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.