Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life

This is the memoir of William Finnegan, a detailed and lovingly retold account of a life. Love, drugs, travel, apartheid, war reporting. 

Between it all, between every facet of his life, like a spider web which returns each time it is brushed away, is waves. Surfing, in all weathers, all lands, thick, thin, overhead, glass clear, opaque black. Surfing. 

I don’t know anything about surfing. 

It is a testament to a great biography, memoir, documentary, or podcast, that someone completely outside the area of expertise can become enraptured in the subject, can vicariously adore the matter at hand through the passion and language of the author. 

The classic application of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s language games, a concept which refers to the way in which language can be simplified to combine use and action, is the builders language – a way of communicating between tradesmen which outside of the context of construction would make little sense. For example, the simple utterance of ‘hammer’ or ‘brick’ from one builder to another conveys enough information to issue a command of ‘please bring me that hammer,’ or ‘please pass me that brick’ without actually saying as much. 

Go around saying ‘brick’ to strangers outside of the context of construction, and your efforts at communication will probably be unsuccessful, unless what you intend to do is make people ignore and avoid you. I believe what makes Barbarian Days so excellent is how Finnegan gently weaves the reader into the language of surfing. The language of waves, of sets and swells, of breaks and boards. Without breaking stride to define these terms, we come to know them. We come to feel their application in language and action simultaneously, to the point where although we might not be able to write an essay defining them, when we read them in context we understand them, via the shared intrinsic knowledge of the author.   

This is a blog primarily concerned with running, not surfing. When I discuss books here I tend to try and tie in their subject with my own, and I did have moments of great sporting empathy with Finnegan: his continuous pursuit of the flow that he found on great days, despite the fact that there were more bad days than good, despite the fact that he often felt in danger, often found himself hurt, or disillusioned. This was more than practise, more than training. This was a non-negotiable factor in his life, and everyone who held a relationship with him had to make peace with that. In these things there are, of course, similar chords to be struck with running, with all sports, but not enough to be truly comfortable in tying them together too closely. Surfing is surfing, running is running. 

But why we do these things lies in the human connection between Finnegan and I, between you and I, between us all. Both of these sports have the potential to grow uncontrollably into passion, and then obsession, as we relentlessly pursue something more

Sport is defined by results, but Finnegan doesn’t compete (at least not in the traditional sense). There are no strict defining moments on his calendar where he finds out how much better he has got via the assessment of a judges table, he never definitively discovers how good he is compared to his peers, or where he could position himself on a global league table. Surfing is a question without an answer, one that he asks every chance he can. 

It is in the asking, not the answer, where he finds peace and purpose.

In running, we were so recently concerned with the lack of competition that we set up virtual events so that we could find motivation, but is this not a lie that we tell ourselves? We set up these competitions so that we would have something to train for, so was it the competition that we cared about, or was it the training?

Was it the answer?

Or was it the question? 

I will race again, I am racing again, but in the covid competition hinterland I found more joy in my running than ever before. I was training for the sake of training, I was asking questions for the purpose of the question, not concerned with the answer.

We can run, we can train, we can compete, but to live a running life, or a sporting life, in the manner in which Finnegan lives a Surfing Life, the most important thing is to keep on asking. 

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