He'll never be president now." It's what surfers used to say whenever a young wannabe finally caught a clean green wave. The point was that anyone hooked on surfing was doomed to be marginalised, head honcho at best of a fringe sub-culture. Should he ever contemplate writing a book, it would be called something like Zowie Waves and Wowie Mamas.
Maybe it's something to do with Obama – born in Hawaii and therefore ex officio surfer – but this traditional view is now at risk of being turned on its head. The baggy-shorted savages of old are threatening to become serious, reflective, and eco-conscious, with presidential overtones. Sam Bleakley's Surfing Brilliant Corners is a jazz-inspired song of surfing, but it plays down the traditional beach bacchanal in favour of a more enlightened, caring approach to lugging a board around some very far-flung, improbable, often inhospitable places.
Born on the Cornish coast, Bleakley studied geography at Cambridge. But while other students were partying at May Balls he was sneaking off to surf (and win the European longboard championship). When his tutor spotted seaweed hanging from his ear, he explained he had been doing field research. Ever since he has tried to back up that claim, boldly going where no longboarder has gone before, braving sharks, wars and mosquitoes from Kenya to Haiti to Japan. He is probably the first surfer to be mistaken, in Manila, for a delegate to the Annual Austronesian Linguistics Conference (and who can actually scrape by in an ancient Tagbunara dialect).
Bleakley's photographer is John Callahan, born in Hawaii, the son of an army father, who dedicated himself to shooting waves. But Surfing Brilliant Corners easily transcends the traditional surfing-magazine brief. Part-memoir, part-metaphysics, the book is brimming with epic pictures of camels, deserts, jungles, oceans and occasional human beings (notably, the bronzed, long-haired, long-limbed author, iconically hanging ten against a background of a thousand palms).
Callahan is a big-picture David Lean-style lensman who likes to frame his figures in a wide-angled environment. His emphasis provides the key to understanding the author's perspective. Bleakley is an externalist. He sees the individual and perceptions as shaped and groomed by geography and geology – and waves. In his case, this is literally true, since his ears have grown bony protrusions over the years to protect them from the surf. As if to prove the point, he even married a woman called Sandy Cornwall.
To be honest, I slightly miss the adolescent brawling on the beach and the drunken orgies. But now surfing aspires to the condition of music. The title of the book (with the addition of "surfing") is taken from the ground-breaking album by Thelonius Monk. Bleakley argues persuasively that surfing, and therefore life generally, consists of imparting some new syncopated swerve to an old standard and improvising amid the maelstrom, "between chaos and control".
Andy Martin's latest book is 'Beware Invisible Cows' (Simon & Schuster) .
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