Friday, October 13, 2017

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Memorialise this! - Politics of inclusion in surfing history

My home town, Byron Bay, is renowned for the number of women who surf there. It’s a point of pride that at some breaks it’s not unusual for women to outnumber men, and women also shape the aesthetic associated with Byron – nonchalance, femininity, grace, colour, and an unashamed preference for smaller peelers. You will have seen this in the many, many, many images and videos and stories of women surfing there, and the many, many, many Instagram posts by women of them on the beach, with familiar lines north coast hinterland acting as a backdrop across the bay.

Women’s surfing in Byron is a robust and highly visible affair, and this has meant opportunities for women to start out here in the surf industry, taking roles or building businesses of their own as surfers, social media celebrities, photographers, surf wear producers, writers, and even researchers! If you took women away from lineups today, all you’d have left is a 1980s issue of a Tracks magazine shoot, and a lot of confused and pretty bummed men.

So when I saw this news piece in the ABC yesterday, I was a bit confused.

Surfer Pauline Menczer is a world champion so why isn't her name on Byron Bay's honour roll?

This is in reference to a mural about surfing that has been in a Byron laneway for some years now. The mural included a list of famous Byron surfers. It’s opposite the Great Northern Hotel, and has been there for years. I don’t notice it much. In a nod to the continued impact of city-lovers on the Byron landscape there’s a current project to reinvigorate this particular laneway. Admittedly, as far as new residents changing the town, painting a laneway and getting buskers to play is much less controversially impactful than other "let’s-build-a-new-suburb-with-inadequate-infrastructure" developmentss, but there are still politics of space and community that come into play.

In this case, it seems, women, including World Champions, have been left off the updated honour roll, which, given everything I began this post with, seems odd. And annoying. And disrespectful. Because not only are women a vibrant part of the recreational surfing scene today, they have been for many, many years. In the boardriders clubs – shortboarding and longboarding – and in local, national and international competitive scenes.

As well Pauline Menczer – World Champ in 1993, her story is AMAZING, you should look her up and read about her – Byron Bay has been home to a number of successful and inspirational competitive women surfers, who led the charge for where we are today, and deserve especial recognition for doing so in an era when women’s surfing received little attention or support. Without making any effort at all, I can tell you that Jenny Boggis, Laurina McGrath and Julie Morris were surfing and competing while we were at high school, rare female faces amongst all the teenage boys, a lack of sponsorship support making it especially challenging to stay on tour. In longboarding, Isabelle Braly has competed on the Women’s World Longboarding Tour while living in Byron, while Roisin Carolan continues to dominate the local and national women’s competitive scene.

And keep in mind this is a two-minute consideration of competitive surfing (which isn’t even the space I think in very often) written in a café, as I am running late to meet friends!

Women, like men, in Byron Bay, have contributed to more than competitive surfing, but have also shaped surfing culture in Byron Bay. Just last weekend, there was a big paddle out to celebrate the life of Elaine Reid, who, along with her dear friend Yvonne Pendergast, has been at the heart of surfing in Byron Bay since the 1960s. These women are as much a part of surf history here as any of the men, and continue to make contributions through community work and encouraging kids to get in the sea.

At this point in time, if you’re working on an Honour Roll and you have no women included, you need to stop. If you are the kind of person who wouldn’t notice such a thing, then you need to consult with other people. If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t care about this, then you need to take a long, hard look in the mirror and think about what a terrible dinosaur you are. It is no longer acceptable to continue with this great surfing tradition of “chicks don’t surf” which was never true anyway, and is a misnomer that reveals more about the person saying it than it does to reflect any kind of historical or current reality. Excluding women from murals like this is lame and disrespectful and damaging and untrue, and they do a dis-service to everyone in the town.

And look, this is the first I’ve heard of this, so it’s a bit rich of me to jump in and critique without knowing all the details. I fully admit that. I’ve not been spending much time at home this year, and I didn’t see the debate that surrounded the decision about who to include. But the politics about who we memorialise in public tributes is not an unfamiliar topic for me, nor should it be for anyone else – the debates about statues arising from Charlottesville in the USA have highlighted how statues (and other memorials) act to privilege certain kinds of histories in certain kinds of ways. I’m not suggesting that this mural is anything so horrible as celebrating wars to maintain practices of slavery, but the notion of what is rendered worthy of remembering through public monuments resonates here.

The article proposes a separate “Women’s Honour Roll”, which I think is a terrible idea. Separating women from men in how we think about and celebrate surfing bears no resemblance to what surfing looks like or is. Sure, it is in a competitive sense, but that’s problematic too, and replicating those separations through a memorial shouldn’t be our goal. Women’s surfing is not lesser, nor should it be suggested to be so.

Because women shouldn’t ever be an afterthought in thinking about the past in Byron Bay, in surfing, or in any other history.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Mountain - a review

Last night I took myself to see the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s (ACO) performance, Mountain, which I’d been looking forward to for months. I'm no expert on classical music. I still learning about the histories, personalities and bodies of work of various composers, but what I do know is that I love listening to this genre of music. Even more, I love attending the performances. Every time, I'm still surprised by those first notes as they float across the room - how is it possible that people are making something so beautiful?! Over the last few years, I've become fascinated by classical compositions about nature. About how it is possible to reflect nature and wildlife in music in a way that is recognizable, musically, literally and emotionally. This interest emerges from my research about surfing, but it's also in no small part a reaction to previous ACO performances and programmes. 

Following the success and acclaim of their collaborations with film-maker Mick Sowry and surfer Derek Hynd to make Musica Surfica and The ReefMountain marks another foray into human experiences of nature, and of how we, individually and collectively, are extended through challenge, risk, failure and awe. In the previous collaborations, surfing, the sea and waves took centre stage, with the project including immersive trips for all participants in two remote Australian surfing places. Musica Surfica was set in the southern island, King Island (SA), while The Reef explored notorious west coast desert break, Gnarloo (WA). In each place, the challenge of the wave was further ramped up by taking the control from the surfboards. Finless surfing on such waves is still new territory in contemporary cultural terms, if not historical; Hawaiians have been doing so for many, many years. Despite the similar formulas and the shared focus on surfing, place and style, each film asked different questions. Muscia Surfica explored what happens when those who are masters of their craft – surfing and music – remove a key component that shapes how they are able to control, to steer, to know their directions? For Derek Hynd, this was the removal of the fins from his board, while for Richard Tognetti – Director of the ACO – this was the shift away from the traditions and cultures of chamber orchestras. The performance of classical music alongside surfing explored these ideas, with a memorable and educational performance of Nicolo Paganini's Caprice No. 5 by Tognetti, standing in a dis-used dairy, playing such complex music to many people who had never before seen or been interested in classical music, let alone performances. A strange vulnerability cut through Togenetti’s own confidence, giving the performance a liveliness and accessibility it might not otherwise usually present. The Reef extended these ideas into a heavier, more unforgiving place of red sand, sharp rocks and dangerous waves. This film and performance was less about the relationships people have with themselves and their craft (surfing and music), and was more focused on bodies moving in a place. As well as the surfing – featuring a much younger, more cutting edge cast – I recall the focus on surfaces. Scenes lingered on water, sand, scrub, flies, and human detritus, as well as on things just beneath the surface: bubbles, rocks, bodies, sharks. I only saw Musica Surfica as a film, but I was lucky enough to see The Reef performed in 2013, something I’ve thought about often. I've posted the trailers below, but you can buy the films: Musica Surfica is here, and here is The Reef.

Mountain follows this tradition of exploration. While it (and the previous films) could be read as action or extreme sports films (and they certainly fit that genre), the lingering, intimate focus on these often harsh, always beautiful places makes them so much more. In Mountain, people are like extras to the place, their presence, and their attempts at conquer so small against the timeless backdrop. While water is always moving and changing, mountains offer different challenges and require different responses. And yet it had echoes – a phrase sung by Danny Spooner in Musica Surfica makes an appearance in Sublime, which immediately took me back to King Island, and placed this performance within what is perhaps a particular genre in the ACO’s repertoire.
As a performance, Mountain has three key components – the orchestra and music, the footage and the narration – and four key players. Richard Tognetti is Artistic Director of the ACO, responsible for driving the direction of this celebrated ensemble, He composed much of the score, and is the lead violin, so while his voice is silent, his contribution and presence shape the entire event. Jennifer Peedom is the Director of the film. Peedom delivers a narrative of human engagement with various aspects of mountains – from standing in wonder and terror, to taking them on as a challenge – climbing, skiing, jumping, walking, and playing amongst and between them. People facing sheer walls of rock and snow and ice, and facing them as an adventure. Renan Ozturk’s cinematography is breath-taking, and I can’t imagine I will forget it anytime soon. His magically clear images linger on places and events, replicating the slowness of time associated with mountains, allowing us to get a real sense of the size and scope of the vistas we encounter. Even gentle and spare shots – a minutes long sequence of falling snow against a black sky – offer moments for reflection and rest, and remind us that there is softness to offset the rock and stone. Finally, Robert Macfarlane’s narrative (voiced by William Dafoe). Macfarlane is a British writer whose first book, Mountains of the Mind, won multiple awards. His love of wilderness is clear in his advocacy for the natural world, and his critique of contemporary human engagement with risk, such as his scathing observation of the commercialised consumption of an increasingly crowded Everest: “This is not climbing. This is queueing.”
The contributions of each of the collaborators weaves together beautifully, to offer a performance that left me floating out of the room, and wishing I could go straight back to watch it all over again. As always, the physicality of the ACO’s performance was mesmerising, the musicians lifting, swaying and moving with the music, their postures and stances adapting in response to the music. Musicians bodies always help me better understand the music, and, with him so prominent at the front, Tognetti’s movements offer insights into the messages of the scores, as well as what might be physically required to produce such music. Arvo Pärt’s buzzing and then rolling Fratres was played wide-stanced with bent knees, the notes seeming to flow through his feet and core, while Beethoven’s Larghetto was played while standing tall and with an arch to his back, as though the music descended from above, and action of his shoulders and fingers, more than the earthiness of his performance of Fratres. I can only imagine how exhilarating and exhausting performing at such a level and for such a length of time, must be.
The film takes you high amongst the mountain peaks, soaring through rocks and snow and clouds, watching from on high as time-lapse of rolling clouds flood valleys and softening the harsh terrain. The definition in the images is so clear, that it feels hyper-real, the way that being amongst the mountain tops can be – the kind of clarity that comes with removing ourselves from the mundane every day. Mountain plays on this exact point; the specular, sublime nature of being amongst mountains, of ascending to places where the line between death and life shimmers with uncertainty, places not meant for people. Indeed, it is the relationships of humans with mountains that is the key narrative of the film: Risk, danger, arrogance, humility, wonder, awe and a sense of the fleetingness of human existence in comparison to the age evoked by rocky and icy peaks. How do we make sense of such enormous ideas, seemingly insurmountable challenges, and such breath-taking vistas? How is it possible to think in such terms, and to consider that we are able to find a place for ourselves in all of this? It is the ways that humans make sense of such big ideas that is the core of the film. It offers no answers, instead inspiring the kind of awe in the natural world that seems so necessary in how we might successfully re-negotiate our relationship with the natural world in an era of human-produced climate change. It was difficult not to notice the whiteness of the snow reflected in the skin tone of the dominant number of participants. This is not to suggest Peedom and Macfarlance were unaware of this. They each actively commented on the colonial undertones in their own way – Peedom though her constant return to Nepalese people and culture, and Macfarlane in his critiques of Everest, and of the arrogance that drives people to take risks in climbing and other sports. But these were subtle, especially considering that audiences for classical music performances such as this remain, for many reasons, white, and middle class. The people in this film are so well kitted out in brightly coloured outdoor wear, so imbued with access to leisure time, so committed to seeking refuge from middle-class comforts though cultures of play and risk in the extremes of nature. As with Peedom and Macfarlane, this fact does not escape the attention of Tognetti and performances like this are meant to be an attempt to broaden who can access classical music, as well as shaking up the often elitist culture that surrounds chamber orchestras by taking the ACO to regional and rural towns and performing in venues more usual for local populations. Tognetti’s contribution to Musica Surfica played on his commitment to opening the classical music and the ACO up to more people, both in its production, as well as the way it was toured. It’s a remarkable and admirable approach. While Tognetti’s diverse programs make excellent steps in welcoming new audience members, the price and the still-intimidating nature of performances spaces reman barriers.
The musical programme was similarly lovely, offering a moving interpretation of the footage and words, that sometimes led me to think anew about behaviours and spaces. I’ve already looked it up and have been listening to it again as I write this review. You can listen to it here or, even better, contribute to the ACO by buying the soundtrack here.* The music soared and floated and reflected the beauty, terror and enormity of the film. I wish I could tell you more about the music, but all I know is that I was carried along on every note, my heart full to bursting with the magic of all the best of humanity – people made this music and people play it. In a world of climate change and war and poverty and cruelty, all of which is created by people, the arts is an incredibly powerful reminder that people can create beauty as well.
As an audience, the experience of Mountain is shaped by these three spaces – footage, music and narration. From my seat in the balcony, I had a lovely view of the orchestra playing, but it offered some challenges, as my attentions shifted between the footage and the music. The footage is compelling an immense – both in subject matter and as a presence – and it was easy to get lost in the images. This meant that the ACO often acted as soundtrack. In a film, a good soundtrack is often invisible in its presence – inciting emotion and adding to the story that is only understood afterwards. But considering this was a live performance, the role of the music and musicians is different. While it might have simply been a consequence of my elevated position (perhaps they were more framed by the film from below), the dominance of the visual left me feeling as though I missed much of the performance and backgrounded the music. But then, I kept thinking of stream of consciousness styles of writing, and how, as a reader, these often incite in me drifting thoughts as I move along with the flow of the words, often slipping into my own streams of thought. In particular, I was thinking of Virginia Woolf, and how the almost meditative nature of her compositions can take me several attempts to focus on. Perhaps instead of worrying about my own drifting attention, I should consider this a part of the style of performance – if only I could return to the performance again and again!

If you’ve not been, and you have the chance to go, I cannot recommend enough that you make the effort. You will be supporting the arts, but you will also be immersing yourself in an incredible and memorable experience.

*Note: Having moved house so often, CDs are a thing of my past. I now live digitally, but I’d buy this soundtrack if it was on iTunes.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, by William Finnegan

I have come late to Finnegan’s celebrated book, ‘Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life’. It sat, unread, by my beside for months, and I was never sure what my hesitation was. Perhaps the singularly glowing reviews in the New York Review of Book, The New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal following his awarding of a Pulitzer Prize for Autobiography. A Pulitzer! For a book about surfing! Or perhaps it was the claim (I can’t remember where), that this book would change the surf writing genre. Books about surfing's past are a growing genre of non-fiction. As men who started surfing in the 50s, 60s and 70s head into their sunset years, the scramble to claim their place in the surfing past appears to have come upon them suddenly and absolutely. This genre has a big market. Thousands of surfers - like them, who knew them, or who admired them – love reading these stories to reflect on their own surfing lives and histories, while the current affinity for the apparent “golden era of surfing” among younger surfers, who seem to think the past was crowd free and idyllic, have a similar hunger. And I too, not fitting easily into either of these categories, love reading about past days of surfing. Memoir is a favourite genre of mine, so books about people's surfing lives always make it onto my radar. And so, surf writing is a genre with legs – quite an achievement, I think we can all agree.

Finnegan’s book, ‘Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life’, can easily be placed in this category. A memoir of his days in the waves, Finnegan’s book traces his life surfing from (and this is a non-exhaustive list) Hawai’i to California, island-hopping across the Pacific, to Australia and South Africa, and through parts of Europe and his current home, in New York. The books travels to every significant shortboarding break you can imagine, and Finnegan offers an incredibly detailed and intimate catalogue of the coastlines, beaches, waves, currents, water and light at these breaks. This is a book about a man who loves surfing. Finnegan says this is a book about the ocean, ‘about that myth-encrusted place” (432), but I disagree. The ocean is deep, vast, terrifying, unknowable, filled with secrets and creatures and death. This is not a book about anything beyond the coastal surface in which ocean energy explodes onto the rocks and sand and coral. This is a book about a love of waves, and the various waves he has ridden.

Loving waves is an easy way in for surfers - I love waves too! - but Finnegan is careful in his crafting to ensure the book welcomes non-surfers too. It would be hard for me to know if he succeeded (surfing’s exclusionary tendencies are hard to spot from inside the fence), but a non-surfing friend once, very briefly, talked about the book to me, saying how amazing she found the descriptions, and how much she enjoyed the whole story. Finnegan himself has discussed the care he took to make sure the book eased non-surfers in so they could understand what waves are, how they are ridden, why surfers love them, and to catch a glimpse of what it’s like to surf them. Even for me, this easing in was important. My own surfing life, while pushing at my own boundaries, does not reach waves of the size and consequence that Finnegan routinely seeks out. I've never understood thrill seeking at the expense of physical safety and health. I still don't understand the motivation, but having finished 'Barbarian Days', I understand something more of what the experience might be like. The depth to which the white-water can reach, the power with which the lip can hit, the speed of the waves, the hyper-awareness of the proximity to rocks, currents, sets and the shore. Somewhat surprisingly, - surprisingly in that I'm surprised – Finnegan doesn't reflect on his interest in chasing such waves and experiences until the very last chapter of the book. His yearning to follow a life-long boy's-own-adventure goes without pause until his advancing age forces the questions. Questions, and I do not mind this, I cannot remember him answering.

The topic of waves is organised chronologically and geographically, with time and place intertwined; there is not 1960s without California and Oahu, no 1970s without Maui, the South Pacific and Australia. Clearly, this organisation made sense, personally – we are a product of the times and places we inhabit – but it also makes sense historically, in that Finnegan’s travels are in sync with developments in surfing. From the perfection of southern Californian peelers in the hot-dogging days, to Makaha’s place in the single-fin canon and onto Tavarua and Kirra and J-Bay and San Francisco as fins grew in number while boards shrank in size. The kinds of waves Finnegan sought out changed, not only with his own personal development and ageing, but also with the surfing times. These historical links to time and place shaped more than the book’s narrative structure. They shaped my own experience of the book and Finnegan’s stories. In the end, these flows could be used as a map of my own reading pleasures and frustrations, which were myriad, and which were linked to what I know of surfing history. Just as Finnegan did, I couldn’t help but tie his journeys and ideas and behaviours and decisions in with my own joys and frustrations of what I know of the surfing past, and thus, now, his place in it. Not his place in surfing as a sport, because his book suggests very little interest in contests and athlete-surfers and surf industry and media (well, beyond some dabblings with ‘Tracks’). Instead his claims are in relation to various waves that pushed surfing cultural developments and imaginations. While, perhaps, it wasn’t his intention, Finnegan’s book inserts him into surfing history by describing his own “discoveries” or near discoveries in Fiji, and his presence at the shortboard surfing forefront in Kirra, J-Bay, and Madeira. It’s a place-name-dropping extravaganza of an 'I was there before...' variety.

The other history Finnegan’s own sits alongside, is that of surfing’s colonising shadow. As Finnegan and his companion make their way across (especially) the South Pacific, they foreshadow the tourism and leisure-seeking to come. While he remains aware of it in hindsight, and suggests they were aware of it at the time, their travels are not an exchange of experiences and cultures (and sex) the way he’d hoped. Instead, they read as naïve and selfish and self-indulgent. His felt relationships to places come too easily to him, and he adopts an attitude of comfort and ease in a way that is only available to some. Perhaps this ease is a product of storytelling about the past, but by the time Finnegan took us to Fiji, I was annoyed and bored. Finnegan’s stories were all about the boys, with girls and women relegated to often-nameless support roles as someone else’s sister or girlfriend or mother. Two-dimensional women who didn’t surf and didn’t contribute to surfing. Other than his own significant romantic loves, and his mother and sister, in this book women are barely apparent and have little impact on men’s surfing lives. For me, this is a frustrating consistency with surfing history as it’s already told: women didn’t surf, girlfriends could be left behind or come along if it didn’t stop a guy from having a space on the ride. I’m certainly not suggesting that Finnegan didn’t and doesn’t love and respect the women in his life, but with those few exceptions, his book relegates women to the same role that so many other surf histories do as well. His wife Caroline, clearly provides moments of reflection for Finnegan, when she mocks his surfing lingo, and later on when he realises that she has never asked him not to take off on his crazy wave-riding pursuits. Injured, shocked and lying in a bath recovering after a particularly hairy brush with disaster while his wife takes care of him, it dawns on Finnegan that she has had to endure these things too, and that so many of his surfing stories are hers (and his previous loves’) to own as well. This realisation is strong and I’d say it impacted the inclusion of his girlfriends in the ways they appeared. But for Finnegan, surfing itself has a pronoun, and that pronoun is male.

My irritation with these two aspects of this period of the book that covers Maui, the South Pacific and Australia (and on into South Africa) – the exclusion of women from surfing, and the celebration of Western sufers' “discoveries” of waves – was the root of my boredom. I put the book aside, declared it to myself as overwritten and more-of-the-same. I spoke to some (male) friends about it, one of whom professed the same boredom with the familiar narrative, and I thought about it all a lot more.

As I dwelt on my frustration, my own self-reflection kicked in generating uncertainty in my reactions, and I questioned whether this was a fair way to approach the book. I remembered that writing hard, and that writing books must be even harder. I remembered that my goal with reviewing is always to find the core of the book, of what the author was trying to do, separate from my own historical and cultural relationships. I remembered that books are best read in a spirit of generosity, in which the book is allowed to play out to its conclusion. I remembered that this is how I would want people to approach my own work. And so, after a couple of weeks of mild fuming, I picked it back up. I felt like a satirical piece in 'The Onion', it really is hard to ignore relentless exclusion of women from so many surf histories and memoirs, no matter how celebrated the writing is. Reading and reviews are never objective, but the goal, I suppose, is to weave a thread between the various cloths - the author's purpose, the book itself, and my own relationships to and knowledge of surfing.

It took a little time to find my way back in, but once I shifted my approach to reading it opened back up and I found myself enjoying it (once we got into South Africa and beyond). It was back to the best of the book, which is not the teenaged and twenty-something-year-old claims or discovery of waves and Self, but the early years of Finnegan’s childhood, and the later years once he’s moved to New York. In these sections, he seems most reconciled with his own ever-shifting relationships to surfing, which becomes a part of his life only, rather than the romanticised demon on his shoulder, driving him to his South Pacific adventure. Even I know this demonic little voice – the voice that is the worst of me as a surfer, the voice that drives and dominates until waves are all that matters. That voice that means we’re never free. This demon seems to re-emerge near the end of Finnegan’s story, but his self-reflection is such that it’s instructive more than anything else.

The book is best when the relationships drive the narrative as much as the waves do. That is an odd summation to make about a book that is subtitled, ‘A Surfing Life’, but as well as the waves, it’s the relationships that are key throughout. For Finnegan, like for me, surfing is nothing without the folk we do it with. The solo ideal so often courted in surf media does not resonate with me – I can count the number of times I’ve surfed alone and really enjoyed it. I loved how relationships were always at the heart of Finnegan’s surfing life, never more so in those favourite sections of mine – the beginning and the end. The sections that frustrated me were the sections where the hunt for waves was shared, but not really framed by his friends and surfing community. That’s not to say relationships weren’t as important, it’s just that they weren’t at the heart of his motivations and his way of making sense of what surfing is and can be. The chapter on San Francisco, so famous as a series in the New Yorker in the 1990s, was a turning point in this, and perhaps in Finnegan’s self-awareness of the impact of his surfing buddies.

This is a beautiful and compelling book written by someone who’s spent a lifetime on their craft. The writing is largely clear and simple, descriptions easy to access and imagine, a poetic tone is woven through yet hyperbole is saved for appropriate moments, while sentences, paragraphs and chapters maintain rhythm and pace that reflect their subject. I could always see how good he is at what he does, but my favour with the writing flowed with the times and places he visited, and the matching set of my own pleasures and pains. When I re-entered the book after a break, I got the sense that the writing styles shifted to reflect his development as a person. His writing about the South Pacific admitted but skirted attitudes and behaviours that clearly still cause self-consciousness despite their idyllic nature – him and Bryan both – while in describing his later years in Madeira, his words manage to confidently embrace the contradictions of his own contributions and participation in the changes there. Finnegan cannot point the finger at anyone and blame them for the way things have gone. His book is bountiful evidence of his own participation in these changes and challenges, no matter how much he wishes they weren’t.

With my own favourite books about surfing being those by Fiona Capp, Robert Drewe and Brett d’Arcy – albeit it the last two are about bodysurfing – this book did not feel as though it is a genre changer for me. Like these books, ‘Barbarian Days’ is aimed at a literary rather than surfing audience, so it opens up the experience of catching waves, of being in waves, to non-surfing readers, helping them imagine what surfing is like and why it might become so all-consuming. When we speak about surfing to surfers too much, everything gets reduced to waves in a way that ignores the myriad other things that make surfing all that it is – people, places, cultures, knowledge, time, family, romance, love. Without all of that, surfing is nothing, and it is this, more than anything else, that ‘Barbarian Days’ makes clear.

Monday, July 17, 2017

The 13th Doctor


Somewhat strangely, I wasn't bothered about who played the next Dr (although, I do have a soft spot for Idris Elba), but when I watched this I felt so stoked and excited!

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Tennis isn't surfing but it's still really sexist

Men's sport is most often talked about just as 'sport', while women occupy a different world of women's sport.

It's only just after 9am, and this is already likely the best thing I'll see today.

This is not the first time Andy Murray has defended the achievements of women in tennis.

Such corrections aren't only made by Andy Murray, but male sportspeople are otherwise rare in their support of women athletes. Women, in particular Serena Williams, often have to do the work of reminding journalists and other athletes of their achievements in the big picture, not in a stand-alone women's category. When one reporter asked "There will be talk about you going down as one of the greatest female athletes of all time. What do you think when you hear someone talk like that?", Serena famously replied "I prefer the word ‘one of the greatest athletes of all time."

Not-male tennis players have even been told that their successes ride on the backs of men, such as when Indian Wells CEO, Raymond Moore, said:

“When I come back in my next life I want to be someone in the WTA because they ride on the coattails of the men,” said Moore on Sunday. “They don’t make any decisions and they are lucky. They are very, very lucky.

“If I was a lady player, I’d go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born because they have carried this sport. They really have.”

So while I imagine Andy Murray himself would say he gets more credit than he deserves for speaking up, (and he does) because women talk about this all the time (and they do), seeing how few other men bother to stand up for the women that play alongside them and who work and train as hard, if not harder, than they do, Murray stands out.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Become Ocean - John Luther Adams

Since watching Musica Surfica, I've thought a lot about intersections between classical music and the sea. I'm not going to bang on about that today, but I did want to share one of my most treasured oceanic musical discoveries, Become Ocean, by John Luther Adams.

Instead of riffing on a sense of the sea from afar, of watching it, or being awed by it, this 45 minute composition takes you under the water, under the waves, onto the ocean floor. You float bout with the swell and fall of the sounds, carried along to the point where it's barely possible to notice it any more, where the weight of the water - of the music - disappears.

I go back to this composition a lot, and highly recommend exploring his catalogue of work - songs of the wind, of birds, of light. The capacity to communicate space through words, colour or music fascinates me, and I've rarely heard a place - under the sea - so perfectly achieved as in this.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

From on high

I'm always learning new things about the coast, the beach, the surf, the waves. Mostly though, it's with my feet planted firmly on the ground, or floating in or on the sea. I know the ways different waves form up and crash from the water. I know how the sand looks on the ocean floor bottom from sticking my face through the surface, diving down to touch it, or being scraped along when I wipe out. I know the rocks from headlands or from avoiding them at different tides, the shoreline from how sand sticks to my feet, from beach-combing, sun-baking, digging holes, building castles, I know the littoral zone from wading on long walks, paddling with children, passing through on my way to the surf. I know the effect of coastlines swell lines from sitting on headlands, walking up cliffs and watching from on high, but always with my feet planted firmly on the ground.

Drones have shifted some of that, but most of the drone images I have seen have been of people surfing waves, not of coastlines or places themselves. So when I saw this image on Facebook I was blown away as it's a whole new perspective on the coast, the water, the shoreline, the treeline, and waves.

That the image was taken by my cousin, Michael Olive, made it even more special.

You can see more of Mike's images here.

Monday, July 10, 2017

History of surfing in Lennox Head

Australian surf history has a pretty consistent narrative that tends to focus on people rather than places. That people are so key to how we talk about the surfing past in Australia means that there are legacies that get protected, businesses that rely on particular myths, and ego that rely on the status. I'm not saying any of this is terrible, I'm just saying...

But I just saw a call for submissions and participation in a history of surfing that is specifically related to a place, rather than a person or technological development: Lennox Head. The history is to celebrate the 10 year anniversary of the Lennox National Surfing Reserve in February 2018. The project seems to be called, 'Surfing Lennox'. You can find more details here.

Lennox is a beloved, localised and popular place, with it's own tensions and importance when it comes to surfing in Australia and the world. I'll look forward to hearing more about this project as it goes along, and to buying the resulting book.

The project is being run by the Lennox Head Heritage Committee, who released a media release on the project (which is via here):
Robyn Hargrave, Convenor, Lennox Head Heritage Committee explained, ‘In 2008 the Surfing Reserve was recognised as a site of environmental, cultural and historical significance to the Australian surfing culture. We have assembled an experienced volunteer ‘surf-crew’ working with the Lennox Head Heritage Committee to preserve our surfing history.’  
But the team needs your help.  
They are calling out to the public for donations of photos, recollections and any surfing lifestyle memories that can be collated into the publication that will reflect the transition of surfing Lennox circa 1958 through to the present. The exact date surfing started in Lennox is a mystery. It is generally thought that in 1958 Ballina man Barry Regan was one of the first to surf Lennox Point on his five metre timber board. But even Barry is not sure he was the first.
Contact details are all on the press release over HERE, so if you know much about the surfing past of Lennox Head, get involved!

Friday, July 07, 2017

Sustainable Surfing

These days, most of my writing about surfing appears in academic publications, which means all my work is hidden behind really expensive paywalls. Because the main role of academics is to contribute to public knowledge, that the public can't access our work is one of the terrible paradoxes and most unethical things about contemporary academia - we're bound by our industry to publish in academic spaces. It's why I feel a responsibility to write here and in other mainstream and accessible places as well. I've not been very good and keeping to that commitment, but writing more on this blog one of my goals for this year.

In the mean time, a new book with lots of research about surfing, Sustainable Surfing (edited by Greg Borne and Jess Ponting), has offered full and free access to anyone for the next 60 days. I'm not sure you can print it out (people more clever than I can likely find ways around that), but if you're interested in reading some work on sustainability and surfing, you can check out this link (click the book):

This book is crazy expensive to buy, which is one of the reasons it's really hard for researchers to get their academic publications out there, so this is a great chance to check out some of the work happening in this area. It's far from comprehensive in terms of the field, but no book ever is, and it gives a good taster of ideas being worked on.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Broken waves: Choosing violence in the surf

This story popped up over and over yesterday. It's not a nice one - police intervention and criminal charges following a violent altercation in my home town. Via local newspaper, The Northern Star:
Described by police as a "surf rage" incident, at about 1.30pm on Monday, a Byron Bay man was surfing when police will allege "he and another surfer went to catch the same wave". 
Police said the accused 29-year-old pushed the pointy end of his surfboard into another man's face, causing him facial injuries that bled.
Police went into the surf to get the guy, and he's been charged with assault occasioning actual bodily harm, which can carry up to a five year gaol term, or lesser penalties such as home detention, community service, or a suspended sentence.

Whatever he gets, pushing the very pointy tip of your board into someone's face to cut them up is a shocking thing to do. And we're to talking about this happening in pumping surf, and unexpectedly epic conditions. It's not even the middle of summer with no car parks, thousands of people in the water, and scarce waves to share - a time when tensions can be higher. This happened on an early-winter Monday afternoon, filled with sunshine, clear water and small waves.

He thrust the pointy nose of his board into someone's face with the intention of intimidating, frightening and hurting them, because he didn't want to share his wave. And he did hurt him. Intentionally. It's awful!

I don't want to share my waves with strangers either. I'm very much not into this whole-party-waves-with-anyone-who-feels-like-joinging-in approach that is being promoted as part of the Byron surfing ethic and norm. Sharing with friends is fun, but sharing with everyone on your outside, sucks. I'm equally not into the enduring myth of the person on the inside having right of way. That just doesn't work in most lineups now - people just paddle past on rotation and take things because it's their "right" without looking back or take into consideration the many other factors that shape the operation of a busy lineup. Like, say, thinking about who might not be getting waves as you take them all. I definitely get cranky about these things in the surf, and I'm guilty of getting emotional and frustrated and saying something in the water about it all - the other day I told a man, "It might be someone else's turn to get a wave soon, huh". But I've not stabbed someone with my board. I'm not going to either.

This behaviour is not without precedent. I've certainly read accounts of a group of surfers in California who took umbrage with a non-local interloper, and while some men in the group held his arms behind him in the water, allowed another of their group to submerge a shortboard, and allow the water pressure to shoot the board out and stab the man. I don't know what he did to be treated with such retribution - I think it was a locals only kind of thing - but it did not deserve such retribution. (I can't remember where I read that though. Somewhere when I was doing some reading about violence in the surf.)

Such behaviour remains a relic of, in Margaret Henderson's words, surfing as "a last frontier for anxious men and youths". I like to think those days are over, but they're not.

That this happened at broken is no surprise to me though. I'm sad about it being no surprise. I've been going to Broken Head since I could walk, and grew up on the same stretch of beach that it's headland book ends. Broken Head is a place where I've had some of my most precious surfs. It's the last place I went to the beach with my mum and where I surfed the morning after she died - on a borrowed board with no legrope. It's a place where I've surfed waves that challenged me in new ways. It's where I shared my first surf with my nephew.

But it's also become a place I avoid.

It's a break that local shortboarding 'lads' come to surf at dawn and dusk; where dad's take out their competitive groms, encouraging them into aggressive styles of surfing while hovering nearby their often precocious, foul-mouthed children like a protective net; where weekend-only surfers, understandably desperate for waves, often talk little and take a lot. These are stereotypes, and they're far from absolute, but in terms of the vibe in the surf, Broken Head has come to be a place that I find can be a bit scary.

It's more than all of that - it's beautiful and special and home - but a hum of aggression never feels far, and always plays on my mind when I surf there. Because it's the place where I've had my most physical altercations - had someone flick their board into my legs while I was on a wave, had a young boy swear at and insult me in almost empty knee-high peelers, been left to get smashed by a wave from which I could have been saved by him making a slightly different turn - I still have the resulting scars on my back.

This news story sucks and I guess we will see what happens, but I hope it's not an indicator of more to come.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Laird Hamilton: Feminist ally

Laird Hamilton, post-feminist, period scientist and shark behaviour expert, appears to have a really great understanding of how menstruation works, what it's like, and how women manage their flow while surfing. He also makes a compelling argument for why women should be kicked out of lineups (at least once a month, but I'm guessing he'd prefer more often) - they attract sharks.

'The biggest, most common reason to be bitten is a woman with her period. Which people don't, you know, they don't even think about that. Uh, obviously if a woman has her period then there's a certain amount of blood in the water. So, but...'

Laird, mate, if I was bleeding that badly, that I was leaking through all and any of the period products I was using and thus onto my clothes and swimmers, I would likely be in a bunch of pain and thus home in bed. Honestly.

The community members of the wonderful Surf Feminism Facebook page* (where I found the original Mpora link to this video) had some more great links to share on the topic of periods, surfing and sharks.

Mother Jones: Do menstruating women attract sharks?

Cooler: Is it dangerous to go surfing on your period?

*FYI, it's a closed group, so shitty people can be ejected. Yay!

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

I hate Byron Bay and surfing*

Kids and parents play along the shoreline and the surf is busy: daughters and sons bobbing hopefully near their parents, awaiting instruction and/or parental pride; a Sunday Boardriders contest, the competitors gaudy in fluoro pink, green, yellow and blue rashees; young men positioned in the critical take-off spot, right next the rock shelf that generates this point break; older men on longer, thicker boards, knowing as much, or more, than the younger showponies, but betrayed by their bodies they wait further down the line, hungrily asserting themselves from the inside; those on the outside, avoiding the fray for all kinds of reasons: skills, age, vibe, preference, or some other knowledge about the break born from experience; and scattered throughout are women young and old, taking their time, staking their claims, with no distinctions between their skills and the others, the men – as far as I can observe they’re no worse or better at surfing. But I already knew that.
On this warm, north coast beach, everyone is tanned, but white. Everyone is relatively fit, toned and confident. Everyone is comfortable and of the coast. They move as though they are here a lot, as though sand and salt water and bright sunshine are usual weekend fare. These are my people. But I no longer feel as though I belong with them. It’s not about the place itself - on these white sandy beaches I dress and move in ways they recognise. I know what to do, what to wear, and my body and attitude are (relatively) fit, slim, confident and comfortable. My board fits in to the local aesthetic, and I greet people I know as we walk to the water to paddle out. My discomfort is not about the place and community. It’s about the scene, the culture, the lineup.
In other places further south, my body, my movements and my board easily designate me as coastal, but what I wear and ride, and how I ride it make it clear I’m not from there. I’m from here - that stretch of coast from Noosa to Coffs Harbour. It’s a stretch of coast that is viewed and experienced by so many people as an extension of their own lives in places far away. This stretch of coast finds itself co-opted and adopted by lots of crew in parts of Sydney. Regional, rural and urban aesthetics have twisted into each other, becoming entangled through mobile surfers, shifting between places, but folding aspects of each place through the others. Stories in Australian surf history - stories of migration between city and rural areas - illustrate this over and over. Noosa Heads-Byron Bay-Sydney. It’s the stretch of coast you know from Instagram, through #vanlife #goldenhour #gurfer.
I’m from here, a place that is known for point breaks, thickly resined logs, longboards and other retro shapes, whose surfers trim and glide rather than turn and boost. And for hipsters. We’re well known for hipsters in the surf, those people my friend calls “smiling assassins” because they paddle into waves from your outside, beaming at you with white teeth and long hair, and enjoying the drop in they’ve reclaimed as “sharing”. You can shortboard here too, of course. There’s an abundance of thin, light, clean, white chips being carried about the place, but shortboarding is no longer the most visible part of surfing in this area. Shortboards are surfed on the open beaches, in punchier waves, by people I don’t know. Shortboarding is barrels and boots and flannys and beach tracks and silence. Shortboarding is reported on in Tracks, while the rest of it – the highly visible colour and carnival of popularised longboarding - is talked about in Surfing World and White Horses. Longboarding and logging used to be alternative and niche in relation to the aesthetic of shortboarding, but it’s not anymore. These days it turned into many of the things it critiqued – it’s dominant and defining, it’s corporate and hypocritical. It’s turmeric lattes and #liveauthentic #longhairdontcare, with $2000 glossy boards for beginners, and bikinis and wetsuits that are cut revealingly high on the hips and low under the arms on the chest, and as much pride and investment in vans as seems to go in muscle car culture. This version of surfing offers inclusions and sunlight and fun with one hand, while promoting and excluding and claiming place and #authenticity on the other. You want this, but you can’t have it.
I remember watching the current scene emerge – slowly at first, as small rebellions against the hyper-masculine status quo, as alternative options, as promoting women, as an engagement with the past, rethinking shapes, functionality and aesthetics that had been discarded by the mainstream – but after a while the shifts were fast and broad. You don’t notice change when you’re immersed in it, but now, this version of surfing is the mainstream.

I know this world well because I used to live in this world. Or maybe this world used to live around me. I’m not sure anymore, but even though I now live north in Brisbane, I am part of it and I still surf in those places when I can, and I still watch it unfold in magazine, films, online and on social media, and I sometimes even contribute to those unfoldings. As difficult as it is to admit my place in this world that I don't always like, to imagine being implicated in all of this, I am.
This little beach is a bit different than further up the coast. It’s less famous, less popular, less cool. There are no high cut swimmers, no 12-foot boards, no mandala tattoos, and while there are vans, there’s no #vanlife. Instead, it’s grittier and more low key. Still busy and still mainstream, but photographers do not (yet?) line this beach and drones don’t hover over the lineup. People here support shark nets. This is not my usual place, but I know it well and I appreciate its community and politics.
I came here to meet friends I’ve not seen in too long, and to surf, which I haven’t done much this year. I live further north now, a decent enough distance to make day trips to the beach an irregular occurrence. It’s lovely to feel the sand between my toes and the autumn sun on my skin. It’s nice to be in this world that is so much a part of me, but which I’ve given up daily access to. For now.
As soon as we walk towards the water, I feel a lack of confidence rise in my chest. I worry about paddling out, about my capacity to read the waves, about my ability to negotiate this lineup. O the beach a friend had recounted an infuriating run-in with a “Walrus” who’d snaked her and her daughter. She was so pissed off that rather than stay out, she’d paddled in. We laughed at the self-sabotaging effect of her tactic, but I understand her choice – I’ve done the same in the past. It’s easier to protect your integrity of you’re not fuming and/or crying over idiots like him. I worry about being in that scene today. I worry I’m a kook, because not surfing much means I’m shaky and unpractised and so it’s more intimidating when I go.
I’ve been out of the water, I’m unfit, I’m unsure. My body feels likes a hull, rolling around on the deck of my board – an awkward counterbalance to its more gently curved surface. My arms feel weak and heavy, and can’t reach down to drag through the water – usually they pull with confidence – and my upper back and the cross bar of shoulders ride high near my ears, pulling my centre of gravity away from my hips, ensuring my balance will suck.
Suddenly, these past months of runs not taken, commutes not ridden, classes missed and chocolate eaten are apparent and I feel out of place and unconditioned for it all. It’s not just my body though. It’s, everything.
“It’s like riding a bike” replies my friend, when I tell her it feels weird to be back in the water. It is. And it isn’t. “I don’t feel at home on my board,” I explain. “You know when your body hits your board and you know what to do? Like, you know what to do without thinking? I don’t feel like that anymore.” She surfs a lot, so it’s likely hard for her to know what I mean exactly, but she knows that I’m feeling out of place and that I’ll work through it. She’s getting a bunch of little peelers on the inside and with a big smile she encourages me to, “Come over here!” I really appreciate her support. I know I’ll get more waves there, but I’ll also be deeper in the politics of the lineup: more likely to be in the way, to have to jostle and hassle for waves, to be snaked, to get frustrated. I don’t want to be part of all that today. I just want to surf. I just want to be in the water amongst the waves, and to find my way back to my board and into my surfing body.
Part of being in my body is using it to take note of al the things of surfing that I love. Of the feel of the water, the light on the waves, the birds flying by, the shadows of the rocks, the curve of the swell bending around the point, being in the water with my friend, being in a lineup full of people stoked to be there, watching younger folk get stoked on waves, watching my niece playing on the sand. And catching waves. And being stoked on the waves I catch – slow and fast, glassy and crumbly, big and small, forming up and closing out.
Unlike when I surf back home, here I’m not much of anyone. I’m just some woman on the outside. It’s pretty good, really.
At the break I usually surf, things have changed quickly in response to the popularity of both surfing and the place. I’ve been part of part of that, for sure. I only started surfing as an adult, so although I grew on these beaches, I can’t make claims to being part of their surfing world. But even then, these processes of taking over have been going on for over 200 years, which is a blip in the history of the place, but significant in terms of the changes they’ve wrought. Like the cultural changes, it’s hard to see all this when you’re so implicated in a place, and it’s the getting away from it that’s shifted things.
The other day a social media post linked to a t-shirt for sale, that is printed with the words ‘I hate Byron Bay and surfing’. You can buy a trucker cap version too, but I'm not linking to either of them - you can find them yourself. The design is a copy of a shirt worn on a Warumpi Band cover for an EP of their song 'Jailanguru Pakarnu (Out of Jail)', which was the first ever rock song recorded in an indigenous language. It's recorded in Luritja, from the Western Desert region in central Australia. I'm not sure who designed the t-shirt originally, nor who the person is who has appropriated the design for a new time. 
I hate Byron Bay and surfing.
It made me laugh when I saw it and I reposted it with the caption, ‘A new new era in surfing’. Surfing in Byron Bay has become too mainstream for the very people who made it that way by selling the images, the films, the art, the clothes, the boards, the lifestyle, the t-shirt, that are all meant to offer a way in to belong to it.
I hate Byron Bay and surfing.
My map of the town has become one that skirts the edges. I avoid the town centre, driving over the hill at sunrise and sunset, to try to avoid the heat, the traffic and the crowds. It doesn’t always work, and anyway my map is increasingly similar to many others’. The town centre is for tourists, the edges are for surfing.
I hate Byron Bay and surfing.
The truth, however, is that despite myself I can’t imagine a time when I won’t always go back there. Go home. I can’t imagine not being part of the place, the community and the chaos. Because in amongst the too-cool culture and all that entails, there is so much that is solid and real to me. I can’t imagine not returning to the beaches where I know that in the morning when I turn up, my friends will be sitting that the same picnic table as always, eating breakfast and drinking tea and teasing each other. I can't imagine not returning to paddle out into that water, to being asked how I am, where I've been, what I've been up to. To hearing everyone around me talk about how clear the water is, how lucky we are to be there, on that day, that morning. That's why it's busy, that's why its popular.
I love Byron Bay and surfing.
For better and worse this town is changing, and it long has been. The surfing crowd talks of halcyon days of “having to look for someone to surf with”, but in the nostalgia they fail to recall that these were also golden days of sexism, and scum-baggery. While I’d happily see the back of the insane crowds, I do like surfing with other people. The town is changing and the truth is, I’ll change with it, or alongside it, or in spite of it.
*I love Byron Bay and surfing.

My versions of them anyway.