Oh, and that’s a great Simple Minds song, too!

    • Davidh

      Right on all points – apart from that irritating song…

  • balance_and_reason

    I went fishing once too; the astounding size of the fish I caught defied standard categorisation. The Gillie retired retired immediately claiming he could never equal it and the pub emptied in mourning as I walked in bowed under the weight of …etc etc etc.

  • Fergus Pickering

    Small blokes win wars. Look at the Romans. Big blonde musclemen are always on the losing side. Because they are thick maybe?

    • jonseer

      Such as 26 year old 6ft 4. Group Captain “Freddy” Pickard perhaps ?

      • Fergus Pickering

        You may have something there. Attila the Hun was short. And Napoleon. On the other hand, Wellington was not. And he won.

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    • Jackthesmilingblack

      Vietnamese, too. Smaller target one assumes.

      • Fergus Pickering

        Never pick a fight with a dwarf.

    • Laguna Beach Fogey

      ‘Losing side’? Keep telling yourself that, as your country fills up with paedos, Muslim savages, and African tribesmen. lol

      • Bonkim

        Just crawled out from under a rock have you?

        • Laguna Beach Fogey

          I dare say, as much as I love England, I suspect Germany will be around long after Britain has sunk into the third world mire.

          • Bonkim

            Doubt it – immigration is easier into Germany and Germany has greater numbers of European and non-European immigrants than Britain. Germany is in fact actively encouraging immigrants with specialist training because of their much lower indigenous birth-rates.

      • Fergus Pickering

        I’m too old to care all that much. It’s a problem for the young. Are you young?

  • Polly Radial

    At last – someone who is even more deluded, sad and ineffectual than me.

    Thank you, Toby.

  • Laguna Beach Fogey

    Nice story, Toby.

    Contrary to common belief, beautiful women are actually quite easy to pull.

    Most men are too cowardly to approach them, so when one does–even if he’s a little troll–the girls can be rather grateful and welcoming.

    Be bold.

    • Bonkim

      Look at her mother to see how she will turn out is a few years. Beauty is only skin deep – some women look pretty young, some in middle age and some in their 70s – no woman looks beautiful all through life unless you met young grew old together.

  • Gerschwin

    Last time I was at the beach I only caught crabs.

  • Jonathan F Vernon

    I was instantly reminded of my own German beauty – we were both 16 and i was smitten. Not Portugal, far from it, the chillier beaches of Beadnell in Northumberland where I’d been going since a child, though I’d never dived in off the harbour wall. Too cold. She dived in and I followed. Long walks along the beaches and into the dunes ensued. I even tried to learn German. Not life changing, but on reflection the only girlfriend I ever had who was blonde.

    • Bonkim

      How does she look now? Still a beauty?

  • justejudexultionis

    This is dreadful. Is it being sponsored by a German soft porn company?

    • jjjj

      Ha ha!

  • jjjj

    This is one of those historic (thank you Michael Winner) where the comments are far wittier than the piece itself. I also felt a bit queasy while reading it. I was also wondering when his wife would make an appearance and was relieved to see it.

  • Retired Nurse

    ..of course, when Gaby recounts the tale , it begins “Es war ein englischer git ich im Urlaub vor Jahren getroffen … versucht, mich in das Meer zu belästigen; eine Art von Sextouristen Ich denke …” ….

  • StupidWhiningMen

    Did the successful career in the media have anything to do with mum being a BBC producer, dad a life peer and the PPE degree from Oxford?

  • StupidWhiningMen

    Laying her head on her half naked brother’s chest?

  • StupidWhiningMen

    So what would the female equivalent of this story be? Short, fat, ugly teenage girl approaches glorious hunk and his slightly incestuous sister on the beach? Gets sneered at and mocked on social media, develops anorexia and abandons her bid for Cambridge.

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  • alternative_perspective

    Lovely story Toby.
    In order to put an alternative twist on things: In making this choice you overcame fear to walk the path God had laid before you. To grow one more phase into the stature of the man God had always intended you to be.
    As the Bible says such fear is from the devil, a murderer and liar from the start. The murderer not only of lives but of hopes, aspirations and love. The deceiver who tells you, you can’t, you’re worthless and unloved, that you’re alone – that you are an orphan in this universe… when in fact the truth is quite the opposite.
    Treading water in that place you drove out fear and walked the path of hope and love: which eventually came to fruition in the lives of the little ones who call you father and your wife who calls you beloved.

  • Innit Bruv

    I thought the Spectator was a serious publication.
    Why does Mr. Young think we should be in the least bit interested in what may have happened to him some thirty years ago?

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