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

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Only Drake could wow the O2 by pointing out random audience members' clothing

It takes charisma to pull off abandoning hits halfway through.

On the last London night of his Boy Meets World tour (20 March), Drake doesn’t come on stage until 10pm, which is enough to kill off most gigs at the O2 Arena (hello, Bieber), as people are worried about getting the Tube home. The amount of rum and Coke in the room – a steaming, unrecognisable space with a false ceiling of globular lights and a stampeding crowd split in half by a fence – certainly helps keep the buzz. But who’d have thought that a man standing onstage diligently pointing at audience members and saying what they’re wearing (“You in the blue dress shirt with the ­lager!”) would constitute one of the most exciting nights the O2 has seen in a while?

“Tonight is not a show, not a concert, not about me,” says Drake, who runs an annual “Drake Night” in Toronto and once visited Drake University in Iowa.

So far, the world’s favourite rapper – his latest album, More Life, recently got 90 million streams on its first day of release on Apple Music alone – has had a shifting identity. His songs capture a new strain of emotionally literate but solipsistic hip-hop, which can feel intense or whiny depending on how you look at it. His offstage behaviour is Type-A rapper – he has been accused of throwing beer bottles at Chris Brown, he has been punched by Diddy and he has had altercations with Jay Z, Kendrick Lamar, Pusha T and Ludacris.

But Aubrey Drake Graham, the son of a white, Jewish mother and an African-American father who once played drums alongside Jerry Lee Lewis, does skits about his petulance on Saturday Night Live (see “Drake’s Beef”). Emotionally demonstrative, openly dysfunctional, a bit of a bruiser, with an ability to flit between a dozen styles of music while expressing a desire for crowd participation that borders on the needy . . . Could this man be the ­Michael Bublé of hip-hop?

Drake’s sprawling two-hour roadshow is held back from chaos by the force of his physical presence. Blunt-headed with muscular, sloping shoulders and mesmerising, nimble feet, he prowls the edge of the stage. He has had so many hits (and has so many guest stars tonight) that he is not interested in playing them all the way through. Instead, recalling Prince in the same venue ten years ago, the show becomes a series of medleys. With just a drummer and a synth player at the back of the stage, he demonstrates an invisible, physical control over the music, operating it like a string puppet, stopping or starting songs with the drop of a foot or the shrug of a shoulder, so they collapse in the middle and are gone.

It takes charisma to pull off abandoning hits halfway through. Pointing at people in the audience, real or imaginary, is a music hall thing. Bruce Dickinson and Metallica’s James Hetfield do it too. Amid a hokey message to follow your dreams, he recalls his time spent singing for $200 a night as a John Legend tribute act. Cue a perfect demonstration of Legend-style singing – before he suddenly sloughs off “all this bathrobe-and-candle-sexy acoustic Ed Sheeran shit”, while huge columns of flame engulf the stage.

Drake is still at his best with blue, slinky songs of alienation – “9”, “Over”, “Feel No Ways” and “Hotline Bling”, which doubles up as make-out music for the couples in the crowd. One pair of lovers, Drake establishes during one of his crowd surveys, have been together for ten years. “I can’t even make a relationship last ten days,” he laments. In 2012, he told the Guardian, “I’ve had too many girls to ever feel uncomfortable about the man that I am.” An old-school boast from a modern man.

The guest stars serve to highlight Drake’s variety, rather than shine on their own. Their songs, too, are started, suspended, chopped and screwed. Drake is more macho when there’s another guy onstage with him – doing “Successful”, with the literally named Trey Songz, or dueling with thefrenetic Skepta, who sounds so much tougher (maybe because he’s a Londoner). The two whirl around the stage like helicopter seeds.

Nicki Minaj, apparently Drake’s one-time lover, rises fembotishly from a hole in the stage and says in a London accent, “I want some fucking crumpets and tea.”

She adds, of her host, “This nigga single-handedly changed the game.” Minaj sings her song “Moment 4 Life”: “I call the shots, I am the umpire . . .” But she doesn’t really. Even her presence flares up quickly and is gone.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution