Nat Young speaks about the Church of the Open Sky
It's been twenty years since Nat Young released 'Nat's Nat and That's That', one of the great surf books from one of the great surfers. These days we more often hear about his sons, yet for four decades Nat was an enormous presence in Australian surfing.
Comprehensive though it was, 'Nat's Nat' wasn't exhaustive, there were many more stories waiting to be told, and while recovering from surgery Nat busied himself crafting those tales.
The result is 'Church of the Open Sky' a book that Nat says is an extension of his autobiography yet feels altogether different in execution. The chapters aren't chronological, but rather they jump around, each is its own story, included to complete a history that Nat sees as fragmentary and, in some cases, incorrect.
Nat recently spoke to Swellnet about the book and its contents.
Swellnet: Your autobiography 'Nat's Nat and That's That' was a comprehensive book. How is 'Church of the Open Sky' different?
Nat: Well, it's an extension of it really. I mean, I was hung up with a knee replacement two years ago, and after the surgery, which was based on Tom Carroll's successful knee replacement, I was in bed and doing the rehab, and I just wasn't very good about it. I've never been very good sitting around and doing nothing, so I started to write again.
I had all the notes, and I just kept working on them and got them up to where it actually looked like a few chapters. Then Bryce bought down some diaries from the farm, cause I've kept diaries from when I was 16. That's how 'Nat's Nat' was written too, so I just used the diaries - got the dates and facts together - to construct the stories.
Yet you've not necessarily written about events that happened after 1998, when 'Nat's Nat' was published. There are stories from earlier than that.
Yeah, there's a chapter called, The Real Miki. I was a bit disillusioned that people that had done all these stories about Miki Dora, yet none of them talked about what a great friend he was. And he was a really good friend of mine, so I really wanted to tell the stories of what it was like to have somebody like that as a really close friend.
We travelled in Afghanistan, and Nepal, and Pakistan in the early 70s together, and among other things I wanted to tell those stories.
What did you think of David Renson's bio on Miki?
I thought it was good. I'm not saying that there haven't been some great things written on Miki, all I'm doing is writing about a guy that was a close friend, you know. We did a lot of travelling together, and a lot of surfing, and I travelled on airline tickets that he had forged. It was pretty great to have someone like that as a mate. He was very, very loyal to his friends.
As a young Australian you would've been a bit green, considering Miki's worldly ways.
Oh, totally. Really, I didn't have a clue. At that first Duke contest - which I wrote about in 'Nat's Nat' - we got put into the same room because he was billetted there too. We went out to the Royal Hawaiian and he was just bizarre. He was already a hero 'cause he was Miki Dora, but when he took me out for a drink....well, he turned me on to his world. We had more fun with that then we did at the Duke contest. I didn't really relate to the contest as well. I just hung out with Miki, and from there it just went from one step to another.
I went to California, and my first wife and I stayed with him. He had to load us in through the garage, and he had bars on all the windows and bear traps on the inside. One night, my wife put her hand under the pillow and she felt a gun. This is just the sort of stuff that he kept around. He was a bizarre character. It's things like that, those sort of stories, that are the reason for writing the book.
I see my obligation as being a bit of a historian. Someone that can tell stories about the way it was because I was there back then and I'm still surfing now. You know, some of those people just don't surf anymore so all they do is sit around and bullshit. Well I don't have any need to do that. I know where my head's at with this whole thing.
Just as you you write about Miki, Midget was another person who loomed large in your life, although he wasn't always an ally.
At the end of that chapter I say it's the last time I'm ever going to ever talk about Midget, which is true. The problem, I believe, was that he was insanely jealous. I don't believe there's anything that I ever wrote or said that was derogatory towards Midget, it was all on the other foot. He was the one who felt this way.
He once made the classic line, he said, "I really like being your enemy". It was while I was editing 'The History of Australian Surfing' in Sydney and I flew the seaplane home to get around the traffic. My wife picked me up, we drove up to Palm Beach and Midget was the only other car in the carpark there. I decided it was time to try to clear the air, so I tried to engage in conversation, and I said, "Look can we have dinner and talk about this?"
I'll never forget that reply 'cause no one's ever said anything like it. I just went, "Okay". I turned around and 'cause we were parked really close my wife heard it. I got in the car and we said, "Well, what do we do? That's it, we tried". That's all you can ever do, isn't it?
He was a very strange, complex character. It may have been the English background, possibly, the whole migrant problem, being told that you're a star, that you're fantastic, and then somebody else virtually replacing you who had better Australian credentials then what he had.
In the end I really, genuinely, don't know, or don't understand it.
So why write it?
What I wanted to do was just present the facts, and then everyone can say, "Okay fine, I think Nat's full of shit", or, "I think what he's saying sounds reasonable". And I reckon it's probably going to be a well-received chapter, but I think there'll be people that are going to be feeling a certain way about me or the chapter, and other people that are going to go, "Well, now we understand".
Earlier you mentioned your role as a historian, that it's your job to tell these stories. It used to be that surf magazines would tell our stories but that doesn't happen as much anymore for obvious reasons, and social media is immediate, it can't illuminate the past. It falls upon authors such as yourself to tell these stories because we really do need them.
Yeah, I think so too. I've had this discussion with many people in the surfing world and it's totally true. As we all know, with magazines you have to be an incredibly wealthy philanthropist to support it, or you have to be able to write books about it - which is my position. I've done six books now, and they've done well. 'Nat's Nat' sold 84,000 copies, 'Surfing Fundamentals' sold even more. But all of these things are great projects, even though 'Surf Rage' probably only sold 10,000 because people didn't want to know about that! There's some contradictions in there, the localism thing. That was okay with me.
Like you said, it's a great thing to be able to tell these stories because people really do need to know about our culture. It's the essence of my work. I really think we've got to know the stories of our elders, like Kevin Platt for example.
Kevin was a great guy. He was also on my first trip to Hawaii with Midget Farrelly. He was Midget's best friend and his Mum was the first person to make boardshorts in Australia.
Yet so many people don't know this sort of stuff! They all think it's fucking Quiksilver or Billabong, they were ten years behind Jean Platt. Platts were way in front.
Kevin was on a trip to Angourie, the first trip to Angourie in 1962, with Bob Evans, Bobby Brown, and myself. Part of that story is in the book, so Angourie comes into one of the stories but I don't obviously push it too much. There are lots of great people that shouldn't be forgotten in Australian surfing.
And the losses, like Bobby Brown for example, are just tragic. That's cultural too. That would never probably happen in Europe for instance.
Sorry, what wouldn't happen Nat?
Well, that someone could be in a pub and get into a confrontation over whose 20 cents is on the end of the pool table that ends with a smashed beer glass in the jugular [in 1967, Bobby Brown was killed in a barfight at the Taren Point Hotel, near Cronulla].
To my mind it's incomprehensible. That side of Australian culture is one of the reasons I haven't gone near hotels in forever, even though there was a time where I had a sponsorship through Bundaberg Rum. I'd have to take a case of that shit to bloody hotels and get them all drunk, you know.
I know what our culture is, and I really think it's a terrible thing about Australia. I'm afraid I see it as part of our Australian identity.
'Church of the Open Sky' is the title of your book. That's a Tom Blake saying, correct?
Yeah, Tom Blake was the first person that actually said that phrase to me, but it was subtitled, Nature Equals God.
Tom was very philosophical about the way surfing should be perceived. In saying that, he put on the first surfing contest in America, yet after a few years he realised surfing contests were a complete misnomer, and that's when he got into the whole thing with Nature Equals God. He developed a whole understanding of life based upon surfing, describing what an incredible, personal pursuit it can be.
Tom was a great guy. He wrote me letters and as a mentor in surfing....well, you couldn't have anybody better really.
You were a successful competitor, but then you also had the quote: "When they asked us what is surfing, I wish I said that it's a spiritual activity, and not just a sport, cause that's what put us on the wrong track".
Yeah, you got to be careful when you're being dogmatic about things like that. You've got to make up your own mind, you know. I think you'll find that most surfers around the world understand that. You've got the gist of what I'm on about there.
I dedicate the book to Tom. In fact this is the second book that I've dedicated to him, which says something in itself. There are so many people in this book that have been important to me, but Tom more personally.