Thursday, November 09, 2017

The Ocean Doesn't Care

I first moved to Brisbane from Byron Bay to take up a PhD opportunity in 2008. It would be a gross understatement to say I was not thrilled about the move at the time, but I was thrilled about the chance to undertake my study (about women's surfing). Putting surfing first was not making me happy. Living where I did meant  limited job opportunities, and I was bored. I'm not saying my life was boring, nor that life in Byron Bay is boring. I'm saying that I was bored.

But the transition from surfing every day to a much more a mediated surfing life was not easy. I was over an hour from the closest break and I was poor as you can imagine, so I couldn't regularly afford the petrol money. I couldn't just take off when I wanted, but often had to wait until I could get away, so I often got skunked on the surf as well. Getting shit waves might not have too much of an effect when you can surf all the time, but when it's rare that you get into the sea, it can really bite.

It took a while, but I slowly relaxed into making sense of what surfing could mean from a different perspective. From a non-local, weekend-warrior, city-based surfing perspective. A couple of experiences (here and here) really drove home how desperately crazy about waves local surfers can be, and how surfing every day can make you even hungrier and less appreciative of waves than people who get to the coast to surf much less often. And yet, I saw these people - me included - treated as though they'd given something up! As though they - we - weren't real surfers.

Not that I care what anyone might think about that, about my surfing. But I do care about how I can access the surf and the sea. Even though it doesn't always work out - that I don't get waves that I get smashed or that I don't always even enjoy it (which has been the case lately, but that's a whole other story). Because the ocean doesn't care either - not about me, not about you. It is always there, and it's always an option for seeing how I feel, but that doesn't guarantee it will be kind or make me feel better. It does, but not in that "the cure for everything" romanticised way. It makes me feel better in that I can get there.

So the film below resonated with me. As the film tells us,

I know this is a bit of a marketing exercise, but it's nice. And sure, Brisbane is no NYC. Brisbane city is nowhere near as populated or busy as New York, our winter's are crazy warm and we live in fairly close proximity to the coast, so sure, none of that was anything I have a reference point for (except the cold, a little, from my time in NZ). But I did understand the points about making time to get out into the world in ways I want to. Cities are very beautiful, but it is also pretty wonderful to get out of them and to the coast. (Or to a forest, or to a mountain.) And to be in the water where there are no phones, no emails, no knocks on your door. That's all so wonderful. Wave-riding offers me all that and more!

Please don't get me wrong in thinking that just being in the sea is always enough or that I don't care about waves, or that waves are a backdrop to the other stuff, because that's not how I feel at all. Not at all. I love getting waves and I wish I could get more of them. And that's sort of the point.

A lot of what I know about surfing in cities come from Toddy over at Endless Bummer NY. If you . don't know that blog, I don't really know what to say to you. Toddy talks as much about not-surfing as he does about surfing, and how despite that, surfing still shapes the way he sees, thinks about and experiences his city. it also means that belonging to a place is a bit different, and seems to be more based on going to a place, rather than claiming a place. He, along with a bunch of others, was recently asked about the NY surf scene:
“The thing that defines the New York surf scene? How intimate it is, even among strangers. This is evolving, of course. But it still holds true. People still talk in the water, say hi in the parking lot after a session. Yesterday an older guy came up while I was drying off the kids and just started talking about how the high tide was bumping him off the waves then smiled and said, ‘Well anyways, I was watching you out there, I really like your footwork!’ and walked away. Typical of certain corners around here. How’s it different? Well, there is a seeming inverse proportion of stoke to consistency of quality waves. And that’s weird.”
Getting waves when you live away from the coast isn't easy. It is a hard won prize, based on decision and effort. When you're working a lot (by choice!) then going surfing means taking a day off or waiting for the weekend, or not seeing your friends, or not getting things done around the house, or not sleeping in when you're dog tired, or missing a deadline, or myriad other things that you have to decide not to prioritise, when surfing means all of that, well, surfing means a lot.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

The dangers of a Boys' Club

This is not new, but it is great, so I thought it was worth sharing.

As great as it is, there is stillnothing new in this clip that women haven't been saying for a long time now.In a way it strikes at the heart of the difficulty of how it's possible to get things to change.

We too fear being excluded.

Women can't fix this. Women have been doing what they can to participate, be visible, create new content, promote each others' achievements, build their own skills, push their own edges. Women fighting for change is not the problems. Instead, women's bodies, femininity and skills are still seen as the 'problem', and it is up to men to change their own minds and hearts, to change their responses to women's participation.

By highlighting the challenges for women to participate, at the way the accusation that fear of exclusions keeps the culture closed to difference, this clips hints at the challenges for many others to participate freely and safely as well.

We too fear being excluded.

This is clear in the story of skateboarder Brian Anderson, and his own struggles with fitting in skating culture, even as he was one of the most dominant and respected figures. This little film is great and totally worth watching al the way through.

BA came out as gay in 2016. In this doco, he reveals that he was "totally scared" of anyone in skateboarding finding out he was gay, and that he chose to hide his sexuality because he thought that it would be "dangerous to talk about it" in the world of professional skateboarding and skateboarding culture more broadly.

Brian Anderson is a super successful, highly respected, really handsome, conventionally masculine man, who was revered an adored and admired in his world, and yet he feared people knowing he was gay. So imagine how hard it is for someone who conforms even less to established markers of belonging.

We too fear being excluded.

Our own fears around belonging and exclusion have the effect of excluding others, and as long as "we too fear being excluded" to the point where we create closed circles of self-reference, then we make things truly dangerous for anyone who doesn't fit.

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, September 05, 2017

Fragments of surfing bodies

As someone who is interested in the ways people, experiences, ideas, relationships and places are represented - in how we come to know them - social media fascinates me. What we're all willing to share, to repost, to like, comment on, and talk about offline, gives lots of insight into other aspects of our lives and thoughts and relationships.

Each social media - e.g. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, LinkedIn, Twitter - is different and allows us to do different things. For example, one that I use and study (a little), Instagram, claims to offer a behind the scenes look into people's lives, allowing us to share fragments of our days with each other. And for me, that's certainly the best of it. When I was living in New Zealand, Instagram let me remain a part of my friend's daily lives in a mundane way. Yes, it's all selected and filtered and cropped and edited and reframed to be as pretty as possible, but when it comes to people I know, I could read through all that, situating their posts against my long relationships with them and their families and homes, and against what I know of them through their emails and phone-calls.

Still, we all prefer to post the best of ourselves. Of course.

The fragments we see on Instagram are much more complicated, commercialised and professional than the cheery sales pitch. And if it's like that for people like me and my friends, well, when it comes to celebrities and famous folk, so much of how they use social media is an explicit and targeted exercise in marketing and branding. Social media offers an incredible opportunity to sell themselves and to make money through endorsements and sponsorships. I'm don't need to talk about that today, other that to establish that that things we see famous folk post online are usually done so to be consistent with their own brand. It can be more than that too, and for many celebrities and sports stars etc, it's a great way to reach and be in touch with fans and followers and other interested observers. Like me. When it comes to celebrity, social media is offers a seemingly direct way for fans to access the lives of those they admire, obsess about, aspire to be, or are simply curious about. Instagram, and other social media cuts out the editorial processes of traditional media.

I'm not entirely sure what all of this means yet. In a superficial ways, it does seem to diversify the kinds of images we see about different cultures, bodies, and places, which is great. Take women's surfing (just, you know, an example off the top of my head). On a small study I did of women's surfing accounts, I found that Instagram has offered the chance for various women and girls - sponsored, non-sponsored, wiht bog and small followings, and of various capabilities - to present themselves as surfers in their own way: there is an abundance of images of women surfing in a way that continues to eludes magazine publication; women position themselves as holding in depth knowledge about surfing culture, practices and places; and they highlight the ays that other women shape and define their surfing worlds, with men a part of their surfing world, but not all of it. It's pretty cool. Of course, since so much of social media is driven by quantifiable likes, we often end up with the same images anyway; Filtered, processed, angled, well-lit, and often still focused on bikini-clad, heterosexy, female bodies.

Still, the Instagram accounts of the women I looked at are far from the huge, sponsor driven accounts of female elite-athlete surfers.  The primary images of women's surfing, especially on the bigger accounts at that stage tended to still often be of hot female bodies in bikinis. The accounts of the pro female surfers have a different agenda, which is mediated by the need to maintain sponsorship, and media presence and so on. Essentially, their use of Instagram is often mediated by their job, and the need to conform to the happy, cute, girl-next-door, ideal of female surfers.

But every so often, even on the most professionalised, most sponsor-driven accounts with the highest followers, little non-scripted slivers from behind the scenes shine through. Every so often we get the feeling that it's not media teams running everyone's account, but that individuals themselves still choose and post the images.

A few weeks ago, I was killing time, looking on Instagram and I saw a post in Alana Blanchard's feed. Alana Blanchard has over 1.9 million Instagram followers and is one of the most promoted and highly paid women surfers in the world. This is not only because she surfs really well - and she really does - but also because she's very willing and happy to pose in bikinis - very small bikinis - and to play up her sexuality. You know the drill. She giggles and flicks her hair and has perfected looking over her shoulder back at a camera that is angled at her butt. She's also willing to say that she loves these tiny bikinis because they're what everyone wears and that they stay on better in the surf, a statement that continues to blow my mind.

The photos and captions on Alana Blanchard's Instagram profile are evidence of all of this. You can go check it out off you feel like it. Her images are a bit more mixed lately, because she's currently 30-something weeks pregnant, which is very exciting for her and her partner. She's also still totally heteronormatively gorgeous and posing in bikinis.

Her posts usually sell a life of ease and glamour and fun and play and surfing and modelling, and these kinds of images of her non-pregnant body remain interspersed through her recent pregnancy updates as well. There's nothing unexpected about that - it's social media marketing for her personal brand after all. But recently a sliver of something else slipped through. Something that is consistent with a lot of first time mother narratives, but which I found a little unexpected, given her defence of her girly, sexy, femininity. 

(This post is from August 17th)

While Alana Blanchard has never pretended she isn't playing a media game for her own gain, I've never seen her talk about her sense of self and her body in this way before. Usually, as in the Sports Illustrated video and Surfer profile I liked to above, her self-confidence is highlighted. That she is so confident is no surprise and it's great to hear! But I've never seen her talk about body image in this way - about the pressure to, as she puts it, be thin enough.

This is just an edited, framed up fragment of a moment of a though of Alana Blanchard's life. But to me it feels as well as though there is something more there too. This fragment feels more like a little fissure or a crack through the media persona that Blanchard has so carefully crafted; a little view to something not unexpected, but unusual for her to admit.

The pressure to be thin enough. But thin enough for what?

Thin enough to be the most famous female surfer? Thin enough to be coveted for surf magazine, underwear and Sports Illustrated photo shoots? Thin enough to be the face of Rip Curl? Thin enough to exude the confidence she usually feels?

These questions in response to this little glimpse into how Alana might or might not think and feel about her body and the industry she is part of aren't an accusation, nor are they anything approaching glee that she too feels pressure to be thin enough. I feel no glee at all about that. Instead, they're a fascinated consideration of this insight into how Alana Blanchard might really think and feel about the world she lives in and the pressures she faces, despite the need to always present herself otherwise. 

When I read this particular post of Alana's, it felt like a refreshing breeze that has found its way through an accidentally opened window. As much as I try not to, it's easy to forget that celebrities are people like me, with all the attendant negotiations of various pressures. In Alana's case, she's making a living from her looks and her skill as a model, as well as her skills as a high performance surfer. And it is a tricky negotiation. As one surfer noted in a 2012 issue of Curl Magazine about the sexualisation of women surfers, Alana's body changed shape and lost power as she shifted into more full time modelling. Again, it wasn't a criticism, but an observation on the conflicting demands of what a professional surfer's and a model's body should look like and/or be able to do. 

And this issue is not new. As well as the discussions in that Curl Magazine, other professional women who surf have talked about feeling this pressure: Carissa Moore has famously talked about it in Surfer Magazine and to The Inertia. To be good at surfing, there should be no pressure for Alana to be thin, to worry that she's thin enough. Physiologically, it is not necessary. The worry about being thin is something else, something that is part of, but not uniquely of, surfing culture. But surfing culture and surf media, certainly don't make it easy to escape the feeling that surfing and thinness are and should be connected, even at the most high-performance levels. 

In the end, my point about the damaging nature the links between thinness and surfing and being female, and how this all peeked through the fragment of a day posted by Alana Blanchard is not aimed to critiquing Alana herself. As always, it is aimed at the industry and media that have encouraged her into a position whereby her, and other women's, thinness is their financial and cultural capital. 

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.