Nick Carroll: Two Extremely Different Books Fall into Surfing’s Collective Memory

25 Aug 2019 1 Share

Nick Carroll

Senior Writer

COASTALWATCH | NICK CARROLL

The Gang and the Church

THE SHANE GANG
Shane Stedman
self-published, $37.00 from surf shops

CHURCH OF THE OPEN SKY
Nat Young
Michael Joseph/Penguin Random House

Shane Stedman once sponsored Nat Young. It didn’t last all that long, but for a little while Nat was part of the Shane Gang.

OK so what was the Shane Gang? It was an invention of Shane’s and of the highly gifted photo-journalist John Witzig, who took over Shane Surfboards’ advertising in 1970 after bagging it to the proprietor’s face. Witzig was working for SW at the time. He approached Shane at a Bob Evans movie premiere and said “You’re Shane aren’t you?” “Yes,” said Shane. “Well, your ads are shithouse,” said Witzig.

Shane was stopped for a moment, but instead of going off in a huff, he saw an opportunity. “Well, if you’re so smart, why don’t you help me sort them?”

Thus began the ad campaigns at the heart of this warm-hearted and semi wacky memoir, one of two books CW reckons you should tackle in coming months.

Shane himself was an invention. He didn’t become Shane until the age of 24, when he needed a new name to front a rock band and the cowboy movie “Shane” was on screens around the world. He was born Anthony Stedman in June 1941, a few years ahead of the Baby Boom, a fact that powered much of his later success – he was old enough to sell to the Boom, and young enough to understand it. He didn’t think much of his dad, Ron, an army captain and scion of a wealthy Sydney family, who cheated on young Tony’s mum, Bette, and made it public in a most casually brutal fashion during a family dinner party. 

Ron doesn’t sound typical of the Stedmans, who came from classic convict stock to work hard to make something of themselves in the colony and eventually had a big hand in the once famed Sweetacres lolly company. There was ambition and a work ethic here, and also some flair. Fun fact: One of young Tony’s great-great-uncles invented nothing less than the Mintie! Pretty much a Boomer legend really.

Anyway, needing to get away from Ron, Bette headed up to Kempsey and soon moved with Tony and younger bro David to a small beachside town named Crescent Head, where her Dad had a shack. Crescent Head! In 1950!

Nat, three years of age when Tony Stedman arrived in Crescent, was part of the Boom. Hell, you might even say he WAS the Boom. “Church” is his seventh book, and in many ways the best. It’s a coda, a collection of memories re-seen.

If you’ve never heard the term, “church of the open sky” descends from Tom Blake, the original US mainland surfer, who left a broken home life in Wisconsin in 1916 after meeting Duke Kahanamoku, and travelled to California and Hawaii to make a surfing life up from scratch. Blake used his experiences to develop a mystical philosophy, which he detailed late in his life, in a short book, Nature=God: The Voice Of The Atom.

Nat believes in it, enough to have changed the book’s name in its honour. (Originally he was going to call it Surfing Is Not A Sport.) Thanks to Blake’s vision, he is urged toward thinking of surfing as a religion. This is interesting, but maybe not as interesting as his observations of the people he’s met and surfed with over the years. 

There’s a bit about Miki Dora and a scorcher about Midget, and some about Bunker Spreckels and Dewey Weber, and a wonderful piece about Russell Hughes and Grant “Dappa” Oliver, but I think by far the best is a three-hander about Bobby Brown, Bob Evans and Kevin Platt. They and Nat were linked by the times and by trips up the coast together, and there’s something really literary about the way Nat weaves their lives into a strand, shot through with pleasure, and with melancholy, for they died too young. Pretty much everyone he writes about died too young. Nat’s outlived them all. “I sound like an old person,” he writes in the preface, “which I suppose I am.”

While all this was happening, Shane was turning himself into the “summer millionaire”, as the newspapers called this gnomish, energetic man who’d shown up in Sydney in the late 1960s, started a band and a boardmaking business, and within a few years had made himself into the Voice of Surfing in the sport’s emerging heartland. Shane’s surf reports on the once actually almost cool radio station 2SM became part of the soundtrack of the city’s 1970s summers, a time when places like North Narrabeen, Dee Why, Maroubra, Cronulla, Newport and Bondi were suddenly spitting out world champions-to-be.

Perhaps more valuably, he made a thousand boards for a Sydney department store. The model, a sub-6’0” egg singly marketed as the “Shane Standard”, was mocked as a “pop-out” by true believers, but it was ridden from humble beginnings by many good and great surfers of the future. He was never a super good surfer himself, but he rode the waves made by Nat, Midget, Terry Fitz, Ted Spencer, Simon Anderson and others like a master.

The books couldn’t be more different. Church is sonorous and reflective, maybe even great, while Gang just bounces along with nary a glance backward. They reflect the differences between the authors. Nat’s a star, Shane’s an enabler of stars. Nat grew up in the city and left for the country, Shane did exactly the opposite. Nat drew all eyes to him and went his own way at every turn. Shane didn’t mind some attention, but he was fine with people’s eyes wandering elsewhere, preferably toward a board in the stock racks. You get the feeling that while Nat was intrigued by the people he met, Shane mainly got a kick out of helping people get ahead. The back end of his book is handed over to accounts from various members of the old Shane Gang, praising his enthusiasm and what Michael Petrie calls his “giving nature”. They all remain friends, which in the end, maybe, is the testament that matters.

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