On the Water With a Surfing Memoir and History of the North Sea

Lee Polevoi

 

Barbarian Days: A Life in Surfing

By William Finnegan

Penguin

464 pages

 

The Edge of the World: A Cultural History of the North Sea and the Transformation of Europe

Michael Pye

Pegasus Books

394 pages

 

Water is the element through which two new books flow, though everything else about them is different. In his surfing memoir Barbarian Days, William Finnegan chronicles a life of more than half a century spent in pursuit of waves in Hawaii, California, Australia, Fiji and elsewhere. A staff writer for The New Yorker, Finnegan has supplemented his reporting from global hot spots—apartheid-era South Africa, Central America, and Sudan—with whatever opportunities he could find for surfing in (oftentimes) uncharted waters.

 

Barbarian Days is a story of family, close friendships and loves won and lost. Mostly, it’s about Finnegan’s efforts to describe (for both surfers and non-surfers alike) why the ocean has so obsessively gripped his imagination for the greater part of a lifetime:

 

“The ocean itself was another story. I waded into the waves at Will Rogers, diving under pummeling lines of foam, thrashing toward the main sandbar, where the brown walls of the big waves stood and broke. I couldn’t get enough of their rhythmic violence. They pulled you toward them like hungry giants. They drained the water off the bar as they drew to their full, awful height, then pitched forward and exploded. From underwater, the concussion was deeply satisfying. Waves were better than anything in books, better than movies, better even than a ride at Disneyland, because with them the charge of danger was uncontrived. It was real.”

 

Barbarian Days is told in a reflective, unrushed manner that somehow perfectly embodies what we might imagine a surfer’s life to feel like. In places, however, there’s a slackness to the prose that’s surprising in a writer of Finnegan’s pedigree  (“I should say something here about Los Angeles, moving back to,” “the rock and roll soundtrack of our lives”) that detracts from the pleasures of his story.

 

For the most part, though, this surfing memoir is rich in the evocation of many lost times and places, and for its unabashed love of the sea.

 

 

A similarly awestruck tone animates The Edge of the World, novelist and historian Michael Pye’s idiosyncratic cultural history of the North Sea. The book focuses on life in the wild regions of the British Isles, Scandinavia and the Low Countries during the Dark Ages, the era after the fall of the Roman Empire and before the coming of the Renaissance.

 

Pye invites readers to imagine “a time when nobody could imagine going further: the northern sea was the very edge of the world” and “water was the easiest way to travel, when the sea connected and carried people, belief and ideas, as well as pots and wine and coal.”

 

In this region thrived a variety of communities mostly unfamiliar to us in the modern world—from the Frisians, boatmen and their families who lived in marshy areas in the Netherlands and Belgium to Hanseatic traders and merchants and, more spectacularly, the Vikings and their Irish equivalent, the fian, also known as the “sons of death.”

 

Fian were men without a fixed standing in society, unsettled because they had been exiled as outlaws or they were young or they were waiting to come into their own. They were alarming all the time, and not least when they planted themselves in settled communities during hard winters. They were wilderness people out on the moors, sure they had a right to plunder, warriors who went howling into battle like wolves and who were said to have the power to change their shape at will (which may have been a question of dog-like hairstyles).”

 

It’s Pye’s contention that out of this bubbly melting pot of ethnicities and tribal communities came the earliest recorded forays into law, education, the book trade, concepts of money, mathematics and much more.

 

He eschews “the usual story of muddled battles and various kings and the spread of Christianity,” in favor of an impressively researched history of a time when great cultural changes were being made that would eventually lead to many of our modern-day ideas of identity, national history, finance and so on.

 

The Edge of the World reclaims a “lost history” of the Dark Ages, filled to overflowing with elegantly described people and events—most definitely not a typical, dry-as-dust academic history.

 

Author Bio:

 

Lee Polevoi, Highbrow Magazine’s chief book critic, is the author of a novel, The Moon in Deep Winter.

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