PsychoGeography #69: Surfing the apocalypse

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"The surfers" television commercial for Guinness was voted - by members of the public who, bizarrely, care enough about these things - The Best Advert of All Time.

"The surfers" television commercial for Guinness was voted - by members of the public who, bizarrely, care enough about these things - The Best Advert of All Time. But I too found it compelling, and in the wake of the hideously destructive tsunami I find myself pondering again why it is that this filmkin should have such a visceral appeal.

For those of you not familiar with it, "Surfers" is, as its title suggests, a seconds-long drama in which a brawny young man - together with his sinewy pals - catches a massive wave. And I mean massive: if this were a real-life wave it would require a 9.4 Richter Scale-earthquake to generate it. The surfer bests the wave, sliding down its great, dark flank in a white spume of spray. Shadowy stallions tossing their manes begin to emerge - in a subliminal kind of way - from the breaking wall of water, and yet our man holds his course and even manages to strike some attitudes. The soundtrack accompanying this feat is a mounting crescendo of bass and drums. Resolution comes: the surfers gain the beach, the stallions subside into undertow, the tap drips its final dark jewel of Guinness and the glass is set up for our adoration.

I think the reasons this advert is so admired have nothing to do with Guinness itself. "Surfers" is a timeless evocation of humankind's Promethean urge to master natural forces. The surf, the stallions - they are both wild aspects of a world to be tamed - and when they are we rejoice with a tall glass of dark ale. Sadly real life isn't always like the movies - or the adverts for that matter. In a piffling, prosaic way I wonder if "Surfers" will continue to hold on to its No.1 spot post-tsunami, or if at this very moment the "creatives" responsible for the Guinness account are pondering how stout adverts will never be the same again; in much the same way that commentators anticipated a reevaluation of all imaginative values post-9/11.

And what about Hokusai prints? As a child I was fascinated by a portfolio of these belonging to my mother: the empurpled, anfractuous waves; the black, rapier-like boats; the enormous tension implied by so much movement depicted with such a static line. In Japan, where tsunamis are frequent, they have no problem with wavy art - but then this is a culture where the meaningful coexistence of savagery and beauty is, perhaps, better understood. According to the Tao there can be little distinction between the surfers and the wave, when it comes to intentionality.

Personally, great waves have always scared the shit out of me. As a child I imagined death itself in the guise of one, rising up out of the shallows of the North Sea and tilting the Thames Valley region into its own basin. As I grew, so the wavy representations washed over me: Peter Weir's The Last Wave, in which an Aboriginal juju summons a tsunami to devastate Sydney; Kathryn Bigelow's Point Break, in which maverick surfers pull bank jobs in order to finance their quest for the ultimate, gnarly experience; and even John Martin's The Fall of Babylon, a 19th-century vision of the apocalypse as a watery tumult, spumy masonry and stony whirlpools. The first time I saw this painting I was transfixed by it, and remained gawping for hours until forcibly removed by the staff.

The word is that avid surfers have been quick to claim that had they been in the Indian Ocean in the right place, at the right time, they wouldn't have hesitated to try and ride the tsunami. I don't doubt it. Surfing is synonymous with risk and adrenaline junkies are the same as any others: they always require a bigger hit. I remember it used to be the Severn tidal bore that they were always attempting to ride, but presumably this is now viewed as small beer. When I lived in Australia I felt driven to at least try and surf, but my inability to read waves correctly cost me dear and I was unceremoniously dumped. This is when the wave collapses in on itself instead of cleanly breaking, and drives the foolish surfer straight down into the seabed. I was under for long seconds, nearly concussed and was lucky to escape with a wrenched back. In Canberra, an osteopath jumped on my crotch and then relieved me of $80.

All of this is by way of saying that nothing can remain off limits. We plant once more on the slopes of Vesuvius; the tourist returns to the sun recliner, and the fishermen to the sea. Hokusai sends out for new, horsehair brushes and a big pot of blue paint. E