Review: Swag's back catalogue
How does a man in the fifth decade of life, a lifelong surfer with no experience in the written word, come to write four books in four years?
I'm pondering this mystery riding back from a surf at D'bah with the author of the awesome foursome, Chris 'Swag' Gudenswager. It's not a mystery for long as Swag gives me the origin story, which begins as we round the Jack Evans Boat Harbour, cross Cunningham Park, ride past the pub full of midday drinkers, and put the sex shop in the rear-view mirror.
I think a little knowledge of the genesis of the books is invaluable before you think about parting with your hard-earned to read what I consider a major achievement in chronicling the rich surf culture of Australia. And when I say surf culture I mean the real one, not the corporately air brushed sterile version we are mostly subjected to and which is used to sell everything from real estate to life insurance to haemorrhoid cream.
Swag found himself in a unique position when exposure to a Swellnet forum topic titled “Where are they now?” triggered all kinds of reactions in him. He was horrified to see pals like Chappy Jennings getting shit thrown on them in the comments, yet he also realised there was a hunger for knowledge about these forgotten characters from surfing's recent and not so recent history.
'Someone needs to shine a light on these characters,' he thought. Not only did Swag live through a particularly vibrant era for surfing characters but his dad Ken Gudenswager and grandad Frank Adler played key roles in establishing the surfboard building industry through QLD and NSW. The number of legendary shapers who got a leg up through Old Man Swag or Big Frank could fill a book - or in this case, four. Swag had access to an unrivalled depth of history and story.
There's a biblical saying: If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you. I couldn't help reflect on it while Swag tuned me up on the impetus and origins of the books which he had within him. There's definitely an evangelical edge about the smooth goofyfoot, an evangelical edge which suffuses every page of his books. A pure love for surfing and the characters who colour it.
The series starts with 'So, You Wanna Be A Surfer?,' progresses to 'Smooth, Radical: The Keith Paull Story', and finishes with 'Does the Ocean Love You Back, Vol 1 and 2'. Taken together the books are a tonic for a culture that has lost confidence in itself, grown old, weary and cynical at what my friend terms the “pure corporate dusting of the intangible”. Everywhere surfing has been hijacked by spivs, suits, chancers, money men, and carpet-baggers, nowhere more visibly than the WSL. You won't find cynicism here, any more than the kind of self-hating visions of toxic masculinity that Tim Winton characterised in his surfing novel 'Breath'. These are books refreshingly clear of moral judgements in our censorious times.
What you will find is a world lovingly recreated, an enormous vision, like the one famous American chronicler of the south William Faulkner depicted in his fictional rendition of Yoknapatawpha County. In this case Swag's great corpus, which he has rescued from the ravages of time, is not fictional but real, or as real as stories can be when they have been told and retold, and maybe re-shaped along the way. The locus of this world is the Gold Coast in those decades from the 70's onwards and it's a very rich terrain. Still mostly unexplored by the written word.
Swag's dad and grandad strode across that landscape like titans, pioneers of the surf industry when that meant supplying surfboards and employing the people who made them. Swag chose a different line. With the playground of the Gold Coast in front of him this self-confessed Coolangatta surf hustler took the platter nature and fate had placed in front of him and gobbled up every last morsel. The proverbial kid in the lolly shop.
I can't even begin to describe the richness of the stories within. 'Does The Ocean Love You Back?' is pitched as “generational surfing tales of triumph, terror, and camaraderie”. 'So, You Wanna Be A Surfer?' promises stories from those who know what it is like to get the feeling and never lose it! 'Smooth Radical' is a mostly peers-eye view of the pivotal figure who was effortlessly smooth and yet destructively radical; a cautionary tale that illustrates the dark ironies of Australian life in a way that only Henry Lawson could. Any way you slice it what it says on the tin only hints at the riches within.
Guiding you along the journey will be Swag the narrator, who likes to occasionally drift into some purple prose. Forgive Swag his flowery digressions, like Marlow the narrator in Conrad's 'Lord Jim', it's worth getting acquainted with the Swag prose style.
There are fresh takes on old legends, including MP's famous flame-out and his last surf. Classic shots of MP in a suit before the '72 World Titles in San Diego. Rabbit in a death hug with an unknown charger at massive Pipeline. Characters I'd never heard of and couldn't believe I hadn't, like Kim McKenzie, the Australian Champion who surfed against the blokes in her invite to the Smirnoff Pro where she surfed massive Sunset for the first time, then became a shark net contractor and fisho. An amazing life.
Humility is a common thread for those who have been lucky enough to have spent a life in and around the ocean. Many obstacles and pitfalls are found on the path and Swag does not skirt the darker side of life. Some of the best and most moving tales involve battles with drugs, cancer, sharks, old age itself. I won't spoil endings but have a box of tissues handy when reading the final months and days of Port Lincoln tuna spotter and world traveller Ken 'Kiwi' White as mesothelioma ravaged him and ultimately claimed his life.
Does The Ocean Love You Back? In the moments after surfing fun head high peaks at D'bah then pedalling back through the mean streets of the 'Gatta, where the glitz and glamour is only skin deep, I could only answer in the affirmative. Life felt about as good as it gets. The answer from the assembled cast of characters in these books is likewise resoundingly positive. Swag finishes Volume 2 with a tale about surfing with ten-year old Duke Worth. On the day I read it I had just surfed fun waves at the local with my ten-year old son. He describes a feeling of rejuvenation and gratitude as, “the old crew in me abandoned ship and the new found energy connected to the feelings of youth which took over and I felt like I was surfing for the first time”.
I found in myself on reading those words, not just a resonance with those sentiments, but a profound feeling of gratitude for Swag himself, for the task of creating something for the culture he loves, the one that spawned the Coolangatta surf hustler who's love for surfing has outshone everything except the sun itself.
I recommend wholeheartedly you get the four books, signed, gift them around, leave one lying around to read on the couch, in the dunny, on a boat trip, or wherever the mood strikes. Get these stories into ya.
// STEVE SHEARER