Photo by Phil Holden
If I was ever going to be a 'local' anywhere it would have been Langland, the epicenter of Welsh surfing. I grew up with some of the heavier locals, went to school with them at Oystermouth primary. They were the ones that fueled my surf/ skate addiction. They were also the ones, I ran wild with through Mumbles with, snuck into the castle with, explored abandoned bomb shelters on Mumbles Hill with while we convinced each other we lived in paradise. We were eight years old and it was years before I'd even touch a surfboard because I left for the Persian Gulf which is as flat as... well a witch's tit, as we might say back home... I lost touch with most of them but my neice Naomi tends bar at one of the pubs they frequent. She told me that on New Year's Eve, they realized I was her uncle and asked after me. I have to admitt a warm glow came over me, knowing that the lads I have probably only seen twice since I was eight, were asking after me. "Did you tell them I still surf?" I asked Naomi. "Of course I did." I grinned the biggest fucking grin. Anyway, this chapter of thinly veiled fictional drivle is set in Langland...
endless lull III: the death of evans
When you start work on reclaiming a lost garden you are not only developing a relationship with nature, you are constantly battling to control it. Before long, you realize that you can never control it and so you make an effort to contain or at least manipulate it as best you can. Eventually, you have to concede that you will never win. Nature has one huge advantage over the garden, that of an infinite (we presume infinite) amount of time. You can spend weeks cutting back overgrowth, mowing the lawn and up rooting weeds but if you take a leave of absence from your gardening, everything you cut back or pulled up will inevitably creep back. We might only be talking about millimetres, perhaps centimetres but you notice such measurements when you are trying to create a perfect garden within the unnatural confinement that you have designated for your attempt at controlling nature. Obviously nature takes longer to reclaim itself than it takes us to destroy it, but nevertheless it is still a relentless force that you can only compete with by constant vigilance and backbreaking work. Once you accept your limitations against such might and once you consider that Wales used to be covered in ancient forests (it was once said that a squirrel could travel right across the South Wales Valleys without ever touching the ground), you come to more than merely just accept it, you become in awe of it and you start to root secretly for it. You might start to champion it, even while you mow, mold, hack and cut away at it.
Before spring had a chance to really settle in, there were times when I could not work in Evans’ garden due to spells of left over winter weather and also due to Evans’ increasing health problems. I did not see why his health should prevent me from working but truth be told old man Evans did not like me working if he was not fit enough to join me for at least an hour or so. Whenever we agreed to resume work again, I would always return to a new garden. Because I worked so closely with the land I noticed how different a shape it took, from the length and colour of the grass to the density of the weeds. I would also, without fail, return to have Evans greet me with a faux-troubled-look on his face, “Lets see if we can find daylight again, shall we?” He might say as we began the task of securing his house from the encroaching plant life. I knew he enjoyed this playful battle with the weeds, nettles and grass as much as I did, probably more so. He rarely left his property; he watched it throughout the seasons and from year to year. The older and weaker he got the more he had to accept that the forces of life and death were increasingly out of his power. It did not matter how much of a dashing young go-getter he once was, the speed of his half dozen sports cars, the amount of his salary at its peak, the occupations of his children or how well his grandchildren did in school, he had to accept his own decay in the face of nature’s permanence. And he knew it.
That spring was accompanied by strong winds but they occasionally blew comforting warm air from the south, another sign that we had made it through the winter. There was plenty of surf, just not much of any quality. There were lots of wind blown days, with hundreds of white horses dancing between the shore and the horizon. It was still a welcome change from winter and there was a certain attraction to surfing the choppy conditions. Some days were illuminated by a very cold and crisp light that was periodically interrupted by the ever-changing sky. The weather could jump from cloudy to bright sunshine every few minutes, also changing the colour of the sea. There could be sunny blue skies and beautiful turquoise waters offshore, while inshore the skies were an ominous black and the water a sinister grey. At such a time I would lose any fear I had about being sucked out to sea. The bright light and sparkling waters way out to sea may as well have been a tropical paradise in the South Pacific. Such was surfing in spring.
As spring progressed, so did my time in Evans’ garden. I settled into a routine that ensured I worked four hours every morning. With the lengthening days we could start earlier and work commenced between seven and eight, although I still had to wait for a phone call each morning from the old man, to confirm that, yes indeed, today was a good day to work in the garden. Without fail every morning we would spend a couple of minutes on the phone discussing the weather and the forecasts or how inaccurate the forecasts were. We learnt to trust our own predictions over the meteorologists and we learnt to trust our own readings of the sea and the sky.
Every few days the huge lawn had to be mowed. It took about three hours but it became my favourite job in the garden. I would start by mowing around the perimeter, usually twice, and usually pushing back the overgrown section of the garden by a couple of feet each time. Then I would mow up and down the length of the lawn, leaving a lined pattern in the grass. Mowing such a lawn, to me, was like long distance running. It was an arduous task that demanded strategy, planning and pacing and of course it was physically draining pushing the petrol mower up and down a lawn that rested on a gentle hill. However, also like running, it was a good time to clear my head. The hum of the little petrol engine would send me into a subtle trance and my thoughts flowed with the flurry of the decapitated strands of grass.
On occasion I had to slow myself down, as I wanted to stretch out the job as long as possible. For after the mowing came a couple of hours of turning soil or even worse, weeding. I did not really get much out of weeding. It required a lot of bending over and kneeling, picking and pulling. It was never ending. You could spend an hour on a tiny patch of the garden and it still would not look any better, even though you had two buckets full of weeds. Yet, one good thing about weeding was the details that you could become aquatinted with. The colours of soil, from patches of light dry rusty soil to almost white soil to a drenched and dense, dark brown soil. You also noticed its inhabitants, the worms and insects, spiders and woodlice. The worms never ceased to amaze me, tiny stringy spaghetti like ones and huge fat juicy ones. When weeding a tiny patch of garden, kneeling down with my back to the sky, completely motionless, very still aside from my picking fingers I could almost feel the birds hovering overhead scanning the garden for these worms, especially on those days after a rain shower when you could smell the water evaporating off the soil. Sometimes witnessing such tiny details of the garden became a burden to the conscience because when you return to mowing or digging you can’t help but to think about the creatures whose lives you are turning upside down, or even occasionally killing.
The warmer the weather became the more important the lawn mowing became and that suited me fine. Then one day Evan’s told me that we were going to reclaim a huge part of the property that we had previously dismissed as unmanageable. This required hacking away at a few bushes and cutting back all the wood. Once we had cleared all the wood, bushes and small trees, we simply ploughed into the thick and tall grass a lawn mowers width at a time, gradually expanding the perimeter of the lawn. It was remarkable to see how quickly the old garden was assimilated into the lawn. It was clearly a different type of grass, yellow, straw like and wild, but it slowly began to blend in with the lawn proper. Each day we forged out a bigger and bigger garden. By May the odd scorching hot day presented itself and we worked barebacked, hacking, clearing and then mowing this previously wild growth.
I did not think much of it but Evans never really gave me a reason for clearing this area. In the long run it would mean more work, more of a “controlled” garden to care for. But he increasingly appeared obsessed with this project, offering me more hours into the afternoon. Usually we never worked into the afternoons. To be honest I did not like the garden in the afternoon. The lighting did not seem right to me. The colour of the sky and the location of the sun did not reflect well on the garden I had previously only known in the mornings. It also did not seem right to be working in the afternoon. The afternoon was for roaming the coastline, jumping into the sea, washing the dirt, soil and sweat off my hands and face in the cold salt water.
After one particularly laborious morning of clearing the new frontier of the garden, I told Evans that I had could not carry on working into the afternoon. I did not expect it to be a problem. After all we had had an agreement about work and priorities since day one.
“Well we still have a lot of work to do.” He said enthusiastically while we sat drinking lemonade, surveying our work.
“Yeah, I know but I really need this afternoon off.”
“Why? What have you got planned?” He now grumbled.
This was certainly not the Evans who had interviewed me for the job. Up until that point he had always encouraged me to work as much or as little as I pleased.
“Well, I was going to go surfing.”
“You can surf anytime. Can’t you see what I’m trying to do here?” He raised his arms in a sweeping gesture over the whole garden. I just looked at him, watching his hands shake and his face turn red. He continued, now out of breath.
“Well go on. Go do what you have to!” He shouted, unable to look me in the eye.
I wanted to remind him of our chat the day he had interviewed me but it seemed pointless to get confrontational.
“OK then, I will. See you tomorrow?” I said questioningly.
“Pff!” Was all he could respond.
Exhausted and covered in mud, I slumped down behind the wheel of the car. I tried to get the piece of shit rust bucket to start, while Evans seemed to make a point of continuing to work away, thrashing at a thick bramble bush. The car started then puttered out. Evans continued thrashing away. I waited a few moments before trying to get the car going again. This time it shuddered into life and I reversed, faster than I should have down his long gravel driveway. Turning around at the end of the driveway, I caught a glimpse of him bending over, wheezing, and trying to catch his breath. He caught me looking and dove right back into the bush. I sped off cursing the old bastard in my head. The one person who I never thought would judge my chosen approach to life, was now threatening to do so.
Some people might approach the act of surfing in one of two polarized moods. One, you are in a filthy fucking mood, with yourself, with someone else, or with our sick and decaying world. Two, you are extremely jubilant, you’ve had a great day and your rounding it off with the best way you know how. The cherry on top. The icing on the cake.
Back in those days that I worked in Evans’ garden, when I was able to surf everyday that there were waves, I approached it as a part of my daily routine, something, as natural as waking up, eating lunch, having a shit, watching the telly. I needed it as other people needed their morning coffee or their favourite soap opera in the evening. But that day, the last time I would ever see Evans, I was going surfing with an unresolved issue spinning around in my head. I was going surfing because he had become what he had promised me he would not and I resented him for putting me in that frame of mind. I resented him for polluting my neutral state of being with unnecessary emotion.
I wanted to get out of the car and out of my muddy clothes as soon as possible so instead of heading out onto Gower, I went directly to one of the surf breaks closer to town.
Langland bay was notorious for its crowds and the tension between the local surfers and students who attended Swansea University. I did not care for either group so I usually kept well away from the beach altogether. Even though I had lived nearby my whole life, most surfers assumed I was a student because I did not have a permanent scowl on my face. This is not to say that all locals were aggressive and territorial. Perhaps this is an appropriate time to talk about “territorialism” or localism in surfing.
It is ugly and appears to make absolutely no sense. Yet, for those of us who grew up right on a particular stretch of coastline, watching the ebb and the flow, day in day out- those of us who begged our parents for surfboards from the first day we went down the beach and saw our older brothers and sisters dropping down late summer waves during an evening glass off- those of us who knew where the best rock pools were, the best cliff jumps, the secret coves and smuggler’s caves- those of us whose mothers and fathers were fisher-people, coast guards, sailors, lifeboat men and women, and surfers themselves- those of us who have spent hours on beach clean ups, picking up beer cans, old tires, condoms, tampons, plastic bags, syringes, and dead birds- for us, watching people infiltrate our part of the world, our Walden, with no respect for the area, not understanding the sea, putting themselves and others in danger, “localism” often brings out an unfortunate ugliness. I have seen coastal people just as agitated at a “non-local” coming to “their” beach as they would if someone walked into their house, put up their feet on the coffee table and started to watch the television. For some locals, it is that serious.
When city-dwellers with horrible accents from land-locked cities, crowd up the few waves that come our way in summer, most locals at least wonder where the hell these people were in February. Where were they when there was snow on the beach? Where were they when gale force winds were blowing hail into our frozen faces? Where were they when we entered the first stage of hypothermia waiting for the next set of waves? When it rained for weeks on end and never got light? Do they even know what the sea is capable of doing during the depths of winter? Of course some “non-locals” are well aware of what the sea can do and most of them respect and have just a deep a love of it, but they will never have as deep a relationship with a stretch of coastline, as the people who live and die breathing in its smells each and every day.
So, some surfers, usually young white males, employ a variety of tactics to keep the “kooks” away. This can mean anything from blocking someone from getting waves to dropping in on somebody who was in priority position to waxing the wind shields of cars with surfboard wax to letting tires down to hurling abuse and generally making sure people know that they are not welcome. But for the most part localism on Gower was non-violent and did not deter anybody, it just made for a bad atmosphere in the water and so I tried to avoid any high-tension surf spots. You can always get out of bed an hour earlier than everybody else, drive a little further, hike somewhere more obscure. Anyone who knows the coast intimately can probably find empty waves if they put in a bit of extra effort.
But Langland Bay was and is ever popular. Langland faces Southwest but there is a large headland on the Western end of the Bay keeping it relatively sheltered from the predominate South-westerly winds and making it one of the few places surfable when the Atlantic storms of winter start charging up the Bristol Channel. Most of the rest of the year Langland does not see that much surf but when there is a decent swell running, people come from all over because it offers a variety of interesting waves. A mellow point break, a fast reef break and a dumping shore break amongst others, all packaged in a mere ten minutes from the City and with a car park, that you can view he waves from. Langland is an urban break that is not far enough along Gower to escape the social turmoil that bubbles just beneath the city’s surface. I knew I could have found a less crowded break further along Gower but that would have required twenty minutes of driving followed by another twenty minute walk through muddy fields and cliff paths.
It was high tide when I arrived. I liked high tide Langland for two reasons. Most people wait for the low tide waves making high tide less crowded and if there was enough swell, it was often a nice well shaped racing wave. I pulled into the car park, got out of the car and walked through a crowd of local surfers. I kept my eyes focused on the ocean and tried to pay no attention to them sizing me up but one of them recognized me, his name was Greg, he worked in the surf shop and we had surfed together a few times. I could only muster up a nod. He greeted me with an “All right?” to which I grunted a return “All right?” in his direction. This is how people greet each other around this way. It felt forced but I knew he was a decent bloke. I could here his mates asking who I was. I looked at the waves for awhile, pretending I was deciding to surf or not, even though I was really holding back from running back to the car and jumping straight into my wetsuit. The waves were actually pretty crap. It seems the swell was too westerly and not making it into the bay but all I wanted was to get in the cold cold water and wash away the pathetic exchange that had just occurred between Evans and myself. I walked slowly back to my car, hands in pocket, shoulders shrugged, scowl on my face, trying to blend into the Langland scene.
Greg then asked me, “You goin’ in?”
I didn’t really want to talk, least of all about surf conditions. I knew it was crap. I wasn’t going surfing today to catch good waves. I was going to just get out there.
“Yeah, it might be OK, when the tide drops a bit. I’m just going to jump in for a quick one before the crowds get here.”
“Yeah, good idea, I should really get out there as well. Nowhere else is going to be much good today anyway. Have a good one.”
“Yeah, see you out there.” I didn’t care if I saw him out there or not, that’s just what you say, especially to a local who is giving you the OK to surf his beach. Not that I needed his approval to surf a beach I lived right next to for twenty plus years. He knew I surfed every bloody day that there were waves, all year round, rain or shine, usually alone and very rarely at his beach. I knew his crew would be watching my every move, examining the board I used as I walked passed, watching me enter the sea, observing my paddling technique, my enthusiasm, my positioning, how I manipulated my position in the crowd. I was not in the mood for this game but I was already committed.
I returned to the car to get changed, to see a dozen or so other people had had the same idea. I took my time. I knew the surf was going to be horrible but I was still the first one in the water. I had a few reasonable little waves that raced all the way to the shore. I like waves that break close to the shore, where you have to kick off and jump over the back of the waves, to avoid being thrown onto the beach or rocks. Then or course, one by one they all joined me, and I didn’t have it in me to hassle for position. I let everyone walk over me and take all the waves. I paddled out a little further, and just sat on my board watching the shit fight from afar hoping a decent wave would come my way, which it did, which it always does if you are patient. A set came in that caught everyone else, who were further in, off guard. I turned around and paddled, I was in perfect position. I jumped to my feet and dropped down the shoulder of what turned out to be a good wave. I set myself up to carve a nice looking section, only to see someone paddle in front of me and cut me off. They looked right at me, as they took off, expressionless. I had no choice but to straighten up and let myself be engulfed in white water. In the white water I dove off my board and body surfed until my knees were dragging in the sand, my board floating in the turbulent shore break.
Walking back to my car, Greg was still standing in the same place.
“I saw that fuckwit, drop in on you.”
“Oh yeah, fuck it though, its pretty shitty out there.”
“That’s not the point, don’t worry about, we’ll deal with it.”
I did not even respond. By the time I got home I had a headache and decided to go to bed early. I slept until about 1 AM and then could not sleep anymore. I was worried that I would not be able to get up for work the next day. The series of events that led to my headache went through my mind and intensified the throbbing pain. I decided I hated Evans, I hated being a gardener, I hated surfing and most of all I hated Swansea. Mumbles in particular.
All that got me out of bed in the morning was that fucking garden, and all that got me through the backbreaking hours I laboured in it, was going surfing afterwards. If surfing meant competing for waves or fitting into a local scene and “dealing with” outsiders who misbehaved, I wanted none of it. I still want none of it. I want the ocean for everyone but most of all I want it to myself.
My alarm went off at 7 AM but I was still wide-awake. I decided to call Evans and tell him I could not make it today. I was hoping he might be back to his usual understanding self. “There are more important things in life than work, I understand.” I imagined him saying in response. I hoped that we would make arrangements for the next day, discuss the weather for a while and then I could sleep through the day headache free.
I phoned Evans, only to have his wife answer. I knew something was wrong immediately as she never answered the phone. I had barely seen her at all. She was a very friendly elderly lady who made us coffee on cold mornings and lemonade on hot afternoons. I never really saw her as Evans’ life partner. I could tell that she had expected my call.
“I’m sorry. Joe passed on yesterday afternoon.” She offered without a tone of grief, almost as if she was trying to let me down gently.
“Christ. I’m sorry. I didn’t know his name was Joe.” As soon as I said that, I realised it was insensitive.
“Yes, he was always very formal but he thought of you dearly.”
“Oh shit, oh shit.” It began to sink in. The stubborn old bastard killed himself. I didn’t even need to ask but I did, “What happened?”
“Heart attack. You knew as well as anybody that he had been working too hard in the bloody garden recently. You just can’t do that after a triple by-pass.”
I wanted to tell her that I would take care of the garden still, for free even, but I knew the battle was over. I knew that neither she nor I would no longer care. I imagined going around to their property in five years to see a frail old lady sitting amongst huge bushes, creeping nettles and towering grass. It was over. Now I can appreciate, that Evans must have known he was dying but was trying to fight it. He was just trying to show us, the garden, and me how much vitality he had had in him. It was sad really. I had mistakenly believed that he had accepted his own mortality. I wish he could have just lay down in some sunny patch in his garden, watching the Atlantic clouds drift East overhead for awhile, and then, let it all grow over him, until he was just another uneven clump of land. He shouldn’t have fought.
“If there’s anything I can do let me know.”
“Thank you so much. I know I’ve said this but he really liked you. No offense, but sometimes I think he kept you on just for the company, just for something to do.”
“Oh no, I don’t think so. He loved that garden with a passion.”
If only he had just let it run its course, I wanted to add.