The Interview: Nick Carroll
by Alex Leonard, Kurungabaa, Vol. 1, Issue 2, July 2008 > Download (PDF)
Alex Leonard: How did you start writing, Nick?
Nick Carroll: I started writing for fun almost as soon as I’d figured out how to write all the letters of the alphabet. The atmosphere at home was always one of respect for reading and writing and the power of the written word; Dad was a journalist and Mum was a very intelligent, well-read woman. There were always books around. I was slightly introverted and spent more time than most kids by myself, buried in piles of them, trying to imagine my way into their pages. I’m still a total bookworm and often confuse the crap out of professional surfers with what I drag along as reading matter on surf trips.
I wrote for the school papers and all that stuff, but my first published article was an interview with Gerry Lopez for People magazine in 1975. It was at the suggestion of my Dad, who opened the door to the magazine thanks to his position at Fairfax. Lopez was in Sydney for the Coke Surfabout and the people in charge knew where he was staying. Can you imagine? Gerry Lopez! Mr Pipeline! The editor made a time for me to visit, Dad dropped me off at these apartments in Collaroy, and I walked up the stairs feeling like I was about three feet tall…terrified. Knocked on the door, a guy answered, ‘Oh yeah, Gerry,’ and THERE HE WAS standing in front of me, surrounded by three or four hangers-on. The hangers-on leered at me but Gerry was the soul of politesse – invited me in, let me ask him the questions I’d laboriously scrawled out on a piece of schoolbook paper, and answered them into my primitive big black tape recorder. It all went fine, but what I most remember is saying goodbye, and hearing a vast wave of laughter rise up and crash into the door as it swung shut behind me. They must have thought that little Aussie grom was hilarious.
Writing as I said was first for fun but it swiftly became something more – a way of exerting myself, an outlet for my curiosity and desire to observe the world and not just walk through it.
What was your first job in a surfing magazine?
I got a job at Tracks in early 1981. This was at a moment in my life when I’d become fairly sure of a couple of things: I’d worked for about a year as a landscape gardener’s labourer and couldn’t imagine another day of it; I’d played at being a professional surfer and sensed it wasn’t for me, partly because it so clearly was for my little brother; and I really wanted to work as a writer of some sort. The job was that of associate editor and it’d been held by Phil Abraham, a very smart and professional journalist; Paul Holmes was the editor. I’d done a few articles for Tracks before, and they’d been super fun, and I’d always had a weakness for the mag, ever since my first page of Captain Goodvibes around eight or nine years previously. Holmes gave me my first office assignment, which was to go and interview Simon Anderson about his ridiculous new surfboard idea, the three-fin, which he’d called (without even a twinkle in his eye) the Thruster.
I went and talked with Simon, wrote the piece, and Holmes dissected it without mercy. I’d written some dumb line about how it was ‘easy to see how functional the reality is’ of three fins. ‘How functional’s YOUR reality?’ Holmes asked me, curling his lip.
The work was weird, like nothing I’d ever done. Art direction? Page galleys? AD SALESMEN? What the hell were they? We knew absolutely fuck all about what we were doing. I loved every second of it.
What surfing magazines were you reading as a grom?
I read Tracks, Surfing World, and the occasional copy of Surfing and Surfer, but they were as nothing at first compared with the impact of Paul Hamlyn’s book A History of Australian Surfing. This book, a big hard cover volume, was a product of the just-pre-shortboard days, around the mid-1960s – the hot young surfer featured was Bobby Brown surfing Sandon Point with these amazing soul arch bottom turns, and there was a two-page spread entitled ‘Midget Shows How’ with Midget in colour pics deftly trimming and banking along small waves at Palm Beach. I used to stare at the angles on some of those waves and just dream of riding across them – I still think about them actually.
That book was quickly swamped by SW and Tracks as I and my mates got better and better, but it stayed there as a kind of reference point for a long time. It also kind of tied the whole idea of surfing in Oz together for me – it didn’t separate the history of surf clubs and other beach culture stuff from the history of surfboards and wave riding, but showed them all as one kind of over-arching Australian focus on waves and surfing. Later research I’ve done confirms the impression I was given by that book – that the kind of person who learned to bodysurf at Manly in 1907 was the same kind of person who got heavily into surfing in the 1970s, the 1990s, and for that matter now.
Whose surf journalism did you admire in those days?
I tended to admire individual pieces, and whole issues of particular mags, more than writers generically. The Tracks published just after the May 1974 east coast storms really affected me strongly: the care and effort that went into describing what had happened and giving it a context, and the sheer awe of Nature’s energy…they’d felt what I’d felt and it resonated. SW’s Magic School issue, I know I and the other hot Aussie juniors of the time were really honoured by that magazine, it was awesome to be taken seriously as surfers for the first time. Phil Jarratt’s piece on the first Stubbies contest is the benchmark for high-impact Aussie surf journalism. But writers: the American short-term Tracks editor John Grissim, Jarratt for sure because he was bloody funny yet actually reporting well at the same time, Witzig occasionally because of his obvious intelligence, Dr Geoff because he knew what the fuck he was talking about and was happy to share, and probably a dozen others. Everyone who writes for a magazine has a bright moment and I reckon I’ve read them all.
How was working as editor of Tracks?
I was fortunate to work on the mag for a couple of years under Kirky before taking over as editor full-on, and so learn the ropes of magazine production. Creativity schmeativity. Here’s a thing all good magazine editors learn fairly early: mags are practical operations, running them is about practical application and understanding how to put everything in place so the machine works well in all phases. Tracks was a simple enough machine and it was very hands-on: typewriters, phototypesetting, manual layout, B&W print film, etc. So I got to concentrate on learning magazine structure: what depts did I want and where should they fall? How big could a feature be and how small? Where were the weaknesses in wider reader appeal? For me these things came naturally and I relished the chance to put ideas to work. I sorta felt like it was my natural task to be Tracks editor, to continue some of the flow of Jarratt-inspired anti authoritarianism, but at the same time to reflect the changes that were happening in the sport at the time, as the pro thing strove to become fully recognised and surfers like Occ, Curren, little brother, Pottz, Elko etc. surged forward. If I was making compromises at the time, I was too young and full-forward to notice them. I really loved reporting most of all and would go to Hawaii for two months or more every winter and write big in-depth features, trying to explain to both the readers and to myself the impact of Hawaiian surf and the North Shore in general on the sport.
I guess beyond that the important things it all gave me were a solid practical grounding in magazine theory, the chance to write probably half a million words on a typewriter and thus begin to get a knowledge of writing, and the chance to fulfil a bit of a dream of being the mag’s editor. I was proud of what my crew and I did with Tracks through the period; we raised circulation by around 15%, increased ad revenue, and left the mag better than when we found it.
I have one regret born of my own incompleteness: I don’t feel that I nurtured enough talent while I was at Tracks. I was just too full-forward and wanted to do everything myself. DC Green got going at the time, Andrew Kidman was a work experience grom who had to sit in the back of my falling-apart Mazda on the way to town each day, and when I was preparing to leave as editor we hired Tim Baker to be Reggae’s deputy ed – but then Baker basically chose himself, it wasn’t because we were so all fired smart to pick him, he was such a good applicant that nobody else came close…but there was no real system to it. That was a lesson I could have learned and didn’t.
You’ve said that the changing quality of Tracks could be attributed to ‘the times’, and that the last 20 years have been a time of rationalising in the publishing industry. Being in the publishing industry all that time, have you felt yourself rationalising along with it?
I learned a lot about the rationalising process while working in the USA. It was a super-intense period of my working life, that’s for sure. People complain about working hours and pressures in Australia these days, but to me they still don’t compare with the gun-to-your-head, perform-at-all-costs pressure of the California work ethic. It was swiftly demonstrated to me that at the US mags, advertisers had a lot of power; they weren’t afraid to pull ads to try to keep the editorial content in line, and they were being run by people who were often a lot smarter than the magazine’s staff, and clearer on their direction. I decided that if I was to pull their teeth it’d be through a combination of methods, one being to approach the advertisers – or the ones I really respected anyway – as partners, for example by breaking down the supposedly sacred barrier between editorial and advertising. To succeed with this, however, the mag had to be a step ahead of the advertisers – constantly showing them new approaches to the sport, photos they hadn’t seen before, art direction at a new level, all that gear. It was a tightrope walk but it succeeded, mostly because of the quality of people at the mag – Larry Moore the photo editor, Peter Morris the art director, and the unrivalled skills of photographers like Hornbaker, Chang, Van Lennep, Steve Sherman, Pete Frieden, Hank, Tony Roberts and numerous others pushing the creative envelope – and partly because of the times, with Kelly and his crew coming on so strong and rearranging things in the water. I was fortunate with the timing of our tightrope act because the industry was clawing its way out of a recession and was ready for someone to not just be a friend but also to show a way forward.
The flipside was when the mag occasionally fell behind the zeitgeist, or when an advertiser got full of itself and started telling us what we could or couldn’t run. Then you were buggered and had to suck it up. One advertiser was so incensed by an article we ran that it pulled over $60,000 worth of advertising. Another heard about an article we were planning to run and threatened to pull a $140,000 ad contract. On the first one, we were protected by our publisher who just told the advertiser OK, sorry, guess you gotta pull it. On the second one, we bent over and took it all the way up. It was my call and it really hurt, but I later got a perverse pleasure from watching the same company fall apart and all the people who’d reamed us lose their jobs. Ouch!
Anyway, that was all a stern lesson in publishing reality…but I was still surprised on returning to Oz in the late 1990s to find that the same sort of shift had occurred. It being Oz, the advertiser attitudes were (and are) a lot cruder and less sophisticated, and a lot of bullying and blatant ad whore-outs have occurred. It was painful for me to see Tracks sucked into the gigantic publishers’ maw of Emap; you could almost see it as a sign of the Australian change, this crazy independently published purely Aussie creation of a purely Aussie surf culture being subsumed into a huge English lad-mag publisher. Like turning back the cultural clock in a way. But it’s not something I dwell on, and I like the Tracks crew themselves.
I think it’s not a good idea to be pompous about magazines. They have to make money to survive and prosper and pay the contributors and the printers etc., and if they don’t make money then you’ve got to ask why they should be published. If someone’s out there pumping money into them to keep them afloat, then that someone’s going to have an agenda – perhaps not as honest an agenda as a normal mag’s advertisers and readers. Power corrupts in media as well as anywhere else. Still, it’s the occasional moment of magic that I look for in mags of all types and I’m basically an optimist about that.
Have you been able in more recent years to nurture writing and photography talent? DC Green says that there doesn’t seem to be much new talent in surf mags these days: ‘The best writers today were also the best writers ten years ago and most of the best writing is in books rather than magazines.’ What do you think?
Oh, for sure. You can’t nurture talent if there isn’t any, and for a number of years now – at least in Oz – that’s been a problem. The people like Jarratt et al., who are highly talented and can work for a lot of money if they want, aren’t willing anymore to commit themselves to semi-poverty and wallow in an alternative type of life – which once was of great appeal to a young writer. A new way of living to write about! Let’s face it, surfing as an Alternative Lifestyle now barely exists – it’s not the social adventure it used to be, at least in Oz and the USA. I sort of feel I was almost the last of a breed in that sense (Tim Baker’s probably the actual last of the kind). If I was a late-teens kid today with a precocious writing talent I’d take it somewhere new, where nobody else was working…just as Jarratt et al. did at the time with surfing. But then again, I don’t see many late teens with a precocious writing talent in any area.
Where you find the young talent these days is in video and photography – mostly video, I think. Kai Neville is a classic example; Kai started making ASL’s dvds four years ago at the age of 19, now he’s one of the in-demand shooters for the big surf companies. He’s 23 and he’s got a full-on professional future ahead of him. I think the main element involved in good writing and journalism – aside from a bit of native intelligence – is a kind of unalloyed curiosity about something, and that seems to be true for film makers too. (Bra Boys might just as well have been a brilliant surf mag article as a hugely successful documentary.) Perhaps a lot of potentially good writers are out there making short films trying to get a scholarship to UCLA film school.
In the USA I think it’s different: there are a lot of good surf writers, including a few who’ve really come on strong in the last five years or so (Nathan Myers at Surfing is a good example).
I don’t know about the best surf writing being in books. Mags leave themselves open to mockery thanks to the current fashion for short jokey bits and pieces, formulated lad-mag style for readers with fairly short attention spans. These short bits are much more a test for a writer than they appear and unless you’re pretty good, they come off as lame or just stupid…and they’re rarely born of that writer’s curiosity I mentioned before. Thus the mags often come across as sillier than they really are. Still – to go back to the Bra Boys example, there’s been many thousands of words written about that scene in the Aussie surf mags, and despite the spectacular nature of the storyline and people involved, few of the articles have even come close to being good. So maybe DC’s call is accurate.
Two months or more on the North Shore every winter – do surf mag editors still do this?
No surf mag editor to my knowledge spends more than 10 or 12 days in Hawaii each season these days. (Other than Evan Slater who does everything he can to extend his surf time!) I suspect it’s mostly because they’re not that hardcore and the waves are well beyond them. The North Shore in December is pretty overwhelming; if you’re not on a personal mission to learn Sunset or Pipe, or feeling that writer’s deep curiosity about the place, then you’re not going to push beyond your comfort zone, either in the surf or out. It’s also because there’s a gun at each of their heads work-wise; publishers these days are all about control, and editors out of the office make them nervous. Tracks publisher Philip Mason didn’t give a shit what I did as long as it didn’t cost him any money (and it didn’t – I took all my holidays, paid the air ticket and everything myself, and begged for extra weeks of normal paid employment, on the basis that I was gathering important material for the mag). Surfing magazine just wanted me to be wherever I’d be most productive. I felt like I was a surfer and that’s what a surfer in his twenties should do – charge!! I’d have chucked the editorship to do it if necessary.
Has your commitment to Hawaii ever caused problems in your family life?
I’ve been fortunate to have got away with a lot of Hawaiian water time! It probably should’ve been more problematic than it has been. I reckon many committed surfers have had their family life tested by their surfing obsession; I’ve had that happen for sure but it’s basically taught me that family’s more important. Wendy’s been there three or four times and the whole family a couple of times. I had a super fun trip there in summer 2005 with my daughter Madeleine. I was doing the Molokai paddle race and thought she might enjoy coming along to surf Waikiki. We drove into Waikiki for the first time and it was around 3’ and light offshore; Maddie looked out of the car window, saw Queens peaking up in the midday sun, and said, ‘I’m going out there right NOW!’ The subsequent session was almost ridiculously fun, right up there with Sunset etc.
I don’t see Hawaii as a hangup. I could happily live without spending any more winter time there. But at the same time I love to surf in Hawaiian waters and I feel a sort of blood tie to it. A surfer can be at home in a lot of places and I feel very much at home at Sunset, Waimea etc. and have a lot of blood-brother friends there too. I go there when chance or work or whatever takes me, but I don’t need to spend two months there anymore.
What has all that time in Hawaii given you – as a surfer, as a writer and as a person?
I feel like it sort of starts and ends with how I’ve always seen surfing – as an all-encompassing personal thing. I’ve always thought I could put every part of myself into the process of surfing and it’d all come back to me somehow down the line. For me that came true in Hawaiian surf. I’d seen it in surf movies as a little kid, I’d thought it was the magical centre of the world, I went there knowing it was a place that could make you or break you as a surfer, and fortunately for me, it made me. I took my 500 wipeouts at Sunset and learned every lineup in every swell; I’ve ridden the most beautiful waves of my life on the most beautiful boards I’ve ever owned; I’ve nearly died there. My right leg is scarred to the bone for life thanks to Hawaiian surf; I carry metal in one ankle; bits of cartilage float in a knee; over 80 stitches have been inserted in my flesh. I’ve gone to the dark side in the Molokai channel and come back to earth a different person. I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words about it, and still the strongest and most important ones, the best stories, the most painful and enriching, I haven’t even started on yet.
The biggest thing I reckon I learned there was respect, the meaning of that word between surfers and men generally.
What does ‘respect’ mean?
I think in its ultimate form ‘respect’ between people means the ability to fully see and appreciate each other and to give each other room to be human. A sense of equality and humility in the face of things. You don’t seem to get this between people unless they’re brought together in the presence of something a lot bigger than they are, blowing away the distinctions that humans tend to erect between each other and revealing the individual qualities. Ever been in the water with a few people when a shark shows up? That’s a little example I guess, kind of narrow but you get some of the idea.
In Hawaii the ocean’s got a lot of power, it’s way too big for anyone really, but you still go out there for fun and the sheer stoke of challenging yourself. You’re out there in the midst of all this crazy energy with a group of other like-minded people, having these extraordinary experiences of super stoke, fear, awe, and a kind of alchemy occurs between all the people involved. It rips away the bullshit. It doesn’t mean you have to hang around together or get to know the other details of your lives; it does mean that you all feel like you understand each other at the core. This strikes me as a very male thing, blokes don’t tend to show themselves to others very easily without that context of the bigger presence.
Men who are fortunate seem to be able to transfer the experience of respect to others over time, so it kinda becomes a habit for them to pass on that sense of equality. Men who get stuck on it tend to turn inward, within a small group, and shut out others. I think this is what helps drive localism – respect mis-learned. Or mis-applied.
How did learning respect change your behaviour or your attitude towards or treatment of others, and your attitude towards certain places or things?
I discovered I wasn’t the centre of the universe, which is always helpful. Slowly over time I’ve become a bit nicer to other people than I was in my early twenties. Especially in the surf, I was a very arrogant, forceful, unkind person, intolerant of beginners and others I didn’t know. Kind of the Dark Side of being in a really great, tight group of local surfing friends.
In Hawaii I watched guys like Doerner, Ben Aipa, Gerry Lopez, a lot of guys, the way they never misused the respect in which they were held by everyone, but instead gave it back to everyone around them. It dawned on me that it was a two-way street: that the respect you gave, the room you were able to give to others, somehow enhanced your own self-respect and humanity. Not that I suddenly became all sweetness and light in the lineup, but it did slowly work through my thick skull that there were other people in the water with me and I should begin to treat them as I’d choose to be treated myself.
One of the great things you can do as a long-term surfer is teach other people to surf – especially kids, your own and others. It’s an act of respect for what you’ve done with that part of your life. Express it and it’s reborn. Withhold it and it dies and rots in your heart and becomes meaningless. This is at the heart of what pushes me to continue to write about surfing.
It’s a long learning process, very complex, and it’s not done with me by any means. Human psychological growth has a lot of sticking points but I think it’s important to keep looking for ways past those sticking points. The alternative – surrendering to being old and bitter – is just too lame.
Describe your writing routine.
I’m not the most disciplined writer in the world – I’m always humbled by accounts of some wordsmith who sits down from x hour to y hour and writes 3,000 words every day. My version of that goes something like: go to office around 8:30am, spend the morning doing paper work, emails, phone calls etc, surf or swim at lunchtime during which time I decide what I’m going to work on in the arvo, then from 2pm to around 6pm focus singularly on one of my tasks. Wrap it up around 6:30pm, then tend to review what I’ve written that evening for an hour or so – maybe longer if I get on a run. That said sometimes I’ll go on hell binges with a major piece of work for three or four days running. Big articles in the 3,000 to 5,000 word range I’ll generally write in several bursts: one burst straight off the initial research, then a re-read will show me all the holes, more research will hopefully fill them, and two or three more sessions will get the language and flow where I want.
As a grom I’d stay up all night writing – but that was in the typewriter days, when you couldn’t go away and come back and make corrections with a few keystrokes, the way you can on a computer. All-nighters are fun but you get sick of them after a while, and they don’t necessarily help your work.
Something most writers won’t admit is that they need a good editor in order to do their best work. This is true for me; I really relish good interplay and don’t get nearly enough of it in general.
Great books have been written about cricket, football, boxing and baseball. Has a great book about surfing been written?
I can’t say I’ve read a great book about surfing yet. There’s been some OK ones, but the potentially great ones keep falling short. A great sports book has to connect the sport and its nature and participants to bigger themes, yet it simultaneously needs to be grounded in the raw vitality of the sport with which it’s engaged. It requires a journalist’s eye and ear for action and dialogue rather than a novelist’s aesthetic sense. But it takes a lot to break away from surfing’s many cliches and stare some of the sport’s harder truths in the face…and it’s really hard for a writer to describe the feelings involved in surfing, especially if the writer hasn’t been very close to those feelings. Maybe a larger body of surf literature needs to be built before a great surfing book can be fully realised.
How long have you been writing poems, and what got you into it?
Been writing them for about five years, started unintentionally as a response to a sudden shift in my emotional state at the time. Just seemed to trigger a flow of suppressed emotion. Poetry to me combines an unconscious instinctive well of emotional response with a sort of intellectual rhythm or architecture of language. The best ones render the exact shape and intensity of the emotion – or if not exact then bloody close. Bad ones ape or pretend to an emotion, or worse, accurately render a falsely held one.
I thought I would be scared of showing them to anyone in print but then realised that once I’ve written them it’s like I’ve written their emotional weight out from myself. So they’re pretty light in my hands, if you get my drift.
Could you say more about that emotional shift and your poetic response to it?
I went through a period of upheaval common enough among men in their early forties, during which a lot of unexamined and repressed emotional energy came to the surface. It was unexpected and intense, and I felt I desperately needed new kinds of language to help me understand what was happening. The poetic response really did that – not immediately, but over time. It changed how I’d seen writing and what I thought it could do. You can read poetry all day and enjoy it, but as with other writing forms, there’s a huge difference between what you read and what you write. On the one hand you might see familiar bits of yourself through other people’s words; on the other, it can be like looking in a mirror at a part of you you’ve never seen.
How did you come to the ideas of ‘architecture of language’ and ‘shape and intensity of emotion rendered by poetry’? How have these ideas and your poetry influenced your thinking and writing more generally?
I don’t know if you can really describe the genesis of ideas, they seem to form on their own out of all you’ve mentioned above…and maybe they shouldn’t be analysed too closely, at least by the writer, who needs to be able to hold the shape of that idea or that emotion intact as long as possible before it dissolves or blows away. Look too closely and it’s gone. Then the idea takes shape on the page and bingo, it’s set. Or the memory of it is set. Sometimes it changes even in the process of writing – that’s the architecture of language playing a part. Then perhaps comes the time for analysis. A self-aware writer will learn a lot about himself or herself this way – maybe more than he or she wishes to know…but then again, why write unless you’re willing to be self-aware?
Most of my own ideas about writing, like the ones expressed in your question, feel to me quite fluid but also quite sure and clear – they’ve formed over a long time and millions of words written and read, and I doubt I could assign their antecedents with complete accuracy.
Writing to me feels a bit like surfing: it’s really difficult, on and off, for years and years and years, then at some point it turns a corner and grows simpler. I don’t mean how you think about it; I mean how you do it. The best writers I read these days are all quite old, yet their touch is unbelievably deft and unhurried; a lot of younger ones seem to me like they’re struggling and straining against the language and their ideas. Surfers, unfortunately, tend to wear out a bit earlier – the body can’t take what you dish out forever, your reactions slow down. It’s a balancing act then, how long you can sustain the simplicity you find against the body’s fall from grace. I’m glad that writing doesn’t need so much muscle – at least the physical kind.
Where did the name ‘Gorman’ come from in your poem ‘Bigger Lives’?
Well I hate to admit it but ‘Gorman’ isn’t a pure product of my imagination. It’s a real name and he’s an actual person, a retired marine biologist I’ve known since childhood. He sits on the dunes and headlands of the Northern Beaches and watches the whale migrations every June and October. Something about his figure, about the way in which he watches them pass, and the way they do, just out of reach across the unknowable sea, makes me think of loss and longing and how people want to kill those feelings off inside themselves, out of fear of their own condition. How human it is to long for something inexplicable, and how human it is to make blood run in sacrifice to that longing.
What obligations would you say a committed surfer has – to himself or herself, to other surfers, to the surf, to surfing?
Well I think that relates to what I said before about expressing what you’ve learned in your life. I see it all around me these days; there are so many surfers engaged in various acts of obligation, and doing it quite joyfully. Gary Blaschke and all his colleagues of the Disabled Surfers Association are classic examples. I went to a Surfrider Foundation annual conference a couple of weeks ago; they’d had one a year ago that drew 10 or 12 people; this year there were over 80 delegates and they all seemed totally engaged, willing to work to develop their various skills and programs. It felt really centred on that healthy sense of obligation. I’m sure there’s thousands of surfers round Australia, and the world, finding ways in which to express that sense, whether it be in running boardriding clubs, pushing local environmental causes, linking surfing with other community groups, or any number of valuable but little-publicised things, and I think it’s going to prove to be one of surfing’s great strengths in coming years.
I really hope that the sport’s other great structural strength – the surfing industry – can find ways to connect with all those surfers and help them work to the betterment of the sport. It does seem to me that that sort of thing is done a lot better in the USA than here in Oz, I don’t know why that is, but we could learn from the Americans in that area.
What kind of person do you think commits to surfing?
Well, I think there are different levels here. For instance, surfing’s much easier to learn if you’re young. A child of eight or nine doesn’t mind falling off a hundred times a day; he or she has plenty of time to do all that falling off. Almost all good surfers develop their basic skills in the first six months and if they don’t get it right then, they’re gonna struggle…and surfing’s no fun if you’re struggling. Lots of people give up surfing because of that – more than you’d think. So I guess one abiding factor is youth. Do it young, get pretty good, and you’ll surf on and off for most of your life.
But I think there’s another level of involvement and I think it goes beyond ‘sport’ and into other deeper areas. Water generally, and the ocean in particular, leaks very deeply into the human psyche, it’s a powerful symbol of the unconscious, and engaging with it can pull hidden strings in your head. I think this is at the heart of surfing mythology and also has a lot to do with the apparently addictive nature of the sport for some people – they’re getting in contact with parts of themselves that resonate and that may feel magical, or even supernatural at times. This is the face of surfing that many long-term surfers struggle to put into words, I suspect perhaps because the unconscious doesn’t require language to communicate its needs.
Another thing playing into it is your emotional state at the time. Through the past 30 or 40 years, at least while I’ve been paying attention, I’ve noticed that a lot of long-term surfers come into surfing at a moment of emotional vulnerability. A parent has died, or there’s been a divorce, or perhaps the kid is just a bit introverted and in need of a place to call his or her own. Here’s a little bit I wrote in the book about Lisa Andersen: ‘For a lifelong surfer, there is and always will be truly nothing like that first feeling of the wave, of being connected through and through in movement with the wave and the board. If you do this at a certain moment in your life, as Lisa did, when nothing else is quite working, everything in you will re-set itself around that feeling. That feeling, in its absolute rightness, becomes the center of things.’
Surfing is not the social adventure it used to be, you said. Are today’s grommets different to the grommets of the 1970s and 1980s, then? If so, are the ideas and attitudes today’s grommets are bringing to surfing good for it? If you were 8 or 10 or 12 or 14 years old today, would you be into surfing?
When I go surfing after work at Newport these days, there’s almost always several mums down there, waiting for their grommets to get out of the water. It’s so funny in a gentle sort of way. Most of these women have grown up in a world where surfing was just such an aggro thing and now they’re down there in the family car, talking and hanging out, waiting for their little boys. If it’s not them it’s the dads, some of whom surf but others who don’t. This is a colossal difference to the way in which the surfers of the early ’70s and ’80s engaged with the surf. Note I don’t say the grommets themselves are different; I don’t think they are at all. I know the surf isn’t any different. But the emotional climate for them is different. They’re supported in their surfing – it’s not alien to their family lives. Thirty years ago, nobody’s parents surfed; they might have vaguely thought ‘I hope what Johnny’s doing down at the beach is OK’, they might have even been in favour of it. But odds on they had no clue: they never waited for their kids at the carpark, and may even have thought surfing was bad for little Johnny. This I think created a generational friction which had good and bad effects. Surfing may have needed that split in order to produce the great leap forward that characterised Australian surfing between 1970 and 1985. The maverick genius of Michael Peterson could never have been applied so totally to surfing in a society where a single mother was socially supported and schizophrenia was understood and treated. Rabbit’s ferocious drive to win…Fitzy’s and Martyn Worthington’s spray jobs…Morning Of The Earth…all sorts of amazing stuff might never have happened had surfing not split away from the mainstream and gone down its own unique road. Surfing gave some extraordinary people a ticket to ride. But fuck, the prices some people paid make you wonder if it was all worth it.
Would I have got into it today? I can’t say. My son hasn’t. But he’s a healthier individual than I was at his age. I guess for the grommets I see in the water, surfing’s lost very little; maybe a bit of obsessional magic’s been traded for a bit of normalcy. It’s no big loss, that one.
As far as what they bring to surfing, well, surfing would be nothing without grommets…it’d be a stale, dying pastime. Grommets bring life to the sport.