I am sure that many readers – and I hear this posting is going positively bubonic! – have wondered why I continue, though stricken in years, to body surf. What ho! Have I not noticed the advent of the board? Yes, yes, but when I began to surf at ancient Maroubra, home of iron man and surf swimming champ Barry Rogers and English Channel swimmer Des Renford, I was far too small to carry let alone manoeuver, the great boards of that era, which stood far taller than I did and were made of sturdy laminations of varnished marine ply with a brass loop to drag it through the shallows and sharp brass casing at the bow end to kill anything in the way.
An audience often stood on one of the headlands. The riders did not cut across waves with these boards but stood like Greek gods all the way to the shore. A fishing boat once capsized in a swell too big and wild to launch one of these boards, or indeed the club surf boat, from the beach, so the club heroes dived from the low cliffs toward Malabar and kept the fishermen afloat until a powerful motor boat was called from somewhere nearby.
This puzzles you because you are thinking of the plank, but this goes back much further than that, callow youths – perhaps to the time of Duke Kahanamoku who came out here and taught us to surf. He also came to sell us his line of beach shirts, but we’ll stay with the main thrust.
Thrust indeed. One of these monsters grazed my temple with the brass point as I swam for a wave – out the back, as we termed it in that fabled time – and I think I was momentarily unconscious. Fortunately that nameless rider returned and took me on board and delivered me to my pals who were standing in the shallows gazing to all compass points wondering whether they should swim out and search for me or go to the life savers.
“Take him home,” said my rescuer. “He seems to have concussion.” So they came with me as I did the wibberly wobberly walk up Duncan Street to my home. This both amused and concerned my pals. I did not mention the myriad tiny blue flowers that now appeared in the sea grass where no flowers had earlier grown. When I swerved toward the road they ran swiftly to redirect me. My mother gave me an aspirin and told me to lie down until I went to sleep. I did. When I woke the world was stable. That night I could hear the crisp surf cracking like rifle shots. My God, what a place.
The small boards arrived in Sydney when our family had gone to Melbourne in the 1950s. For some years I rarely went further afield than the reaches of port Phillip Bay, which had many submarine attractions and atmospheric accoutrements of the beach – including coloured bathing boxes like those on the French Riviera – but no surf. Even when Geoff Graham bought a car – a green Austin -and we went southward to Anglesea, Torquay etc., we saw surf but no boards, so I pursued the ancient art. When we reached surf and I rode it my new friends pointed me out to passers-by and announced “He’s from Sydney.” They told me this proudly when I came out. I knew then that these two cities would always be in my heart.
Years later when my son came down from Brisbane, where his mother had gone with her new husband, he moved in with me, changed his name back to Clare and set to mastering body surfing, though he had a board. He got to be so good that board riders sometimes sat up on their craft and applauded him. One day we emerged from the surf at Bronte and found our towels and clothes where we had left them on the crowded sand. Nearby lay a few fellows of his age and I decided to embarrass him to a degree.
“Did you see me?” I asked him. I caught some really really big waves but my Advance Hair job is still on straight!” Advance Hair restorer was widely advertised at that time.
“So it is!” he said, examining my hair.
“You can’t even see the join,” I added. He examined my hair closely. “Hmm, well,” he said dubiously. The young men were now staring at me incredulously. I then addressed them, which was not exactly welcome. “You can’t see the join, can you?”
“Oh no,” they assured me, and small smiles of approval appeared. “You mean yeah yeah” Mathew said. “Advance Hair yeah yeah” was the catch cry.
“What are they laughing at?” I asked. “Wouldn’t know,” he said. By now they were laughing.
Then we went across the road and bought sandwiches and Cokes. The faces of the Greek or Italian family lit up as we entered and waited our turn.
A little while back my daughter wrote on a Brisbane wall – which was not characteristic of her -‘ Mathew, best brother in the world.”