Interview with Melissa McCarthy, Obituary Reviewer, INS
Conducted by: Tom McCarthy (General Secretary, INS)
Venue: Office of Anti-Matter, Austrian Cultural Institute, London
Present: Tom McCarthy, Melissa McCarthy, Anna Soucek, Paul Perry, Steven Curati, Peter Browning, Penny McCarthy
Tom McCarthy: In your deposition to the committee at the First Annual General Meeting of the INS you said that your next report would be on surfers, who you 'suspected were onto something'. So what have you found out?
Melissa McCarthy: I think it was the right suspicion to have. They definitely are. There were two main themes to my investigation. Firstly, I went to interview an academic named Andy Martin, who as a sideline writes obituaries of surfers.
TMcC: What type of academic is he?
MMcC: He's a professor of French at Cambridge University. So that was one strand of what I did: talk to him and follow up suggestions he made. The other was that I went and got hold of this article from Rolling Stone about a shark attack, an article by Keith Hillsbury about a surfer called Lew Boren who died because a shark ate him. Those are the two paths I've been taking - and there are connections between the two, which I can tell you about.
MMcC: The first thing that came up from surfers: I just had a suspicion at the beginning that they might be good to look at, partly because the first surfer obituary I read was of a man called Mark Foo, who was unsurpassed as the best surfer ever.
TMcC: What were his dates?
MMcC: He died in 1995 aged thirty-six, at the height of his surfing powers. I'd been sort of thinking about that before: doing something better than anybody else does.
TMcC: You mentioned that in your first deposition, in relation to ice hockey players.
MMcC: Yes, it's important for ice hockey players and for surfers. And even the earliest-in-time obituary that I have is from an essay by William Hazlitt. Do you know him?
TMcC: He's like Eighteenth Century...
MMcC: Yes, he's a sort of essay writer. He writes about politics and complains about the French Revolution and about morals and art and he generally pontificates about important things. But he has this one essay which I've got here which is called 'The Indian Jugglers'. He starts off by talking about these Indian jugglers who do juggling better than anyone else can do it, and he's absolutely breathtaken by their skill at doing this thing. But he goes on to say that juggling is pointless; having consummate skill at something that's rubbish is not as good as having consummate genius in arts and literature.
TMcC: It's very arbitrary, though.
MMcC: What is?
TMcC: What's important and what's not. Playing the violin counts but juggling doesn't.
MMcC: Yes, but that's because he's an absolute moralist. So he just knows what's worthwhile and what isn't. But he says things like: 'I ask what there is that I can do as well as this. Nothing. What have I been doing all my life?' And he ends this whole essay with a long obituary. He doesn't say so, but he actually wrote it himself, and it was printed in one of those magazines. It talks about a Fives player called John Kavanah, who died in 1819. And this John Kavanah, all he did fantastically was play Fives, which is where you hit a ball against a wall with your hand. But Hazlitt goes to great lengths to eulogise him: nobody could beat him, even if he played with one hand tied behind his back. Nobody could ever beat him.
TMcC: So it's ascendancy in craft?
MMcC: Well, yes, skill at something. But I wasn't thinking of craft in those terms. I was thinking about when you do something so well that it absolutely transforms the thing you're doing: what have you done there? You've transcended something.
TMcC: Does Hazlitt mention surfers in that context?
MMcC: No, this is just lead-up. So I was thinking: how do you transcend by being skilful? Transcendence seems to be very important for surfers, not only to be the best, but also because there's an idea of transcending death, or transcending life - one or the other. You do something so well when you're alive, not that your reputation lives on - I don't think that's the point; it's something else that happens when you transform your art into something completely other.
TMcC: That sort of moment out of time...
MMcC: Yes. It works on the thing that you are doing, your activity - but it works on you, too. So what is this change? It's like being taken up in a fiery chariot or something. So that was something to look at: the change between life and beyond-life.
TMcC: Is this something that crops up in surfing lore?
MMcC: Yes, completely. There are two main things I thought of about surfing. One, which is terribly important: it's in the water. That's a really basic point, but it's very important.
TMcC: What would you say was the significance of that?
MMcC: There's the elemental aspect. People are made up of however many percent water and before they're born are used to being surrounded by fluid. So it's a returning-to-the-elements type activity.
TMcC: Kind of pre-life.
MMcC: Yes. But then it's post-life as well. I was talking to Andy Martin about death at sea. There's something special and different about that, because you don't know what happens: it's very mysterious, you're returned to whence you came, and there's this transformation as well. There's that bit from The Tempest...
TMcC: 'Full fathom five thy father lies, of his bones are coral made..
TMcC: 'These are pearls that were his eyes...
TMcC: 'He doth suffer a sea-change into something rich and strange.'
MMcC: Exactly. So there's that sense that you're coming from the water, you're meant to be out of it and you go back to it. But surfing is deliberately putting yourself there.
TMcC: But then rising out of the water again, no?
MMcC: Yes, you have to do both at once. You can't stay under or you'll die. But you need to be there. It's both at once - which I'll come back to later. So that's the water thing for surfing. And then there's dicing with death. I was asking Andy Martin: 'Why do people do it?' He was saying: 'There is that sense that it's dangerous, that it's life-affirming to do something that could be fatal at any minute, but it's completely different from something like hangliding or fast car racing.' Those might have their attractions, and they're also dangerous, but there's something different about doing it in water.
TMcC: What's Andy Martin's interest in surfing?
MMcC: He likes doing it and he likes the lifestyle. He's written a novel called Walking on Water, which is about this trip to Hawaii. He also, I think, likes the juxtaposition between the two sides of what he does, and wants to be a surfer-dude but is an academic. His specialities in French are Jules Verne, Napoleon and Brigitte Bardot.
TMcC: Brigitte Bardot?
MMcC: Yes, those are his passions.
TMcC: I can see the first two: travelling, going to strange places, making conquests. But Brigitte Bardot?
MMcC: I think it's part of that surfing glamour thing. Possibly. I didn't really ask him about that. I asked him about his book, and he said that he wrote it ten years ago, and it was partly an 'Englishman Abroad' type book. He got posted as the Times surfing correspondent to Hawaii - which is a joke in itself, because the Times doesn't have a surfing correspondent; but he said it was him so it was. He's looking at a friendly culture in which the surfers take care of each other and there's this whole mythology and history and lifestyle...
TMcC: Are most of the surfers in Hawaii European Americans, white Americans who've gone out there because the waves are bigger, or are they indigenous?
MMcC: Half and half. There are indigenous ones, and there are local heroes as well, then lots of Californians and outsiders. But he said that that was quite a young, excited, optimistic book; but if he wrote it now, since quite a few of them have died and also because he's older, it would focus much more on the death side, be much more downbeat.
TMcC: So how do these surfers die? They drown?
MMcC: Surfers in Hawaii fall off the board and get mashed up by the water.
TMcC: So who was that surfer whose obituary I remember reading recently, who went out on his board to die because he'd been diagnosed with cancer?
MMcC: Yes, that's not one of Andy Martin's. That's Joe Wolfson.
TMcC: He got a lot of coverage in the English press, which was strange.
MMcC: He did. I think it's partly because he's Californian and it's an incredibly Californian story. He built himself up as a social activist; he was bussed as a child to other schools and stuff; he led a very idealistic West Coast lifestyle; and he lived to surf, obviously. But he got cancer and couldn't take it any more, so he paddled out into the sea to die. But he was picked up by the lifeguards, and then - I really like this bit - he regained consciousness in hospital and was furious enough to rip the life support tubes out of his arms. But as he recovered he read hundreds of letters from children at a school where he did volunteer work, and felt so bad about trying to die that he met with them and apologised for 'sending the worst possible message' to them. So he decided to get back and live life-affirmingly - but he didn't: he crashed his camper van. There was no cause; he just hit a tree.
TMcC: Do you think it was deliberate?
TMcC: So he paddled out towards his own death, but the life-police got him, the coastguard, and brainwashed him into proselytising, into saying: 'Hey kids, just say no to death.'
TMcC: But then when they weren't watching he did it again.
MMcC: I don't know what the fact that he was in a camper van when he died says about the superiority of a road vehicle to an aquatic vehicle. He couldn't manage it on his paddle board; he had to be in a proper car.
TMcC: You hinted to me earlier that you'd found a crossover between road and aquatic vehicles in the Futurist Manifesto.
MMcC: Yes. When I went to see Andy Martin he was very taken by the idea of the 'craft' in the First Manifesto of Necronautism, and immediately likened that to a surfboard. He didn't think of the other meaning of 'craft', handy-craft, knowing how to do something. He thought: 'a board is a craft'. And in his own writing he mentions the one great Hawaiian surfer hero, and general Hawaiian hero, a man called Dukano Yuhanomuku. He's a local hero, an Olympic champion for twenty years in a row or something, who surfed the longest ever recorded distance. He surfed for a mile into Hawaii. Now they've built the harbour up so the waves don't go for that long any more. But surfing's a Hawaiian custom originally. When Captain Cook arrived he saw people, women included, surfing into the beaches. And Dukano Yuhanomuku had his traditional Hawaiian surfboard made out of mahogany with carving in it. And the tradition is that when a surfer dies they burn his board on the beach and everybody else sticks their boards upright in the beach...
TMcC: Like Stonehenge...
MMcC: Yes, or like a load of tombstones. And then they have a party on the beach. I like the idea of having your surfboard carved with your name. People have slogans now and decorate them how they want - but I liked carving more, because it seemed to me a non-deliberate but very clear echo from Moby Dick. You know Queequeg's coffin?
TMcC: He has his own name carved on it?
MMcC: First he makes his own coffin, because he thinks he's going to die. And then when he doesn't die he turns it into a chest instead, for keeping his clothes in. And at that point he starts carving all over it. What he does is copy onto his own coffin the tattooing that's all over his body. Melville writes: 'Many spare hours he spent in carving the lid with all manner of grotesque figures and drawings, and it seemed that hereby he was striving, in his rude way, to copy parts of the twisted tattooing on his body. This tattooing had been the work of a departed prophet and seer of his island, who by those hieroglyphic marks had written out on his body a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth. So that Queequeg, in his own proper person, was a riddle to unfold, a wondrous work in one volume, but whose mysteries not even himself could read, though his own live heart beat against them. And these mysteries were therefore destined in the end to moulder away with the living parchment whereon they were inscribed, and so be unsolved to the last. And this thought it must have been that suggested to Ahab that wild exclamation of his, when one morning turning away from surveying poor Queequeg: 'Oh devilish tantalisation of the gods!'' Which I think is fantastic: he's got these tattoos on him, he copies them onto his own coffin...
TMcC: And what does his coffin end up as?
MMcC: A surfboard for Ishmael.
TMcC: Oh yes! Ishmael ends the book floating on Queequeg's coffin!
MMcC: So that put me onto something that I think I can count as a discovery: wooden boxes with writing on them. That's the discovery. They're a craft, and they've got this privileged writing on. You know where I came from with the whole obituaries thing: thinking 'Well, that's a privileged form of writing; what can I learn from it?'
TMcC: Yes: a type of writing activated by death. Before death they're just gossip, as you said.
MMcC: Yes, but after death they work: they do something.
TMcC: Have you read Richardson's Clarissa?
TMcC: She doesn't make her own coffin, but she ends up dying very slowly, and her coffin is inscribed with ciphers. She says early on 'I am but a cypher', then later on she writes indecipherable ciphers all over her own coffin, with her body inside it. All throughout the book she's holed up in her room unable to come out and has to write letters, but at the end she's literally in this box, and all the other characters in the book, maybe like in Paul Perry's film, stand around looking at this box covered in writing.
MMcC: So that's like Matt Parker's play about a woman who won't come out of her room.
TMcC: Yes - except Clarissa's not allowed to. So, yes: boxes covered in writing.
MMcC: Yes: sarcophaguses too.
TMcC: There's a scene in that Tintin book...
MMcC: Yes, where they're floating in sarcophaguses in the sea.
TMcC: I was talking with Simon Critchley yesterday about Heidegger and time. I wonder about surfers' relationship to time. It must be bound up with craft and transcendence. I mean, you're waiting and waiting for the wave, or maybe you've caught the wave and you're going: 'That was brilliant!' and you just want to do it again and again. But is there a moment which is just 'now', the eternal 'now', the transcendent 'now'? Where they don't think: 'I must catch the next one'; they're just in the moment.
MMcC: Yes. And that is what they're questing for their whole lives. You even have one perfect wave, which is your wave. It happens once in your lifetime.
TMcC: What happens if you get it in your twenties?
MMcC: Then the rest of your life is an enormous disappointment. And with Andy Martin, I was suggesting that idea of easy-going surfers hanging out on the beach the whole time, but he was saying: 'No, it's not like that at all. They're very vicious...
TMcC: They're very territorial too, aren't they?
MMcC: They're territorial too, but mostly they just want the perfect moment, and everything else just isn't as good. And because that moment's so good and addictive and drug-like, they're desperate to get back to it. So the rest of the time isn't 'That was a great day's surfing'; it's 'When's tomorrow's surfing?' When the season ends they just want the next one.
TMcC: With the territory thing, I heard there'd even been shootings.
MMcC: Shootings, and they whack each other over the head with their boards, or spike them with the fins.
TMcC: Rosa Krebs boards...
MMcC: Yes. But it counts as serious assault and you can get huge fines. Andy Martin also told me that Hawaii has a large born-again Christian population, so there's a whole sub-community of surfers who are born-again Christian surfers, and they're obviously not allowed to do that shoving each other off the board stuff. They have to say: 'No, no: after you on the wave'; 'No, after you.'
TMcC: So, now the big question: you've got the surfer, and you've got the shark.
TMcC: Virilio says that every technology creates its own disaster. So the Titanic creates the iceberg, the aeroplane creates the bomb and so on. So does the surfer create the shark?
MMcC: Yes. There's this article here Shark Attack. It's by Keith Hillsbury and it appeared in Rolling Stone in August 1982, and I think it's an extraordinary document. It's talking about Lew Boren, this surfer who was eaten by a shark and died. It seems to me that there are two things going on in this article. One of them is very much political: about land, territory, who's in charge and who's not. To set the background: it appeared in 1982, and in the same issue of Rolling Stone there's an article about John Hinkley Jnr.
TMcC: Who shot Reagan...
MMcC: Yes. And in an issue from a couple of months earlier there's an article about a white woman journalist who was shot and killed by a black unemployed Los Angeles teenager. That one's a really strange article, because it's journalists being in complete shock that suddenly something isn't right at all.
TMcC: Rolling Stone was started as the vehicle of the counterculture, but in the eighties it was going right-wing and Reaganite, wasn't it?
MMcC: Very much so. It's very post-Charles Manson-ic. That shooting article sort of says: 'We thought everything was perfect, but it's not. Oh dear.'
TMcC: 'How can black people shoot liberals?'
MMcC: Yes, exactly that sort of thing. So you see some of that in this Lew Boren article as well.
TMcC: So what's the set-up with him?
MMcC: Lew Boren moved to Monterey, surfed there happily. He was quite old for a surfer, but that was all he wanted to do until he retired to Oregon to have a dope farm. That was his ambition. He never got there because a shark killed him. The article describes Lew Boren and it talks about sharks in general, and it sets out the idea of localism. They call the shark 'the landlord', and say that his rent is overdue because nobody's been killed by a shark for quite a long time. That's something Andy Martin pointed to as well: as a surfer you pay your dues.
TMcC: That seems quite primitive too. I mean, rent and dues is a Western industrialised notion, but there's also that primitive element of sacrifice.
MMcC: Yes, I mentioned that to him. There's The Old Man and the Sea, and I heard just before interviewing him that in the Orkneys there's a tradition that if you see your best friend drowning you don't go and rescue him because then there's a deficit which you'll have to pay by being the next person to drown. You can't take without giving.
TMcC: Like Admetos giving Alcestis to Death as a sort of 'marker' in the Euripides play.
MMcC: Right. So the rent was overdue, the shark was the landlord, there's this localism, surfers don't like other surfers coming down and taking over their space. Hillsbury writes: 'Lew was incredible: a sixties person in an eighties world.' He just wants to hang out, whereas eighties California is taking place around him. The article talks about blond Californian teenagers not knowing what to do when something happens. They go to his funeral and just hang around saying: 'Wow, this is like a movie.' The very last sentences talk of 'eternal summer', and how Lew wanted it - this phrase 'endless summer' crops up throughout the article. At the end 'they found him in the fog at Azilamar on Christmas Eve, with the left side of his torso ripped out from the hip to the armpit, dead in the water, on such a winter's day.' Which is a direct quote from California Dreaming - the writer of which died last week.
TMcC: And from Sonnet Sixty-Something: 'Thy eternal summer shall not fade - nor shall death brag thou wandrest in his shade...
MMcC: Yes, but this is sort of according to seasons and according to temperament and according to eras. Lew Boren's time was just over.
TMcC: So he's the sixties sailing into the eighties. So does that make the shark the eighties?
MMcC: Not really. I think that's a separate strand going on in the article. It slightly jumps about from here to there and isn't particularly coherent. But there is that political thing going on there, and then there's this other extraordinary thing, which is quite chilling when you read it. The stuff he says about the shark I actually checked, because he gives lots of mythical details - which he didn't make up; it's correct. Hillsbury points out loads of stuff about sharks and tells you what they do, and then he explains that the great white that killed Lew Boren is this strange, new type of shark: 'Scientists don't know why most species of sharks are divided into two distinct populations: a main breeding population and an excess, or accessory, population. What seems clear is that the excess population is made up of loners, often deformed in some way. They abandon their home waters and live in areas not normally visited by their own species. They never return to the usual shark breeding grounds. And sometimes what they do, at least in coastal waters, is kill people.' So the suggestion is that it's this rogue shark, from the excess population, that killed Lew Boren. And then you realise with a horrible chill that Lew Boren is a rogue shark: a loner leaving the normal population. He leaves his home and travels around until he reaches Monterey: that's very shark-like behaviour.
TMcC: He's a drifter...
MMcC: He's a drifter; he doesn't like anybody else. His ex-flatmate Patty says: 'I'd talk about getting married and he'd just shake his head. He couldn't ever imagine anything like that.' He's never going to be one of the breeding population; he just wants to be by himself. 'Often deformed in some way,' it says about rogue sharks - Lew Boren surfs on his knees! He doesn't stand up, he does this kneeling surfing thing. That's complete freak behaviour.
TMcC: Why does he do that? Is it because he wants to get even closer to the wave? To merge with it?
MMcC: It doesn't say. I think it's just because he can't surf standing up; he's not very good. So he surfs on his knees. There's a small comparison I want to draw there with Virilio. He talks about water, violence, speed, motion. He starts one of the sections of [which book?] with an epigram from Bachelard, which says: 'A creature bound by water is a creature in vertigo. It dies at each instant. Something of its substance is constantly collapsing.' And you get the same sentence, phrased slightly differently, by Keith Hillsbury: 'A shark out of water is a shark condemned to death. Its skin distends and its internal organs are torn apart by the effect of their own weight, which ordinarily is supported by water pressure outside the thin abdominal wall. Deprived of this support for more than the briefest period the shark dies.' So sharks have to be in this particular element, and have to keep moving in order to survive.
TMcC: That's what Peter Benchley points out at the beginning of Jaws: they have to keep moving and they have to keep consuming.
MMcC: Exactly. And Lew Boren is a very close parallel: 'Above all, he had to surf.' He has to be in his element doing his stuff, just as the shark has to be. There are loads more of these parallels: Lew is 'deformed' in the surfing sense, a loner...
TMcC: And then the other major article in that issue is about a loner: the guy that shot Reagan. He had no friends, and had overidentified with Travis Bickles in Taxi Driver, which he'd watched twenty times...
MMcC: Yes, and he'd read Catcher in the Rye, and knew every single word.
TMcC: It's always Catcher in the Rye! And didn't Hinkley idolise John Lennon, for that matter? And pester Jodie Foster, who plays the child prostitute in that film. There's a kind of rejigging of all the film's triangles in his actions.
MMcC: Yes, you could make hundreds of parallels there.
TMcC: So that thing about motion, then. You mentioned to me some discovery you've made in the Futurist Manifesto. Obviously that's a pretty important document for this organisation.
MMcC: Yes. It came from thinking about sharks and constant motion, and from surfers as well: they've got that paradox that they're moving but standing still; they're being moved by something. So I thought: 'Who else is interested in motion?' Obviously the Futurists. So I went to look at the Founding and Manifesto of Futurism.
TMcC: It comes wrapped up in an anecdote, doesn't it? They've been up all night, they go into their car and go out...
MMcC: Driving around, yes. And Marinetti crashes his car into the ditch...
TMcC: He's trying to kill two cyclists, isn't he? He hates them. They're waving on the road like two ends of a crappy rationalist argument...
MMcC: 'Wobbling like two equally convincing but nevertheless contradictory arguments.'
TMcC: So he tries to mow them down.
MMcC: But he fails. So he falls into the ditch, his car crashes into the ditch. He's all right; they get out - but then they've got to try to get the car out. It says: 'A crowd of fishermen with hand-lines and gouty...
MMcC: Yes. '... and gouty naturalists were already swarming around the prodigy.' That's his car. 'With patient loving care those people rigged a tall derrick and iron grapinoles to fish out my car, like a big beached shark.'
MMcC: 'Up it came from the ditch, slowly, leaving in the bottom, like scales, its heavy framework of good sense and its soft upholstery of comfort. They thought it was dead, my beautiful shark, but a caress from me was enough to revive it, and there it was alive again, running on its powerful fins.' So I thought that was very interesting. I don't know if you intended the INS to...
TMcC: I'd completely forgotten about any reference to sharks.
MMcC: But once you realise that sharks are this brilliant craft of death with absolute command over the water, which as I was saying at the beginning seems to have primal importance to life, and you've got the idea of the shark as the direct other half of the surfer - then all of a sudden the shark is this complete command figure. It's great. You need to find more sharks. So then I looked in the INS Manifesto, looking for bits that were accidentally about sharks, where the shark just turns up without people wanting it to be there. And it's everywhere! Look: I've blue-lined the bits of your manifesto that actually refer to sharks. Looking back to the Lew Boren article and the things it tells you about sharks: they keep on moving, they sense their victims by radar movements and things, they eat everything that comes their way. So in the Manifesto there's: 'To bring death out into the world where it lurks submerged' - that's a shark thing. 'No less potent for the obfuscation' - sharks underwater. 'We shall attempt to tap into its frequencies', 'dustbins full of decaying produce' - it just goes on and on. The shark is everywhere. So that's what I found from Lew Boren.
TMcC: I see you've brought The Odyssey.
MMcC: Yes. It was partly from when Paul Perry was talking about epic yesterday, and then also thinking about these boxes, floating boxes with writing on them. And I was trying to remember what happens to Odysseus after everything else, after he gets home safely. I knew it was something strange, so I went and looked, and - you don't hear it at the end of the book because the action jumps around all the time, but during his voyages he does a sacrifice to the dead and brings up all the dead from the underworld. It's called 'The Book of the Dead', but that's a late title; it's not the proper title.
TMcC: He goes and meets his own parents...
MMcC: Yes. He does a sacrifice and digs a trench and fills it with blood. He meets Tiresias as well, who explains some things to him. And Tiresias also tells him something to do later, which is when he gets home safely, which he does at the end, it's not over: he has to set out on a third adventure of some sort.
TMcC: What, after he's killed all the suitors and got back with Penelope?
MMcC: Yes, after that happy ending, Tiresias tells him what to do, the ghost of Tiresias: 'After you've got home safely you must set out once more. Take a well-cut oar and go on till you reach people who know nothing of the sea and never use salt in their food.' So he's telling him: carry around this painted oar everywhere, a wooden vessel thing, until you meet somebody who has no idea what it is and refers to it as a winnowing fan...
TMcC: What's winnowing fan?
MMcC: For separating the chaff from the grain. And at that point, make a sacrifice to Poseidon. So the whole of The Odyssey is him in the sea, whether he can get home safely, and it's entirely related to Poseidon, who persecutes him as well. But I thought that's a very odd, unexplained coda: take this wooden painted thing somewhere and do something with it, that's the last thing you have to do.
TMcC: And do you get any follow-up on that later in the text?
TMcC: So it's like the surfers' 'It's not good enough.'
MMcC: How so?
TMcC: Well, it's not like 'Wasn't today's surfing good!/Wasn't the last twenty years' adventuring good!' He's got to go back out and do more.
Paul Perry: Do you know what 'endless summer' refers to? It was a B-classic surfer movie. The surfers in the film are travelling around the world to stay in summer all the time.
PP: So they're also constantly moving. They're just moving from continent to continent pursuing summer and the waves.
MMcC: What date was that?
PP: End of the sixties.
MMcC: Aha! Of course... But that's a whole sub-genre, surfer movies, that I think would be very worth looking at.
TMcC: There's a Mad Magazine spoof of mass-murder movies, slasher movies, which ends with Annette Funicello, the archetypal surfer-chick, coming in and turning out to be the mass-murderer because the genre of surfer movies is killing off the old genre of killer movies.
MMcC: Someone was telling me at the opening of the Office of Anti-Matter about a film called Nazi Surfers, which has a bunch of Nazis in pointy helmets and everything surfing. But that's very much in the Lew Boren article as well: these blond Californians - not to say that Californians are Nazis...
TMcC: No, but there's that Dead Kennedys song California Ücber Alles: we'll make you all jog, and if you don't drink enough orange juice we'll kill you.
MMcC: There's all that. One other point that Andy Martin made, that he kept coming back to: he said that 'Baudrillard said that the only two interesting moments in the history of the universe are the beginning and the end, and I think that that applies to your life as well.' He kept on referring to this idea that nothing in the middle matters, and he seemed to connect that to surfing, and to philosophy, and to his studies in French, which is his life's work basically, and to his own life. I don't really know why. But that seemed something that was really informing all of his thought.
TMcC: That's odd, because I thought the whole surfer time-horizon was not about the beginning or the end, but about the transcendent middle, the moment when you're actually out of that line from beginning to end, in the eternal now.
MMcC: But that makes sense. If the only two points are birth and death, then the perfect surfing moment is by definition one of those two.
TMcC: Birth or death?
TMcC: That's why they're never satisfied.
TMcC: Maybe this is a bit crass, but in the topography of surfing you get tunnels - which obviously have echoes in near-death experiences - and lips and so on. Did that figure in your discussion with Andy Martin?
MMcC: We didn't really talk about it. He's written elsewhere about surfing as a sexual metaphor, and as a very sexist sport.
TMcC: It's about machismo and domination.
MMcC: Yes, and about penetrating tubes.
TMcC: So what about surfer-chicks? Are surfers mainly men?
MMcC: There's much more surfer-chicks happening now, but they have to look good in a bikini before they can get sponsorship. I was also thinking about craft at the time I went to interview him, in terms of a craft, because there was stuff in the news about Donald Campbell. His boat's been picked up.
TMcC: His craft was, but he wasn't.
MMcC: I love the idea that he just went so fast that he disappeared.
TMcC: They never found any traces of him.
MMcC: No. And then boats in mythology: there's lots of them. Charon's boat crossing the river Styx, this vessel that ferries you back and forth...
Penny McCarthy: Could I bring in Catuluss's Poem Sixty, which is about Theseus sailing on his craft. When I was translating it I needed to use the word 'craft'. He sails right the heart of the Mino's mighty empire to meet the monster. The monster's not in the sea; it's in the labyrinth in Crete, and Theseus is going to kill it. The element is very much water, though, and the origins of the whole situation lie back with Thetis the sea-monster who married Pelius and this started the chain of events that led up to the Trojan War, the most important event of all history. And we have alot about the little boat Argon being cut down from the mountains, and it's the very first craft ever to go into the sea; it's a sort of ravishment of the sea. So a great many of the elements that you've been talking about seem to come into this long, winding poem- with ecstasy as well, because at the end, after killing the Minotaur and coming away, Ariadne, who's helped Theseus and wants to come along, gets left deliberately on the island of Naxos. And when Dionysus-Bacchus arrives she's sort of caught up with all the Bacchantes and marries the Bacchus-Dionysus figure instead. So it's a very resonant poem for a type of almost-surfing; the boat is skimming along on the waves...
MMcC: Yes, surfing seems to be more than just surfers. You can find it in everything. But that's only once you start looking. There's another thing about surfers, looking at my notes here: there's an idea that comes up quite a lot - I noticed it first in Chaucer's Troilus and Cressida. At the very end Troilus, who was in the world, flies up and looks back down from the spheres and says: "Now I've got this fantastic vision and see that it doesn't matter any more!" But he wishes that he had had that fantastic vision. That's something that comes up quite a lot.
TMcC: He wishes he had had it earlier?
MMcC: Well, he wishes he could do both at once. It's in Proust as well: he goes up to a church tower and says: "I can see everything mapped out down below me. Oh, but now I need to be there. Oh, but if I was there I couldn't see it." You want to be in both places at once. So I was saying to Andy Martin: "Is that what the surfer is trying to do?" And he was saying: "Yeah, basically. You want to be in the wave, enjoying the wave; but you want to be seeing yourself doing it." It's the same with wanting to be in the water and out of the water. That seems to be the whole point: embodying the double, doing two things at once.
TMcC: That's a very classical construct. You get it in Yeats: the dancer and the dance should become one. They should converge so that the experience of them doing it and the act should merge. There shouldn't be any cognitive gap - but then he wants the awareness of the disappearance of the gap. It's an irreducible paradox. He'll never be happy.
MMcC: Yes. But surfers have that. I was asking: "Do they think about this? Do they think about metaphysics and philosophy and stuff?"
TMcC: "It's, like, philosophy, dude."
MMcC: Apparently they don't. They just surf. But then Andy Martin mentioned that his brother was a quantum physicist, investigating whether you can have two things happening at once.
TMcC: So surfers could be philosophers in parallel universes?
MMcC: Yes. One last thing: Andy Martin was contacted by the parents of a teenage boy who'd died in depressed/accidental/something circumstances. They contacted Andy Martin to say: "Your book was our boy's favourite book. We wonder whether you'd come to his funeral and speak there."
TMcC: His novel about surfers?
MMcC: Yes. And so Andy Martin was slightly nervous about the responsibility. He'd never met the boy or the parents. But he did go to the funeral, and read a passage from Jack London, because he likes Jack London - taming the wild and this and that. And he said that it was very moving being at the funeral, not only because it was a dead teenager's funeral, but also because because he didn't know him it was like a valediction for the Unknown Surfer, like the Unknown Soldier. This Unknown Surfer had taken on the attributes of all the other ones and was standing in for them.
TMcC: I wonder: are there any actual monuments to surfers?
MMcC: I've no idea. In Hawaii they do have a national hero who did do surfing. Sometime in the seventies they were recreating a journey in those little paddle-canoes back to Polynesia, where Hawaii's population first came from. And they got into trouble and this man said: " I'll go and swim for help" because he was a fantastic swimmer. So he set out on a forty-mile swim for help, and never came back. So he's their version of Captain Oats.
TMcC: "I may be some time..."
MMcC: Yes. So he's a very aquatic hero, and he's got statues in schools and parks.
PMcC: With this surfer-chick thing, and there being women surfers in Hawaii when the Europeans arrived: it seems that with the professionalisation of crafts, women get "demoted". So you have midwives being equal to doctors for ages until the professionalisation of medicine, when they take on a subsidiary role. Maybe surfing's the same.
MMcC: Yes. It was when Cook arrived that it got professionalised. When Captain Cook arrived in Hawaii he used to keep a journal all the time. When finally before he died he went back to a certain place, the last entry in his diary is apparently: "I tried surfing today." Now, he doesn't die for several months, but he doesn't need to write in his diary any more.
TMcC: This is great. You're going to write all this up?
MMcC: Yes. And it's already leading me into my next line of enquiry, which will be into Hollywood producers and screenwriters and directors from the fifties and sixties.