Review: Patting The Shark // Tim Baker
Hanging around the margins on a typically pissed up Bells presso night – back in the early ’90s when surf mags had some currency – I had a shout-above-the-din conversation with a fella from Tracks we’ll call Northo.
Northo was aggrieved. Tim Baker had recently left his position as Tracks editor and relocated to Burleigh to edit Australia’s Surfing Life. ASL’s canny publisher Peter Morrison used similar strategies to lure Tim as he had to recruit myself as a designer eighteen months earlier: simply describing the view from the office – occupying the beachfront façade of the Old Burleigh Theatre Arcade, looking directly into the eye of Burleigh Point. Before-and-after-work surfs, lunchtime surfs, anytime surfs. Who could resist?
Northo’s demeanour was much like that of a jilted lover looking for reasons he and Tracks were better off without Baker, yelling in my ear, “Yeaahmate, fucken Tim. He just fucken writes about himself ay.”
Well, not really, Northo. Show me a surf mag editor / writer who never makes an appearance in their own reporting or narrative, and I’ll bare my arse in Bourke Street, as the saying goes.
Anyway, it may have taken three decades, but Northo’s spray turned out to be prescient as Timbo’s finally gotten around to really writing about himself.
Back in 2015, and out of nowhere, Tim was diagnosed with incurable, stage four prostate cancer. It had already spread beyond the prostate and metastasised in his femur and a rib. The prognosis was five years, give or take, depending on his response to treatment.
In the flurry of appointments, scans, tests and treatments that follow the diagnosis – as Tim and his amazing wife Kirsten are swiftly shunted in what Christopher Hitchens calls “firm deportation from the country of the well to land of the malady.” Tim’s not only knocked for six by existential dread and terror, he’s also struck by the stark deficiencies of a medical system he knows he’s lucky to access: From the outset, his overworked, seemingly indifferent oncologist immediately shuts down the possibility that anything other than chemotherapy and emasculating hormone treatment could influence Tim’s prognosis and quality of life – despite evidence that diet, exercise, meditation and alternative drugs can play a role.
Indeed, Tim finds himself in a desolate no-man’s land: with harsh, debilitating-but-life-prolonging treatments delivered via a fractured, overloaded network on one side, unsubstantiated snake-oil quackery at the other, far extreme. And so this book details Tim’s efforts, as both curious journo and desperate cancer patient, taking it upon himself to assemble the disparate jigsaw puzzle of what a truly integrated, wholistic, evidence-based, disciplined and humane approach to care, treatment and living could be.
In many ways, Tim was well prepared for this endeavour. As long as I’ve known him, he’s thrived at the intersection of contrasting approaches to life. The former front fella of noisy three-chord pub-rock band Captain Keg and The Frothies also attending ten-day silent meditation retreats; the bloke who’d track down Tom Curren for a one-question mag interview (“Is it ever OK to wee in the shower?”) would himself recycle his household grey water back into his vege garden twenty years before permaculture was a thing. In other words, Tim’s never let attachment to any one operating system blind him to the way differences can complement and harmonise.
Seven years since diagnosis, Tim’s in terrific health, but this book is not a triumphant “I beat cancer, you can too,” memoir. The honesty and detail with which he and his family’s suffering is described, the dark nights of the soul, the suicide ideation, it’s fricking harrowing. Not even at the conclusion of the book is there a sense of the journey being over, the battle won, no #fuckcancer dismissiveness. Learning to be at peace with the ever-present spectre of an abridged mortality – being as OK as you can be with uncertainty, with no solid ground underfoot – is as much a victory as anything.
As a title, 'Patting The Shark' is an inspired metaphor: fight or flight are both useful instincts, but sometimes no amount of punching or paddling is going to help – the predator ain’t going away, so accepting its presence, being curious about it, allows you to understand it better so as to exist in its company. I’ve explained it poorly here, Tim does it far better.
Other than family, surfing is Tim’s true joy, and the salvation of surfing is deftly woven through the pages. It’s a mark of Tim’s skill that surfers won’t feel like the saltwater experience and meaning is dumbed-down, whilst non-surfers are given enough explanation to get clear snapshots of our extraordinary world. And speaking of extraordinary worlds, Tim researches and explores first-hand the clinical application of psychedelics and cannabinoids as part of the wholistic armoury of treatment.
At some stage, many of us Swellnet readers will find ourselves stumbling out of a doc’s office, knocked for six by a confronting diagnosis. In which case, having read this book will be of no small comfort and help.
But regardless of that eventuality – as surfers and mortals, with love and fear in our hearts - this is so very worth reading. I’m sure Northo would approve.
// GRA MURDOCH