“Look at them…”, the words trailed away whilst gazes spread out to the beach down below, the sea falling across the far sands in gentle rushes of soft white water. The air hung halfway between late autumn soul softening sun and the onset of a sea spray just turning to drizzle, which way it would go was anyone’s guess, the ragged pieces of seaweed hung on the porch of the house offered no clues, they were permanently salt cured a long time ago.
Way down on the sands a group of maybe ten figures in uniform black wetsuits were disconsolately dragging big blue foam boards down toward the water’s edge. The sea, or alternatively the ocean on a more romantically inclined day, hung back as if it didn’t want to be interfered with. The water a gun metal grey flecked here and there with a flash of green as it rolled over hidden rocks. The beach didn’t seem so big when you were up at the house but the group had already taken five minutes to walk as far as they had and they didn’t really seem to be making much progress.
“Bunch of fuckin’ rich prats. What do they think they’re going to learn out there today? How to get fucking wet ?”, the question received a few assenting nods from the otherwise non committed faces – they were used to this riff, from Jaz the speaker and from many others, including each and every one of the assembled group at different times. Once they might have discussed what to do about it but there was an unspoken understanding that they’d all left it too late.
“Surf school – it’s as flat as a bloody pond !”, Jaz shook his greying, still long hair and lit his roll up for the second time,
“How long have they had that surf school there ? Ten years ? Ten years and do they have anything at all to do with this place ? Do they fuck. The money goes straight back into some city boy company and out of here like a shot. Just as well the punters that pay them don’t know any better, well this lot don’t anyway.” He nodded again at the sea where the first few of the group had arrived and were laying their boards down on the sand whilst they donned bright yellow rash vests over their wet suits.
“Problem, see, is that they all come back to where they learn.” A solid stocky man with shorter hair and a zipped check shirt broke in, drawling slowly but commanding enough respect for the others to give him their attention.
“All those speed bumps that come here in the summer, take a few lessons and think they’re Duke Kahanamoku, they all come back here ever after. Not likely to go out searching for the decent breaks somewhere else. Mind, if just ten per cent of them start getting out the back when they start getting better….well, give it a year or two and it’s going to be like California in the Seventies and Eighties – fifty of the buggers on every wave and no-one gets a decent ride.”
“Here, Did you see that wanker from Plymouth ?” broke in Jaz,
“About two summers ago ? Doing one of those surf mechanic’s degree things at the university ?”. He looked around for some recognition, got none and carried on regardless.
“ Tall bloke with short hair, never spent more than two weeks a year in the water at most. Went ‘round the car park sticking his set of fucking rules about dropping in onto everyone’s cars ?
Tell you what, he comes near one of my fucking waves and he better be at the other end of it – fucking rules, what the hell does he think that’s all about. If he doesn’t know ‘em or if he wants to change ‘em then he should come and talk to some of the people who’ve been here a while. Wanker.” Jaz threw his rolly down in disgust. The others made murmurs of assent.
It was a strange group. Men, and the occasional woman, in their late forties, early fifties. For the most part they looked like they’d led outdoor’s lives and by rights the aging process that was now catching up with them should have overtaken them all a good few years back. There were few other outward signs that made this disparate bunch a group at all – they wore clothes that the townie types who often fetched up here would have struggled to look comfortable and casual in, just the normal t-shirts, jeans, hoodies and trainers, but worn into, lived into, rather than just slipped on. Hair was anything but uniform amongst the ones who had any left – but the grey shimmered into gold around the edges, washed out a million times in the salt breezes and immersed with a frequency that others might not fathom. That and the gaze.
They all shared a faraway gaze, a thousand yard stare, a penetrating look that came from years too many of gazing into the tops of blown out waves, sitting on clifftops scanning the horizon, basking on boards looking for the next clean set. In another setting, another time, these might have been a group of ex partisans, never soldiers for the state, those who had fought for ideas and lost some of their company along the way – you could see them standing on some desert edge looking at phantom battalions and faraway watchtowers in exactly the same way they looked out at the flat waveless plains now below.
These were the first generation and they were so fiercely proud of it that it was useless to enter into debate about whether surfing was a pastime, an art, a lifetime’s obsession or the very meaning of life itself – it was their life and so much more than all those things, rolled into one great pipeline that barrelled you along and spat you out gasping for foam free air. It was their definition, and by that definition it was the thing that everything else had to be ultimately defined against. The women gathered around had long ago given up fighting this, for the most part these were the same women that had known them as young and handsome beach kings over thirty or more years ago – although not always the same women that they had first been attached to back then.
First generation meant a lot on these Cornish coasts. They were the ones who had virtually reinvented the way the country, later the world, looked upon the harsh but beautiful seas that wrapped round the peninsula as if they were trying to break every stone free from the land. Each day taking a little more off here, moving it out into the Atlantic. But first isn’t always the best.
Back in the day these had been the ones who had found out what it was all about, had become the stars in their own backyard. Moved out looking for bigger, warmer breaks, conquered parts of Asia where people moved out of your way and crowds would gather at the sight of an unleashed ten foot Big Gun. Came back, carried on as before – worked when the work was good and surfed when the work allowed. Moving jobs perhaps more frequently than most in search of what had lately become known as a work life balance – truth is there would never be much balance if there wasn’t more life than work. But then something happened – about the time that most of these guys were starting to settle and raise up families, sometimes more than one at once, start businesses, learn trades and try to make way in this wider world for a life beyond the waves – it was then that the corporations around them began to creep in. First it was a few more grocery shops shutting down , replaced by clothing shops, then the developments, the surf shops that sold no boards and were no good even for getting your wax. The years of luminescent tourist wetsuits. The start of what was soon to become the mainstay of the local economy. And, as ever, with that sudden realisation that hey were no longer the outsiders but the instigators something died and the waves didn’t belong to them any more.
“Liquid tin – that’s all it is – liquid fucking tin. – Better get used to it now.”
The assembled group turned and looked at Crush, a slight man of about fifty, looking more his age than many of the others, but still blessed with a leanness that came with his genes more than with any conscious exercise. He was one of the first of the first – he held a reputation for having been one of the four fifteen year olds who’d taken a longboard out in the bay all those years ago, before anyone else. They’d ‘borrowed’ it from a South African who had moved in and started running a local hotel – he in turn had picked it up from a young Californian he’d met who reckoned the whole surfing thing was on its way out, this was back in 66 or 67. Crush had also the dubious reputation of having smashed the very same longboard on the rocks not long after, along with his leg and two toes on his right foot in the process – hence the nickname that had stuck down the years. For a while that had made him ‘Goofy’, a left footer – but Crush was the name that stuck, even now you could detect a limp if you knew to look for it. The limp, like his reputation as a misanthrope, a grumpy old bastard - if you prefer, was slowly becoming more pronounced as age grew all around him.
“You know how it was back along ? The only thing that stopped this part of the world becoming more of a backwater, more like some godforsaken forgotten part of a third world country than it was already, was the mines. There were still plenty of them working when we were growing up here – and did anyone like them ? Did they fuck. They were places where you didn’t want to go, places which were already death traps even if you didn’t get caught up in a fall or somesuch.
No-one in their right mind wanted to go down there and be a tinner. The pay was OK, but if you could get away, escape it and find something better then you bloody well did.
Thing is, they made great big slag heaps, great big holes all over the place too. See that big house in Penwassett that hasn’t been lived in for years, kind of solid looking on the outside but a huge great sink where there used to be a garden. I was working out there last year and they reckon that the main gallery of a long forgotten mine runs right underneath – a couple of hundred feet down, but all the same if you take stuff out like that then something’ll come along and fill it up sure enough, sooner or later its going to be the earth under that house and the whole shooting match’ll fall down. Might be able to sell it to one of those bastards down there if someone’s quick enough though.” He nodded again at the surfers paddling aimlessly on the calm waters filling the bay, improbably one of them caught a wave that couldn’t have been more than ten inches high – the men standing in the garden gave an ironic cheer.
“He’ll be wanting a photo of that for his mantelpiece I reckon” jeered Cowry, stocky in a check shirt, his cheeks colouring with the sarcasm.
Crush expanded on his theme, warming to the attention of the small audience, “See, no-one wanted the mining. Cornwall, a beautiful county? Not then, it was as industrial as one o'them Yorkshire colliery towns in some places. But when it all died out – whoa, see those County Hall fuckers start panicking because suddenly they had massive unemployment and we were too far away from London for anyone to give a toss.
But lucky for them everyone started to discover the joys of surfing – and now, well, look at it. They were so bloody pleased to have found another low wage economy that kept money down here that they went overboard, pardon the expression, trying to make a fast buck. Planning permission ? Local needs ? Environment ? Don’t be silly – just as long as it all gets the Emmetts down here buying up their floaty plastic pop outs and Fat Willy t-shirts, stag parties in Newquay and the rumbles of the overpriveleged down here on our beach. Course they say that wasn’t the idea, but where were any of the surfers, or even just the local old biddies, when they made these decisions ? Well, we were here, and a few even made a bit of noise about it, but they didn’t really want to hear.”
“Too fucking right”, cut in Jaz, “Even the ones, Like Joe, who made a noise had so little impact that it made it pointless trying to follow. Still, he did try. But its like in Jaws – the moment anyone tries to point out that perhaps it isn’t all that safe doin’ what they’re doin’ all the businessmen and councillors and shit turn round and tell them to shut up, make out you’re some kind of fringe loon at least. Y’know, pretend the shark doesn’t exist. OK, so Joe could be a bit off beam, but he did make a change, bit too late for some, but a change.”
“And now…” Crush paused. They all looked back at the house. “Well, there’ll be a big bloody hole to fill now he’s gone”
Cowry raised his bottle, in a voice that seemed to have dipped two octaves since he last spoke he simply said, “We’ll miss him.” And then turned back to face the sea so that the sting of the drizzle washed out the tear sliding down his face.
One for the soundtrack....