curlewis & carneaux : sydney, 1929
WE don't realise
it of course.
The phenomenon of our surfing beaches.
We are not a modest race and in most cases we are more apt to exaggerate, rather than under-
estimate our country's attractions.
But we don't realise surfing.
We have grown up with it and to us it seems quite natural.
But it staggers tourists - yes, even Americans.
America, Holland, Norway, Sweden and South Africa have all written to the Australian Surf Life-Saving Association for handbooks of our methods as the first step towards emulating us.
Our surfing beaches.
Our long coast scalloped as neatly as a guest towel.
In each scallop, a mile or so of beach sprinkled as thickly with multi-coloured bathers as a a birthday cake with sugar hundreds-and-thousands.
Behind each beach, a village like a vaudeville- a fantastic revue of merry-go-rounds, soda fountains, picture shows, bandstands.
Piles of white flats, airy as houses built of playing cards.
Behind the villages, hills hollowed like amphitheatres.
Tier upon tier of houses, all the way up, like boxes at an opera.
From each balcony, pink and .yellow bathing suits and blue and red towels hung out to dry like flags.
In the steep garden husbands and wives garden domestically in their bathing suits.
Butcher boys dash on their rounds with towels round their necks.
Babies come home from kinder-garten, flick their diminutive bathers from the clothes line, and nonchalantly depart again for a surf, quite on their own.
Business men come home from the office and go for a dip before dinner as inevitably as men in other cities wash their hands.
In the kitchenettes, saucepans cook unattended on the gas rings.
For in a surfing city recipes always read "Simmer forty minutes while you have your surf."
That is on a week-day.
On Sundays three surfs are considered reasonable.
The first lasts from waking until breakfast, the second from breakfast until lunch, the third from lunch until dinner.
Of course, if it is really hot and you do not mind sharks you can go in again from dinner until midnight.
At Clovelly one recent heatwave night a rank of cars one mile long drew up along the beach.
At Bondi, bathing suits and full evening dresses walked together along the lighted promenade. People came from the theatres at half-time and finished the evening in the water.
Mothers put their babies to sleep on the sand-entire families camped out all night.
Twenty-seven short years ago surfing did not exist.
Bathing on open beaches was forbidden.
It was considered improper.
.Not until 1902
were the restrictions lifted.
We shall not state on which beach was shot the first shoot.
That is a question which still shakes councils and surf clubs to their foundations.
Other games are confined to the young and strong.
Here on the beach an elderly lady placidly parks her spectacles with her towel and wades happily into the fray.
A father takes a baby a few months old from its mother and holds it so that the foam brushes its bare feet.
The baby goes on sucking its comforter quite unperturbed.
But the actual surfing is only half of it.
One does not go for just a dip.
One goes for "a dip and a bake."
To visitors from overseas the sunbaking is just as surprising as the bathing.
They come to the beach wall and lean over-and their first impression is of a battlefield.
For acres the beach is covered with smooth brown bodies that seem sun-slain.
Some are flung face downwards-others lie face up, eyes closed, the sun beating on their faces.
All are immobile as marble.
They do not stir and sigh as sleepers do--no sleeper was ever so passionately abandoned to sleep as these bodies are to the sun.
An English visitor once stared down at the tranced figures.
He was a thin highly intelligent University man and he peered through his pince-nez for some time very curiously.
Then he turned suddenly: "What," he asked, "are they all thinking about ?"
What are they
all thinking about?
What do they see in the gold- brown mesmeric dusk behind their closed lids while the heat soaks out of the sand into every pore of their skins?
That Englishman has been ten years in Australia by now.
Does he still wonder what they think about?
Did he spend too many years at his University learning how to think, for him ever to master the trick of how to fling himself on the hot sand, stop his mind like a clock, and not think at all?
What is it doing
to the race, physically and mentally, these hours, days, years, of mixing
with sea and sun?
For an answer to the physical question, one has only to glance at the ranks of the surf clubs.
The tourist or journalist who could write a description of them without employing the phrase "young Greek gods" or "statues of bronze,'- has not yet been born.
It simply cannot be done.
For the surf is a sculptor.
Those tons of breakers fall like mallet blows and swimmers are chiselled slim and straight.
The foam, fizzing and stinging like iced champagne, restores to slack fibres the priceless quality that doctors call "tone."
The sun polishes the skin to an incredible smoothness.
Until the Australian surfer 100ksiihe,-,.-I cannot belpit,-,.-ayoung Greek god.
The extraordinary glow of well-being after a surf!
A philosopher once laid down the maxim that one should never commit suicide until one had had a good dinner.
He should have said "Until one had had a good surf."
What is it doing
on the mental side?
That question is not so easv to answer.
The rest of the world seems to feel it as a personal injury that Australians do not spend less time on their beaches and more in their offices and factories getting rich.
Australians know exactly what they would do if, by dint of cutting out a surf and working one hour longer every day, they became rich.
They would knock off working one hour earlier, put on a well-worn bathing suit and go for a surf. Why toil to get rich to do exactly the same thing that you are doing now, not-rich?
Why get all hot and bothered over More Production when the thing you want is produced by the Pacific cost free? .
It is a philosophy that drives the American efficiency-expert into a mental home.
Yet this apparently lotus-eating sport has produced one of the most highly trained and organised voluntary bodies of the world -a phenomenon of social service.
Strike just one
note on the bell that hangs on a frame on the beach.
In one instant the tranced figures are electrified into life.
Perhaps fifty of them are racing at full speed towards the reel of the life-line.
They make a living wall to keep the crowd back.
In the cleared
space five men are moving like high-speed machinery.
One has slipped on a belt and is racing down the beach, three are paying out the line through hands raised over their heads.
One is. checking the run of the reel.
A man or a woman
has been carried out by the current.
The task of bringing them back to the beach alive takes more than a lotus-eater.
It is a grim choking struggle that calls for every ounce of wind, nerve and whip-cord in the body of a highly trained man.
And it may even cost that man his life.
Yet any of the fifty men who sprang up at the ~tro~e of the bell are competent and ready to take their place in the belt.
For the first half-dozen years of surfing there was no attempt of any kind to make the new sports; l;fe.rb~n th~growi.ng number of accidents mad~ a few young men decide to shoulder the task themselves-=-not for any kind of payment, simply as their form of service to society.
As there were
no surf clubs anywhere else in the world they had to invent their own methods,
drill and gear.
They studied, they experimented, they practised, they subscribed for equipment, they got doctors to teach them the art of resuscitation.
To-day there are
sixty-nine surf clubs in N .S. W. with a membership of five thousand.
Membership is possible only after a gruelling test.
These men patrol all the beaches up and down the coast from dawn to dusk in the week-ends.
They provide out of their own pockets (of late years they have been assisted to some extent by the councils) for the reels, surf boats, bells, shark towers, and first-aid kits, used in their work, and in some cases, when the council cannot afford it, pay a professional life-saver to guard the beach on week-days.
clubs have been in existence twenty-one years.
They have saved thirteen thousand lives!
The general public
rather quaintly takes their services for granted.
There is an interesting passage in the yearly report of one of the clubs.
It states (hot complainingly but by way of explanation to members as to why they will have to work harder than ever in organising the financial side) :
"During this season
members of this club made 24 rescues with belt and line, 42 persons were
given assistance to reach safety, and eleven cases were given treatment
as a result of accidents, (dumpers etc.).
The club did not receive one penny piece or even a letter of thanks for services rendered".
In short, members are expected to pay for the privilege of risking their lives.
Until a few years
ago, a surf beach was a sober sight.
Black or navy was the universal wear, and people actually obeyed the regulation which said, "A bathing suit shall cover the body from the neck to the knee".
knee length bathing suits, those big straw hats, tied under the chin with
And then a daring shop opened a shipment of coloured suits.
No one has called
Australia an artistic country.
But no one can deny that nowadays it has a nice- a very nice- taste in bathing suits.
I cannot imagine that anywhere in the world is there such a bursting bomb, a flower bed, a living carpet, a ballet, a kaleidoscope of colour as there is this year at Coogee or Bondi (for some reason the other beaches do not flame quite so bright).
Not only bathing suits- giant umbrellas, deck chairs, towels, caps, cloaks, shoes, even the utilitarian rubber bags for wet bathers, are the creation of an artist on a gigantic, magnificent spree.
Deauville is supposed to do these things rather well, but it does in hundreds what our beaches do in hundreds of thousands.
Even the famous and much-advertised beach at Waikiki is an anti-climax to Australians in the matter of colours and numbers.
Now the designers are making brilliant rubber butterflies and blossoms for girybathers to wear poised on their shoulders, and caps, and wrists.
"Flowers in the ocean", say the conservatives.
"How incongruous! "
But it is always the incongruous that gives the kick to the cocktail.
We call it white.
But have you ever picked up a handful and noticed how many grains are bright purple and bright orange?
Every now and
then an English visitor wrote home, "... someone is eaten, but the sport
Shark tragedies are few, but horrible.
Too horrible to dwell upon.
Yet each tragedy has had as a relief an almost incredible act of bravery on the part of a member or members of the crowd.
Experts are divided on the question of how best to cope with the menace, and the most widely differing schemes have been proposed.
To net in an enclosure, to patrol the breakers with aeroplanes, to sink a ship across the entrance to the bay, to engage native experts to kill them with knives (some native sailors from one of the ships did actually swim out on one occassion and were greatly disappointed because sharks were short that day), to bomb them from small launches, to harpoon them, to trawl for them.
saint rescued a maiden from a dragon.
Australia's patron saint will certainly be the man who finally rescues her national sport from a shark.
With perhaps a minor, but still honoured, niche for the man who exterminates the bluebottle.
The end of the shoot.
The three figures in the foreground have
been successful in catching the breaker
out at sea and coming in with it to the shore.
Photographed at Coogee.
Swirwling waters that foam like brisk wine
catch the bathers on the very edge of the ocean.
Stirring them in a maelstrom of bubbles.
Buffeting their bodies.
Loosening their limbs.
Awaking their livers. (sic)
And tossing them light-hearted and
laughing on the yellow sand.
Arthur McQuitty, McQuitty House, Regent Street, Sydney,
for Art in Australia Ltd., 24 Bond Street, Sydney.
Image left: Partial cover.