from the editor's desk

Review of ‘Lines to the Horizon: Australian Surf Writing’

Breen, Sally, Emily Brugman, Sam Carmody, Madelaine Dickie, Jake Sandtner and Mark Smith. Lines to the Horizon. Fremantle Press, 2021. RRP $32.99, 224pp. ISBN: 978176099032.

Jen Bowden

Given that Australia is one of the top spots for surfing in the world—from the famous Rip Curl Pro at Bells Beach to the Margaret River Pro in Western Australia’s South West region—it was only a matter of time before our relationship with the ocean was immortalised in words.

Who better to take on that immense challenge than some of the country’s best writers, led in the charge by Fremantle Press—a publishing house tied so closely to the ocean that you can sometimes smell the salt tang of it in the air from their office?

Enter Lines to the Horizon, an anthology so full of the immense wonder of the sea and humanity’s relationship with it, that even those who have never dipped so much as a toe in the ocean will be hankering to get out on a surfboard. The cover quote from writer-surfer legend Tim Winton sums it up, ‘Surfing is not just a sub-culture, it is culture, and here’s proof’.

The line-up reads like a who’s who of literary thalassophiles; Gold Coast author and lecturer Sally Breen, Emily Brugman of the Byron Writers Festival, novelist and award-winning songwriter Sam Carmody, writer and Hungerford Award-winner Madelaine Dickie, PhD student and marketer Jake Sandtner and award-winning YA author Mark Smith. On paper their credentials are impressive enough, but in the context of Lines to the Horizon it’s the ability of all these writers to explain what truly connects us to the ocean that sets them apart from the rest.

Madelaine Dickie’s ‘Follow the Birds’ takes the first wave, paddling us straight in after a succinct and engaging foreword from Jock Serong. Dickie’s prose is—as always—stunning, evoking scenes so clear you come out sweating in the heat and smelling salt and sun-cream. She takes us on a journey through Mexico, through the surfing culture that lines the coast of one of the world’s most dangerous countries, through angry locals and beautiful vistas, always chasing that perfect wave.

I reach the coastal village of Troncones in the late afternoon. Organ pipe cacti throw cool shadows across the road. Between villas of terracotta and cream, I catch glimpses of the surf. It’s glassy. In my imagination, I’m out there, feeling the water like hot silk on my arms, feeling the germs from the plane slough from my skin. (17)

Dickie is the first but not the last in this anthology to consider the cleansing effects of the ocean. Though in this passage what she describes is a literal cleansing, the washing away of human grime from the skin, there’s also a sense in her work of surfing cleansing the mind; of enabling focus and quietness in the middle of all that power and energy to the point where the human and the wave become one.

Mark Smith takes this same idea—of mental and physical connection to the ocean through surfing—in ‘The Sea-Affected Life’ and runs with it, dropping in with an exploration of three creatives—Jeff Raglus, Mick Sowry and Favel Parret—and their lives on Victoria’s Surf Coast. The links between surfing and creative practice are more than just threads, instead Smith shows them to be solid, unbreakable ropes that define the working practice of these three artists.

The sea-affected life is one lived mindful of the smallest shift in the wind or pulse in the swell […] it lies at the core of the art Mick, Favel and Jeff create—wherever their talents have taken them, they have felt the pull of the ocean. (81)

It is that ‘pull’ that lies at the heart of many of the pieces in this anthology; the sense that it is the ocean, not the surfer, who is in control of what is felt, known and created when out in the waves. There is an overwhelming sense that though those who surf may be able to harness that power briefly, they’ll never completely tame it.

Of all the pieces in this book, by far the most heart-wrenching is Sam Carmody’s ‘Hold-Down’ in which he explores his own experiences with depression through his connection to—and time in—the ocean. For those unfamiliar with the term, a hold-down is when a surfer comes off their board and is rolled under the surface of the ocean, held down by wave after wave pounding overhead. It’s a fitting metaphor for depression.

The hold-down is a slow descending. An amorphous downward pull. The grip of water on ever [sic] surface of your body, so all-encompassing that you could be fooled for thinking you were suddenly heavier, that it was your destiny to sink to the seabed. (208)

Carmody’s piece is personal, honest and raw, offering an insight into how for some surfing is a fun pastime, but for others it is the very essence of their experience in life.

Lines to the Horizon is a gem of an anthology, a perfect, glassy barrel that picks you up and explodes your mind with colour, emotion and adrenaline before shooting you—exhilarated—out of the other side. It’s lively, evocative and insightful, and worth every minute spent reading it.

Jen is a writer and journalist based in Perth. She lived and worked in Edinburgh, Scotland for ten years and has written for a number of UK newspapers and magazines including The ListThe Guardian and The Scotsman. She previously worked for Scoop Events and in the marketing team at Fremantle Press, and is now a freelance writer and editor.

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