Geall is a frequent contributor to a variety of international surf publications including ’The Surfers Journal’. Using surfing as a foil to explore our personal connections with wild spaces, Geall presents The Spit, a short-fiction story that explores identity crisis in the surfing community.
Growing up in Cornwall within a surfing family, Geall’s life has been shaped by the coast and its many characters. Profoundly affected by The Covid-19 pandemic, Geall uses his visionary writing to reflect on the way surfing has been represented at a time of collectivist actions.
Struck by the idea that surfing has gone full circle - returning to its rebellious, counter-culture roots, The Spit is an exciting and mysterious work that is set in a post-surf society. The story aims to dig at the prescient themes of our time, which includes the presence of disease but also looks at the topic of self-identity in a world that doesn’t accept surfing.
I feel fiction is the ideal medium in which to explore the identity crisis that current events are exposing in coastal communities around the globe: the inherent selfishness and individualism of surf at counter-point to collective action. The story presents surfing going through a fall from grace in a futuristic society, but also as an act of rebellion that brings redemption and a resolution (of sorts) to the narrative arc.
The last of my neighbour’s muddy home-brew tipped into a paper cup. The mumbled reminder to sip it “through the teeth” jangled round on repeat between my ears. His forced wink, staged with an intention of humour, emulsifying into the subsequent sip.
Perching on a driftwood trunk, I can sense the slightest ruffle of breeze on my neck, barely enough to lift the day’s dust from the saltbush. Not warm, but not exactly cold either. A flat non-temperature on another non-evening. My old mate Mack - a knackered Bedlington terrier, has taken to harassing the small crabs that line the brackish shoreline; before meekly retreating when countered with claw.
Looking across the inky water that separates the neon glow of the city from our makeshift community on the spit, I can’t help but think about the life I had left behind. Physical and financial health guaranteed. There were even mutterings amongst the residents here that the annual servicescans were now being subsidised in the latest policy adjustment.
Without warning, a flash of bright lights explode in quick succession high above the concrete skyline, before raining down in shards of primary colour. The distant, hollow crack of fireworks follow a few seconds later. The lights fall apologetically back to earth before appearing to smear down the reflected, wind scuffed waters of the inlet. Out on the spit we live in the gap between the light and sound - the gulf between them and us.
I sink the claggy ale before throwing the cup back towards the city where I was raised.
“Out with the old, hey Mack. New century, new man.” The fireworks had ushered in the start of 2300 in the city. Here, in the breakers community of Inglewood, set some nineteen clicks distant, not much had changed - the solar-storage unit and life taper out by 9pm, new century or not.
The city folk think this is a strange place, and I’ll give them that, positioned out here on the end of the spit. The toxicity of the inlet on one side and the open expanse of ocean on the other. The makeshift assortment of caravans and shacks teetering on foundations no more permanent than a pile of flinty pebbles. Sparse salt-marsh, crabs and the odd corvid on the scrounge the only other living things prepared to defy the salty air.
The end of the land - projecting ever further out to sea - had originally attracted the youthful outliers and idealists. But over the years the bleeding heart of the counter-culture had calcified. Instead of moving yearly with the changing sands, the community had become rooted to this spot, now some 2km from the end of the spit and growing ever more with each day.
What was left was a dusty, distant community, comprised of folks too young to die and too old to return to the city.
The surf, what was left of it anyway, had initially drawn them to the pebbled fringe. Now only tattered memories remain. An irrational passion had drawn them away from the safety and security of the city, out towards the newly formed margins. The wild ‘terra nullis’ of the spit and surf that screeched at full-pelt down the steep flint bank were diametrically opposed to the curated narrative of collective ‘well-being’ in the city.
For a number of heady decades, hypnotic pointbreak tubes would reel for miles down the sculpted banks. Each season was progressively named the ‘best ever’ by the city’s surfers as the bank grew in length. Eventually access became the defining variable. When the day trip was ruled out, surfers starting staying for extended periods at a time - bringing in contraband supplies and constructing rudimentary shelters. They called themselves the breakers - a ragtag, underground band of brothers and sisters.
The once famed beachbreak peaks of the city, had for many generations been held up as the totemic ideal of what recreation represented in modern society. Surfing having morphed seamlessly through its infantile stages, characterised by the wastefulness of the surf-travel era in the early 2000s, to a highly integrated and formalised component of each of the respective districts zonal plan. The beach was a ritualised place in which the citzenzia could dance with nature, share time with family and root their reality in the present - performing their weekly mandated exercise sessions in the ocean.
The city and sea were intertwined. Occasionally in the short winter season, when the swell was forecast over 3m from the fourth oceanic-quadrant, all activity in the city would stop and look towards the shore. Towards those brave and certified few to throw themselves into the maws of the gaping shoreline tubes whilst being broadcast across the innumerable screens of the cityscape. The ‘Seven Fathom’ bank, an area of fortuitous gravel situated offshore, had provided the prime bathymetry in which to fragment the swell into wedge-like peaks before hitting the foreshore of the city. Swell markers moored to the individual gravel bars gave the zonal districts the data in which to distribute sessions according to ability - ensuring steady progress along the denizens’ customised actualisation paths.
Despite this seemingly lofty plane of existence which combined highly specialised, urbane work with optimum leisure time - we, the citzenzia, had grown used to disease over the years. Accepting from an early age the harmonic state of equilibrium that the polity could but optimise. The annual service-scans and tailored therapy sessions helped the otherwise healthy population come to terms with the unavoidably high death rate.
Computational models had looked far beyond the simplified two-dimensional charts that defined the first of the great pandemics. The failed 2020 approach to Covid-19 a result of our outdated reliance on human leadership rather than artificial intelligence. The combined algorithms of the first quantum supercomputers ran for a number of years before demonstrating without question that global pandemics were destined to follow an inverse repetition. The future was clearly laid out before us. The time between pandemics destined to shrink exponentially and the fatality of each subsequent infection set to double.
By 2120 we were no longer at the behest of pandemics - we lived in a permanent state of pandemic. Teetering on the edge of desolation, the city had adapted: halting the movement of individuals in seconds and shutdown entire precincts in minutes. Each mutated contagion assailed upon us was immediately starved of hosts before it could gain purchase on the city. We gained a modicum of control at direct expense of our personal liberties and global outlook. Living under the shadowy threat of illness rather than that of illness itself - the city became both the physical extent of our world and our metaphysical refuge in it.
At the beginning of the last century the gravel began to shift. The waves stopped breaking. No one has ever been sure why. The abnormally high death rate in 2202 coincided with this shift. Whilst no causal link was proven, it came to be that the cities destiny was forced to change yet again.
The Citzenzia Assembly referred the case to The Department of Artificial Intelligence (DAI). The same quantum system we had entrusted to create the intricate financial structures that eliminated the ‘boom and bust’ of the previously flawed capital based system - tabled 0.2% annual growth for over 150 years and counting. Coupled with the constant presence of disease it had laid the foundation for the cloistered ‘well-being’ city-state and accepted dogma of:
‘Led by assembly, guided by AI.’
Yet, the DAI for all its unfathomable intelligence was unable to work out why the city's beaches were shrinking. The loss of the beaches was one thing, but not understanding why we were losing them was another. The city grew increasingly ashamed of the rapidly shrinking beaches. The core foundations of society were all based on unshakeable, fact driven policy suggested by the DAI. For the first time in generations the answer generated was unclear - a shade of grey that the residents were ill-accustomed.
When the spit began to form, the swell was blocked from reaching the city beaches. Initially surf contests had been held on the spit in an attempt to stake claim to the new waves outside our boundary walls. The city even mooted the construction of a high speed monorail to the newly forming pointbreak extending far out beyond the city confines. Yet, interest in the waves slowly waned as the wave itself grew in technical speed and power. What was a mainstream activity had become a reckless, aficionados’ folly. Most people returned to the security of the city walls.
The remaining breakers who had been able to bear the social pressure to return to the city, began a permanent settlement on the spit; forming a rudimentary zonal system to protect them from the ravages of unchecked disease. The high contagion-caused death rate in Inglewood coupled with the high-octane thrills of the surf created an increasingly hedonistic community characterised by shorttermism.
An anarchistic and deeply individualistic spirit, driven in most part by the selfish pursuit of tube rides, ruled out normality on the spit.
In the city we were taught to accept death. On the spit you were forced to accept death. Having grown up on a diet of classic literature, I couldn’t help but relate with Ernest Hemingway’s description of the archaic bloodsport of Bullfighting as:
“…art heightened by the presence of death and, if the spectator can project himself into the matador's place, in the terror of death.”
The main difference was in Inglewood the surfing matadors performed their selfish, aquatic dance to an audience of one - an individualist affirmation of life at loggerheads with the collectivist society at large.
After the particularly stormy winter of 2272, the spit began to grow perpendicular to the prevailing conditions. Dinner plate sized rocks began to bank up into a berm, causing the waves to break closer and faster to the shoreline. Only summer swells from the fourth-quadrant could be surfed with any degree of quality. The inconsistent surf sowed a flowering nostalgia for what had once been - proving more fatal to the community than the ever present threat of death.
The previously perilous balance of surf thrills and disease where swiftly replaced with alcohol and drug addiction. With no service scans outside of the city, mental health issues characterised the largely self-isolating populace of Inglewood. The fluidity of life and the yearly movement of the settlement ceased.
As a teenager growing up in the 23rd arrondissement of district 4, the spit was only visible at night from my families high-rise apartment. The intermittent flashes of the lighthouse a beacon of otherworldliness that would occasionally light up the ceiling of my bedroom at night. In my spare time, I took to digging out surf culture online consigned to the past. I was drawn magnetically to the stories I would find about beaches and the city’s most famous surfers; despite having never felt a grain of sand beneath my feet. How was it possible that something so mainstream like surfing could become so drastically counter-culture? In two generations, the foreshore had metamorphosed from a sandy tranquil to steel-infused tetrapod sea defence. Surfing relegated to an embarrassed past.
I knew that the early origins of surf culture was formed out of a rebellious spirit, in part due to social change in the 20th century. But even then, the counter-culture was fixated on preserving an idealistic way of life. Yet still, I couldn’t square that ideal with why some people still chose to live out on the spit now there were no waves to surf. I felt compelled to find out why.
My professional life in academia, researching mental health issues in minority groups, subconsciously placed me on a path to dig deeper into the norms and values of the Breakers. In the last two years, I have spent more time out here on the spit than back in the City. None of the residents I have met during my studies surf anymore. What I have found most alarming, disheartening even, was the vast majority seemed reticent to talk about surfing - as if the memory was still too raw. That was everyone but Dan.
It would at first glance, be easy to write off Dan Hooper, the brewer of the fiercest home-brew on the spit: an alcoholic, single 68 year old suffering from a catalogue of surf and lifestyle related woes and injuries. But unlike the other folks here, I noticed that Dan had an air of defiant vitality about him. He didn’t surf anymore, not for years, but within those clouded eyes and reddened cheeks was the undeniable face of a surfer. The same surfers that I had grown up reading about and watching films of.
A year ago, my life changed; the certainties of which pulled like a rug from beneath my feet. Dan suggested a walk, up to the end of the spit. He said he wanted to show me something important. He insisted that I lug his tatty, repurposed lemonade bottle filled with murky hooch.
After 2km of slipping and tripping on the awkwardly sized stones we finally reached the wave bashed promontory. Corduroy lines of pure, oceanic swell, dumping without ceremony onto the flint bank. The energy expanded, clinging ethereally to the shoreline in a thin marine layer of fog. An old surf shelter erected out of plastic sheeting and carpet underlay marked the spot that many had called their spiritual home, now marooned some 500m from the end of the point. I was struck by the melancholy and sparsity of this once communal space - abandoned in the ebb and flow of time.
At the top of the spit, he ushered me to follow him as we turned our backs on the fury of the open ocean. The pebbles gradually turning to tar-stained silt as we transitioned from ocean to inlet. Dan pointed to a washed up sequoia in the distance, split in half as if struck by some divine force.
Slumping into the crook of the dead tree, he took a giant swig of the brew. A knowing smile spread across his face as he took another gulp, squeezing down firmly on the weathered plastic container before thrusting his jittery hand towards the inlet.
In the foreground, a jumble of confused swell was wonkily contorting itself 100 degrees around the lee of the spit. Further down by a hip in the sand, the waves distanced themselves into a clear trio of knee-high lefthand waves, peeling at a pleasant tempo down the point. It was the first time I’d seen surfable waves in my lifetime. A mirage, slowly peeling into my reality.
Watching the waves, Dan announced flatly: “Everyone here reckons the computers moved the sand from the City.”
In the months since, I have taken to walking out to this nascent surf break whenever my free time allows. I don’t have a surfboard, but it doesn’t matter. Dan and I are the spots keepers; the only surfers left.
When I look at the city lights in the distance, I see more questions than answers. As we settle into a new century, I wonder if the old ways of doing things will still be around. Whether the computers will still offer their advice when asked or simply take over when it suits. Maybe they already have?
I sit on that sequoia and surf down the silty, black sand point in my mind. The surf exists in a mutinous zone between us and them. An act unobserved by the happy city and its many plagues.