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Michael Blakemore: A Dream of Zinc Cream

Every summer Michael Blakemore and I go surfing at Biarritz, because on the right day the Atlantic waves remind us of Bondi. Despite the erstwhile glamour of its name, the faded old French resort is nowadays a place where it is possible to live modestly if you don’t mind one-star hotels, but even if we were forced to put up at the Palais it would still be cheaper than Bondi, because Sydney is twenty-six hours away by Boeing 747 and Biarritz is just an hour down the road by Fokker Friendship. So at Biarritz, instead of Bondi, we first settled down to collaborate.

Somehow we never wrote anything together, but to make up for our collective sloth we wrote a lot of things separately. Sitting on the beach writing, or preparing to write, we could dab zinc cream on our peeling noses and pretend that we had just climbed off a Bondi tram. (The last Bondi tram had run twenty years before, but we had been a long time away from home.) The year that I showed Blakemore the finished manuscript of my book Unreliable Memoirs, he showed me the draft script for his projected short film A Personal History of the Australian Surf. I thought straight away that it was dauntingly good: evocative, economical, spot on. You could see the pictures when you read the words.

Blakemore was such an accomplished theatre director that it seemed a bit unfair he should be a good writer too. Of course one already knew that: his novel Next Season, which came out in the 1960s, is one of the best ever written about the theatre. (Some publisher should do himself a favour and bring it out again in paperback.) But here was another reminder that he could write very well. He is far too modest to say that about himself, but his style says it for him. The same should apply to another of his abilities, the ability to surf. As the finished film demonstrates, he makes surfing with the bare body seem effortless. So it is, for him. Somebody in a position to know, however, should point out that for the rest of us there is nothing effortless about it.

Nowadays the young Australian surfers are lightly muscled creatures who balance elegantly on top of featherweight twin-fin potato-chip boards while riding through the translucent tunnel of a tubular wave. Some of them have evolved, to the point where they can breathe white water by straining it through pursed lips as they fight their way upwards after being wiped out by a cliff-sized wave in the Banzai Pipeline. They talk incomprehensible dialogue to each other while waiting for waves. Their beautiful girlfriends are on the beach keeping their towels warm by sitting on them. Mobility is the key concept. A surfing contest, which they call a conness, may take place anywhere in the warm-water world. To go there, they slip the precious board into a carry-case and leave the girlfriend in storage. Everyone travels light and there is only one country, the sea. Everyone you know can ride a board. You don’t want to know anyone who can’t: life, or at any rate youth, is too short.

But for the previous generation, to which Blakemore and I belong, it wasn’t quite like that. Back in the 1950s, air travel was still expensive, so the Sydney beaches were the whole surfing world, stretching from Palm Beach in the north to Cronulla in the south. Most of the surfing was done with the body, and comparatively few aspirants became really good at it, no matter how hard they tried. What Blakemore forgets to say in his film is that he had an exceptional talent for the sport. He was, and is, the kind of surfer who can catch a giant wave from the third line of breakers on a stormy day, when the average rabbit like myself is sheltering up among the rocks with a rain-soaked towel over his head. His style has a sound classical foundation, with the open hands placed together far out in front so as to form a hydrofoil, meaning that his chest, which functions as the hull, lifts further and goes faster. Even when no longer in his first youth, a surfer who commands that technique can stay with the wave for as long as it lasts. Particularly noteworthy in the film is the way that he pulls himself on to the wave in two or three strokes, so that it is already carrying him before it breaks. In my own technique, quickly learned but flashily unsound, the hands are back beside the body so that the head and shoulders hang out of the front wall of the wave like a gargoyle. Even when I was young enough to have a strong kick in my leg, I couldn’t go fifty yards that way without the wave running on and leaving me behind. Also there was a strong chance of getting dumped.

Surfing vocabulary was limited in those times. A wave was called a greenie before it broke. After it broke it might turn into a dumper. A dumper, instead of breaking smoothly and carrying you along, collapsed vertically, pounding you into the depths of an underwater sandstorm. Star surfers like Blakemore either bounced safely out in front of the mayhem or else never got on to the dumper in the first place, being blessed with the connoisseur’s eye for a wave. Rabbits went home bruised, if they went home at all. But they came limping back next day in the hope of getting lucky, because riding a wave with the bare skin was pretty well the most sensual thing a human being could do on his own. A good body-surfer got all he wanted out of the ocean just by lying on top of its fraying edge. There was not much of an urge to ride boards, which was lucky, because the boards in those days were terrifying objects.

The Malibu lightweight board having not yet been perfected, the standard surfboard was a wooden, waterlogged, boat-built behemoth about as long as a city block. Just to carry it was already an athletic feat. Getting it out through the breakers could take half the morning. When riding it, there was no question of doing any complicated manoeuvres. It went in a straight line and it was up to any body-surfers in the area to get out of the way, because if the thing hit you it would kill you outright. When a big wave dumped at a late stage it was carnage. You would see the surf boat disgorging life-savers like Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa, while surf boards which had gone spearing in would pop out again and go straight up in the air spinning. All the people involved in the catastrophe, even the life-savers in their caps and Speedo costumes with the coloured zigzags, were basically body-surfers. You could ride a board or row in the boat for part of the day, but only on the understanding that when it came down to bedrock your bare body was the essential instrument. If you couldn’t ride on that, you couldn’t ride on anything else. It wasn’t a matter of strength, as was proved by the relatively high proportion of gifted women surfers, who came diving at you out of clouds of white water like playful angels in electric-blue satinised latex Jantzen one-piece costumes bleached to azure by the sun and salt. It was a skill.

Today’s board-riders, needless to say, are skilled too: more skilled than the old body-surfers used to be, more skilled than it is sometimes possible to believe — skilled like a Space Invaders fanatic, dedicated, obsessed, monomaniacal. They are also very specialised. Some of them can hardly even swim. When they aren’t out in the water doing all those marvellous things on surfboards they are on the esplanade doing them on skateboards. The sea is just their dance-floor. If they had their way they wouldn’t even get wet.

Perhaps I am carping. We only get one chance of being young, and it is never very pleasant to think that the next generation is having a better time. People who grew up dancing to Doris Day found it hard to admit that it was much more fun dancing to the Beatles. But in any age the true champions manage to fulfil themselves, no matter how cramped the prevailing style. The young Michael Blakemore went into the maelstrom and found himself. It was his first means of artistic expression. Today, when he directs a new farce by Michael Frayn, or a film script by Peter Nichols, he employs a sense of gracefully effective movement which he learned when sorting out the greenies, letting the dumpers go crunching by, and catching, with a couple of easy but perfectly timed strokes, the big smooth comber that would crumble gently and take him all the way to the beach, so that when the thin water ran out again it would leave him lying there on the sand.

(TV Times, November 20–26, 1982)