What If Surfing Isn’t Enough?
Surfing, cycling and the mental space in between.
Writing this is the last thing in the world that I want to do, but I made a film and without this context I guess it doesn’t make much sense.
And it ended up kind of being about me, which was/is the last thing I really feel comfortable with.
I frankly loathe the necessity to self-trumpet blow to get anywhere in the current climate. But I guess if you can’t beat ‘em etc, so here we are. Also, I made a vow this year to try and avoid putting lipstick on pigs wherever possible; god there’s enough PR in the world.
In short, the idea was simple. I’ve struggled with my “mental health” (not a fan of that term, or any other blanket term to describe vast, complex issues that affect millions of people differently) since I was a kid. Like a really young kid. I remember threatening to throw myself off a balcony when I was nine or ten – and not wanting to air too much dirty laundry here, but it’s likely as a result of getting really sick out of the blue at an early age. I got diagnosed with juvenile arthritis when I was eight, spent ten years in and out of hospital, sleeping in leg splints, hiding my weekly injections and endless medical appointments from classmates at school and limping around various sports pitches – “Klinkenberg my granny can run faster than you!” Add a pretty unhealthy and disjointed family situation on top of that, and cue intense bouts of anxiety (nothing like illness as a child to convince you that the next big disaster is just around the corner) and periodical bouts of pretty severe depression. Which I’m pretty sure runs in the family.
So this has gone on and on. I’ve tried running from it – I left home at 18 and moved to Australia where I knew no one. Which didn’t help much. Tried drinking, snorting and partying it away with disastrous consequences. Tried working it away, ditto. And since going “freelance” – post working full time at Stab and Monster Children (probably not the best lifestyle choice for someone predisposed to thinking the sky’s about to fall on their head) I’ve been travelling. First the world, then secondly Australia when COVID hit, scraping by on 40k a year, just drifting really and soaking it in. Then love in the time of Corona landed me in the Northern Rivers, Mullumbimby to be exact. It was the second disastrous bite of trying to live in that peculiar corner of the Northern NSW coast. And in short, I fucking hated it.
It represented everything I loathe about my middle-class English roots (no offence to my friends, still girlfriend and general good folk who do reside in either place). Just the worst manifestation of Western culture – superstition, an almighty dose of self-righteousness, tin foil hat lunacy, and just the overwhelming stench of superiority. In short, just like Conservative England, it’s a silly, dull place and I felt very out of place in it.
Surfing and travelling have long been the way I keep my mental ducks (barely) in a row. In fact, I think the closest I ever come to happiness is a cheap hotel room in a new place, like the one I’m writing from now, (the Inna Heritage in Denpasar) and a beer, joint or coffee with an interesting new person. A fair few of which are littered amongst the back catalogue of this here website (click the photos).
But travel was obviously off the table during those years. And surfing in the Northern Rivers is a Range Rover-powered nightmare, so I began drifting away from that too. However, somewhere along this two steps forward, 69 steps back “mental health” (eugh!) journey I started running. Not far as my joints are pretty war-torn from ten years of white blood cell assault. But far enough to feel my body change for the better and to notice the increased brain clarity and decreased anxiety that comes with strenuous exercise. But eventually that wasn’t enough either, and so I borrowed an old, far too small road bike off my stepdad. To say that I fell in love with it was an understatement.
Whilst everyone headed east to The Pass, I headed west into the abyss of the hinterland. Every ride felt like an adventure, full of pain, suffering, elation; a clear narrative arc which always ended with a resolution of sorts (and a few “My bike’s fucked, can you come pick me up?” phone calls). A nice metaphor for life, something that I’d previously found in surfing but have found increasingly hard to find recently.
So, with a career that didn’t seem to be going anywhere fast I decided to send a hail mary – via Stab – to GoPro. As much an excuse to get out of the Northern Rivers and go on a really long bike ride as anything else. The idea was to ride, raise a little money for Black Dog, film a few little interviews with various surf identities I’d met over the years, with the vague theme of “things outside of the surf that they do to keep their heads in check”. Just a good excuse for a physical jolly in the name of “work”.
Remarkably, GoPro said “yes”, slung me every piece of gadgetry known to man, a little cash which I spent before leaving (Jesus film shit’s expensive!) and then I had to work out how the fuck I was going to make this thing work.
The ‘how’ came in the form of my old mate Sam, another drifter who I’d been mates with for years after we met working in the cramped kitchen of Sydney’s drunkest cafe years prior. Him burning everything in sight, and me continuously flooding the dishwasher, earning us the joint wooden spoon accolade at the end of year staff party for “Most useless employee.”
Sam appeared out of the crowd at Bluesfest where I’d been bumbling my way through my first K-hole experience (Jesus that’s a crazy drug!) dressed head to toe in a red velvet tracksuit. I mumbled something about this film, he said, “I’ll come”, and that was that. Although that wasn’t really that, because shortly after, we woke up and Mullumbimby and the surrounds were completely underwater. And boy was that clean-up a confronting experience.
We sprinkled a little climate change into the vague plot of our venture, waited for it to stop raining (it didn’t) and took off. The aim being to ride from Mullumbimby to Mollymook on the south coast. A distance which is about 1000 Miles (thought miles sounded more romantic that “Kays” and I’m technically English so…) in a straight line. And we definitely didn’t go in a straight line.
The film does a far better job of summing up the trip than I can here, but let’s just say it was fun, hilarious and hard, but we got it done. And, those little cameras, pack a wild visual punch. I was thinking short, sharp, simple and episodic for the film element, Sam was thinking of premiering it at Cannes (lol), and where we ended up was somewhere in between. But we’re still friends, and we had a lot of fun. So I guess that’s the ultimate success of it, regardless of play counts.
As for the “Mental health” stuff, I’m not going to lie and say that’s been in any way resolved on my part. I’ve been wary in the extreme of any of this seeming preachy, or alluding to have the answers, as I really don’t. And I’m very untrusting of those who do, not matter how many people listen to their podcast.
Full disclosure, I came the closest I ever have to killing myself after the making of the film, during a disastrous trip back to England, the place I ran away from all those years prior. I thought that re-connecting with my estranged family would bring some sort of closure. But the state of that strange little Isle – that’s been rorted to death and brainwashed into conspiracies that would give Mullumbimby a run for its money – was frankly, heartbreaking.
I tried to flee again, this time to Madeira to surf and get away from it all. I was told by some jobsworth that I couldn’t take surfboards on the train (gave the morning commuters a shock screaming “This country is fucked!” at six am at Tiverton train station), which was the straw that broke the proverbial, and I drank recklessly all the way to the Island, something I almost never do these days, with the resolute intention of killing myself when I got there, sometime around midnight.
After hanging in the wardrobe with a belt around my neck for a bit I realised that I couldn’t do it. My body felt so heavy, and it felt so violent and not at all as comforting as I thought it would. And, I had the overwhelming sense that I should at least see what the place that I’d dreamt of coming to for years looked like in the light of day.
I slept for most of the next day, and by the time I woke up, my poor, panic-stricken Mum had arrived. Having dropped everything to board various planes and buses to come to my rescue, kick-starting an almighty putting back together at the hands of my triangle of angels – Mum, Gma, and my girlfriend Lisabel. Which, with the help of a mild dose of antidepressants – literally the best thing I’ve ever done, and very much contrasting, in my experience, to the stigma that surrounds them – and a shit load of bike riding, is going pretty well.
Not a glamorous end to this chapter of a recently-turned 33-year-old. Maybe not a great press release to get anyone to watch mine and Sam’s film. But an honest one.
I hope you enjoy the film.