Friday, 4 May 2018

Book Review: The Secret Surfer by Iain Gately. Head of Zeus, 2018. £16.99 (Hardback).

Iain Gately's latest book on his quest to 'catch a tube' has been subject to rave reviews.  Philip Marsden in The Spectator writes about the 'peculiar intensity of involvement' making it so enjoyable. See here.  Surfers are obsessives with a day job.  Selling strongly, it's a nourishing read about middle of life crisis, and resurrection in the challenge of nature, both physical and spiritual.  It could be parked next to 'An Old Man and the Sea' on your bookshelf, without a trace of Hemingway's rampant egotism.  Iain is both obsessive and humble, a rare combination.  I recommend you buy a copy, whether you know about surfing or like the idea of it.

The subject matter of his previous work tells a story: the history of tobacco, global ferias (parties), and a cultural history of alcohol.  All were beautifully written, La Diva Nicotina becoming a surprise hit in the United States, reaching the Top 20 best-seller list.  Little of his writing, until now, was autobiographical. 

I know Iain, which makes this book pertinent to me.  His left hip crumbled, precipitating his return to surfing, as my liver started dissolving.  If Iain could pull it back, get a happy family, and ride a big wave then maybe there was hope for me in his book.  Indeed he charts a resurrection I would be proud of.  His physical frailties get better and worse (his right hip starts to disintegrate in 2016, in sympathy for the left one, and he is reduced to finding a surfing work-around in 'knee-boarding' for a while).  His spiritual recovery however, is a relentless upward curve of unconcealed joy.  For Iain, it's all about surfing.  Wracked as we are by the guilt and shame of the past, and fear of the future, he finds salvation in the present moment - the only moment - riding waves for what they really were, 'pulses of energy, rolling through the sea'.  With honesty (and some characteristic understatement), he reveals he had 'dedicated himself to the comforts of life long ago, at the expense of neglecting its challenges' (p.2).

'It became a game to surf (waves), and so absorbing that any lingering angst vanished, together with the myriad of niggling, quotidian trivia that usually dart around my brain...  I was surfing for the joy of it, with no thoughts for anything beyond the here and now' (p.217).  

Appealing hey?  Here is a healthy connection with nature and the present: 'the only moment of reality is right then' (p.248).  When he found himself too crippled to stand on his board, it was as if he was kneeling to God, an allegory he doesn't miss out on. 

I first met Iain at the Seville Feria back 1997.  I didn't see him again until 2002.  I was living in Gibraltar launching online poker for Ladbrokes.  We agreed to meet up again at nearby San Roque Bull-ring.  He had walked all the way from his beach home in Tarifa, a very hilly 20 miles away.  He appeared, hot, well-tanned and smiling as ever, with the same mass of thick curly hair, accentuated by his short but muscular wiry frame.  He had a dirty linen knapsack containing some bread, cheese, jamon and seven half bottles of Fino, all empty.  I wrote in my diary of that period when I saw him quite a bit:

'Iain is one of the most extraordinary drinkers I know.  It’s not so much that he drinks a lot of alcohol, it’s just he doesn’t drink anything else – apart from a solitary cafĂ© con leche with his double brandy every morning in Tarifa’s Hotel Continental.'  

As I waxed lyrical, it was Gibraltar that was proving my cirrhosis-by-the-sea, not Tarifa his.

We had good times.  I admired him hugely.  He had this immense capacity for fun and erudition, and it was amusing to keep on having to work out which one was showing its face.  No one knew how he quite wrote a definitive, rather academic and glowingly reviewed history of tobacco.  He had these beautiful Spanish girls knocking about, who supposedly were his researchers on the book.  But that was long finished and they were still there.  As was Tim (the Aussie surfer in the book), an endless production line of joints.  I never really saw any defects I would now associate with an obsessive.  In any case, those matters were not of concern to me then. 

I was hooked by the book early on in Chapter one.  I recognised the 'rare spell of objectivity'(p.4) that comes during suffering.  The gift of desperation perhaps.  For him it was during his painful recuperation from the titanium implants to his leg.  He recognised he was powerless over advancing age but suddenly 'felt all new again'.  There was 'plenty left to achieve, hang onto, or let go with good grace.'  He is struck with a thought, which he underplays 'as a hint of mysticism' - 'the surfer might be alone in a deep-blue sky, and the tube their route to heaven' (p.7).  This is the most important line in the book, because it sets up it's purpose: to show just how much zeal someone can muster in pursuit of a spiritual mission 'to add a coherence to life'.  In short to find truth and connection.  And how many great anecdotes he can ram in there, for our enjoyment.

Perhaps we are taken on one too many trips to the seaside during the rest of the book.  When Iain is off and running he is difficult to stop.  But one is left gasping for what comes of it.  That however is missing the point of living in the moment.  We live to ride and ride to live.  I think the conclusion is too short, perhaps like Chapter one.  We are told that the trick to life 'is to extract worth from our own insignificance' (p.284).  For me this means we've got to stop playing God.  By finding out who you are not, you get a better perspective on who you are.  

In the meantime we learn something about, tides, swells, bathymetry, meteorology, St Piran, surfer rivalries, and why it is not a sport fit for inclusion in the 2020 Olympics.  We learn about the ghastliness of beach officials, beach-side car park attendants, beach-goers generally in England, and beach smoking bans.  But all with humour and a humility that comes from not taking oneself too seriously.