Barbarian Days – A Surfing Life

Monday, 30 November 2015

It looks like I’ve abandoned this blog, it’s been three months since I’ve put anything up. OK, I’m going to fix that, December 2015 I’ll put up something every day. It isn’t like I haven’t been travelling this year – or doing things – or reading books. And we’ll start with one of those;

The last book I posted on was Mark Vanhoenacker’s Skyfaring, a book about an obsession: flying. OK this is another obsession: surfing.

Barbarian Days - 270No question Bill Finnegan has the surfing obsession bigtime. There are an awful lot of waves caught, an awful lot of scary moments, a hell of a lot of serious discomfort. Remarkably his writing rises way above that obsession, it’s been a big bestseller, clearly appealing to lots of readers who don’t share his wave-led passion. Well it’s about people – lots of fellow surfers of course, but also lots of friends some of whom certainly don’t share his obsession.

Plus there’s lots of travel, most of it surf led, there’s growing up in California and Hawaii, good places to develop a surfing enthusiasm. Then there’s a long trek across the Pacific in search of the ‘perfect wave’ and its discovery in Fiji, although later we discover there are other perfect waves. A long spell in Australia follows – a good place for surfing obsessives of course – and then another long spell in Indonesia. Next it’s South Africa where he collides with the end days of apartheid and his writing career really kicks into high gear. Or at least he does the groundwork which later on will turn him into a writer.

Next a long spell in San Francisco, a place with great waves but also a bunch of problems (like it’s bloody freezing) which makes it a place only really suitable for real obsessives. And then a long love affair with the Portuguese island of Madeira before proving that you can even be a surfer living in New York City.

caught-insideTwo disclaimers. Disclaimer One: I really don’t know anything about surfing. Sure I’ve been plenty of places where surfing is a big deal, I’ve certainly watched them at play, but personally? No I’ve never been a surfer and according to William Finnegan I’m certainly too late now. In his view if you’re not converted by the time you’re 14 years old you’re never going to amount to much in the waves. In fact Eric Kettunen, who used to head up Lonely Planet USA, whom I’ve walked with in Tibet and cycled with in French Polynesia and is the keenest surfer I know, started surfing at twice that age. So who knows. Eric also found Daniel Duane’s Caught Inside which Lonely Planet published 15 years ago and which I really enjoyed at the time. It’s still available in a North Point Press edition. Careful, there’s more than one book with the same title.

Disclaimer Two: Maureen and I joined William Finnegan for a lunchtime talk event at the Ubud Writers Festival in Bali a few weeks ago. Well it’s all travel and the audience seemed to enjoy it.