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: Channel 4
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Who will win Great British Bake Off 2017 based on the contestants’ Twitters

An extremely serious and damning investigation. 

It was morning but the sky was as dark as the night – and the night was as dark as a quite dark rat. He walked in. A real smooth gent with legs for seconds. His pins were draped in the finest boot-cut jeans money could buy, and bad news was written all over his face. “I’m Paul,” he said. “I know”. My hooch ran dry that night – but the conversation never did. By nightfall, it was clear as a see-through rat.   

Some might say that going amateur detective to figure out which contestants win and lose in this year’s Great British Bake Off is spoiling the fun faster than a Baked Alaska left out of the freezer. To those people I’d say: yes. The following article is not fun. It is a serious and intense week-by-week breakdown of who will leave GBBO in 2017. How? Using the contestants’ Twitter and Instagram accounts, of course.

The clues are simple but manifold, like a rat with cousins. They include:

  • The date a contestant signed up for social media (was it during, or after, the competition?)
  • Whether a contestant follows any of the others (indicating they had a chance to bond)
  • A contestant’s personal blog and headshots (has the contestant already snaffled a PR?)
  • Pictures of the contestant's baking.
  • Whether a baker refers to themselves as a “baker” or “contestant” (I still haven’t figured this one out but FOR GOD’S SAKE WATSON, THERE’S SOMETHING IN IT)

Using these and other damning, damning, damning clues, I have broken down the contestants into early leavers, mid-season departures, and finalists. I apologise for what I have done.

Early leavers

Kate

Kate appears not to have a Twitter – or at least not one that the other contestants fancy following. This means she likely doesn’t have a book deal on the way, as she’d need to start building her social media presence now. Plus, look at how she’s holding that fork. That’s not how you hold a fork, Kate.

Estimated departure: Week 1

Julia

This year’s Bake Off began filming on 30 April and each series has ten episodes, meaning filming ran until at least 9 July. Julia first tweeted on 8 May – a Monday, presumably after a Sunday of filming. Her Instagram shows she baked throughout June and then – aha! – went on holiday. What does this mean? What does anything mean?

Estimated departure: Week 2

James

James has a swish blog that could indicate a PR pal (and a marketing agency recently followed him on Twitter). That said, after an April and May hiatus, James began tweeting regularly in June – DID HE PERHAPS HAVE A SUDDEN INFLUX OF FREE TIME? No one can say. Except me. I can and I am.

Estimated departure: Week 3

Tom

Token-hottie Tom is a real trickster, as a social media-savvy youngster. That said, he tweeted about being distracted at work today, indicating he is still in his old job as opposed to working on his latest range of wooden spoons. His Instagram is suspiciously private and his Twitter sparked into activity in June. What secrets lurk behind that mysteriously hot face? What is he trying to tell me, and only me, at this time?

Estimated departure: Week 4

Peter

Peter’s blog is EXCEPTIONALLY swish, but he does work in IT, meaning this isn’t a huge clue about any potential managers. Although Peter’s bakes look as beautiful as the moon itself, he joined Twitter in May and started blogging then too, suggesting he had a wee bit of spare time on his hands. What’s more, his blog says he likes to incorporate coconut as an ingredient in “everything” he bakes, and there is absolutely no bread-baking way Paul Hollywood will stand for that.

Estimated departure: Week 5

Mid-season departures

Stacey

Stacey’s buns ain’t got it going on. The mum of three only started tweeting today – and this was simply to retweet GBBO’s official announcements. That said, Stacey appears to have cooked a courgette cake on 9 June, indicating she stays in the competition until at least free-from week (or she’s just a massive sadist).

Estimated departure: Week 6

Chris

Chris is a tricky one, as he’s already verified on Twitter and was already solidly social media famous before GBBO. The one stinker of a clue he did leave, however, was tweeting about baking a cake without sugar on 5 June. As he was in London on 18 June (a Sunday, and therefore a GBBO filming day) and between the free-from week and this date he tweeted about bread and biscuits (which are traditionally filmed before free-from week in Bake Off history) I suspect he left just before, or slap bang on, Week 7. ARE YOU PROUD NOW, MOTHER?

Estimated departure: Week 7

Flo

Flo’s personal motto is “Flo leaves no clues”, or at least I assume it is because truly, the lady doesn’t. She’s the oldest Bake Off contestant ever, meaning we can forgive her for not logging onto the WWWs. I am certain she’ll join Twitter once she realises how many people love her, a bit like Val of seasons past. See you soon, Flo. See you soon.

Estimated departure: Week 8

Liam

Liam either left in Week 1 or Week 9 – with 0 percent chance it was any of the weeks in between. The boy is an enigma – a cupcake conundrum, a macaron mystery. His bagel-eyed Twitter profile picture could realistically either be a professional shot OR taken by an A-Level mate with his dad’s camera. He tweeted calling his other contestants “family”, but he also only follows ONE of them on the site. Oh, oh, oh, mysterious boy, I want to get close to you. Move your baking next to mine.

Estimated departure: Week 9

Finalists

Steven

Twitter bios are laden with hidden meanings and Steven Carter-Bailey’s doesn’t disappoint. His bio tells people to tune in “every” (every!) Tuesday and he has started his own hashtag, #StevenGBBO. As he only started tweeting 4 August (indicating he was a busy lil baker before this point) AND his cakes look exceptionally lovely, this boy stinks of finalist.  

(That said, he has never tweeted about bread, meaning he potentially got chucked out on week three, Paul Hollywood’s reckoning.)

Sophie

Sophie’s Twitter trail is the most revealing of the lot, as the bike-loving baker recently followed a talent agency on the site. This agency represents one of last year’s GBBO bakers who left just before the finale. It’s clear Sophie’s rising faster than some saffron-infused sourdough left overnight in Mary’s proving drawer. Either that or she's bolder than Candice's lipstick. 

Chuen-Yan

Since joining Twitter in April 2017, Yan has been remarkably silent. Does this indicate an early departure? Yes, probably. Despite this, I’m going to put her as a finalist. She looks really nice. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.