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Posted on 1 Apr 2021 in Non-Fiction |

JOCK SERONG Lines to the Horizon: Australian surf writing. Reviewed by Michael Jongen

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These six essays provide insights into the world of surfing both as individual passion and national symbol.

In his introduction to this collection of Australian surf writing, Jock Serong asks whether surfing is a sport or a culture.

It is estimated there are between 2.5 million to 3.5 million recreational surfers in Australia today, and that one in three of these wave riders are women. We are regarded as one of the great surfing nations with thousands of above-average breaks in the country.

Surf magazine Tracks was first published in 1970, its counter-cultural ethos exemplified by the cartoon Captain Goodvibes. Fifty-one years later, Tim Winton can assert on the cover of this anthology that ‘Surfing is not just a subculture, it is culture, and here’s proof.’

The six essays here explore the history of surfing in this country, evoking the intensity of the experience and the impact of surf culture as both national symbol and individual passion.

‘Following the Birds’ by Madelaine Dickie opens the collection with an account of the three-and-a-half month surfing trip she undertook in Mexico. This is an enthralling travelogue outlining the recent murderous political history of Mexico, the government’s war with the drug cartels, and the visceral fear she felt travelling through the country. As I read this piece my mind continually replayed images from Alfonso Cuarón’s  film Roma and its scenes of the sea. This is a good introduction to surf culture, the search for the perfect remote break, the power and adrenaline of a good wave, and the timeless dilemma of the incomer seeking to drop in on the locals.

… I tell them about the way the young man at Playa Carrizalillo intimidated me. My Ningaloo girlfriends are all surfers. I’m surprised when they’re approving of his behaviour. You have to give it to him, they say. His abuse was effective. He got you out of the water.

And then, to my horror, they suggest we do the same.

We should tell the Chileans to fuck off back home when they flood our local next winter.

Mark Smith’s ‘The Sea-affected Life’ looks at the surf culture of Victoria’s Surf Coast. This is an interesting and informative backgrounder to the Surf Coast, focussing on three creatives whose work is inspired by the sea and surfing. Author Favel Parrett describes her struggle to convey the essence of the surfing experience to readers who have never surfed. She gives the example of how, coming upon the phrase ‘lines backed up to the horizon’, her editor queried if the word ‘lines’ should be replaced by ‘swell’. Parrett argued that the sentence had to reflect what a surfer would think, and that a reader unfamiliar with the term would come to the language. Parrett, seeking to understand more of the ‘language of the water’ was awarded an Antarctic Arts Fellowship. Smith writes that it was not the continent that fascinated her, but the Southern Ocean itself that found its way into her heart and her writing.

‘Don’t You Know You’ve Got Legs? A Gold Coast surf culture manifesto’ by Sally Breen is a fascinating picture of the Gold Coast and the impact of its surf culture from the point of view of an observer rather than a surfer. She looks at the socio-demographic changes and observes the rise of young women’s quest to be seen and heard in the surf. Drugs and substance abuse in the surfing community and the nightclub scene are also explored.

Jack Sandtner’s ‘A Man Above the Reef’ follows professional surfer Taj Burrow in his last competition in Fiji. Burrow narrowly lost the final but finished with one of the rides of his life. This is an intimate portrait of the man and the competition.

The ‘hold down’ is when a surfer is pressed down by a wave and cannot catch their breath. Sam Carmody’s story ‘Hold-down’ examines depression, psychologists and surfing. The fear of drowning or smashing yourself on a reef, being constantly on the lookout for sharks, and being both wary of and dependent upon the sea, all feature. This is a story of returning to surfing as a cure for depression and giving up pharmaceuticals, and it is a very gutsy telling.

These themes are expanded in ‘The Sea: Friend or Foe?’ by Emily Brugman, a powerful account of the pull of the ocean. Brugman begins by quoting Tim Winton: ‘I love the sea but it does not love me.’ I found this essay deeply compelling and as evocative as some of my favourite fiction.

Brugman relates the story of four women in their sixties and seventies who do open water swimming in Byron Bay as a ‘healing process’:

Ever since the spate of shark encounters that took place in and around Byron Bay between 2014 and 2016, grey suits have never been far from my mind. It’s surprising to me that people have never stopped swimming this route. At the very least, on a surfboard you can swing around and catch the next wave in. Those swimmers out there, they are braver than I am.

The women speak about the time they were suddenly pushed towards a steep rocky headland; two of the women managed to hold onto smaller rocks and climb to higher ground, but one of the group, Clare, was left struggling at the base of a high, vertical boulder. The story of her rescue is reminiscent of one of the pivotal scenes in Danielle Binks’s novel The Year the Maps Changed and the penultimate scenes in Jane Harper’s The Survivor – tense and exciting.

Brugman follows this story with an interview with Tony Mowbray, who participated in the calamitous 1998 Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race, when a number of elements came together to create a perfect storm. During it six men died and yachts were lost at sea. Mowbray’s retelling of his crew’s experience is as thrilling and compelling as Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm.

Mowbray’s yacht was sidelong to a breaking wave that flipped the boat, which then spun down the other side of the crest and was badly damaged. Several of the crew were injured. In Mowbray’s words:

You’ve got seventy- to eighty-foot waves and the top twenty-five foot of them is breaking white water. The waves were breaking irregularly and in sections. Biggles is going ‘Right, right, right. No, left, left, left!’ I’m going ‘For fuck’s sake, Biggles, make up your mind!’ Throughout that fifteen-hour ordeal there were so many waves that engulfed us, swamped us, rolled us, it just went on and on.

In Brugman’s final section we meet Mick and Tahlija, who follow the waves in their troopie and have devoted themselves to the lifestyle. There is discussion of the long hold-down, and Brugman compares Tahlija’s ‘peaceful re-emergence’ from it to her own ‘panic-scramble’ and quotes Michael Adams, a deep sea diver who considers that when we are underwater we find the space between breathing and not breathing, and therefore life and death. This liminality connects us to ‘ancient stories’ and the world between humans and water creatures.

 The Yield by Tara June Winch refers to baayanha – the yield as meaning ‘the space between things’. I read these two books simultaneously and was struck by the commonality of these concepts.

Jock Serong suggests that writing fiction about surfing is difficult. Tim Winton, whose shadow falls everywhere throughout this book, is its prime exponent and several of the writers here have produced novels that include the sea and surfing. Mark Smith’s novel The Road to Winter, for example, encompasses surfing as a meditative pastime in a post-apocalypse Surf Coast.

This is an exciting collection of well-written stories and an examination of a rich culture. It is a primer for the intensity and passion many Australians hold for their sport and lifestyle. This is not a glossy coffee table book offering surf photojournalism, rather a collection of the fine writing of surfing enthusiasts, and issues a challenge to writers to encompass these stories into fiction. For readers of fiction, I commend this collection for the richness of its stories.

Jock Serong Lines to the Horizon: Australian surf writing Fremantle Press 2021 PB 240pp $32.00

Michael Jongen is a librarian who tweets as @michael_jongen

You can buy Lines to the Horizon from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.

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