When people ask me why I didn’t surf til so much later in my life, I have an easy answer for them,
“Because I didn’t want to be around teenage boys.”
I copped enough shit from them at school and at parties and in town and on the beach, so I didn’t really feel the need to put myself in a situation where I would have to deal with them en masse, let alone while I was in a pair of swimmers! It’s not that I didn’t like being with the guys at all, it’s just that, in a group they were generally unbearable. Hanging out with them, I had heard lots of conversations that they had about girls. They would laugh and talk about who was putting out with who and how and where and what that meant for her reputation and who was going to have a go next. I knew that they weren't always like that, but I also knew that a lot of their behaviour was unethical and it freaked me out because if they did that to those girls, I knew it could happen to me as well. I hated it and the whole thing made me sick. I knew how the groms got treated too; held under water, hung from headlands in board bags, tied to poles and pissed on – all of which terrified me. I didn’t have surfing parents or siblings who could teach me or offer me some kind of protection, so to be honest, I really didn’t feel up to it. I came to that decision early on and never thought about it again, getting on with my life in music, dance, theatre, books and lying on the beach…
So Clifton Evers' recently released book, Notes for a Young Surfer, was both difficult and wonderful for me to read.
Clif’s book is a reflection and a conversation about masculinity – being a man – in Australian surfing culture, as well as a critique on the ways these masculine identities are learned and performed. Clif loves (LOVES!!) surfing in all its forms, so the book is not an indictment against surfing or surfing culture, but is a celebration of the possibilities in surfing for people (young people in particular) to explore their worlds, sexualities, bodies and relationships in ways that are infinite and fluid. His beef is with the ways that surfing culture (or the surfing culture he grew up in) limits men by defining and elevating them through violence, sex and bravado. Respect is doled out in relation to toughness, courage, strength, heterosexual conquests and loyalty – chicks, queers, pussies, metrosexuals and other kooks need not apply!
Clif uses stories and anecdotes from his own history, life, observations, conversations and experiences to explore and open questions that he had as a young man and adult, and to show where he felt uncomfortable and unsure about things that seemed to be acceptable to everyone else. His stories are of waves, nights out, drinking, sex, fun and mateship, but they also include fights, abuse, localism, sexual assault, rape, racism, homophobia and fear. In a way, Clif tries to rewrite some of these stories to show how they could have happened, and to show how they can be written again, in entirely new and more potential ways. He is particularly talking to young guys about how they can be the kinds of men they want to be in ways that feel right to them and offer more possibilities. More simply put, he’s giving them permission to ask questions. Pretty cool.
But that doesn’t make it easy.
As I read, I found myself angry, frustrated and ashamed, his stories resonating with words, accusations, assumptions and experiences that I have felt and been through. I suddenly felt resentful of the ways that the boys’ behaviours impacted on my young life by mediating access to and experiences of surfing, sex and relationships with them. That's not an accusation because this stuff is no-one's fault, it's just the ways things have been. Clif’s stories of disrespect, violence, assault and sexuality could have been taken from my own youth, albeit from another version of the experience. But his tales and recollections aren’t meant to be comfortable, which is the point. Clif is certainly honest. Very honest. These stories are meant to illustrate the complexities and ethical vacuum present in certain situations and decisions and they are very effective in this. They’ll sometimes make you squirm.
But as I also found I had some questions of my own – most especially about how the idea of ‘surfing’ gets used to describe one set of experiences. Clif’s stories are really about core shortboard crew. These are the kinds of surfers that are featured in Tracks, in Stab and filling the ranks of the WCT, but they are not necessarily the kinds of surfers that I deal with in the water where I surf. Oh, they’re there, but they don’t feature. There are also loads of groms ripping on shortboards at the places I surf, sharing waves with me as I surf my mal. These kids are cool and call me into waves and tease me and make me laugh. They can be little shits too, but I wonder if being a part of a lineup that is increasingly diverse and varied will make the little fellas’ transition into manhood any different? And I wonder if it’s making space for lots of different surfing styles, attitudes, identities, sexualities, ethnicities, bodies, performances and approaches to gain respect on their own terms? I hope so.
Coming from me, this appeal for a change in perspective feels somewhat hollow – I know young guys still don’t care what a 30-something, longboarding woman thinks - but coming from Clif, who has lived these lives and surfed these waves and been in these fights, it means something more and makes a stronger impact. Even more importantly, he writes in a way that is fun, engaging and easily understood. His points are clear and empathetic, and his often complex ideas are made clear through clever writing. Because make no mistake, this book is deceptively simple in its composition. Writing with this much depth, description, thought, honesty and accessibility is no mean feat, but it’s also central to how this book can be used, accessed and understood. Telling these stories to middle-aged men and women might spark feelings of regret or reflection, but allowing these tales to find an audience with young crew who are dealing with this stuff now – where it is aimed – is central to what makes this book work.
The world of surfing that Clif grew up in is not the one that I am a part of, so it is hard for me to know what it’s like around the headland at the faster, heavier, shortboarding breaks. The young guys and girls that share waves with me now will end up around there one day, shredding, ripping, competing, hoping to get sponsored, growing up, getting flooded with hormones and learning how to be men and women… I can only hope that ideas like Clif’s gain momentum.