Book review: The Surfing Collection – Short Stories For and About Surfers, by Malcolm Findlay

Written by an insider, these short works of Scottish surf fiction have the ring of truth, writes Roger Cox

A surfer leaves the water at East Sands, St Andrews. PIC: Roger Cox / National World
A surfer leaves the water at East Sands, St Andrews. PIC: Roger Cox / National World

You wait years for somebody to write a work of Scottish surf fiction and then two come along at once. Well, almost at once. Towards the end of last year, Troubador published a collection of writing by Mark Jackson and the late James T Duthie which included a surfing novella called Sans Peur. And now, none other than five-times Scottish National Surfing Champion Malcolm Findlay has released a book of surf-related short stories, which, while billed as fiction, certainly incorporate one or two names which will be familiar to those in the know.

Before the release of Sans Peur, anyone looking to read something substantial about the Scottish surfing experience typically had to seek out chapters in other, more general books; there are good potted histories of Scottish surfing in Chris Nelson’s Cold Water Souls, for example, or Roger Mansfield’s The Surfing Tribe: A History of Surfing in Britain. In 2015, Orkney resident David C Flanagan also wrote a non-fiction book called Board, about his often brutal experiences of learning to surf on the intimidating reefs of the Bay of Skaill. Works of Scottish surf fiction, though, are rarer than hen’s teeth, so the release of Sans Peur was something of an event.

Set in the fictional fishing town of Norhaven, in the north-east of Scotland, it tells the story of the Sutherland brothers, Alan and Graham, fishermen and surfers who are frequently at war with each other and with those around them. Billed as a “saltwater fairytale”, it sees their worlds turned upside-down by the arrival of a group of travelling surfers from Ireland, who pitch up in Norhaven just in time to compete in the local surfing contest. Awkward love triangles and fierce surfing rivalries duly ensue.

The Surfing Collection - Short Stories For and About Surfers, by Malcolm Findlay

For all its merits, however, Jackson and Duthie wrote Sans Peur from outside the surfing world looking in. As a result, not all of the details quite ring true. This can often be the case with non-surfers writing about surfing: even the great Paul Theroux came a bit of a cropper last year with his novel Under the Wave at Waimea, in which he had characters talking about applying wax to the wrong side of their boards and referring to “long boards” instead of longboards.

Findlay, by contrast, could hardly be more of a surf world insider. Not only does he have those five Scottish titles under his belt, he has been involved in Scottish surfing right from the get-go, having first caught the bug back in the late 1960s, when most of the country’s best surf spots were still waiting to be discovered. Having worked as a commercial fisherman until the 1980s, he then moved into academia, completing a doctorate on fishing vessel safety before establishing the world’s first academic degree programme in surf science and technology at Plymouth University.

Titled The Surfing Collection – Short Stories For and About Surfers, Findlay’s book is self-published via Amazon. It is definitely a work of fiction – the “about the author” blurb states that “while [Findlay] has published many scientific papers over the years, this is his first foray into fiction.” However, the blurb on the back also explains that “all of the stories in this book have some connection to real-life events”.

Given that the names of some of the characters will be familiar to many Scottish surfers, there’s clearly a bit of fun to be had guessing which bits are based on real events and which are invented. For example, when Strachan, the hero of a story about a surf-by-boat adventure gone badly wrong, encounters another surfer called “Scratch”, should we infer that another Scottish surfing champion, Mark “Scratch” Cameron, was once involved in a similar series of unfortunate events? Or is Findlay just imagining him into his tale? Similarly, when he gives three surfers who inadvertently consume industrial quantities of magic mushrooms the names “Bennetts, Wishart and Batten”, is he adapting a true story involving three of Scottish surfing’s most revered pioneers, Andy Bennetts, Ian Wishart and Bill Batten? Or, again, is he just having fun imagining it?

Of course, it doesn’t really matter either way – the tales here will entertain surfers and non-surfers alike, whether they are alert to the local references or not, and the characters and scenarios never feel less than true-to-life.

Findlay is evidently not a graduate of a creative writing course – his style is functional rather than self-consciously literary. However, there’s a lot to be said for substance over style, and these stories have plenty of substance to them.

And for all that Findlay nails the minutiae of the surfing life, he is also alert to the bigger picture – stories like “Flotsam and Jetsam” and “Jelly Mountain” are intriguing meditations on the strange ways in which our lives can sometimes hinge on an apparently insignificant event or decision. In “Born to Surf”, meanwhile, he even dares to suggest that surfing might not the be-all and end-all. At least, not for everyone.

Book review: The Surfing Collection – Short Stories For and About Surfers, by Malcolm Findlay, £7.99