I have a confession to make.
I am a kook. That’s right, a kook, a shubie, a sponge-riding paddlepuss, a shark-biscuit. For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about this means that despite an obsession of many years standing, I have never stood up on a surfboard. Oh well, I’ve body-boarded of course, when not tragically padding around the land-locked confines of South London in flip-flops and Finisterre; but I have never stood up. My shame in this is palpable, but somehow I can’t help myself.
I have always been attracted to the surfing lifestyle, from the spiritual ancient Hawaiian Alaia-riders to the easy, laid-back images of sun-bleached California beach boys and girls. But I always felt it was something inaccessible to me. And then I started writing a novel set in Cornwall, and this was to prove my downfall. Surfing is an inherent part of the Cornish culture and, what started as innocuous research soon became rabid addiction. Suddenly I found myself in the unenviable position of beginning to understand, with some fervour, what a glassy wave was without ever having experienced it. Can you imagine the torment?
Photograph by C Devine
In my defence, my dithering is due to… well, fear. Oh, and the fact that for most of the time I am nowhere near a wave. That doesn’t help. And while I’m trawling out the excuses, I should add that for too many years I have always had a young child with me, keeping me largely confined to the white water, or at least within a safe distance should potential rescue from drowning be required. And I believe I’m supposed to keep an eye on her too. One day, I told myself… one day my daughter will be old enough and a strong enough swimmer for us to take surfing lessons together. This plan was three-fold: Not only would we have great fun learning together, but I could hold before me a living sign, a symbol of my late christening to the cult. Here, I could say; look: this is the reason for my delay. But furthermore, I would have a prop; I could not be held up to so much ridicule for my great age, for I could claim to be there in the interests of my daughter; learning with her, taking an interest, helping and encouraging, if you will. What a good sport.
Except after years of having to be dragged protesting and blue from the ocean after hours of body-boarding fun, my daughter reneged on the deal. Last year I spent our usual summer break in Cornwall alone in the waves while she lay snuggled under a duvet in our rented cottage reading the entire collection of some VAMPIRE novels. I know. Frustratingly, everyone I complained to said I should be happy that she was reading anything so avidly. Some even claimed these books were actually quite good. Harrumph. The fact remained I was left in the tricky position of being, well, a middle-aged* woman who wanted to surf. But, like you, I’m not really middle-aged. I’m still a girl in my heart and a surfer girl at that. But people can be so judgmental.
(*I struggled to think of a better phrase than ‘middle aged’, and I don’t think there is one! The best I could come up with was mid-lifer, which is just as bad. It strikes me as odd that the vast part of our lives – you know, that really, really long bit in-between the first spark of youth and the still-burning embers of old age – should be thought of so disparagingly. It’s a hell of a long time to feel negative about yourself. If anyone can provide a more life-affirming word or description I’d be interested to hear it…)
To be fair to the lovely people of Cornwall, nobody has ever laughed, to my face at least, when I’ve been for wetsuit-fittings. Nobody has actually looked openly startled as I have marched, board under arm across the beach towards the ocean. If anything, there is a kindness in their gaze that borders on pity for the poor ‘just-down-from-London’ body-boarder who must fight for a space in the confined, safe pen that the shrewd lifeguards allow us to play in. Because when I say I body-board, I don’t mean real body-boarding, with flippers and everything, in proper green waves; oh no; read on.
There is nothing wrong with having fun in the safe, flagged shallow waters. But with each passing year, this has become an increasing frustration, and I have watched the freedom and space enjoyed by the ‘real’ surfers in the line-up with a jealous eye. No matter how deep I have dared venture, with as I said, one parental eye on my daughter, I would still end up with some over-excited blob of a child and his foam board hitching a ride on my back, or have some idiot father recklessly shove his offspring into the face of the oncoming surf – and myself- in an inflatable dinghy. Time and again I would have to bring up the nose of my board mid-ride to prevent crashing into some lumpen paddling holidaymaker with several shivering toddlers in tow. This was all so far removed from that first time years ago when I had first properly caught a wave and shrieked aloud with delight at the sheer speed and energy that propelled me. This was not the being at one with nature that I sought; nor the serenity and meditative inner peace to be found from deep bonding with the Ocean. I was NOT stoked.
‘Seventh Wave’ Porthmeor. Acrylic on canvas
And yet, on that last summer holiday I still went in the Ocean each day. Our cottage was yards away from the beautiful surfing beach, and I would sneak out each morning at dawn with a mug of tea (whilst SHE festered under the duvet) to wander the, as yet, empty beach, trying to assess the wave quality and watching the few committed surfers already out. I learnt to ‘get in’ early on in the day or later in the evening, missing out on the daytime summer hordes. But time was running out. On the afternoon of the last day of our trip my desperation was manifest. I had loose plans to return in the autumn, but nothing was guaranteed. This could be my last chance for a while. It was overcast, chilly and softly raining Cornish ‘mizzle’. I persuaded the girl onto the beach, book ever present in hand, but not into the water. She sat huddled in the meagre shelter of black granite rock wrapped in a towel and my hoody whilst her mother played in the water. And I never did have so much fun. But I still passed the surf school on the way back and enviously eyed the young students, with all their years of practice and potential ahead of them.
And so what’s stopping me, apart from location? As I said, I may harbour a disproportionate fear of the Ocean caused in some part by an overprotective mother whose advice to my sisters and I when we went swimming would be ‘stay in your depth’, and the rather more succinct ‘Don’t drown’. And yet perversely, the lure is there. I spent most of the first eight years of my life growing up ‘where the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea’, and so did we; in great gangs of children after school to frolic, unguarded and un-chaperoned (aside from the remonstrance of ‘Don’t drown’ fresh in our ears) in the waves. And despite many years of enforced land-lubbery, the call ‘to go down to the seas again’ is still strong.
So perhaps it is just the age thing. I should say right here, and joking aside, that I do not believe age in itself to be a deterrent (if you start to think like that you would never try anything new, ever). But fitness, now that’s another matter. I am fit enough to hike twenty miles up and down cliff paths with a heavy rucksack on my back without collapsing in a quivering, vomiting heap. And I have always been pretty flexible; but strength? Agility? Of these I am not so sure. In truth, I will probably never stand up on a surf board, but I can at least prepare the way by improving my swimming; by losing those extra pounds, and by practicing pop-ups on the yoga mat. And who knows, small steps may lead to bigger waves… Until then, I shall continue to paint the sea; to photograph it and write about it. I shall paddle vicariously on the shoreline of surfing, where longing is a contrary pleasure in itself.
And I do have one small advantage over ‘real’ surfers. When it’s flat, I am not left climbing the walls. I just go for a swim…