William Finnegan of the New Yorker magazine has won awards for his writing on economics and conflict, and has published books on African politics and war.
Why has he written an entire book on surfing, however? It transpires Finnegan spent years catching waves in the South Pacific, Hawaii and California, and Barbarian Days is a lyrical return to those seventies journeys.
A recent review suggested Finnegan’s book wasn’t just about surfing, but was also a sly account of his writing career.
He accepts that as fair comment.
“Since I was young I was surfing quite seriously and writing quite seriously. When I sat down to write the book I had a lot of old journals to draw from, and since surfing was a semi-secret life I had. I’ve been making a living as a writer for 30-odd years, but mostly on politics, broadly defined, on conflict, race and economics, hard-edged subjects.
“I’d published one long piece on surfing, in the early nineties, but otherwise I stuck to my serious work. When I decided to write a memoir of my surfing life, though, I found very little about surfing - a great deal about girls, the places I was visiting, and about writing - why this novel wasn’t going well, why this character in my book needed to be different.
“I often didn’t understand or couldn’t remember what those entries were about, but surfing was just something I did, that I didn’t think about, but they’ve come together, the writing and the surfing, in this book.”
The resemblances go further, he points out.
“They’re both things you learn to do, and which take a great deal of reading.
“In surfing you do a great deal of reading the ocean, of the waves, of the spot you’re in. The long-form narrative writing I do requires a lot of reading also, so the analogy begins to seem not so tortured.
“Figuring out a spot is a great deal of what surfing is about, devoting yourself to a small patch of coast, studying it in all conditions over a long time so you can react creatively to how the waves behave . . . that, to my mind, is very much like figuring out a story, or a book. Even riding a wave well is like getting a sentence to work. So in the end, the analogy isn’t tortured at all.”
Barbarian Days conveys a sense in certain places of having arrived just a few years too late for a golden age of surfing, but Finnegan doesn’t accept his book is bathed in a nostalgic glow.
“I can see how you’d have the sense of a golden past in Ireland, because I remember surfing in Ireland in the eighties and there was no-one around, and I understand it’s now taken off, particularly along the west coast.
“I didn’t feel that in Hawaii but I was raised on that feeling in California. I learned to surf in the sixties in California, and we were forever gazing at photos of our favourite spots, Malibu and Rincon, from the forties, where you’d see two people out on a big day.
“It’s as if you imbibe nostalgia from the beginning with surfing. It’s strange, but I’m not at all interested in writing about the good old days in surfing, a golden age that ‘I caught but that you’ve missed’.
Some surfers read the book that way, and it’s true there are a few spots I managed to surf when they were little-known but which are now very crowded.
“But I’m not persuaded there aren’t other spots to be found.
” How about growing up in sixties California, though? Surely that was an Eden even if nobody recognised it?
“I don’t think so. Culturally, no. The fifties, sixties and seventies were all a mixed bag.
“For middle-class Americans the fifties was full all sorts of . . . I want to say psychological comforts which were bought at the expense of lots of repression and oppression - this was pre-civil rights.
“The sixties was obviously a time of great upheavals, and there were benefits and downsides to that. This is nothing to do with sport, but throughout my youth income inequality was decreasing, and in California the public services were fantastic, particularly compared to now. Public universities were fantastic, and cheap, for instance, there was a social compact, and you didn’t have the hard-right element in politics.
“So there was a sense of a golden age, but that didn’t relate particularly to surfing. There was a great advance in surfing in 1968 with the shortboard revolution, and it became more popular, though now the crowds surfing are dystopian: you need to make an effort to get away from them.
“As for the Beach Boys and Gidget and so on, for me that was youth, and youth is always a mixed bag. But while there was a fad across the land - Surfin’ USA and so on - I never knew any surfer who had any interest in the Beach Boys. The surfers were all intent on something quite different, and surfing is itself is quite different from that imagery.
“It’s much harsher than it looks, takes years to learn and is quite addictive - none of that was suggested by the ‘fun in the sun’ image of the Beach Boys.” Harshness is about right. Finnegan depicts himself as a kid trying to break in with the local surfers when his family moved house.
“The essential thing about surfing isn’t the athletic tasks, learning to stand on the board, making a cutback. All of that comes, though the younger you learn the easier it is.
“Learning to read the ocean, to understand it and to anticipate what the waves will do - that’s the difficult part. It’s pretentious to call it the intellectual work of surfing, but there’s close study going on.
“Then, separate to that, there’s finding your place in the crowd that’s surfing on any given day. More often than not there are a lot of guys, some of them local and some not, some inexperienced, some very good, and the surfing social contract between all of them is quite dynamic and quite intense.
“It differs from place to place, too. I live in New York now and surf quite a lot here, along Long Island and the Jersey shore, and the surfing social dynamic is quite different. The standard of surfing is higher in California and Hawaii and people are less quick to befriend you or give you information. They’re ‘cooler’ with you.
“On the east coast, contrary to New York’s reputation as a city, people are incredibly friendly, a local surfer will give you all the information you need. They’re also quicker to applaud here, though surfers don’t applaud. They hoot.
“On the east coast they’ll hoot at practically anything, it’s friendly encouragement. In Hawaii and California you only hooted if something truly remarkable happened, and I internalised that superciliousness. I sometimes wish I could get on the local wavelength!”
Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan (Corsair, £14.99)
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