Smooth/Radical: The Keith Paull Story
Gold Coast author Chris ‘Swag’ Gudenswager is the third generation of the Adler/Gudenswager surfing dynasty. His son Jye is the fourth. As the shaper of the aptly named ‘Gen4’ boards, Jye supplies boards to the cream of Gold Coast talent. The up and comers from Coolangatta.
When the idea to research Keith Paull’s story first struck, Swag approached Jye’s team riders. Had they ever heard of Keith Paull? For each of them the answer was no. Swag then took a few strokes up the line asking Jay Phillips and Mikey Wright the same question. From them he recived the same reply. Reaching the head of the lineup, Swag threw the question at Mick Fanning, who’d heard of Paull yet didn’t know anything about him.
At this juncture, the budding historian has two options to choose from: flick the idea into the too hard basket, selling books is tough enough let alone books about little-known people, or alternatively, to embrace the collective blind spot and view it as a golden opportunity.
Swag chose the latter, and in doing so he’s filled a yawning gap in Australia’s surf history.
Keith Paull - for those who don’t know - was a successful competitor, he won the 1968 Australian Titles beating cultural heavyweights Nat Young and Midget Farrelly, he was a sought after shaper licensing his designs to Bing Surfboards in California and shaping Harmony Surfboards here in Australia, and he was the owner of “the most beautiful style in surfing”, as Rabbit Bartholomew once described Paull’s low-slung power crouch.
By the early-70s, the foundations for a long and memorable career were laid out, and yet neither eventuated for Keith Paull. Nothing can be done about the former, Paull quit surfing in 1976 and died alone in a hotel room in 2004, yet concerns around the latter form the undercurrent of ‘Smooth/Radical’: Why haven’t we remembered Keith Paull? There’s also a secondary query posed by some of Paull’s contemporaries: Why did he fall when I endured? In ‘Smooth/Radical’ the sliding doors are many.
It’s both a strength and a flaw that, when telling Paull’s story, Swag calls upon the great surfers of the era. Lots of them. 32 in fact. The table of contents reads like a program from Australian surfing’s hall of fame, and on the contributor list alone ‘Smooth/Radical’ is an almighty piece of work. Swag rounds them up - Merchant, Falzon, Lynch, McCoy, McTavish, and many more - asking each to recall their memories of Keith Paull. The story is largely told through their voices, the author acting more as a conductor weaving various threads together. The flaw is that it would’ve been nice to hear more from Swag himself. The later chapters show he has the authority and ability to hold the story.
Nevertheless, the portrait we get is of a talented, self-motivated, and self-assured man. Paull was a player in all the events and movements of the late-60s and early-70s. Healthy too, he was vegan and anti-drugs - at least for a time.
Even fifty years after the fact, the enthusiasm to celebrate the era’s excesses still endures. We romanticise the non-conformist spirit that fuelled the period, the liberation from stifling norms, yet forget the people who fell victim to those dangerous latitudes. For many people, Paull’s last stand is the one that persists, a truly horrible flame out on the Sunshine Coast that shocked the surfing world, terrified his wife, and almost took the life of his son. It’s never quite stated, but perhaps the reason for Keith Paull being forgotten is atonement for that event. He was cast into purgatory, his reputation too.
As he was finishing ‘Smooth/Radical’, Swag realised that it was exactly fifty years since Keith Paull won the Aussies titles knocking Nat and Midge off the peg. It was an anniversary to celebrate and give the man his due. But it was more than that. In this, the R U OK? era, conversations about mental health are encouraged when once they weren’t. And though some things can’t be changed, the conversations we have about mental health should allow us to alter our view of history - and that’s what Swag has done, championing the great feats of Keith Paull, and providing context and sympathy, a light touch, to a horrible event. Gudenswager shows us the man in full.
‘Smooth/Radical’ clocks in at 450 pages and is sure to become a reference source. It’s also been nominated for Surfing Australia’s ‘Surf Culture Award’, an irony considering Paull is the forgotten man of Australian surfing. Yet maybe one day he won’t be. Maybe after more people have read ‘Smooth/Radical’ Keith Paull will be entered into Surfing Australia’s Hall of Fame and he’ll finally get the credit he’s owed.
Smooth/Radical: The Keith Paull Story is available online at Swag Books, it's also available at the following stockists:
Surfworld Gold Coast
Book Room Collective: Byron Bay and Lennox
Bay Life Books, Dunsborough
Bing Surfboards, Encinitas