Monty Webber on 'Bondi Days: An Obituary'
Knowing nothing but the title, I pegged Monty Webber's latest book 'Bondi Days: An Obituary' as yet another book about how the old days were better than the new ones. With my mind made up, 'Bondi Days' shifted positions in the house; an unwanted object with no place to be.
That's until last weekend when I indifferently flicked through the pages, and then subsequently read all 120 of them in one sitting.
It is a book about a time a place - Bondi Beach from the 60s to the 90s - and despite being presented as memoir, the larger story is how the place shaped the people who inhabited it. Monty describes it as "a bit like 'The Wonder Years', where a kid is seeing stuff that blows him away and he has little idea of how it's going to affect him."
Yet there's a whole other element that wouldn't fit under 'The Wonder Years' M rating, nor are the stories presented as morality tales. Thankfully, 'Bondi Days' is a judgement-free zone.
Swellnet recently chatted to Monty about writing Bondi Days.
Swellnet: I understand that your new book was ostensibly an extension to Dean Cook's obituary. Did the idea come while writing Cookie's obituary or was it stirring for longer?
Monty Webber: Well, for ten years Matt Ellks and I have been trying to nail down what the experience of being a grommet and growing up at Bondi was like. But we haven't been able to find out how to do it. We tried to do it with fiction, we tried to do it with articles and short stories and even novels. My advice to Matt when he published Scum Valley was, "Matt, why don't you just write what happened?"
And of course I didn't take my own best advice. But then again it's kind of hard to tell those stories; they're mostly illegal, and how are you going to include everyone? There's so many characters, how would you know what to keep in and what to leave out?
So when did it all crystallise for you?
Very much with the Cookie obituary, and with the response to it. I got calls from people I hadn't talked to for years, and for a while I wondered why it had such an incredible response. You know, people weren't just talking about Cookie, they were talking about the story.
But then I realised it was because I knew the story of Cookie, I could tell it, and it was the story of being a Bondi boy.
I learnt to surf at Cronulla when it was still blue collar, and a lot of the characters that you write about also appeared in my grommethood as if they're archetypes of a certain time.
They sure are. One of the first things that I experienced when I began travelling elsewhere is exactly what you're talking about. Here we were in Bondi thinking we were this unique group of people, and then you go off to another beach and discover your doppelgangers. Almost complete cookie-cutter groups of people who were exactly the same as my group.
It was reoccurring on all the beaches I went to on the whole east coast of Australia. To a lesser degree, say, at the remote places, but certainly at Maroubra, and Newcastle, and Cronulla. I just went, "Fuck, it's just the same."
And do you know what? I actually really liked it because I felt this instant affinity with these guys because they were like characters from a series that I've lived in.
I got the sense that the obituary is not just to your time at Bondi but, projecting outwards, it's an obituary to a certain era of Australian surfing. For better or worse, the environment that fostered Australian surfing success doesn't exist anymore.
Yeah, for sure. There was this incredible sense of connection we felt with people...like, more than just the little gangs and groups we split into, we were all going through everything together. This was a shared experience. This wasn't like sitting at home and being on social media, this was...man, you were down in the dirt with your friends. And a lot of it was wild. It was dangerous, it was incredibly competitive, it was ruthless, brutal even.
As much as people think, "Oh, thank God people aren't so horrible anymore," it was pretty fun.
You also include a synopsis of sorts, about why your group pushed humour to the extreme, and also what resulted from it.
The thing that was exciting for me was actually trying to understand why we did all that to each other. Often when I sit down to write, I don't really know what's going to emerge. Sometimes it's quite inventive, and sometimes it's more a process of discovery. It's a little bit like being an archaeologist. You've got all these things that you're digging up, these events and these characters, and you're trying to piece together what happened: What the fuck was that about? How do these dots join up?
And the thing...the story, that emerges, is about something. It shadows overarching narratives in life and in society. When I was writing this book, I didn't quite know why we'd laugh when our friends fucked up or got hurt. Like, you'd be genuinely fucking pissing yourself at your friends fucking up, you know what I mean?
No-one really does that anymore.
No, we're taught to be supportive.
Yet there was this knowledge within us that we were actually making one another stronger. That we were the making of one another.
Talking about the writing experience. Where were you seated when you wrote this book? In Bondi, staring out on familiar terrain..?
That's a really fascinating question. I moved back to Bondi about four years ago, and I spent three more years there and that was a really integral part of this experience. That's why I used that T. S. Eliot quote about going back after all your adventuring and understanding where it is you come from. That was my experience. I couldn't have written this book twenty years ago, which was the last time I lived there. It hadn't all kind of settled enough. Or the things that were profound hadn't risen to the surface yet, they were still kind of swirling about in the mix.
But what worked really well was, during the actual writing, I moved back up the coast to Angourie, which helped me to get away from what I'm writing about, to actually write about it. Had I been back in Bondi, I would've been in the mess of the story. I had to kind of separate myself out, so I could look at it from a distance.
In my head, I imagined you parking up at a table at the south end watching your 17-year-old self hanging on the wall. Seeing it so vividly because the words are so vivid.
Well, that certainly happened, and it happened very recently. When I went back to Bondi in 2019, I was wandering around reliving scenes from Wild Strawberries. Do you know the film by Swedish director, Ingmar Bergman?
Okay. He made this fantastic film called Wild Strawberries, about this doctor who calls into the house that he grew up in. And the film is him looking at these scenes and remembering things that took place, and it's incredibly melodramatic, but also really moving because this guy is remembering his past. In the moment, none of us realise we're on this trajectory, and what all these moments will add up to.
So when I was last down there, I was doing that. I was walking around, and I'd just sit down, I'd look at the wall, and I'd just remember all this stuff that took place there. And the whole of Bondi was filled with ghosts. I'd see friends running down to the beach and remember the time when I got the fin chop on my leg, and I'd stop and look at the spot.
I'm quite a mad person...it's like having a cinema complex inside my own head playing the whole time. It's not just one screen either, it's a multiplex...
Anyway, my experience was as you described it, but it was important for me, I feel, to get away from it to write. When you're in it, it can be a bit confusing.
The other thing was, I was wandering around Bondi on my own quite a lot over that period of time, and sometimes I'd bump into friends. Some of them are new Bondi people and some of them were old Bondi people. And that was kind of helpful as well because the old Bondi people, we'd just start laughing and just go, "Fuck, how was it back here? Like, that was outrageous. How did we get away with that?"
And then there were new Bondi people, and I felt compelled to describe that it was a different place. I mean, it's unchanged and the architecture's similar, but it's why I added a small paragraph into the most recent version including that quote from The Go-Between by. L. P. Hartley: "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there."
I'm at this time in life where suddenly, for the first time in my life, I do feel like the past is a different place. When I was 55 I remember I had a book launch and someone asked me if I still felt young, and I said, "I still feel exactly the same as I did when I was young."
But it's not like that anymore. I feel like the past is this other place.
Are you sad about that?
No, no. Do you know what? I was. I was, but I'm not anymore.
I'll admit, Mont, that I put off reading the book because I incorrectly judged it as merely an older surfer writing about how yesterday was so much better than today. Yet there's much more to it than that.
I've got three kids that couldn't care about my childhood or yours. Now is their time and they'll make what they can of it.
Exactly...I was just thinking about that question of yours because it matters not. I mean, the only present moment is here, right now. When I was a teenager, I saw Morning of the Earth and everyone was talking about Bali. This is in the early '70s, yet I didn't get there until 1983. Because of the way people talked about, I thought I'd missed out.
Then in 1983, I was at the Icebergs and this guy got back from Bali, and I said, "I thought it was better in the '70s," he goes, "Well, you can't go back."
Then he said to me, "Go. Just go."
And I went and it changed my life. And the thing is, none of these things, the past or the future, they're just kind of irrelevant to the moment, really. Make of it what you will.
Yet you're writing about the past..?
I mean, I love writing about the past, I love talking about the past. I even love imagining what the future's going to be like, but you're betraying the present moment, and you're really letting yourself down if you can't be there now, because soon enough, someone's going to be looking back on this moment and saying, "Oh, wasn't that cool?"
One of the worst things you can do is not be in the present moment.
Now we're talking about times, you claimed to have written the whole book in two months. Was that bullshit or not?
You know what? I really did write it in two months, but then it took me a while to clean it up.
It's an incredible effort.
I'll tell you something that I was inspired by. This'll sound like a wank, but I'll say it anyway...
I'd written a few things, I'd written Purple Patch 1, 2, and 3...though I haven't released 3 yet. I had fun writing it, but most of my friends don't read and most surfers don't really read, but it doesn't prevent me from writing them. I saw this documentary on Ernest Hemingway, and he'd written two or three books in a row that hadn't got much traction and he felt a bit disappointed. And then he wrote The Old Man and the Sea in eight weeks, and I felt inspired by that.
For The Old Man and the Sea, he had to find a story inside him that really wanted to be born. What I find amazing, Stu, is that someone hasn't told this story before. How can it be that I'm 61 and it's 2022, and, to my mind, this is the first time the Bondi story has been told.
Only on SN. Bravo.
Email incoming, Mr Webber.
I remember surfing one season at Bondi 1980s which had a world class right/left bank that broke from 1 foot to 6 foot for a period of 6 months. The surfing standard at Bondi at the time was best I seen at that time.
Authenticity before influence any day of the week.
Biggest single change in my life time is seeing the idea of repeated self absorption being authentically adopted as influence. There is nothing new or authentic about it. To become as shallow as ones self absorption closes a whole other world out.
The authenticity of the above writers and others writing on swellnet is shown in the word and the passion they have lived without trying to be an influence. Depth through written description rather than likes.
The descriptions of changing times can't be made up they have got to be lived, hence why they are highly descriptive and emotionally relevant to allot of surfers who didn't give a shit about influencing anything, rather just living an authentic self with or without judgement from the masses by chasing what they loved and found solace in. Authenticity is a dying art. Keep it up swellnetters write from the heart no matter how ugly or beautiful the topic. If you have lived it you cant fail through authenticity whatever the story. No right or wrong in authenticity new or old. Substance and attitude counts. Reflections from the heart though often raw are often the best.
'cookie cutter' etc? Gladdens the heart to know that some of these hard core scum valley legends were able to find time to slot in a bit oprah and after school american childrens' television in between all their hectic adventures.
Products of their environment.
Caught betwixt wild colonialism and full blown early stage Los Angelism were our sacrificial inner city frontiersman of the globalising surfing culture. Monty Webber has remnant city surfing DNA coursing through his rural surfing carbon base. Great mix I reckon.
One of the most interesting minds in Oz surfing. Comfortable amongst both the gormless city rats in their maze and the “ Any more inbred and they’d be sandwiches “ small town cul-de-sac mentality.
A fine exponent of an Aussie surfer evolving with the times and staying clear of the pack.
Can’t wait to read this. Stu gave it a far more emphatic wrap than comes across here.
But it and support true Aussie surf culture creativity. I know I will be.
Never met the man but long admired his contributions to the tapestry of Oz surf culture and Australian storytelling in general.
Great interview! I know nothing of the time/place, but it appeals so there must be a universal aspect to it. I like the idea of the radical stupid stuff; and I note the idea that laughing at mates in trouble is actually making them stronger and the group building itself. That's how I remember it on a far away coast. Open question to the audience: as we've lost the harshness and gained supportiveness, have we taken the 'building' aspect out of the moment?
Definitely. It’s the freedom to experiment and go wild that’s diminishing the resilience of our population.
Fuck, I remember times amongst our crew that were literal Lord of the Flies shit. Buck wild nearly-teen mobs going nuts without a parent or authoritarian figure within cooee. Crazy shit. Crew who might not have the best home life erupting into full blown anti social behaviour at the slightest provocation. Good times. Funny stuff.
Still remember word that Toby XXXXXXX had left town. Started as a few slurs about his character at the small town surf club where we stored our boards. Next minute shit has gotten crazy and Toby’s board was pulled from the racks and subject to proper soccer- hooligan style violence. I mean mindless berserker destruction. Crew fighting over who would inflict the death blow to the in-absence effigy of Toby’s board. A four-legged chair smashed through the deck. Smashed into pieces. Set on fire.
Was all story. Toby turned up for a surf that arvo to find what was left of his board smouldering on the sand. Kids from homes where life wasn’t always pleasant letting out a primal scream in their own fashion.
Good surfers . Good people. Now parents of respectful young Australians. Young Australians who maybe have their own demons to face. Different world now. Better or worse …who’s to say. The world was less crowded then and that’s an objective advantage when the opportunity for unrestricted adventure is an antidote to slavery of the soul.
Yeah rad. It was full 'lost boys' zeitgeist as soon as the sun went down in the immediate suburb. Have since reflected that all the other kids there were screaming out of their skins too, it wasn't just me. I think surfing saved me, for my focus shifted to much more positive things. We are the 'nomad' generation.
I'll never forget, before a part of the suburb overlooking the river was developed, there was just one large, old house on it. Full verandah/farmhouse, beautiful, double storey, it must have been expensive once. The house was condemned so the parties went there, and we kept ourselves warm by lighting a fire on the floor, the floorboards were alight. The walls flickered in the light illuminating faces and laughter. It was ours and magnificent.
"The walls flickered in the light illuminating faces and laughter. It was ours and magnificent."
Is that an original line of yours VJ?
Yep that's all me Zen, thank you :) Tho I think Ben owns it now? haha
Although that acutally happened (with nangs sadly), literary inspiration comes from Michael Dransfield's 'Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man'
When night or winter comes
I light a fire
And watch the flames rise and fall like waves
I regret nothing
Used to catch the bus to Bondi from Double bay infants ‘704?’ Our house was next door to the Astra (Sir Thomas Mitchel Rd), The Astra was a confirmed nut house, me old man dealt heroin there, he’d buy the latest Tracks Paper book and sit me on the step directly out front of the bar and say, stay! I couldn’t read but enjoyed the pictures. What I really wanted to do was grab my pice of masonite and slide down the grassy slope in the sth end with my local friends, punch up’s, bullets, junkies on the nod or fading to grey happening all around me. But I sat and stayed as I was instructed by the old man.
Depends on how fucked up or hurt your mate is. Some never recover. I don't see humour in those scenarios or funny tales just emotional immaturity from people looking for entertainment at others suffering. Sure getting hurt can be funny but death and destruction at the horrific end isn't entertainment for those who deal with the fall out. I like black humour, see relevance in pain and suffering but as usual for me it's the context and and influence it is coming from wether I can respect it or if it's even relevant to the situation. eg a Horrific car crash is still horrific to all involved despite the short term news filler it provides. Some one is effected, be it death or injury. True fairness is often over looked in the suffering of others often due to immaturity or the inability to deal with a new and raw trauma. As well as the actual over all realities of events or circumstances.
Fair harshness is some what supportive and building as is authentic supportiveness. Think rehab drug and alcohol to click bait articles that serve no greater purpose. If you don't like something like black comedy or something which will be taken out of context the consumer can always express the easier option to not indulge or quietly remove ones self. Not every coat will fit all groups or individuals. And nor should it. Conformity in the new age is boring, safe and uninspiring. Laugh at your mates but be there to pick them up. Seen many who didn't make it at the expense of others light entertainment. You can go wild to the point of self destruction too, plenty of celebrity examples viewed as a success when in actual fact it's a fucking train wreck. Nothing glamorous other than a headline. People sometimes bathe in others suffering as it often makes them feel better about themselves. Often stifling the recovery or success of others. Those people are doing fuck all building up. Harsh but true.
Also in regards to building, harshness and supportiveness if you look at the rates of depression in the younger generations they are accelerating certain elements of harshness and victimisation through social media like never before. Just ask the young girls on the peer influence platforms to be all inclusive perfect and beautiful. Its evidently clear there is a have and have not culture already adopted and in place void of substance and support. Sad, vain but true. Forget the puberty blues. It's the age of of tech and influence. Our kids are a product, and have become a product of that. There is no going back. We feed our children phones and conspiracy theories and expect them to perform just as we did. Fat chance. Capitalistic casualties or tech explorers reaching for mars we should be building whats in front of us because some don't stand a chance.
Monty always had a way with words. The whole family is full of vast talents. Glad to have been a part of that era & area. Fond memories.
Did you ever run into a bloke named Les Norton during your days in Bondi?
Think he’d be hard to miss. Big red headed Queenslander with fists like hams. Always throwing a good sort Auntie up in the air and putting a nice little earn in his kick. Drove a Berlina with classic 80’s Oz rock playing through the stereo as he drove up and down the coast inadvertently finding adventure. Doesn’t mind a cold one or a delicious. Able to shake off an eighty beer hangover and a brutal fist fight against impossible odds with a couple of sweaty morning laps of the beach in his sluggoes.
Say hi if you see him.
I have been fortunate enough to get on the beers a couple of times with Bobby Barret before he passed on. The man was a full on character himself, an absolute legend.
Norton was a clanger and hung in Kings X most weekends
A tribute to Robert G Barrett and Les.
An old radio interview from the 90's with Bob.
And a tune.
Les got a root or a fight most nights. Trouble followed him like a low tide stink. I remember when he & gecko blew up the icebergs to cover up the murder. Thank goodness Price never found out.
Well played Sir.
Might see you down the Kelly Club one night.
I am more of a morning person, Might see you running the stairs at the back of Tamma. Or maybe a Tbone at the surf club.
This statement from Stu; "I've got three kids that couldn't care about my childhood or yours. Now is their time and they'll make what they can of it."
I've got 2 kids - but this resonated with me soooo much. Given all the distractions available to them now and the massive demographic changes in our area, I just hope they get a sense of what has gone before them.
Perspective is important when considering Bondi and all that it shaped. I knew Bondi bloke Bill Jenkings, the gun police roundsman for the Daily Mirror from the late 60s until retirement. Bill's brother was a copper and they used to head out together on a Friday night, post WWII. My old man said when he was young he asked his colleague Bill how his night was. "A cracker Brian, had 19 schooners, a couple of good fights, a good chuck ... it was a cracker."
The models for Bondi behaviour were born early. I first saw 6ft offshore there in '59. Plenty were attempting it. The surge and slurry of self-damaged folk from then on, especially the early 70s. Gentrification becoming a tsunami in the early 90s. Too many piles of overbuilt boxes turning Imperial Ave into commuter hell. The heirs of family fortunes outbuilding each other on Ben Buckler. Yet that chunky right in south corner or the cheeky winter left mid beach, mid winter ... just when I thought I was out, they pull me right back.