Surfing’s Place in Other Cultures Prompts Book

Journalist and globe-trotting author Michael Scott Moore, who will appear at Pages: A Bookstore tonight at 7 p.m. to discuss his book about worldwide origins of surfing culture, started his journey in the South Bay, attending Mira Costa High School while living in Redondo Beach. He lives in Berlin, Germany, where he is an editor for Spiegel Online and a European correspondent for California’s Miller-McCune magazine, and is here visiting family. He has two novels in the works and his non-fiction work Too Much of Nothing was published in 2003.

While in town, he surfed and worked with the Jimmy Miller Memorial Foundation yesterday as a volunteer in its Ocean Therapy program, which helps veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

In his childhood, seeing the original George Freeth statue on the Redondo Beach Pier (which was stolen in 2008, and eventually replaced in 2010) was one of the first steps in his journey toward describing worldwide surfing history.   

Though it would “horrify” Moore to be considered a surfing-specific author, Manhattan Beach Patch talked to him about what surfing stereotypes he has faced as an author of a book on the subject; why he wants to know what drives people around the world to surf, and how his South Bay origins figured into his writing of Sweetness and Blood: How Surfing Spread from Hawaii and California to the Rest of the World, with Some Unexpected Results.

Manhattan Beach Patch: What drives you to write about a subculture that a lot of people don’t really understand?

Michael Scott Moore: The main impetus was actually moving out of the country—out of California…in Germany there’s a surf scene and…it was a little weird. In Munich there’s quite a few…surfers in this river wave in the middle of the city. I thought that I would look into the history a little bit, and the first surfer in Germany stood up on a board in the 50s—that’s a much longer history than I expected.

In Redondo Beach, you grow up with this myth of George Freeth. I mean, I think I realized—I described in the first couple of pages of the book—when I was 12 I noticed the statue of George Freeth on the bike path there [in Redondo, on the Redondo Beach Pier.] So I knew there was a first surfer—a creation myth for surfing in Redondo Beach, which was also the creation myth for surfing in America. It occurred to me to look into the creation myths for surfing in other countries. And the one in Germany—the guy who first stood up on the board in the 50s—is still alive. I could take a train and go up and talk to him. So that’s how the book developed. I realized that there were probably other countries that were just as interesting to inspect.

Patch: As both a surfer and an author, do people that you’ve never met before think you’re going to fall under the surfer stereotype (which does seem to have some basis in California), sort of the bum, the stoner, someone without a direction—do you ever get that vibe from some people?

Michael Scott Moore: In some of the coverage for the book [Sweetness and Blood: How Surfing Spread from Hawaii and California to the Rest of the World, with Some Unexpected Results], when it came out in hardback, there was this temptation to talk about surfing in terms of blond hair, pot, and bikinis.  I don’t mind that when I talk about surfing as long as we move on to other topics pretty quickly. The whole thing that was interesting in the book to me was where surfing has nothing to do with those cliches.

In the Great Britain chapter, I talked to one of the pioneers, one of the guys who first shaped boards. And he’s this enormous old guy, living on a farm in a little village in Britain. You would look at him, and think he had nothing to do with it [surfing]. In fact, he was a very talented surfer in his day, and a major figure in British surfing. Everyone knows his name. The cliches don’t bother me as long we can move on pretty quickly—it would horrify to get me pigeon-holed into surf writing. Surf writing itself is a ghetto.

MB Patch: Correct me if I’m wrong, as I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but from the reviews I’ve read of your book, and the information about it, it seems, that you’re more interested in describing why people do it as opposed to how [people ride waves]—you’re more interested in why people do the act of surfing.  Why is that?

Moore: I don’t know if I write so exclusively about why people surf—but I did want to know why surfing had become sort of addictive all over the world: what had made it such a world sport. 

I don’t spend too much time describing surfing in the book [Sweetness and Blood: How Surfing Spread from Hawaii and California to the Rest of the World, with Some Unexpected Results], I think that gets boring after awhile…but I did want to know what made it fun for so many people. The universal thing is obviously sort of a rush in the water, the “stoke,” people talk about that.

But the most interesting thing to me was that in every culture I went to, surfing was associated with freedom. That was especially poignant in the Gaza Strip, and in Africa, where you had people with almost no money, learning to surf and feeling somehow liberated…in Africa, it was the fishermen that learned to surf. The fishermen had a different culture from everyone else on the island. They considered themselves never to have been slaves, they considered themselves freer people in general than people who worked the land. There was just this association, it was not that they surfed in order to feel free—but there was this association with liberty, even on this remote island where they had very little contact with surfing pop culture.

MB Patch: You graduated from Mira Costa—was there anything specifically at Costa that influenced your journey: teachers, places, people?

Moore: Not at Costa in particular. I had plenty of favorite teachers, including Elroy Lang, who was surfer and our geography teacher and economics teacher. Sort of a legend, I think he’s long retired now. There’s a lot of them–Geraldine Wadhams who was my English teacher [at Mira Costa]. I don’t think I really wanted to start and be a writer until I heard another teacher—a professor from the East Coast—Richard Mitchell speak. I heard him speak while I lived here—while I was still in high school…at Loyola Marymount…Richard Mitchell was a fantastic guy…I even dedicated my first novel [Too Much of Nothing] to him, even though the first novel was set in Southern California, and he [Mitchell] had very little to do with Southern California [laughs].

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