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February 1, 2023

Finnegan’s wake leads back to the secret garden

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Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, by William Finnegan

Barbarian Days by William Finnegan
Barbarian Days by William Finnegan

Review by Rusty Miller

‘Only a surfer knows the feeling’ is a major surf corporation’s one-liner. If there were ever a book I would recommend to someone who does not surf and wishes to obtain a perceptive insight about its real essence, this is it.

The one-liner that reverberated most to me in Finnegan’s 450-page surf endorphin spill of surf adventure is: ‘Surfing is a secret garden, not easily entered.’ Finnegan’s sprinkled-in revelations of the surfer’s unique physical and emotional relationships with the ocean are a riptide that draws you gradually into the wide sea of the surfer’s mind. And here is where this story of a surfer’s life can keep you turning pages when your eyes begin to weigh late at night.

His surf-through-life trail starts in California when as a young stoked rider of waves he experienced the surfer’s dream announcement from his dad: they were going to be moving to Hawaii, the Mecca of Surfdom. But in Honolulu, Hawaii, the variations of weather and social construct were most surprisingly and challengingly different.

A new level of awareness was required to survive his high school days there. He was suddenly set into the stark reality of Hawaiian society in his teenage years where he had to think and even fight in the public school system. But his surfing activity and mates there built a belief in himself and a focus which he used to go through the gauntlets.

William Finnegan, San Francisco, 1985.
William Finnegan, San Francisco, 1985.

Barbarians Days is from the point of view of an obsessed surfer. Back in California he gets a job he loves, working on the railway as a brakeman. It’s a well-paid gig which, when applying for, he is careful to not mention that he had a university degree so he could fit in with the workers on even terms.

Finnegan indeed is a keen perceptive observer who with a good stash of earned dollars sets off for what turns out to be a world surf safari that takes years. It’s his trip of a lifetime that he shares often with his writing/surfer cohort Bryan.

Bryan Di Salvatore, Viti Savaiinaea, and William Finnegan at Sala’ilua, Savai’i, Western Samoa, in 1978.
Bryan Di Salvatore, Viti Savaiinaea, and William Finnegan at Sala’ilua, Savai’i, Western Samoa, in 1978.

In their travels through the Pacific Finnegan shows a great ability to mix and learn from locals. His profound respect and empathy for the trials and tribulations of humankind radiates and holds him in good favour. He develops his natural ability to live on the level of the locals while keeping a journal of the experiences as he is also writing a novel.

But all the while the big-picture theme in Barbarian Days is the story of a true wave hunter in motion. The finding waves of all shapes, configurations and personalities fills him with the surfer’s life-force fuel always and anywhere he is near an ocean.

Relative to his learning about human rights and social justice, Finnegan’s experience in teaching at a South African high school in the early 80s is what politicises him. All the positive experiences and closeness he has with his black students is smashed into folly by the suppressive regime that crushes all possibility of black South Africans gaining any real progress to improving their lives.

Finnegan never stops travelling as a surfer through it all. But now in his later vintage he has to lessen the intensity and danger level in approach and choice of surf conditions.

What I love about Barbarian Days is the author’s persistent abhorrence of surfing’s commercialisation: surfing has been ‘laid out for hawking’. This is and always been the purist surfer’s symbol of disdain and sacrilege. The real essence of surfing is that it is an endeavour and indeed an obsession to connect with a basic pulse of life force. To turn its magic into a product is comparable to the concept that our society has been degenerated into an economy.

• William Finnegan will be appearing at Byron Writers Festival and a special Feature Event in conversation with former Tracks editor Sean Doherty at Lennox Head Cultural & Community Centre (presented in partnership with Lennox Arts Board), Saturday August 6. Tickets $30 at www.byronwritersfestival.com.

• Read The Echo’s interview with William Finnegan here:

Barbarian Days: rediscovering surfing’s primal thrill

Surfing only looks like a sport. To devotees, it is something else entirely: a beautiful addiction, a mental and physical study, a passionate way of life. William Finnegan, first started surfing as a young boy in California and Hawaii. Barbarian...

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BWF 2016 Articles & Reviews


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