Tomson rides out the storm: Former surfer’s story ideal for youth living in a sea of doubt

In a world of outliers, wild men and women, bohemes, slackers and nutters, Shaun Tomson seems to float on a foamy bubble of goodness.

I’m talking about surfers, and no matter how future generations may wish to groom and trim their stories, this is how my father saw us.

And some of it was true, but that rebellion was ephemeral, a reaction against the stifling rise of 1950s post-war “suits”, the dreadful conformism to a rigid capitalist, neo-colonialist order where you worked, lived and died for the company, golf and kitchen appliances.

It took a waterman like Shaun’s dad, Ernie, to get the vibe, to enter the world of water people, to crack the code.

Our surfing story is rough, dark and violent, but it is also progressive and has light, unbelievable light, at the end of the tube.

And Tomson embodies that journey from rebellion to respectability and yes, sheer goodness.

The Code is beautifully written, but it is essentially a eulogy, a memoriam to both his dad, who backed his boy to the end, but mainly to Mathew, Shaun’s son.

Rich, famous, incredibly talented people live untouchable lives? Don’t believe it. Mathew died playing a silly “choking game”, as Tomson calls it.

And that was the end of the golden lives of Shaun and his designer wife, Carla.

As a parent, this is a hard read. The Code chronicles that dreadful moment of a teenage child’s pointless death, when husband and wife looked at each other like two fallen trees.

The book is at the centre of Shaun’s slow, pain-filled climb back out into the light.

It is a message book for youth, but with the help of the deft hand of surf journo and surfing academic Patrick Moser, it is also a seamless and engaging read.

I grew up watching Shaun surf from a vantage point of being in the surf. He was a mean young ripper, who fought for every wave at Bay of Plenty.

At Nahoon Reef, in 1972, we were 12-year-old groms turtle-turning and crying to God when clean-up sets smashed us into the bay beyond that razor-edged tusk we call pinnacle.

But out there, on the tip of Nahoon Reef, Shaun, aged about 16, was that god, dropping into deep, gnarly walls, and pushing huge spray as he carved those massive shoulders.

To us, on the periphery, he was a fierce, proud, untouchable.

Some of this he admits in the documentary Bustin’ Down the Door where his voracious need for waves and excellence was perceived by the Hawaiians as further colonial dispossession and insult. Even the sacred waves, the last bastion of Hawaiian ownership and pride, was being hogged by the Aussie-SA charge led by Rabbit Barthololomew and Shaun Tomson.

You’d think that’s where humility and respect started, born out of klaps and curses, his ritual of becoming a man, the Shaun Tomson we have come to know and admire.

But you’d be wrong. There is history within history.

Shaun’s mother, Marie, preserved in a black in white photograph as a Durban beach belle, as a child, endured one of the heaviest bombings ever on Malta island, a vital gateway to Europe and Africa for the allies. Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy dropped 68-million kilograms of bombs on the islands in six weeks.

Then there was Shaun’s dad, champion swimmer Ernie’s horrible mauling by a Zambezi shark off Durban beach, which rendered his right arm withered and almost powerless. Add to that divorce.

The Tomson’s will to fight for life and success is grounded in these experiences, but you can pepper that with a bit of Jewish mien.

So it’s simplistic and shallow to think of Tomson as a smoothy, a nice guy, a marketeer, with glinty teeth and GQ magazine looks.

The true story, or a lot of it, is in the depths and I am glad that it is brought out in this book.

There are surfing books with more grunt, such as Tim Winton’s novel Breathe, or William Finnegan’s biography, Barbarian Days, but it takes a different kind of courage and social care to lay it out so clearly and to openly challenge young people to make good decisions especially when they are in the eye of the storm.


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