Interview with Michael Scott Moore: ‘Sweetness and Blood’

Travel Interviews: Jim Benning talks with the author of a new travel book about the spread of surfing around the globe

09.08.10 | 12:32 PM ET

You don’t have to travel much to get a sense of how far surfing has spread in recent decades. From France and Spain to Chile and Indonesia, the sport—like Hollywood movies and American pop music—has gone global, and you can now stumble across sandal-shod surfers almost any place where there are waves worth riding. The sport’s rise in the far corners of the globe is an oft-neglected aspect of Westernization, and while most associate surfing with carefree, get-back-to-nature fun, its arrival in some places hasn’t been welcomed by everyone.

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Michael Scott Moore was curious about how surfing spread, and its ramifications, so the Southern California native set off to see what he could learn. He traveled to eight countries, including Cuba, Morocco, Great Britain and Israel, to investigate surfing’s origins in those places. The result is a fascinating new book, Sweetness and Blood: How Surfing Spread from Hawaii and California to the Rest of the World, with Some Unexpected Results. I caught up with him via email in Berlin, where he lives, to ask him about it.

World Hum: How did the idea for this book come about?

Michael Scott Moore: One of my clearest memories from the age of 13 or 14 in Redondo Beach, where I grew up in California, is discovering the memorial for George Freeth, who brought surfing to the U.S. in 1907. I’d never heard of him. I was learning to surf, but writers rarely mentioned him in the surf magazines I saw. They mentioned Duke Kahanamoku, but not Freeth. So he became this odd fact in my brain, this bit of trivia I never forgot.

Then I moved to Berlin, obviously not to surf, but someone told me about the standing wave in Munich’s English Garden. I went to investigate, and soon I was reading up on the origins of surfing in Germany, which go back to the 1950s. The first German surfer, Uwe Drath, was still alive and retired on the island of Sylt, in the North Sea. Naturally I wanted to chat with him. And naturally I thought of Freeth.

At last I realized that every nation in the world with a surf scene must have a creation myth about the sport’s arrival there. Stand-up surfing started very clearly in Hawaii, and it became modern, almost as clearly, in Southern California. So these colorful stories about the sport’s arrival in weird places after World War II could be told as a chronicle of Western influence—maybe even the spread of Americanism.

The first surfers in Japan were American servicemen stationed there after the war. The first surfer in Morocco was a U.S. Marine in the ‘50s. The U.S. had a base near that particular surf break in Morocco because of the Allied landing in 1942. And so on. If I chose my countries carefully, I realized, I could have a travel book about the clash of cultures in places as far-flung as Indonesia, Cuba, Israel, and Japan—all these societies reacting to the spread of a pop movement that had its origins, as a modern phenomenon, around Redondo Beach.

Suddenly it was no longer a surf book. It was a travel and a history book, a way of looking at the so-called “American century.”

Where is that clash of cultures most evident? Kuta Beach, perhaps, on Bali?

Well, Kuta’s the most glaring example, but it’s also a clash of clichés. Some very sensible people I talked to in Bali saw the war between radical Islam and big dumb Western materialism as a “barroom brawl,” where they found it hard to take sides.

The other good example of culture clash is Japan. The Japanese took to surfing in the ‘60s with a kind of collective madness, and now the crowds on beaches just south of Tokyo are insane. Everyone goes out on weekends to sit in the water, whether waves are coming or not. You see small boxy vans in the parking lot that tend to be equipped with portable showers and special fold-out surfboard stands. Outside each locked van will be a pair of rubber sandals, waiting for the owner’s return. The surfers are extremely organized. It’s fascinating. They’ve studied and adopted every aspect of the sport except the spontaneity and the individualism.

Of course it didn’t mean the surfers were dull or dispassionate. As anyone who loves Japan will tell you, the attention to detail itself is a passion.

What surprised you most about what you found during your travels?

I expected surf history to be more diffuse. But it was just like blues arriving in the U.S. from Africa, turning electric, and radiating out again as jazz and rock ‘n’ roll. It’s just about that simple—the elements of modern surfing were developed in California after Freeth. Duke brought the ancient sport to Australia in 1915, but Californians introduced modern boards and modern techniques to Australia about 40 years later.

So the whole premise of my book was a surprise. I just set out to see how much of it was true. It doesn’t matter that the first surfers in Germany, Indonesia, Britain, and Cuba were not American—what’s interesting is how the pop phenomenon worked itself in, and how the locals reacted. I didn’t expect to learn that Kuta was really a surfers’ metropolis. It never would have been such a tourist hellhole without surfers. In the ‘70s it was just a fishing village that surfers knew about; in the ‘80s it became a Cabo San Lucas of southeast Asia. And in 2002 it was bombed by Islamic terrorists, who chose it to protest all the Western trash culture. The drugs and sex, all the flashy materialism hated by the Islamists, followed directly on the heels of surfers.

I think that’s interesting.

It’s fascinating. What was the best travel experience you had in researching the book?

The most fun was getting lost south of Casablanca one morning in search of a surf spot called Les Tomates. I parked near some agricultural fields and had to climb down a red Moroccan cliff, but I wound up with beautiful clean big waves and no one in the water.

The most shocking, though, was my treatment by the Interior Ministry at the airport in Israel. I was detained for six hours when they learned I wanted to meet Palestinian surfers. Of course it’s perfectly legal to enter Israel and report a feature on surfing for a magazine or a book without asking permission from the Interior Ministry, and I’d been told not to mention Gaza to officials if I intended to go there, at least not at the airport. But they searched my things, found some notes, called me a “liar” for not mentioning my Gaza plans, stamped “Entry Denied” in my passports, and threatened to put me on a plane back to Berlin. Utterly over the top. Since I was reporting the story for Spiegel Online, I had some help from the magazine’s correspondent in Jerusalem, so in the end I saw my friends in Tel Aviv and met the surfers in Gaza. I loved being in Israel. It was just a comedy of petty officialdom; those airport officials are known to be unreasonable. And those six hours were a direct introduction to the paranoia and the limits of Western freedom in that part of the world.

Thanks, Mike.

2 Comments for Interview with Michael Scott Moore: ‘Sweetness and Blood’

GypsyGirl 09.11.10 | 3:36 PM ET

Sounds like an intriguing book Mike, I know next to nothing about surfing. But have struck up some conversations with well dressed business men, at airports, who all of the sudden begin to tell a story, with teenage excitement, about there surfing days!

Wall Mirrors Gal 10.15.10 | 11:36 AM ET

To be honest, I had no idea surfing was so prevalent around the globe.  From Gaza to Casablanca, Mike’s travels sound so interesting.

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