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

BBC
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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit