"Surfing is spiritually nourishing. A way to be closer with nature. Holistic wellness. All that shit."
I’m at some form of industry event. A dark, dank pub.
It’s a sunny afternoon outside, not that you can tell. The wind could be offshore. The waves could be good. Who knows. It’s not my focus.
The skinful of free piss is already seeping through my pores, past any other considerations. I started before lunch. There’s no sign of stopping.
I pour more in.
Around me is a collection of surf industry identities and assorted hanger oners you’ll often find at these gigs. Mostly male. Mostly the other side of 40. I’ve weaseled my way in through one way or another. They snake their way to and from the bar.
Getting their fill. Though they’re all playing catch up to me.
A palpable discord runs through the crowd as it’s announced the tab has finished. It’s time for me to step up. I yell out to the barman.
“Oi Davo. This group here…”- I point to the four or five magazine vets scattered around me in a loose semi circle of bar stools – “…these cunts here. They’re on me for the next few rounds. Put it on my…” I stop for a second to ward off a hiccup that could be a burp that could be something else. I thump my chest. Clear the pipes.
“Put it on my card. Drinks are on me.”
“Yeah mate, whatever you say.” Davo shakes his head. It wouldn’t be the first stupid purchase I’ve made in this place. It won’t be the last.
I latch my arm around _____. We’ve only just met, I think. But in my mind we’ve been friends for years.
“Y’know, ____…” I lose my train of thought mid sentence. Lean into him closer. Hang on to keep myself upright.
“Y’know, I’ve been reading your articles since I was… Since I was, dunno. Twelve. I used to read them while I was sitting on the dunny at high school. Wopping maths. I’d just sit there and read them. Y’know?”
“Umm, not really.”
He takes my hand off his shulder and ducks his head under my arm. He moves smoothly for his age. Looks like MMA training, maybe.
“Sorry. Covid and that. Can’t be too careful.”
“Yep no worries,” I slur. “No fucken worries. You don’t gotta worry. I’m vaccinated.”
I wink and tap my nose. I don’t even know why. I try to focus my eyes on his face but all I can see is a blur of skin and hair. I could be talking to anybody.
“But anyway. You. ___. ___.” I point to two of the other surf writers. At least I think it’s them. “Youse guys were my heroes growing up. So now here I am.”
I gesture to the group with a grand sweep of my hand, the yellow VIP band on my wrist already coming undone.
“Holding court with you bunch of legends. Ain’t that something?”
“Cunt the only thing you’re holding is the credit card for the tab,” interjects one of the other writers from under his breath.
“I said, thanks for putting on the drinks, mate.”
“Ah, yeah. No worries.“
An awkward silence. It must be filled.
“I wanna tell you all about this article I’m writing for…” a pause as I work through another burp “…the Grit.
“Oh, you write for those guys,” says ___. Or maybe it was ____
“Yep. It’s a bit of a review of that book, Jock Serong put out last year. Ya know it?”
“Yeah, Jock. Good guy. You mean his novel?”
“Nahhh, nahh. Not his, uh, novel. It was a collection of surf writing. Seemed to have slipped under the radar, so to speak.”
I shake my head again. Repeat the words over. “Not his… novel.”
They stare at me with blank faces. At least I think they’re staring at me. I’m still struggling to focus. Can’t tell one from the other.
“It was called… what was it? Oh yeah. It’s called… get this. ‘Lines to the Horizon, a collection of Australian surf writing.’”
_____ cracks the first smile of our conversation. “Lines to the horizon? That’s fucken funny. Oi ___ did you hear that? This surf writing book is called ‘Lines to the Horizon.’”
Everybody has a good laugh. They’re all laughing looking at each other. Looking at me, then laughing some more.
“Yeah, my oath,” I continue. “Lines to the horizonses. Anyway it’s this collection of essays from all these writers. You probably only heard of one. What’s her name. Em Brugman. Used to write for Tracks.
“Oh yes Emily. Good writer, she is. Has a novel coming out herself.”
“Yep. Then there’s all these other cunts I hadn’t heard of. Fucken surf-adjacent, you’d say.”
Two of the surf writers start talking amongst themselves. I’m not having it.
“Oi, you two. listen up. I’m trying to say… something.” I take a sip from my schooner. The thickness of its bitter, aggressive head steels me. Makes me feel a little surer on my feet.
“There’s this one chick who like, writes novels and she writes her travels through Mexico chasing waves and dodging cartels and trying to write more… novels,” I continue. “It’s pretty good. “
Internally I’m chastising myself for my poor delivery. C’mon, gotta straighten up. On the big stage now. I take another sip.
“Then there’s some profiles by a fulla named Mark Smith on a few salty types from Torquay. Brugman does similar for her neck of the NSW north coast woods. Pretty heavy write up on Mick Campbell’s near death experience at the spot-I-didn’t-think-was-meant-to-be-named.”
That’s better. Though I tap my nose again, for no apparent reason.
“Coupla others that tread similar ground.”
“What did you make of it?” asks the writer closest to me. It could be ____ but it could also be ____. Whoever it is, they seem to be taking some interest in my story now at least.
“Well…” I stumble. “Do you mind if I sit down?”
“As long as you keep paying for beers mate I don’t give a fuck what you do.”
Once I’m comfortably seated my focus increases. Lucidity grows.
It could be the passion I hold for the subject. The fact that I’m talking shop with some of the foremost writers in the business. It could be the sharpener an old mate shouted me in the toilets ten minutes earlier finally coming into effect. Whatever the cause, I suddenly feel on my game.
“First, an admission. When I saw the title, the cheesy cover, the fact it had a quote from Tim Winton on it, I was ready to hate. Winton in particular. I could never stand the cunt.”
“Why do you hate Winton?” asks ___. “How could anyone hate Winton?”
“Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate the craft. Can’t deny the success. But his pigeon-holing of flannel-clad figures with names like Chooky, Pikelet and Donga wrestling with nature on a desolate West Australian coastline resonates with my sense of surf-self about as much as… as much as the Ultimate Surfer. You know what I mean? It’s just so tired.”
I peer into my beer. The words are flowing. My words. It’s like I’ve hit that golden stage of drunkenness on the pool table, or in the sack. I’m confident, loose. Uninhibited, but with just enough control to keep from crashing.
“So when I borrowed Lines from the library I wanted to hate.“
“Wait, you borrowed it from the library? People still do that?”
“Yeah mate, my misso’s a librarian. What, you, got a problem with it, cunt?” I leer towards ____ menacingly. He backs away.
“No. I was just saying. You don’t hear that much any more.”
“Anyway, fuck where was? Ah yes. I wanted to brandish the red pen. Hurl off some wit laden missive like I was writing for the London Review of Books. But I gotta say. The selected essays read well. Not, you know, life changing. Like Lash Clone or The Adventures of Felch. But competent to a tee. I won’t go into story by story evaluation, suffice to say it’s all good writing. No weak links. Anchored by the effervescent Serong.”
I stop. Look up from my beer, pause for dramatic effect.
“And yet.” I clear my throat. “And yet the hater in me still stirs. Surf writing. It’s a vexxed oeuvre.”
“Oeu-vueeeerrr, cunt, says ___. “It’s French. Look it up.”
“Thanks.” I continue. “Most of the collected stories fall into the same old trap when it comes to writing surfing for the mainstream. A pre-occupation with attempting to unpick its alleged magic.”
I stand back up from the chair. Puff my chest out. Imagine I’m a Roman orator. The notes I’d started writing for my review are flooding back into my mind’s eye. Like a scene from a Beautiful Mind. Like I’m some surf-writing savant.
“This means the essays easily drift into cliched, Winton-eque waters. Surfing is spiritually nourishing. A way to be closer with nature. Holistic wellness. All that shit. It’s not all pretty, sure. There’s sharks. Localism. Discussion around entrenched sexism. But for the most, Lines presents a squeaky clean image of surfing.”
I look at the group. Their faces in sharp focus. Each of them paying attention now. Nodding. Hanging off my every word.
“Surf writers seem to spend a lot of time explaining why people would waste their entire life engaged in the pursuit. Like it needs to be justified. That means you end up with caricatures of these buddha-wise, flawed yet holy protagonists. Warrior Poets. The Kerouac set. Leaders of a broad church of social outliers and thought leaders that have discovered some secret elixir to life.”
Much nodding from the group.
“It’s an archetype that seems to have peaked with Bodhi from Point Break. Never developed any further. It’s this fucken, Patagonia-wearing, green-voting view of the surf world. How the surfing wants to be portrayed. Like it’s some big mysto fucken secret and we’re only just now letting everyone in.”
I notice three of the surf writers are wearing Patagonia.
“Not saying there’s anything wrong with that. But it’s only one view. It’s monochromatic. Hold a mirror up to surf culture today and you will indeed find a broad church. But there’s nothing unifying us now past the low tide line. We’re grommets. Learners. Lifelong hedonists. Outdoor sports active jocks. Murfers. Aspiring athletes and Olympians. Real estate agents. Politicians. Lawyers. Tech bros. Bums. Entrepreneurs. Industry hacks.”
“All as fucked as each other,” says __
“Yep, spot on I say. “Because surfing is fucked. Surfing is a vice. It’s solipsistic narcissism of the highest order. Or for some of us it’s even a chore, like taking a shit or brushing your teeth. But then on the skip side there’s surfing as rehabilitation. Surfing as activism. Surfing as pure joy. It’s everything all at once. You know what I mean?”
They do know what I mean. I can see it in their eyes. They’re looking at me like I’m the second coming of Bill Finnegan or Steve Fucken Pezman.
“Surfing is this anarchic contradiction that constantly eludes definition. It’s the stupidest and most profound pursuit imaginable. The attraction is instantaneous but you need a lifetime to understand it. The closer you look, the less clearer it becomes. It’s a rhetorical double bind. Trying to explain it to someone who doesn’t already know is like sweeping leaves in the wind.”
“So how do you write about it?” asks ____
“Well, you could try not. Not everything needs to be documented. Good writing illuminates the dark corners of the human condition. But who says surfing needs to be illuminated?”
I let them mull it over for a bit.
“Obviously that’s not feasible. We gotta write something, right? But don’t focus on the surfing. Write about the characters it attracts. The idiosyncrasies and foibles and sheer absurdity it produces. Just never try and look it in the eye.”
“So you’re saying, surfing is never going to be the story? It’s always just the background?” asks ____.
“Something like that. And you’re certainly not going to learn about it by reading some manual, literary or otherwise.”
I take a breath.
Did I really just come out with all of that?
I’ve been in a flow state for a good ten minutes. The surf writers are taking stock too, sipping their beers and running their hands through what’s left of their hair. They look like they’ve just been told sun revolves around the moon.
But I’m not done yet. Time for my conclusion. I put my beer down on the table next to a stack of Keno cards.
“The one exception in Lines to the Horizon is the Taj story. It follows him during his final comp on tour, at Tavarua. 10,000 words or so documenting his background, his run to retirement, his mind state during the comp. His partying with the crew on Namotu. How he got to where he is. It’s over wrought at times. But is unapologetic in its delivery. Focuses less on the act itself than the psychology behind it. Doesn’t shy away from the language. Doesn’t pretend it’s anything other than 100 per cent surf. It really is a strong piece of writing. One of the best you’ll read. But you gotta know it to appreciate it. If ya don’t know, ya don’t know. Y’know?”
I stop for a second. Hiccup once. Twice.
“Who wrote it?” asks ____
I can feel the buzz fading. I’m starting to feel a little dizzy. I look at ____ and ____ sitting next to each other. My vision blurs and they begin to meld into the one figure. Then float back out on opposite sides. I sit back down and look at my half-empty schooner on the table next to me.
“Who wrote the article?”
“What article? Oh, some cunt. I dunno. But I’ll tell you one thing. If you read that story enough, you’ll realise something.”
All of the surf writers lean in. Wait for me to finish my sentence. My grand denouement.
“You’ll realise that… this…”
The waves of dizziness build. I grip the stool with both hands.
The waves have a hold of me now. I’m spinning and spinning. I lurch forward. Try to grab the table as I’m falling. Knock over all of our beers. _____ reaches out to grab me with this unconscious fervour, like I’m the second coming of Christ descending to hell.
But he’s not quick enough. I come down hard. For a millisecond I’m suspended in mid air, and the upended schooners are pouring over the top of my head in a golden barrel of froth.
Then there’s an almighty crash. Beer and chips and Keno cars and broken glass everywhere.
I lie in a pool of my own filth. I can barely mouth my final words.
“This…” I whisper. “This… is …what …. surfing… is….”
The surf writers shake their turn back to each other as Davo drags me from the floor and calls a cab. ____ goes to give me back my credit card but ____ stays his hand. There’s more drinking to be done.
It’s still sunny when I’m hurled outside.
I’m resting in the gutter, looking up at the trees. The wind is offshore. The waves could be good.