Memoir set in Biarritz (a town with a ‘surf-oriented ley line’). Plus Q&A with a seasoned surfer3rd September 2014
Surf Mama by Wilma Johnson, memoir set in Biarritz.
Wilma Johnson is living on the West Coast of Ireland with her husband and 3 small children. She is an artist and homemaker, whilst her husband takes to the waves and enjoys the surf. After 10 years and an increasingly wobbly marriage, the whole family decamps to Olatua, Biarritz in search of the Endless Summer Dream. Her surfing life at the age of 44 is just about to begin and she determines to learn to stand on a piece of fibreglass in the Bay of Biscay. Not for her any length of time on a boogie board – (otherwise known as a turtle rooter, speed bump or sponger) – which is surfed lying down, no, she is going for the full blown experience. It’s do or die (and dying is quite a real possibility as she goes on to describe), surfing to her mind is ‘deeply courageous’, the rip tides, the wipeouts, the eskimo rolls and the tubes. Not to mention the weather, which is a capricious factor in the surfer’s life: Biarritz seems to fluctuate between ‘tropical paradise and Bay of Biscay sea shanty’.
She talks to Phil Grace, who has surfed the world and now shapes individual boards in Hossegor, Biarritz. Johanna, partner of Christophe Reinhardt (surf star, whose Father ‘invented’ surfing on the West Coast of France) is a driver behind the Mamas Surf Club – which started out as Desperate Housewives meets Baywatch, through the Boobs and Tubes surf club (remember a tube is where the wave is hollow where it’s breaking. For some surfers it’s the be all of surfing. It’s sometimes called a barrel, keg, or pit..); to the The Nanas Surf Club (Nana means hot chick in French) to its final incarnation of the Mamas Surf Club (Mama in French means a sexually attractive, usually mature woman. Perfect!). So for this group of women it’s out with the sex wax (you need it for the board so you stay on it) and the neoprene.
And what do you need to learn to surf and be very core and very cool? Good abs? So to start she learns to do the ‘little press-up” – and as Christophe muses, surfing is 99% in your head and the other 1% requires complete fitness (plus a bit of inner goddess).
Now separated from her husband, and renting The Addams Family Mansion, as she calls her home, she has plenty of time to practise, all the while painting. It did occur to me that there was not a huge amount of overwhelming angst about her painting career, which is often the case for artists trying to sustain a living. But it transpires that in fact she used to hang out with Grayson Perry, the New Romantics, and goes on eventually to have a show at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, and then it’s off to Tate Modern…. so not too many worries on that score I would think.
This is a memoir full of determination and a life affirming attitude, bonkers in parts it has to be said, but I am left with a sneaking admiration for the author’s determination to become a female surfer – in a very male world – in the first decade of the 21st century. I enjoyed this memoir, it’s a vignette into the surfing world, written with candour and style. Would I like to try surfing? I think I might stick in the foam (the tiny waves that roll on the to the beach!) with my boogie board.