The Flyer: Locals Only
Today's Flyer comes from the black heart of Social Media Wonderland, where all the best traits of humanity: humour, generosity, curiosity, are undermined by media rage-baiters who see to it that birds of a feather get angry together.
Maybe you heard about the "surf wars" brouhaha that unfolded at Sandon Point this week - perhaps you have an opinion, perhaps not - but while reading the following, keep in mind I was at Ground Zero for the madness. Hence my feelings are somewhat elevated.
I’m not even a true local myself, blew in from elsewhere, but I surf the point every swell, know all the crew and feel comfortable out there.
A blowcal if you will.
Anyway, some context: The first houses at Sandon Point were Housing Commission built post-WWII, when there was only one road in and out. Sandon was an outpost community with a golf course to the north, rifle range to the south, and to the east was the point itself, which effectively became the backyard for the kids raised there.
Those kids grew up and, in time, policed the wave with varying degrees of prejudice - tourists who put in the time were welcomed (for ten years a memorial comp for Angus McLeod, a kneeboarder from Mt Keira was held at the point), while unknown faces were not. Stories of violent dispatches are legion, as are the stories of head local Curly Haines, a fella with the build of Hulk Hogan, wit of Graham Kennedy, and the organisational skills of Rommel.
Besides surfing the point, Curly would direct his overactive mind towards other fun such as terrorising car salesmen with orchestrated ‘sales’, organising marathon card nights, similarly planning local cricket matches with truckloads of kegs for refreshments, and later on a band manager, some of them playing at the point, but more often out of local clubs.
“If he put his mind to getting himself a proper education Curly would have been brilliant,” another older local, nickname Toff, once said to me,” but then he wouldn’t have had nearly as much fun.”
Thing is, Curly’s gone, as are most of his peer group. Few of them surf the point anymore. Time marched on, sensitivities changed, the culture that once existed at Sandon was supplanted by money and mobility, but a lingering fondness for the way things were still exists there. It shouldn’t be mistaken as a wish for more violent times, but more so a sense of loss. Let the person who’s never felt nostalgia cast the first stone.
When the signs went up on Saturday night they were met with bemusement on Sunday morning. In a sense they harked back to Sandon’s old days, but at the same time they were no different to what you’d read at any crowded wave around the world. It’d take a pretty thin skin to take offence at what’s become a universal statement within surfing. A meaningless one too, as every surfer travels.
Can’t say I advocate for them being written, however I understand the old tradition, and having seen them everywhere from Teahupoo to Malibu I’m indifferent to the message.
Despite my indifference, the local Facebook community pages were quickly melting down with non-surfers thinking the sign was directed at them and somehow an indictment on the whole community. By Monday morning local media was onto it, in the arvo the national media caught on, and by Tuesday the Daily Mail UK joined in running a story on the “surf wars” erupting at Sandon.
The social media furore attracted the mainstream media, who published more stories, which in a self-stoking cycle spawned even more social media attention, each comment casting furious judgment. Amateur psychologists offered free advice on the mental health of the people that wrote the signs, while similarly credentialed sociologists linked a raft of social issues to the signs. The anger and righteousness was palpable.
This was madness. I spoke to one of the kids who posted the sign. He was stunned at the disproportionate response, switching between humour and concern about where it’s all leading. Environment heating up - silence. Economy teetering - silence. Kid writes an obnoxious sign - release the hounds.
On Monday my phone started ringing with unknown numbers. I spoke to a journalist from a wire service, who, within an hour, published a shitty story on News.com. My quotes brought up the rear; just above the basement scroll ads. I swore off tabloid media.
I got a good hearing on ABC Illawarra but the best, and most surprising, was on Sydney’s 2GB where the producer tried to do a hatchet job on me, inviting me in on false pretenses. I quickly made it clear to the DJ that if he was gonna fume about surf wars then he was way off the mark and likely to look like a prude. He tossed the question list and we got on swimmingly.
However, it was on social media where the nuttiness endured. Attempts were made to placate the angry mob - it was just kids, the signs really mean nothing, surfers see the same signs or graffiti everywhere - but that only implicated those trying to explain the nuance. Among other things, I was called “a mental midget”, a “violent thug”, and accused of having the intellect of an eight-year old.
I've always thought surfing keeps you young but that was a new angle.
By Wednesday we were up to ten MSM stories about thugs and xenophobes and surf wars, and innumerable Facebook pages saying the same. Meanwhile, the surf pumped and the point operated the same as it has for thirty years.
Despite being a surf journalist, and hence seen as a link between surf culture and the wider world, I resolved to give up on it. No more interviews, no more social media justifications, no more explanations full stop. If people weren’t willing to listen, to understand that ‘locals only’ is simply a harmless quirk within surfing, one with a bit of history, but a quirk nevertheless, then to hell with it.
For decades surfing has accommodated every advance from mainstream society, we’ve endured the pisstakes and stereotypes, provided entry to the authors and social commentators, seen surfing used as a vehicle to sell everything from soft drinks to incontinence pads. Meanwhile, our peak contest body was bought by a non-surfing billionaire, who put an Oklahoman with hair tips and perma-tan up as CEO while they ignored the core and chased the attention of Middle America.
Surfing ain’t the subculture it once was, but still, we reduce ourselves, lose whatever mystique remains, by these cowering overtures to the non-surfing public.
So, amidst the continuing social media storm, I made a vow of silence. No more explaining surf culture to the heathens. Being misunderstood, I figured, ain't so bad when it’s by people who aren’t seeking to understand.
They can maintain the rage all they want, just as long as they stay out of the surf.
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