My Sense of the Sublime

I took a long road to the Gold Coast, departing Melbourne and The Herald newspaper in 1980. I was too busy surfing to knuckle down to a daily grind of chasing road accidents and kowtowing to minor celebrities. I knew when the wind dropped and the tide was right. I would sneak out of the office and gun the Kingswood down the St Kilda Road tram tracks, racing to catch the late afternoon glass at Gunnamatta or, if the swell was big, Balnarring on the kelp beds inside Westernport Bay.

The Herald back then was a strange pressure zone. The old guard in pleated skirts and pin-stripe suits could not understand us. The columnist Keith Dunstan, weird because he bicycled to work, the turf editor Jack Elliott, who could file twenty paragraphs over the phone twenty minutes after the main race, among dozens of similarly hardened pros, gawked at us in horror, emerging comedians, aspiring novelists, youthful commentators and shameless rock and rollers trading wisecracks across the newsroom. The mood pulsed and crackled and fizzed. It was too much, everything and nothing, a kind of Hobson’s choice. I was not yet twenty-one, not selfless enough. I had pushed over the ledge, roared down the face, dropped into the pit and felt the profound exhilaration of the tube. Nothing else, no other thrill, made me feel so alive. I wanted to interview and write and interpret the world as it unfolded around me and I needed to surf whenever the call of the wild came. I could not be in two places at once.

I was asked politely to leave The Herald. I politely left. Hooroo dinosaurs. I took off for America, crashed among the pines on the edge of Santa Cruz in northern California, waves at dawn every day. I hitchhiked coast to coast, San Francisco to Chesapeake Bay, devouring the Washington Post and the New York Times, scribbling frantically, living the New Journalism dream. I arrived in New York on 8 December 1980, at Penn Station on a Greyhound with Joe Frazier’s brother. Sitting on my narrow bed in a tiny room in the YMCA, I saw the news flash on the TV bolted to the wall. Beatle John Lennon shot dead outside the Dakota apartments. I went right down there. My eulogy was a plea for tighter gun laws. It ran in Ziriuz, a New Age magazine published from an Addams Family mansion back in Melbourne. John Lennon’s murder was my first contemplative analysis of a rich and powerful cultural identity, commencing an enduring interest in seminal, pivotal figures that led me almost forty years later to Gold Coast Mayor Tom Tate, a focus of my PhD thesis, whose pro-property development embodiment of power is intensified because it is confined within a relatively small arena, Australia’s longest established holiday playground.

I had grown up admiring and respecting newspapers, the great chronicles of the second half of the twentieth century, nobly crusading and exposing; then, as the years went by and the editions changed, I looked on in horror as newspapers became the instruments of desperate moguls, turned back into the ideological organ grinders of the nineteenth century, blind to the possibilities and dangers of the internet until it was too late and all those moguls could think to do to stay viable was appeal to our base instincts.

Like many young writers, I was in thrall to Henry Thoreau and Jack Kerouac, not only because they were adventurous, contemporary-seeming rebels with the carefree bravado to reject what I had begun to dread, but also because they seemed to respond to nature like I did, only more so. Thoreau alone in the woods at Walden Pond declaring ‘we need the tonic of wildness . . . we can never have enough of nature . . . resign yourself to the influence of the Earth’. Kerouac following the ‘mad ones’ burning across America ‘like fabulous yellow Roman candles’, until on the rocks below the cliffs at Big Sur, burned out, he sat down to write poetry trying to capture the essence of the waves. Thoreau and Kerouac were visionaries extending the romantic gaze. When I acted out my Thoreau and Kerouac fantasies, the emotional dividend I derived made it impossible to want to turn back.

Wandering in America, I was spellbound by the blistering gonzo outrage of Hunter S. Thompson. And so, I had a triumvirate of spirit guides. They might well be the most commonly popular spirit guides of my generation, but that makes them no less special, rather their immense appeal is a confirmation. Forty years ago, when living standards were rising, Thompson insisted the political system was broken. His apocalyptic, hallucinatory visions are no longer nightmares. ‘What do you say, for instance, about a generation that has been taught that rain is poison and sex is death?’ Indeed. After AIDS, acid rain, Ebola, SARS, jihad, etcetera, and now Covid-19, Thompson makes more sense than ever. Disease, crazed leaders and climate change do in fact threaten our survival. Thompson was hyperbolic but he was also holding up a mirror. His excesses and self-mythologising turned him inevitably into caricature, inducing his own identity crisis. Nevertheless, he was a seminal ethnographic journalist and a prophetic diviner of the roles of citizen journalist and digital disrupter, subverting media hegemony for the independent, individual voice. Thompson’s message is now a new normal. His legacy survives. It is the realisation that too many of us are being played for mugs.

 As I sought to make sense of the goings on at and around The Spit, on the northern end of the Gold Coast, where a debate about the future of the Gold Coast’s last remaining undeveloped beachfront land was playing out, I found guidance by asking myself, what would Thompson think, how would he respond? How would Thoreau appreciate these trees, these birds? What poetry would Kerouac find in these dunes, these waves? The trio have remained touchstones for me. I forgave their excesses long ago. I remain in awe of their brilliance and their truths.

I could not break away completely. A part of me was always in the office, on the newspaperman’s beat, never completely the poet. I knew I would not survive without the security of a regular wage. I was conflicted. I needed to be in nature but it was not in my nature to be totally immersed.

Returning from America, I worked for a variety of regional and rural newspapers, until nature called, and it called frequently. I drove a Kombi to remote Cactus, in the Great Australian Bight, as close as I could find to the middle of nowhere, where perfect waves uncoil before a desert backdrop. I was alone in a small tent with E.L. Doctorow’s Loon Lake. The cast in this complex, meditative story, a runaway, a failed poet and a lake, echoed my own restless existence. I returned again to newspaper jobs, at Carnarvon in Western Australia, Bundaberg in Queensland and Geelong in Victoria, never far from the surf. I went to Ipswich with The Queensland Times, joined The Courier Mail in Brisbane, met my wife in China, tried our luck in England and came to rest on the Gold Coast, home again among the waves. 

Beyond all else, I recognised surfing as my sense of the sublime. Each wave I rode took me further into nature and further away from a more conventional path. I found my deepest emotional resonance at the beach. I had drifted out of a prestigious reporting job at the heart of the Victorian establishment, and later with prominent local newspapers. I was not ungrateful. But nothing matched the thrill and fulfilment of surfing. Into my seventh decade, I can no longer surf. So many waves have worn the body down, my joints refuse. I will always live near the beach. And I still return to Thoreau, Kerouac and Thompson.

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