Review: 'Neverland' by Tricia Shantz
A strange feeling, something like vertigo, overcomes anyone familiar with the famous Northern Rivers area of NSW upon reading Neverland, Tricia Shantz's sumptuous social history/homage of surfer culture in Byron Bay. It's the past, but the recent past, it still feels close enough to reach out and touch, but the place it describes then is now so utterly alien it's as if you are watching a planet in outer space. Hence the vertiginous feelings as you roam through this immensely enjoyable book.
This recent past is just a tiny slice of space and time and in a sense the much larger and deeper history feels more comforting, less alien. There's the geological history. Byron Bay, contra popular opinion, is not part of the Wollumbin (Mt Warning) shield super volcano, unlike Lennox Head to the south. The east-facing Cape Byron headland and Broken Head complex are formed by the much older Brisbane Metamorphic complex. These deeply folded metasediments - which are perfectly visible at Broken Head - were laid down in the Carboniferous/Devonian period between 345-405 million years ago, compared to the much younger basalt lava flows which formed Lennox Head in the Cenozoic Era (70-50 million years ago).
Abundant biodiversity supported semi-permanent populations of Indigenous people. Arakwal/Bundjalung nations enjoyed camps at Palm Valley (The Pass) feasting on seafoods, reptiles, flying foxes, and other mammals. Lennox Head was a place of male initiation, and a permanent fish trap at the base of the point enabled easy harvesting of migrating fish species.
The first white settlers came in the 1840s for the Red Cedar trees growing on the red soils of the plateau, sliding the logs down steep gullies called shoots (Coopers Shoot, Skennars shoot etc.) to be floated down rivers and out through the treacherous bars before being shipped to Sydney. Vast land clearing took place soon after for nascent agriculture: dairying, cropping, sugar cane, pigs, beef cattle. Within decades almost the entire area was deforested.
Byron Bay's semi-sheltered embayment was chosen as the site for a jetty, which functioned as the major transport hub for shipping the agricultural products back to the city. The jetty was destroyed by storms, a second one was built before it too was fatally damaged by storms. Gold was discovered in the sands and strip mined. Whaling was undertaken for a brief period (1954-1962). An abattoir and a butter factory thrived, went broke, and thrived again as primary produce prices rose, fell, and rose again. Sand mining replaced gold mining as heavy minerals necessary for the USA space program were discovered in the extensive dunal systems. By the mid-to-late 1960s as Neverland begins its narrative arc, most of these primary productions were either gone or in terminal decline.
I offer this brief prehistory to Neverland as context. The orthodox, Morning of the Earth-influenced rose-tinted glasses through which we view this Shangri-La are a little distorted. The North Coast, and particularly Byron Bay of this time, was not an untouched paradise where man was living in harmony with nature. It was a semi-abandoned industrial mine site and degraded agricultural area.
What wasn't degraded was the surfing resource. The newly-arrived American and Aussie surfers weren't the first surfers in the district. The hard-scrabble mining, industrial, and fishing town already had a few local surfers such as Max and Yvonne Pendergast in Byron, the Keevor brothers, and a small Lismore crew who were surfing Lennox Point. What is undeniable is the amount of quality, uncrowded point surf that attracted the newcomers and the impact they made.
Neverland traces the life-stories of these surfer imports; their cultural impacts and influences on shaping the direction that Byron Bay and the North Coast took as these places transformed from primary production to tourism and creative-based economies, including a powerful surf-industrial economy.
The big names are all in here: Greenough, Nat Young, McTavish, Bob Cooper, Rusty Miller, Phil Edwards, Wayne Lynch. Most of that material is well known. It's the stories of the lesser-known players, and/or their partners which brings the book to life. Their stories show the dynamism, creativity, and DIY entrepreneurialism was not just confined to the big names who normally get the credit. The book is worth reading for these stories alone.
While the life-stories are individual, the overwhelming impression is of a group of people subjected to incredibly good fortune. History normally recounts tragedy. World Wars, revolutions, plagues, the conquest of peoples and places are its stock in trade. Neverland offers a history recounting an incredibly favourable confluence of people, place, and time. The circumstances enabled a style of life that is now only available to the wealthy, at least in this area.
Californian surfers who arrived in Byron Bay on the heels of word of mouth and the first surf movies had the amazing gift of hindsight in the present. While the local workforce was subject to industrial decline and fled the regions for the cities, the Californian surfers had seen the development of the Californian coast and realised that, in effect, they had been transported back in time, to a place where coastal property adjacent to good surf was dirt cheap. The USA at the time, and in particular California, was in the middle of a thirty year post-war boom and with the benefit of a favourable exchange rate middle-class wealth could easily be transferred to coastal property acquisition around Byron Bay.
Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson decried what he called the “grinning hippie capitalists'' that moved into the California Summer of Love scene and it's possible a certain amount of self-aggrandizement and even self-delusion might now attach to the accounts of fortunate surfers fifty years ago when seen through that prism. It will feel like a kick in the guts for some in the present to see blocks of land at Wategos for $500 - signed off with a 10% deposit. Even back then $50 was not a great deal of money. Especially for a piece of dirt that is now worth in the tens of millions.
I'm still prepared to accept they were the recipients of incredible fortune and that they were, as stated by Encinitas emigre and Californian surf industry pioneer Garth Murphy “unencumbered by monetary obsessions”. They were people, said Murphy, who valued, “our emotional lives above all; falling in love, playing music, surfing, yoga, eating well and staying healthy”.
The entrepreneurial drive of Americans like Murphy and his peers cannot be disputed. Even if some of it came as a reaction to a day's work at Walkers Meatworks, the Bay's major employer, as memorably described by Californian Derek Beckner. “I worked a week in the meatworks...I'd never worked so hard. The Keevor brothers worked there. The older brother was up on the line where the cattle come in. He said, “Hey Derek, look at this” and he slit the cows throat”.
Derek decided he didn't need to work after that and after a long series of business and real estate dealings spent time in jail for drug smuggling, after which he was deported back to the US, leaving behind assets and real estate which have been subject to dispute and windfall gains. There were messy dealings and real money behind the peace, love, and mung beans rhetoric and free-wheeling surfers “unencumbered by monetary obsessions”.
Lester Brien was the lynch pin of most of these dealings and his testimony anchors the book. Being the town’s sole surfing solicitor he brokered the deals, drew up the paperwork, acted as the official conduit between the Californian money and the North Coast real estate and business acquisitions.
Brien observed the entrepreneurial nature of the American surfers: “Garth [Murphy] was entrepreneurial from the start. He started buying property right away. He saw the opportunity”.
Conflict with the police was both cultural and socio-economic and Brien was at the front-line of the exchanges. Working class cops from an industrial country town resented the long hair and hippy attitudes and thought, according to Brien, that “the young Americans, who had no visible means of support, were all drug traffickers”. Drug busts were frequent barriers the surfing pioneers had to overcome. Many of which were trivial or planted, as alluded to in Neverland. Others made fortunes and washed drug money into real estate, legitimising themselves in the process.
The socio-economic gap was even larger. Some American surfers had access to a money supply back home, which the cops did not understand, according to Brien.
“American Bob Skinner walked into my office in 1973 wanting to buy 300 acres which cost $38,000. I didn't know him from a bar of soap. He said for me to just send a letter to his dad, so I did, and the money order comes back. I saw that middle class Americans could afford to give their kids $40,000 and buy them a place here. They were on a different wealth scale to us. All the cops saw was that Bob Skinner suddenly has 300 acres, looks like a bloody hippy and all he does is surf all day”.
I'm doing the book an injustice by focusing on the drug busts and real estate porn, although that undoubtedly supplies a lot of the vicarious thrill and ‘vertigo’ while reading Neverland. The nostalgia hit is also immense and deeply intoxicating. Most surfers will have some kind of visceral reaction to the Morning of the Earth imagery but for those who had some physical connection to pre-Instagram Byron the nostalgia is almost overwhelming.
As a kid on Bribie the trip to Byron was a rite of passage for my peer group. Family trips came first, then surfaris with the older guys in Kombis. My first visit to the Bare Nature shop on the corner of Browning and Tennyson streets, with its array of glossy pin-lined singles, twins, and nascent Thrusters out front, the pungent mix of incense, resin, and bush weed inside, the slim-hipped babes in crochet and deer skin who seemed to glide around on silent feet was the most knock down sense of culture shock and exoticism I've ever experienced. It blew my tiny little mind. Seeing the photos of Bare Nature in Neverland gives me that thrill all over again.
Bare Nature was a crucial part of the Byron Bay Surf Industrial complex, an incredibly functional, productive, and influential movement which attracted and absorbed the best talent out of the Brookvale and Californian board manufacturers and transformed the town. It still hasn't been acknowledged in the greater cultural sphere the extent to which this pre-professional surf industry generated such enormous economic windfall gains, even if mostly via real estate gains. To be fair, the protagonists put their nuts and ovaries on the line and created something of immense value at a time when the town was considered an economic basket case. Even deep into the ‘90s Byron Bay was considered by straight society to be Shitsville - a place where dope-smoking dole-bludgers would queue for hours on dole day in between bong rips and surf sessions.
Most of the players in Neverland, by contrast, ended up with multi-million dollar property portfolios, very much counter to the surfer as dole-bludging, drug-smoking loser rhetoric of the time. An error that still requires historical correction.
There are some gaps in the record of Neverland. Some voices speak from beyond the grave, like Lester Brien, who passed away in 2016. Others remain silent, like the influential Russel Hughes who passed in 2011, a champion surfer who remains an incredibly mysterious figure.
Perhaps the most glaring omission is Warren Cornish. Cornish was a complex character who passed away in 2013 from prostate cancer. Cornish could be funny, generous, and his business acumen was legendary - as was his mean streak. He stood atop the Byron surf industrial complex like Genghis Khan and betrayals, or what he considered unwarranted intrusions in his dealings from the authorities, were swiftly and repeatedly punished. His famous technique for sending a message to local authorities was to ferment a bucket of prawns in the hot sun and then inject a syringe full of the foul liquid between window seals into his tormentor's vehicle.
He acquired Bob McTavish's name for a song when Bob was short of cash and needed help, getting a royalty payment for each McTavish board sold and essentially turning one of the pioneers of the shortboard revolution into his employee until Bob was able to buy back his own name decades later.
These stories didn't make it into Neverland. What George Orwell called the “dirty handkerchief side of life” is largely omitted. Which is fair enough; life was a kind of paradisiacal adventure for the Neverland crew, even if all the normal human grubbiness still accompanied it.
Life has reversed order in Byron Bay. The farmhouses that could be rented for $4 a week with electricity and milk included are now owned by guys with names like Hemsworth, by coal tycoons, and CEO's of activewear companies. The $500 blocks of land at Suffolk Park make the news selling for $26 million, breaking some new real estate record or other. Nothing remains of the ‘70s egalitarian ethos, except as a marketing ploy. The town functions more like a Russian feudal society: wealth is concentrated in the hands of a very few, with a class of underpaid serfs who service the elite, struggling to put a roof over their head. The “slow down and chill out” sign on Ewingsdale Road coming into Byron now seems blackly ironic, seeing as you haven't got much choice in the matter when you are stuck in a traffic jam.
Reading Neverland I wondered if anything could recreate those conditions again. A town in decline with opportunity going for a song. Geologically, culturally, historically, Byron has been a place of constant change. Climatic conditions were part of the last decline. Seventeen coast-hugging cyclones or crossers affected Byron in the two decades between ‘56 - ’78, often destroying infrastructure like the second jetty. Natural forces like this could again threaten the town. A 1978 study into erosion in Byron Bay concluded: “..the natural forces producing the erosion cannot be changed, only opposed, and opposition to such forces will prove expensive.”
It would be perverse to dream of a storm-ravaged Byron Bay once again becoming available to a new generation of dreamers and surfers to rebuild and remake in their image - as the surfers of Neverland were able to do.
Much more likely the town will continue on its current trajectory attracting dreamers and entrepreneurs and providing succour for anyone lucky enough to be second generation whose parents didn't sell out or those who can find a toehold in the area. God only made one Byron Bay, one North Coast. Sub-tropical wave zones don't come any more sublime. Even now, you can still rack up a respectable wave count in high quality surf without too much grief.
Looking back at the world described in Neverland invites gazing into the crystal ball. Will there still be vestiges of paradise fifty years down the track? Maybe the main street will be dominated by casinos and the accoutrements of a high-tech city as envisaged by some of the tech-utopians who now call Byron home? Or abandoned to a new regime of storminess brought on by climate change?
It may be that the world that Shantz has so lovingly documented in Neverland is part of a continuously rotating historical wheel, endlessly recycling a vision of the good life to each new generation. More likely it is something far more ephemeral and precious and thus doubly worth documenting and preserving, as a blueprint of how life could be lived and what makes it worth living.
Neverland is an insanely enjoyable, albeit bittersweet read.
// STEVE SHEARER