Michael Fordham and the Book of Surfing

Michael Fordham is a freelance surf writer who has braved mortar shells in El Salvador and paddled through the barbed-wire beaches of Gaza in pursuit of his surfing obsession. His new book, ‘The Book of Surfing’, hits stores tomorrow, so we caught up for a chat about his one-stop guide to our surfing planet.

Have you always been into surfing?
Surfing came into my consciousness when I was around eight or nine, watching a pro contest on a TV programme on Dickie Davis’s World of Sport! I lived with my family in East London, and surfing represented everything exotic, beautiful and everything that I and my surroundings was not. Then, I found a wad of old surf magazines in my cool uncle’s bedside drawer when I was about thirteen. After that, I had surfing posters on my wall as well as West Ham’s Billy Bonds lifting the FA cup! Four years later I’d saved up the airfare to Australia, took off to Noosa and paddled out for the very first time at National Park.
I’ve been ruined ever since.

What made you decide to write the Book Of Surfing?
I wanted to produce a book with mainstream appeal that communicated the breadth and depth of surf culture but didn’t take itself too seriously, and one that looked great too. I am a fetishist of printed matter and can’t stand badly-produced books. So many mainstream books about surfing have been horrible and have been exploitative of the same clichés that have always represented surfing as this one dimensional, vacuous thing. Surfing is, of course, hedonistic and empty of meaning in itself: it’s just that once you engage with a life devoted to riding waves, it becomes something else entirely, something incredibly rich in metaphoric potency. Surfing makes people want to make films, write books, produce paintings, make music. So many people have paddled out for the first time in the last five-ten years, but there’s a kind of time-lag in most people’s understanding of the history and the culture of surfing. The book is all about hipping the new surfing masses to these things as well as keeping the old salts smiling.

What’s it all about?
The book is all about surf culture in the widest sense of the word: I think of culture as everything a particular bunch of people do. So the book focuses on the things surfers have created, the boards they have ridden, the films they have made, the art that has reflected surfers’ lives. We give a basic introduction to the meteorology, and the different sort of breaks out there in the surfing planet, and there’s a series of very focused travel sections that give a colourful introduction to classic surf trips.

It’s a mad rattle bag of visual loveliness too designed by Ross Imms and Alex Rowse at a-sidestudio and that’s what makes the book a must-have I think. We use lots of colourful illustrations, many by Nick Radford, who is a surfing mate and and a great musician. His band is playing at the launch party tonight. The whole production is a real family affair produced by surfing friends who share a certain aesthetic. I think that shows. If the content made no sense at all, it’s still be a beautiful book. I think that’s important in an age of ubiquitous digital media. Print has to play to its strengths.

How did you find the writing process?
The writing process was intense, but ultimately enjoyable. There’s over 100,000 words there and it was done in a little over eight months. Luckily, I had absorbed most of the information by osmosis over a couple of decades of being obsessed with surfing – the challenge was to present the material in new ways and to verify facts that I had taken for granted all these years. Surf culture has been largely a word of mouth thing, but the rise and reach of the magazines and now the Web has changed the dissemination of information massively. Ultimately, this book is just another verse of the powerful play. I just hope people think it is a beautiful one.

Did you get to meet lots of cool people in the surf world?
Luckily, I’ve worked in the surf/skate/snow media for a long time, as well as a lot of other things. I’ve worked with some great people over the years, and hopefully this book will raise awareness amongst the mainstream of some of the amazing talents that have trained their sensibilities on surfing.

Who did you collaborate with on the photography side of things?
We worked with who I consider to be the best surf photographers in the world; people from all over the world like Art Brewer, Jeff Divine, Billy Morris, Andrew Shield, as well as the estates of masters like Leroy Grannis, Ron Church, Ron Stoner and artists like Rick Griffin. Alongside these guys, we’ve worked a lot with Mickey Smith from Cornwall: one of the greatest surfing lensmen working anywhere in the world today. These people’s work are the building blocks of surf culture and, hopefully, gathering them together in a book like this is a little bit of alchemy that turns the book itself into a little nugget of all that’s good in surfing.

Did you come to any startling realizations while compiling the book?
That the more you work in the ‘world of surfing’, the less you get to surf!

Where do you see the future of surfing?
Big question. I think part of the reason for the recent boom in surfing is that people have become more and more tuned in to the beauty of the environment, and the importance of engaging with that environment. As environmental imperatives become more and more pressing, the status of surfing as the most intimate interface with the ocean’s fathomless force (excuse the alliteration) will only rise and rise. Many people have said that as the person who understands the ocean’s moods and furies more than anyone, that the surfer must evolve into being a true custodian of the coastal environment. It would be nice if that prophecy comes to pass.

Looking forward to the launch?
It’s always nerve-wracking when something you’ve nurtured lovingly takes its first steps out into the big bad world. But, yes, it’s going to be interesting to see what people think of the book.

What’s up next for you?
I’m just about to start work on the second edition of the September Project, (which entails a trip to California and Baja), and there are a bunch of other book and film projects in the pipeline. I’m currently a little bit obsessed with George Formby. Loads of good stuff on the horizon but if I tell you more, I’ll have to kill you.

The book is available from all the usual suspects after 18 June and is lovingly brought to you by Dogstar/September (creators of Adrenalin, Stranger Magazine and the September Project) and Bantam Press. It’s a colourful beast, featuring 300 pages and over 300 images by some of the greatest photographers and artists to ever train their sensibilities on surfing. To order your copy, head to the Book of Surfing website.

Be sure to check out Michael Fordham’s article, ‘Surfing in a Civil War’, in the next issue of Cooler magazine (on sale 28th July). It’s an eye-opening article documenting the challenges of wave riding in wartime El Salvador…


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