Matt Warshaw on the squarest man in surfing…
Australia’s first world surf champ, Bernard “Midget” Farrelly has died, aged seventy-one. Big deal? Yeah, maybe it is.
I threw a few questions at surf historian Matt Warshaw, currently on a mountaineering retreat, to show why Midget still matters.
BeachGrit: Midget was Australia’s first world surfing champ. Which made him big in Australia. But is there anything that attaches him to surfing, now? Performance? Boards?
Warshaw: Midget’s timing, for those first big years, was perfect. He was the surfing gentleman, the boy next door, perfect manners, well-dressed, posh accent — at a time when surfers in general were just a step above pickpockets. He wore that mantle so well. When surfing went hippy, and Midget refused to go along, he got hammered for being a square. I think it’s greatly to his credit that he stayed true to who he was — an articulate, highly-focused, no-bullshit person. He actually did his best surfing during the years where he was uncool. Damien Hardman is the surfer who I think came closest to late-period Midget in terms of being hugely accomplished but not especially loved. I can’t seem to make a connection between Midget and any 2016 surfers. Sad to say, but I think he’d be as unpopular now as he was in the late ‘60s, in that he wouldn’t sing and dance and mug for our pleasure. He was better than that.
BeachGrit: The most interesting thing, it seemed, was his blood feud with the slightly younger Nat Young, who superseded Midge as Australia’s best surfer. Midget really hated Nat; and Nat was contemptuous of Midget. Any theories on its origin? Was it something to do with Midget’s anti-drug stance at a time when the world was turning on?
Warshaw: It’s complicated. Here’s what I wrote a couple years back:
The epigraph for Midget Farrelly’s 1965 autobiography This Surfing Life is brief. “When you’re comfortable, you’re dead.” The man was 21 years old, reigning world champ, and the toast of the Australian sporting set — yet he chose to introduce his book with that little nugget of gloom. Here’s what I’m getting at. The bitterness that would come to at least partly define Midget Farrelly in years to come — that was inborn. Some of it, anyway.
And some of it was forced down his throat. For almost 50 years now, Midget has been surfing’s most ill-treated figure. Surf media tastemakers lost interest in Farrelly not long after This Surfing Life was published because, A) he didn’t get stoned, and B) he was roughly 85% less charismatic than his protege-turned-rival Nat Young.
Fifty years ago, Bob McTavish, Nat, and John Witzig did an issue of Surfing World, cheering the arrival of the “New Era” (self-titled), which basically meant Nat and Bob and George Greenough. Midget was saluted, the article was in fact very much respectful of Midget, but clearly he wasn’t really included in their New Era club. So that was the beginning of the feud. It should have lasted a few months, maybe a few years, outside. But it never, ever died. Or rather, it died when Midget died. In the end, I think it was Midget holding onto the anger, more so than Nat. Then again, Midget was the one who had to eat the injustice.
BeachGrit: Wasn’t a big fan of the surf media, either. Because of its beatification of Nat? Of drugs?
Yeah, in a nutshell. Midget was hardcore anti-drug. Belittling, even. It wasn’t a nice side of him. He was so good at what he did, everything he did — his surfboards were as sleek and perfect as his surfing style — that I think he was blinded to the idea that other people could do things differently.
As far as I know, Midget never acknowledged that Nat and all the other red-eyed shortboard longhairs, dippy as they often were, had nonetheless moved the whole program along. Their was a stiffness to Midget, the person, even though as a surfer he laid down some of surfing’s most fluid, graceful tracks. He was uncompromising. It made him great and it cost him dearly.