Surfing has been the "tumbling centre" of William Finnegan's life. Photo: Gallery Stock
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The New Yorker war reporter who took to surfing

From Fiji to San Francisco, William Finnegan evokes the magic and terror of chasing waves in rapturous prose.

Barbarian Days: a Surfing Life
William Finnegan
Penguin, 464pp, £18.45

William Finnegan is a New Yorker staff writer and war reporter, and he is also a lifelong surfer. Both occupations border on the addictive or the obsessive, and it was a long time before he allowed them to intersect. He first seriously broached the subject of surfing in print back in 1992, when he published “Playing Doc’s Games”, an enormous, dizzyingly beautiful, two-part essay in the New Yorker about the big-wave scene in San Francisco. It took seven years to write it, partly because he didn’t want to out himself as a surfer and partly because he liked, or perhaps required, surfing to remain an unexamined secret, a private realm.

“Having a sizable tract of unconsciousness near the centre of my life suited me, somehow,” he says. Both the phrasing and the thought itself are characteristic of Finnegan’s style and go some way to explaining why a nearly 500-page memoir about a sport I’ve never tried might be so astonishingly gripping, so luminous as to fill my dreams with curling overheads for weeks. Like “Doc’s Games”, Barbarian Days is huge, intimate, hyperreal, a bewitching account of an entire life by way of waves. What he’s writing about is not just the gnarly art of ripping, but single-mindedness, beauty, ambition, skill; a drama enacted on peeling lefts and wild black sets that threaten to turn the fittest swimmer into a battered ragdoll.

Finnegan first rode a board – borrowed, green – at the age of ten and was immediately enraptured by the sensation of speed, of impossibly fluent carriage. When he was in eighth grade, his family upped sticks from California to Hawaii. As a haole (white boy), he was in a tiny, unpopular minority at his rough new school. Surfing offered a respite, an escape from both loneliness and fights. Each day he rose before dawn to paddle half a mile to the reef off Diamond Head, where he learned his craft among a handful of magically talented local boys.

Surfing was an all-consuming pastime then, “the tumbling centre” of his youth, and its hold didn’t slacken as he crested into adulthood. After a brief foray into education and a longer stint as a brakeman on the Southern Pacific railroad, he set off in 1978 on “an open-ended wave chase”, following winter swells through the South Seas in the company of his friend Bryan Di Salvatore (later also a notably skilled writer for the New Yorker). Together they pushed west, from Guam to Western Samoa, Tonga and Fiji, staying with local families, getting high on kava and braving sharks and sea snakes in order to surf deserted beaches where no shortboard or pintail had ever been seen.

There’s a Boy’s Own quality to these adventures that, though entertaining, would eventually grate, were it not for the rapturous quality of Finnegan’s writing. Surfing, after all, is doing the same thing again and again, and it takes a very good writer indeed to be able to convey the subtle, illuminating differences between each ride: the lacework of a breaking wave, the moving green lights in its pitted flank, the muscular effort of threading slack sections or whipping exhilarated through a chandeliering tube. Finnegan makes these repetitions endlessly involving, conveying their extreme pleasure by way of language, a sinuous kind of transference.

Take this description of a previously ­undiscovered wave on a deserted island off Fiji, a wave so perfect that Salvatore and Finnegan superstitiously refuse to name its location even to each other, referring to it instead as da kine, Hawaiian for “the thing”. “It was midday, and the straight overhead sun rendered the water invisible. It was as if we were suspended over the reef, floating on a cushion of nothing . . . when I caught one and stood up, it disappeared. I was flying down the line but all I could see was brilliant reef streaming under my feet. It was like surfing on air.”

This is dreamlike writing but Finnegan is also capable of conveying nightmares. After returning from the South Seas, he ­began regularly surfing the freezing waves of West Beach, San Francisco, where he was frequently caught inside by giant sets.

My arms felt rubbery and I started hyperventilating. I dived very early and very deep. The deeper I swam, the colder and darker the water got. The noise as the wave broke was preternaturally low, a basso profundo of utter violence, and the force pulling me backwards and upwards felt like some nightmare inversion of gravity.

Bad things happen to surfers: feet torn on reefs, infected cuts from filthy water, broken noses and ankles from smashing into rocks, near-drownings. You have to be tough to withstand the punishment, and one of the half-submerged preoccupations of Finnegan’s memoir is with masculinity. His surfing world is exclusively male: a place of uneasy competition and intense bonds. He almost always has one particular surf partner, and though a beloved wife and daughter are present here, the more urgent focus is on these complicated brotherhoods.

In this world resilience matters and so does style, one of the many things surfing has in common with writing. While he was travelling, Finnegan was working on a novel about brakemen. Eventually he gave it up, he explains, because the few interested editors “wanted me to unpack the technical language, the railroad jargon, for the general reader, but that was where the poetry was, I thought”. Although he does when necessary explain the physics and practice of wave-catching, Barbarian Days is likewise rich with unfamiliar terminology, a lexicon of sets and intervals, point and beach breaks, barrels, bowls, tubes and take-off spots: all of which plunge the non-surfer into a startlingly complicated, motionful world.

And then there is the sea itself, animated, almost alive. Finnegan watches it as intently as a lover, rising before dawn, staying out until the light is gone and he is surfing by feel alone. Rapt attention is necessary when far out in an element that can kill you, and it gives way over and over to states of rapture. Waves might be solid or mushy or crumbling, might rise many times the height of a man’s head, but when you get it right you can enter a kind of communion with them, slipping away from the world at large, “drawing a high line behind the thick, pouring, silver-beaded curtain”.

Except that the world has a tendency to follow. Surfing may have been a region of unconsciousness for Finnegan, but over the course of his wave-chasing years, it has turned into a crowded, commercialised spectacle. All those remote places to which he trekked in the 1970s are now thoroughly on the map. Even Tavarua, the empty island with the transparent, miraculous wave, is a commercial surf resort; da kine officially renamed, of all dismal things, “Restaurants”, for its proximity to the hotel bar.

Them’s the breaks, the consequence of mass tourism and a media infatuated with board style. All the same, the spell holds. Finnegan has not yet stopped surfing, though he is well into his sixties now. He’s still out chasing waves on Long Island, accompanied by a goofy-foot Broadway dancer. He’s less reckless, he says, but just as obsessed, just as capable of exultation as he was as a skinny boy, paddling out at Diamond Head to dance on water. 

“The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone” by Olivia Laing will be published next year by Canongate

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double

Photo: Getty
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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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