Barbarian Days: A brilliant story of a life that evolved alongside an enduring obsession with surfing. But can it be judged as a sports book?


On the Shortlist

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life.

By William Finnegan (Corsair) £9.99

Review by Jon Culley

William Finnegan won a Pulitzer Prize for Barbarian Days
William Finnegan won a Pulitzer Prize
for Barbarian Days
Award-winning books have often been contenders for more than one prize and sometimes arrive in the hands of the judges having already impressed another group somewhere else, with their stamp of approval staring at them from the cover.

In those instances, rival authors might feel disadvantaged, understandably.  This year, the six others on the shortlist for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year may well feel they have to clear a particularly high bar given that William Finnegan already has a Pulitzer Prize under his belt for Barbarian Days.

His memoir of a life spent chasing waves around the world won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for biography and autobiography.  The Pulitzers, first awarded in 1917 to recognize outstanding journalism, now has 21 categories and none is won by anything that is not extraordinarily good.

Finnegan is an exceptional journalist, as it happens, a staff writer at the New Yorker since 1987, best known for writing substantial pieces on deep and dark subjects, often from the parts of the world riven by war or poverty or famine.  His previous books include two about South Africa in the days of apartheid, another about conflict in Mozambique and, most recently, Cold New World, which shines light on the bleak lives of disadvantaged American teenagers growing up hopeless and desperate in his own country.

Childhood days in California and Hawaii

Barbarian Days is somewhat different.  It is a book about surfing but to describe it with such a simplistic phrase is hardly adequate. More, it is about an obsession, an addiction. Finnegan has lived with it all his life, from his childhood in California and Hawaii, and then beyond.  Indeed, well beyond, given that a large part of the story concerns the expedition he embarked on with a kindred spirit to comb the planet in search of the perfect wave.

Finnegan doubts, in fact, whether the surfing about which he writes can even be called a sport, which is something else for the judges to ponder.  He shares the competitive surfer's fixation with wind directions, changes in the shape of sandbank formations and all the other strands of knowledge a surfer has to accumulate to read a stretch of coastline, yet has no interest in being better than anyone else.

He and the surfers with whom he hangs out do not do it to compete.  There is no sense of wanting to be better than anyone else, or wanting to achieve anything no one has done before, although in the course of his quest he inevitably does so.

The motivation is not be lauded by taking ever bigger risks but more to harness the power and violence of the ocean, vast and beyond the control of mere humans, to make all the assessments correctly, and experience the profound satisfaction of becoming one with the wave.   Finnegan started surfing when he was 10 and remains hooked in his 60s, living in Manhattan, and surfing not in shorts as he did in the heat of Hawaii but in a wetsuit off Long Island, where weather patterns dictate that surfing is a winter pursuit and the quick, low breakers offer a different, arguably more difficult challenge than the towering waves of surfing's traditional image.

Reluctance to write about surfing

Moments of fulfilment are still to be had, though, if fleetingly.  The split-second before the pop-up, the moment the surfer rises to stand on the board, the moment at which he senses how much power lies beneath his feet is beyond compare, in Finnegan's assessment.

The whole experience is deeply subjective, deeply personal.  The paucity of surfing books other than those that are highly technical is probably because it is so difficult to describe. Historically, it is not a pursuit readily associated with anyone of high intellect and even Finnegan, gifted though he is, was reluctant to write about it, fearing that it might damage his credibility with editors.  He eventually wrote a two-part feature for the New Yorker about a small group of hard-core surfers in San Francisco, which he rewrote as part of the book.

Tavarua, the remote island in the South Pacific, where Finnegan was among only a handful of people to have surfed
Tavarua, the remote island in the South Pacific, where
Finnegan was among only a handful of people to have surfed
Barbarian Days is essentially a book for non-surfers, holding their attention with vividly incisive portrayals of the characters that make up Finnegan's surfing world, a disparate community united by their secret obsession, but with enough technical detail to satisfy those who already share it and, therefore, a surfer's book too.

Then again, in the surfing world, at all levels, Finnegan is a revered figure.  Many of today's great surfing destinations were scarcely known before he began scouring the planet. Lagundri Bay and G-Land in Indonesia, for example, or Tavarua, in Fiji, where Finnegan estimates that he and his travelling companion were among the first nine people to ride a wave there, an uninhabited location where their accommodation was a tent on a snake-infested beach. Nowadays, it is an exclusive resort and a stop on the professional world circuit.

As you might be entitled to expect, Barbarian Days is superbly written, wonderfully descriptive and unpretentiously accessible, the story of a life defined by a career as a writer but definitively shaped by this love affair with the surf.  Whether or not it is actually a sports book might be debatable. Either way, the rest of the field has something to beat.

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, by William Finnegan (Corsair) £9.99

Buy from Amazon, Waterstones or WH Smith

Also shortlisted: Chasing Shadows: The Life and Death of Peter Roebuck, by Tim Lane and Elliot Cartledge (Hardie Grant)

Also shortlisted: Oliver Kay's Forever Young: The Story of Adrian Doherty - lost genius of Manchester United's golden generation

And then there were seven - the full shortlist for the 2016 William Hill Sports Book of the Year

William Hill Sports Book of the Year 2016: the longlist in full

(Photo of William Finnegan from YouTube; photo of Tavarua by Tavyland via Wikimedia Commons)



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