Surf legend Phil Jarratt has turned inward for his new book. His memoir details nostalgia from growing up in 1960s Corrimal through the heady days of drugs, alcohol and excess.
A few years ago Phil Jarratt pitched a memoir about his life-long surfing addiction to one of his publishers.
It was hardly an ego over-reach. For four decades the surfer-author had been as close to the eye of the surfing biosphere as anyone. He’d churned out more than 30 books, many about his passion for wave-riding and everything that went with it.
He’d been at or around every turn of the surfing tale – in and out of the water - and had written about them in an easy, fearless style that made anything appearing under his byline a must-read.
He’d surfed and clubbed with the elite, ghosted their biographies, edited magazines, produced documentaries, won Australian Surfing Hall of Fame’s media award four times, moonlighted as a surfing industry suit and penned sharp accounts of the experience. Oh, yeah, and he’d surfed most places on wave-riding’s world map.
Who better to write a surfing memoir? The publishing house said no.
That might have been the end of it, but for an odd blip on the other side of the globe. In 2015, New Yorker writer William Finnegan released Barbarian Days, his acutely personal account of a wave-riding life. It generated great reviews and booming sales. Apparently, readers had an appetite for the surfing yarn. The Jarratt pitch was back in play.
Life of Brine – a Surfer’s Journey is out and I have to declare an interest: don’t expect an unbiased review here – I’ve been a mate of Jarratt’s for 40 years and, before that, was already a follower of his work. He had it - the writer’s gift of making the difficult look effortless.
We met in 1972 when he’d bailed out of the Sydney Morning Herald and Canberra’s parliamentary press gallery to get back to the coast via a writing job on the Newcastle Morning Herald.
It was his second stretch in the port city and by then he had figured that, beneath the industrial crud, Newcastle held its own charms: a watering hole on every other corner, a nurses’ home full of young ladies, and, at the top end of town, waves.
We shared a flat together. He had few possessions: a salt-ravaged VW Beetle; a portable typewriter; a seven-two pintail and a couple of records – Daddy Cool’s Sex, Dope, Rock ‘n’ Roll– Teenage Heaven, and Dory Previn’s post-breakdown On My Way to Where.
The vinyl stash was a tip-off – this bloke was not entirely conformist. Back then, regional journalists aspired to metropolitan papers like the SMH. Yet, here was a writer heading the other way - stepping from the city to the provinces. For what? Surf, was my best guess. As a goofy-footer he gravitated to Nobbys Bank and Newcastle Point.
Foreign places called. In pre-digital 1973, back-packing offered room for reading. We thumbed Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, the gonzo pioneers. And the great travel writers: Kerouac on the road, Hemingway on blood and booze, Graham Greene on life at the margins, Christopher Isherwood on identity, Laurie Lee on dancing to your own rhythm. On the eve of running with the bulls in Basque country, James A. Michener’s profile of the wild Irish-American bar-owner and bull-runner Matt Carney offered inspiration.
Reflecting on those seminal times while reading Life of Brine, it occurs that the road and selected readings rubbed off on Jarratt’s passage to full-blown writer. Forty years on, while his life story presents as three journeys in one - writer, surfer, man - it’s also a travel yarn of vast sweep, wild colour and rough landings.
That first backpacking foray as a 22-year-old was just the beginning. Since then, the author has logged more frequent flyer miles than the space shuttle crew and holed up in a hundred exotic locales from the Mentawis to Morocco, south-west France to the Seagull Inn, Mendocino, California.
The inner journey is equally momentous. Like many of his literary and surfing influences (except the abstemious Michener) Jarratt has, to put it mildly, dabbled a bit in drink and drugs. They fuelled his party urge, fired his imagination, took him deep inside his subject matter, and infused his words with street-wise audacity. And, sometimes, they made him tired and cranky. In Brine, he covers this with a brutal honesty laced with a lethal dose of self-deprecation.
“We seemed to have no filters,” he confesses.
In the years we worked together I grew used to the sight of him, nursing a ferocious hangover, brow furrowed in concentration as he bashed another raft of purple prose out of a punch-drunk keyboard.
Like those who hang deepest in the barrel, not everybody comes out the other side. Jarratt wonders how, as a husband and father, and now a grandfather, he made it.
That said, his account of sharing a coke-fuelled San Francisco breakfast with the gonzo king Hunter S. Thompson at 10 o’clock at night is priceless.
Luckily, he has been blessed with two great anchors in his life. Surfing would rescue and restore him. His family, especially his resilient and ever-wise wife Jackie, would reclaim him. And that in itself is a miracle. As he recalls about their early romance: “Her friends had warned her off me as a self-obsessed womaniser.”
By now you’ve guessed this yarn isn’t all foam and bubble. There’s loss, in its cruelest guise, causing the wise-arse writer to examine anew what it is we value most.
But in the main, there are people, and Jarratt is at his best writing about the individuals who found their way to his end of the bar.
Rogues, ratbags, surfers from every era (Kahanamoku to Kelly), musos, pollies (Keating, Rudd, Abbott, Turnbull, Goss, Carr), humanitarians, tarts and tycoons. The list of surfing royalty is too long to run here, but sample his account on paddling out two days before the historic first Stubbies contest marked the dawn of the professional era:
“As I paddle around to the Cove, let me describe the first wave I see. Midget Farrelly and Terry Fitzgerald take off together and share the first section. Michael Ho drops in on his five-four, works it for a while and flicks off. Shaun Thomson takes the inside section and disappears inside, leaving the rest to Reno Abellira and Col Smith. That was just one wave!”
Like a water-colour wash on canvas, surfing sets the backdrop for his storytelling. A cavalcade of characters cram the foreground. Across the middle drifts the temper of the times: Vietnam, conscription, apartheid, The Dismissal, sexual revolution, rock ‘n’ roll, counter culture, headlong hedonism, wars on drugs and terror, environmental awareness, 9/11, aboriginal rights, the rise and decline of the international surfing industry and the inevitable clench of mortality. Yes, Brine is a helluva ride, a helluva read.
A couple of years ago my old mate Phil had a heart attack while surfing. He recovered, but it reminded him that everything is finite. We get only so many turns at what we love most. It makes us cherish it all the more.
“Most of all now,” a post-coronary Jarratt concludes, “I treasure every moment in the ocean. . . . My surf sessions get shorter and recovery takes longer, but as long as the passion remains, every day you catch a wave is a good one.”
EXCERPTS FROM LIFE OF BRINE
Slowly but surely, surfing was taking me away from my family, and it felt good. It wasn’t so much rebellion on my part, more a mutual realisation that my teen years needn’t be a burden to my parents if they just cut me some slack.
Not that my school performance was all that bad: I remained in the A class, although I was a middling academic performer when I probably could have been near the top, and I played soccer for the school but soon slipped to the B-grade team. Any optional activity that might interfere with my surf time had to go. In first form I had won a literary award for my contributions to the school magazine, but those skills were not to re-emerge until I started contributing to surfing magazines. Sadly, my fascination with the guitar went, too.
I had taken lessons for several years after my parents picked up a cheap guitar for me on the dock at Genoa in 1962, and slowly mastered the basic chords and a few leads—the ‘Peter Gunn Theme’ was my go-to piece.
If I had known that just around the corner every man and his dog would be heading up the coast in a Kombi van with a girl, a surfboard and a guitar, maybe I would have stuck at it. If I had known that the rich list would soon be made up almost exclusively of boys who had graduated from private schools, then maybe I would have gone to the grammar school my parents had chosen for me. But I went surfing, and I have never regretted that.
The Bellambi Boardriders Club was my fast-track to juvenile delinquency. By the time I was fifteen there were enough older guys with cars to get me wherever I wanted to go, and enough guys with panel vans with mattresses in the back to provide relative discretion for sexual adventures. At first I was only allowed out on Saturday night, and had to be home by midnight, but I found you could fit a lot into that window.
Typically, our gang would get together at the quaint old Bellambi Pub soon after dark, wearing our surf dude uniform of blue sneakers, Lee jeans and Pendleton striped shirts. Apart from its heritage façade, the Bellambi Pub was best known for its slackness in identifying underage drinkers, so we would consume a pie or a couple of sausage rolls and wash them down with as much beer as we could afford (I’d moved on from port and lemonade).
The object was to arrive at the Wonderland dance hall, a short wobbly drive away, full of Dutch courage—an expression that was somewhat lost on my beach gang, half of whom were Dutch. Wonderland had live bands on the weekends and it was a magnet for girls from as far afield as Bulli to the north and Wollongong to the south.
The surfers’ stomp had almost had its day, but girls still danced in a pack, and with a head of steam on, you could pick your target and just start dancing with her, no questions asked. If the girl liked you, she would smile and you would pair off from the pack.
Life of Brine – A Surfer’s Journey by Phil Jarratt (Hardie Grant Books) RRP: $29.99.