Surfing and reading have gone hand in hand ever since Joe Turpel, or was it Ronnie Blakey, first turned to his colleague in the WSL commentary booth and said, “What a great read on that one”.
It’s possible that the link goes back even further, to equally enthusiastic champions of reading — Agatha Christie, who noted that when surfing “you are either vigorously cursing or else you are idiotically pleased with yourself”, or Mark Twain, who, on the Big Island of Hawaii, enjoyed watching the “heathens” as they waited for “a particularly prodigious billow to come along”.
Either way it is clear that in order to surf you must first learn to read, and that a great read is an essential component of any well-ridden wave.
Now, let’s suppose that, having overcome any moral scruples you may have had, you are headed to Indonesia in search of a particularly prodigious billow or two. You could not hope for a better guide than the 19th-century British naturalist and explorer Alfred Russel Wallace.
Wallace was a contemporary and friend of Charles Darwin, and though there’s little doubt as to whose contributions to science were the greater, Wallace nonetheless arrived at the theory of natural selection independently of his more celebrated colleague. Indeed, finding themselves in agreement, the pair published a joint paper introducing the theory in 1858, a year prior to the publication of On the Origin of Species.
The Malay Archipelago, published a decade after that, recounts Wallace’s travels through the islands that today constitute Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. His chief ostensible interest is the region’s wildlife, but the book is equally rich in anthropological observation.
Thus, as you land on Bali, you can admire the “luxuriant rice-grounds, watered by an elaborate system of irrigation that would be the pride of the best cultivated parts of Europe”. (One wonders what Wallace would make of Kuta in its present incarnation.)
As you set off toward Desert Point, you can take comfort in the knowledge that ghosts are “very scarce, if not altogether unknown in Lombok”. (As the evidence is purely negative, however, he notes that “we should be wanting in scientific caution if we accepted this fact as scientifically well established”. Wallace was also a keen spiritualist, much to the vexation of his fellow scientists.)
And as you follow the Sumatran coastline in search of undiscovered waves, you can keep an eye out for the species of butterfly called Kallima paralekta — though in fact it is almost impossible to spot, for it “so closely resemble[s] a dead leaf attached to a twig as almost certainly to deceive the eye even when gazing full upon it”. The way the butterfly achieves this effect is a perfect example of natural selection’s ingenuity, and Wallace explains it at length: “[T]here runs a dark curved line exactly representing the midrib of a leaf, and from this radiate on each side a few oblique marks which well imitate the lateral veins. These marks are more clearly seen on the outer portion of the base of the wings, and on the innerside towards the middle and apex, and they are produced by striae and markings which are very common in allied species, but which are here modified and strengthened so as to imitate more exactly the venation of a leaf…”
He continues thus for several pages. Such technical detail might become boring were it not that The Malay Archipelago is charged throughout with the excitement of a wild surmise — a wild surmise that is gradually being borne out, and gradually becoming wilder, too.
As for Wallace himself, he is charming company and writes wonderfully. By today’s standards, of course, he would be considered, not unjustly, something of a bastard, and made the subject of a vituperative social-media campaign. He is very fond of orangutans — “the great man-like ape of Borneo” — and even fonder of shooting them in the name of science. His racism is unapologetic and unquestioned; his tone towards the native human inhabitants a mixture of disdain and pity, on the one hand, and wonderment at their achievements on the other.
Here he is on the irrigation system in Lombok: “I rode through this strange garden utterly amazed and hardly able to realize the fact that in this remote and little known island, from which all Europeans except a few traders at the port are jealously excluded, many hundreds of square miles of irregularly undulating country have been so skilfully terraced and levelled, and so permeated by artificial channels, that every portion of it can be irrigated and dried at pleasure.”
Of the Hill Dyaks in Borneo, he writes: “Head-hunting is a custom originating in the petty wars of village with village, and tribe with tribe, which no more implies a bad moral character than did the custom of the slave-trade a hundred years ago imply a want of general morality in those who participated in it.” Every page seems to offer some such eminently quotable passage. One learns much about what it was like to be a Malay in the 19th century, but ultimately even more about what it was like to be an Englishman at that time.
One of the most fascinating sections of the book relates to the origin and meaning of the term amok. We often hear that such-and-such a footballer is running amok down the left wing, but until reading Wallace I had no idea where it came from. Wallace suggests it is the Malayan equivalent of falling on one’s sword, but in fact it seems to bear a closer resemblance to a mass shooting.
“A man thinks himself wronged by society — he is in debt and cannot pay — he is taken for a slave or has gambled away his wife or child into slavery — he sees no way of recovering what he has lost, and becomes desperate. He will not put up with such cruel wrongs, but will be revenged on mankind and die like a hero. He grasps his kris-handle, and the next moment draws out the weapon and stabs a man to the heart. He runs on, with bloody kris in his hand, stabbing at everyone he meets. ‘Amok! Amok!’ then resounds through the streets. Spears, krisses, knives, and guns are brought out against him. He rushes madly forward, kills all he can — men, women, and children — and dies overwhelmed by numbers amid all the excitement of a battle.”
That strikes me as a low and ignoble kind of heroism. What’s wrong with simply pulling into suicidally shallow barrel sections — of which there’s no shortage in those parts — until your injuries become fatal?