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Edition 56

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Memoir

Of monsters and men

Swimming in the shadows of Australian masculinity

ON A SATURDAY morning in March 2014, I found myself speaking in front of a crowd of five thousand people on the shore of Cottesloe Beach, Perth. We were there to protest a state government policy to catch and kill large sharks using baited drum lines off the metropolitan coast, a policy announced in response to five fatal great white attacks in Western -Australia between 2011 and 2012. I stood at the podium, midway up the stepped retaining wall built against the dune, racked with nerves and aware that I was not a politician or environmental scientist, like the speakers before me, but a student writer who, as I’d come to feel, had been given the job of addressing the protest under a dubious interpretation of my credentials.

A few months earlier, I’d submitted an article to the ABC’s The Drum website titled ‘A surfer’s defence of the great white shark’. It suggested that there was perhaps a time when Western Australian surfers would have railed against the killing of sharks, and described my memories of the surfers I grew up observing on the central Western Australian coast, recasting them as almost pastoral heroes, something like the noble shepherd-poet of Virgil’s Eclogues:

To them the sanctity of the ocean was absolute. Their submission to its power was all encompassing. They hooted after a death-defying wipeout, and spoke with a sailor’s romanticism about death at sea… But in recent times the roughened wisdom of surfing appears to have lost its compass.

The article was published, and gained surprising attention. Bob Irwin, animal conservationist and father of the late Steve Irwin, called it ‘profound’. It was referenced by Captain Paul Watson, founder and CEO of Sea Shepherd, in an article on the organisation’s website: ‘Fortunately there are surfers speaking up in defence of the sharks. Samuel Carmody of Western Australia recently wrote an excellent article on the current controversy and reminded surfers about what surfing is all about.’

Much of the surfing community, however, lambasted the article and its author. Fred Pawle, surf reporter for The Australian, tweeted a link to the article, writing: ‘WA surfer says sharks “enliven” the act of surfing. Lucky him. For an unfortunate few, it endeathens it.’ On the seabreeze.com.au website forum, a user named Ex wrote: ‘As for Samuel Carmondy [sic] Opinion, what a load of self righteous crap, I as a surfer won’t be told what I should or shouldn’t support and I was brought up different to that fantasy.’

 

THE DIVIDED RECEPTION of the article, and the clear tensions around the drum-line debate, reflected, for me, the complex relationship that Western Australians have with their own wilderness. For every person who saw the killing of sharks as reckless destruction, there was another who just wanted to ‘kill the damn fish’: a position that my article had, of course, depicted as irrational.

But when I reflected on the central conceit of ‘A surfer’s defence of the great white shark’ – a call to a nobler past, the suggestion of a time when West Australians had a communion with nature – I had to question my own rationality. Like Ex, a part of me had suspected, even in the writing of the article, that such a nobler, simpler, idyllic past was questionable – if it had existed at all. Yet I had consciously romanticised the rural coast, opening the article with the memory of being taught to surf by my father on the beaches of Geraldton with a description that flirted with the metaphysical:

I remember that moment clearer than any other memory I have. The whiteout of the afternoon summer sky, the water torn by the sea breeze. I remember the scream of that wind in my ears. And I remember most vividly the pure, potent anxiety I felt, the recognition that I was entering a space so much bigger than myself, bigger and more powerful even than my father had seemed to me all those years ago.

And I suspected that it would work, that there might have been some part of the Western Australian public’s imagination that would respond to a romantic appeal – a nostalgic appraisal of the past, and a poetic rendering of nature. There were, too, the restorative, benign images of masculinity: like being carried to the water in the arms of my father as a child, or learning the ways of the sea from these quiet yet deeply thinking surfers of the rural coast. The article was, in these ways, a simple pastoral, setting a sublime natural past in Geraldton against a complex urban present of Perth.

The most vexing thing in this conceit was my own conflicts with the very men I was writing about, these bygone surfers of the Geraldton and Kalbarri beaches. In my depiction of them, I had valorised rural masculinity, conjuring a portrait of these men of the ocean that in reality seemed closer to myth. In truth, I was unsure about them. I had for a long time been uncomfortable with the nature of rural masculinity, what I saw as its silences, anti-intellectualism and not-infrequent displays of aggression and violence.

The loudest voices calling for the cull were the surfing community of Margaret River, a coastal town south of Perth – a group that proudly pitted itself against the two hundred and fifty international scientists and researchers who had signed a submission to the Western Australian Environmental Protection Authority, which argued that ‘there is no evidence [culling] is making beachgoers safe’.

As I stood on the podium at Cottlesloe Beach, a huge crowd huddled together on the sand – as varied and diverse a crowd as you might find. There were the committed environmental activists, women mostly, holding placards or wearing cartoonish great white shark costumes. There were children waving homemade signs, and plenty of the older brigade of women swimmers, the hardcore sort you would find braving the winter ocean at Cottesloe before the sun was even up. But the men I surfed among for countless hours of the year, the men of the jostling packs on the surf beaches – I didn’t see them.

For months after the rally, the debate raged on. There was a sense the state was being divided between those who were calling for a cautious, scientific approach to the threat of shark attacks, and those who dismissed scientific arguments as out-of-touch, effete, city-minded intellectualisation; those who identified as environmental activists, most notably led by women, and those who depicted environmental activism as weak-minded, feminine sentimentalism – a view, it seemed, largely prosecuted by men. Wayne Murphy in WA Today argued that opponents to shark culling are ‘well-meaning but largely misinformed and sentimental types’. Murphy implored the public to ‘please at least take the time to read the comments from two very experienced ocean men’, a ‘third-generation rock lobster fisherman’ named Leo Sgherza, and diver and author Hugh Edwards – two men who provide anecdotal evidence that, Murphy argues, supports ‘getting rid of a couple of big rogue great whites’.

Tim Winton’s 2013 article ‘In deep water’ in The Sydney Morning Herald confronted the arguments for shark culling, such as those proffered by Murphy, examining their masculine tendencies:

The ugliest utterances seem to come from those at distance, often citizens who rarely get their hair wet, whose hatred is implacable. Usually blokes, I’m sorry to say. Men, of course, are far more likely to die on the toilet than from a shark encounter, but some blokes still want to see every last shark dead before their last straining moment.

The maleness of the pro-shark cull movement was something that hadn’t been fully addressed in the public debate. Why was it men that were driving the campaign? Men, like seabreeze.com.au user Ex, who refused to be questioned or challenged by the science? Who weren’t going to be told? Why, when I looked out at Cottesloe Beach in 2014, did I see so few of their faces?

 

ACCLAIMED AUSTRALIAN AUTHOR Charlotte Wood once told me that a novel emerges in the writing of it – that in the cloudy process of producing words, the meaning of what the author is writing eventually becomes clear to them. Often only right near the end.

I’d met Wood in 2013 at a postgraduate workshop she was facilitating when she was the writer-in-residence at Curtin University. At the time I was adrift in a novel, and had dragged myself to the workshop more as a way to avoid the writing desk than of any real hope of getting myself out of the mess I was in. The novel was set in a crayfishing town, similar to the towns on the rural coast where I had grown up. For a long time I thought I was writing about the sea, and about sharks.

I didn’t realise, not until I’d met Wood, that for three years I’d been writing specifically about the men I’d grown up with. These men of the rural coast of Western Australia. She brought my attention to their silence, their turns to aggression – how the blokes working the fishing boats were sometimes as dangerous, terrifying and as monstrous as the sharks that circled them daily. I understood then what the novel, The Windy Season (Allen & Unwin, 2016), was really about. It was about masculinity, and it was about shadows – the shadows that lurk in the histories of these men, the things they can’t put a name to.

The men of the novel act out violently against the world around them. They vengefully wound the Port Jackson sharks that get in their craypots, de-finning them before throwing them back to the sea to watch them tumble to the sea bed. A meth-addled character – a deckhand named Roo Dog – urinates into the handbag of a tourist at the bar of the local tavern. In the tavern’s beer garden he clutches another woman between her legs against her will. Another deckhand, Tea Cup, rages at the spectre of a refugee boat approaching the north-west coast, reimagining the languishing vessel in military terms: Tea Cup sees an invasion and declares the boat needs to be sunk.

As ugly as these characters were, they weren’t at all the stuff of pure invention. They were depressingly real. Writing The Windy Season was in some ways a purging of everything I had seen. The king hits I’d watched delivered on the footpaths in front of Perth taverns. The glassings. The twisted faces of the Cronulla riots. The men I was writing were the embodiment of Australia’s poor record on domestic violence – the fact that one in six women have experienced at least one incidence of violence from a current or former partner since the age of fifteen.

While my conversations with Wood had set me back on course, and had compelled me to look uncompromisingly at the subject of my novel, I still didn’t fully understand these men, what lurked beneath their grotesque performances of masculinity.

 

I CAME NOSE to nose with a shark once, without realising it, when I was ten, surfing off the red-sandstone shore of the crayfishing town Kalbarri with my father and brother. A large wave had reared out of deeper water, standing tall as it neared the shelf. I’d paddled hard out to sea to get over it, my father screaming my name behind me. He had seen the shark in the wave, a bronze whaler, side-long and brilliantly clear as if it were a mural. But though I was closest to it, I never saw it.

There are of course the desperately unlucky few who have had more direct experiences than this. But for most people who have any sort of encounter – more often than not men, as the statistics show – that is what they have been. Shadows and shimmers. Inklings and hauntings. Which might explain the dark obsession that men have with sharks, how they are more inclined to hate them, to want to fish them all out. It isn’t so much a scientific thing. Marine science has longed dispelled the myth of the rogue, man-eating shark, or that our waters are infested with them. A stocktake by researchers at Stellenbosch University completed in August 2016 suggests the great white sharks of the South African coast are on the verge of extinction. But nothing irritates a surfer or fisherman more than a scientist with a notepad, and I get that.

In his article ‘The Fatal Shore’, Fred Pawle writes that ‘the DPI [NSW Department of Primary Industries] often gives the impression that it is more concerned with saving sharks than people’. His feeling of alienation is telling – a sense that the plight of surfers is not being taken seriously despite generous government spending towards surveillance and shark mitigation technologies. There were fourteen attacks in NSW in 2015, including one fatality, during a period of unusually high shark activity. There were a hundred drowning deaths in the state over the same time. Ninety-six more people drowned the following year, in which there were zero fatal shark attacks.

On the back of continued campaigning of voices like Pawle’s, the NSW government pledged sixteen million dollars towards shark-mitigation measures. Conversely, only eleven million dollars went to projects to reduce drownings in the 2016 NSW budget, despite the hundred-fold risk to life. Shark nets were installed on the North Coast beaches in December, with fourteen vulnerable or endangered animals – dolphins, rays, turtles – killed in the nets during the first month. However, Pawle still feels himself a part of a community that is being marginalised, disregarded and endangered by contemporary resistance to explicitly culling sharks. ‘Meanwhile,’ he writes, ‘the nation’s coastline is dotted with fishing ports in which hi-tech boats capable of profitably reducing the number of lethal sharks in our waters lay idle.’ In view of the science or statistics, Pawle’s push for shark culling appears to be more about symbolism – a shark hoisted on a hook at the end of the jetty as a world restored to its favourable balance.

My own wariness of sharks is similarly based less on the miniscule statistical risk of an attack than something murkier and harder to measure. I’d sometimes attempt to convince myself – when sitting on my board out in the surf, haunted by the thought of a white pointer striking from underneath – that my suspicions about the water might have been latent animal instinct. But what it is really all about is emotion.

For a long time I regret to say I was a disciple to the cliché that women are emotional and Australian men are not. But it is remarkable that the idea has ever survived at all, as clearly untrue as it is. It was only in recent years I realised that, despite myself, I’d been a lifetime student of the moodiness of men. The dark turns, the tantrums. Their spitting, shuddering anger. I’d seen the teacher in primary school who raged daily, red-faced and spraying saliva as he screamed. I’d seen the wild anger of men in bar fights, eyes wide as if possessed. I’d seen it in the work place, in the foreman on a construction site who squealed like a kettle. I’d seen businessmen in knee-high Perth surf swing wild punches at each other over their place in the break, a weekend crowd of kids around them silent in horror and confusion. I’d seen the same grown men completely self-destruct, punching their own boards or shouting, gutturally, simply over a wave that ran merrily off
without them.

The threatening performance of male anger perhaps distracts us from the emotional shadows that underlie it, the inherent fragility. My grandmother used to call it the frill-necked lizard effect. It is a metaphor typical of her – a curious, irreverent observer of men. That is what she saw in the gritted teeth and twitching limbs of an angry man: an attempt to look as big as possible. The trembling, weird performance and the scrawny lizard behind it all, trying to scare something off, something larger than itself. My grandmother understood that the frill-necked lizard isn’t fearsome, it is afraid.

And I’ve come to wonder if that is what lies beneath the shaking rages of men. Fear. Perhaps all this worrying about sharks, the hate for them that men have, is more about masculinity – a concept Sigmund Freud called ‘a complex, and in some ways precarious, construction’ – and the darknesses that underlie it. One of Freud’s apprentices, Carl Gustav Jung, first theorised the ‘shadows’ of the psyche, ‘the conflicts that rage within’. And Lord knows there are enough shadows in the minds of Australian men.

Men like my great-great-grandfather, John Garrett Bussell, who colonised the south-west coast of Western Australia as a twenty-six year old in 1830, and who wrote of his feeling ‘lonely on an unknown coast’. The fearful ‘shudder’ he felt when he crossed paths with the Noongar people. The hunting parties that followed; the Aboriginal people whose lives were lost, their land cleared. Legacies and dark family histories, like my own, politely buried.

Or the hundred years of returning war veterans: generations, like my grandfather’s, cursed with horrific experiences and visual information they figured too indecent to speak of. Men who resorted to anger in the face of emotional vulnerabilities and shadows they couldn’t account for. Men who passed their shadows on. As Jung himself wrote, ‘we carry our past with us’.

 

AS A BOY I was terrified of the trembling anger of men. Perhaps I was even damaged by it. But I’ve grown to pity it, to see the frailty and fear behind the performance. In recent years I’ve broken the unspoken law of those archetypal Australian mythologies – the stoic pastoralist or Anzac – and I’ve slinked into a therapist’s room as if the act itself was some masculine betrayal. What I really wanted was to sever the link, the passing on of some rotten baton.

Because I’ve learnt the hyperventilated dance of the frill-necked lizard, and I’ve been tempted to rage. I’m shamed to say there’s been times when I have, when I’ve cloaked my own fears and inadequacies in a posture and volume that might look and sound like something less vulnerable. The temptation to be terrifying rather than terrified. But I’ve come to understand the cowardice in giving into it.

If I have boys one day, I want them to be a braver generation of men. Not ‘precarious constructions’ founded on pioneer myths and dishonest war stories, and resistant to difficult questions, but men realised through truthful enquiries of themselves. Brave enough to speak. To have the courage, as it seems women tend to, to look under the surface with their eyes open. Because I figure that just as it is with the ocean and sharks, the bravest thing to do is to encounter shadows. Not with a drum line or a gun or a spear – not with fearful anger – but with curiosity and intelligence. And to try and understand them.


From Griffith Review Edition 56: Millennials Strike Back © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review