An Archaeology of Surf
“All plots tend to move deathward.” Thus speaks Jack Gladney, the addled protagonist Don DeLillo’s immortal novel of paranoia, language, and knowledge, White Noise (1985). Gladney says the words, but only becomes aware he has done so after they have come out of his mouth in the course of a rambling undergraduate lecture. Why has he said this, he finds himself wondering? Is it even true? In what follows, the shark-thinking artist-author Melissa McCarthy stages a plot that walks its own way across paranoia, language, and the pursuit of knowledge. And it goes where plots so often do. In this case, however, the whole story comes in a little suitcase: a kind of portmanteau of fiction and archaeology; of historical sources and conjured conjunctions. Surf through the footnotes, and ask: is it all plots that lead deathward, or, rather, all interpretations? — D. Graham Burnett, Series Editor
May 19, 2021
I am here reporting on the contents of a briefcase belonging to “T. S.” (the celebrated California surfer), and recovered by the Avon and Somerset Constabulary in September of 2001. It has since been returned to his next of kin, although its exact legal status is disputed. As you will see, I have tried to give a general sense of the contents of the case, and have paid particular attention to the notebook found therein, together with the various bits of paper and ephemera slipped between its pages.
You are aware of how the stand-off in Wells Cathedral terminated, on the third day of T. S.’s presence in Somerset. But the question remains of how this potentially disastrous situation arose in the first place. Certainly there was a misunderstanding and a failure to transmit information in a timely and accurate manner. Actually, quite a few misunderstandings, all layered one on the other, rather like sediments of different density and colour. Or like layers of resin over paint over the core of a surfboard. In making my way towards the report you have requested, I have found it necessary to sift through these layers, in the hopes of arriving at a better sense of exactly where things went so wrong.
One would not guess, from the notebook, that such a denouement was at hand. T. S. was visiting the cathedral, as you know, to deliver an academic manuscript to a clerical colleague of his sister’s. When he left Paris in early September, he, along with everyone else, did not anticipate the events of international import and the ensuing chaos and high security alerts. And T. S., while a basically innocuous person, was certainly somewhat erratic, even reckless — the more so after his diagnosis. At any rate, the briefcase contents do, I believe, offer insights into T. S.’s physical health, state of mind, and his lines of thought (obsession?) as this wave of calamity was about to break. As you’ll see, stone features heavily.
– three cheque-books, all partially used, none, notably, in the name of T. S.
– one airline ticket, carbon paper with red lettering, valid Paris – London Heathrow – San Francisco, issued by Air France, open dates.
– Sept. 2001 issue of Surfer magazine, cover text “California Pro Surfing – can it be saved?” (defaced with elaborate graffito reading “eat my shorts”).
– one paperback book, old, poor condition: Digging up the Past, Leonard Woolley.1
– one brand-new hardback book: Echo Burning, Lee Child.2
– Three tubes (two empty, one with crushed remains) of “Smarties”. Five more Smarties lids (letters T, S, U, R, F) rattling round the briefcase.3
– sand, very little, in corners.
– one notebook (of which more, below).
Large, blue, hard-cover notebook, 118 pages, ruled. Writing and doodling, in the hand of T. S., in blue ballpoint pen — mostly undated, mainly brief notes, reminders, some copying out from other sources. Slipped between pages are several loose-leaf items, including postcards, newspaper clippings, other paper records.
Outline of primary material: Nicholas Harris Nicolas’ 1828 publication A Journal by One of the Suite of Thomas Beckington provides the full text, in English, and profuse though sometimes disputed background on the characters, motive, and events of an ill-fated mission to Guyenne, south-western France, in 1442.
The Journal has three strands: the first is a set of letters between Henry VI and his three ambassadors, in which he instructs them to enthuse his subjects overseas, and they report that without tangible and rapid support, it will be impossible to stop the French king, Charles, from gaining control of the region.
The second strand, also epistolary, consists chiefly of communications between the ambassadors and the Duke of Armagnac (and his councilor), as they try to advance the courtship between Henry and one of Armagnac’s three daughters. The problems of long-distance courtship are compounded by Armagnac’s obligations towards his ostensible ally, King Charles.
The third strand of the Journal, relayed by “one of the suite” (an unknown member of Bekynton’s entourage), describes the daily activities of Bekynton and his colleagues, as they travel to Guyenne pursuing their tasks.7
In Mesopotamia vessels of food and drink provide sustenance for the long journey which the dead must undertake, and during one period these vessels are stacked on a boat made of bitumen, implying that the journey must be made by water. But the journey is not everything, there is the whole life of the next world, and because it is difficult to imagine life otherwise than in terms of that which we know, it is assumed that man’s occupations and needs hereafter will be very similar to what they have been in the past – the next world is a continuation of this. – p68.
V&A Museum, London
F. H. Evans, 1853–1943, British
A Sea of Steps, Wells Cathedral, Steps to Chapter House, 1903.10
Three pages of the notebook are filled with sketches attempting to copy aspects of the above postcard image. Some concentrate on reproducing the horizontal lines of the treads of each step, and the verticals of the stone columns. Some trace the curve that the right-hand staircase forms as it veers off. Some expand into drawings of waves within vaulted spaces, small figures surfing on them. The curve of these final waves develops into elaborate versions of the letter “C”, which in one place is elaborated into a note, reproduced below verbatim.
Scarring on left sternum – deep incision, narrowly missing organs. Patient explains it’s from a fin (?).
Foot bumps – cartilage deposits along ridge of foot, mainly historic, not painful.
Left foot, calf – three projectile-type depressions – too antique to require police notification; no noticeable muscle damage.
Surfer’s ear – bone growths on ear canal, causing occasional mild tinnitus.
Nose – broken multiple times.
Right forearm – broken bones, badly reset. Scarring.
Around this postcard, where it is placed on the page of the notebook, T. S. has added hand-drawing, converting the postcard into one section of a rough map, indicating distance and direction between labeled places: Guéthary, Guyenne, Atlantic, Pyrenees, Spain, rest of France. Also marked on diagram: an arrow showing “nice offshore wind”; a stick-man to left of Guéthary labeled “me, cruising in on a neat left curl”.13
CATHEDRAL — stone: inferior oolite: (inferior to what?) sedimentary rock, rich in organic material.14
Sedimentary is made up of crushed shells and fish. Fossils. Living things turned to stone.
Bath and Wells? Because of natural springs. Archbishop paid for plumbing out to the poor in the city. Conduit, troughs, fountain, reservoir, courses. Pipes of lead twelve inches in circumference. Other necessary engines.15
I was thinking of night surfing, and it reminded me. You’ve been to Hawaii; did you ever see phosphorescence? It’s lovely surfing through that, carving a trail that glows blue behind you, history of your ride all lit up. Or just in the city lights.17
The good news is that broadcaster Alistair Cooke has been alive – informing, enlightening and entertaining us – for approaching one hundred years. The bad news: that this plodding new biography seems to take roughly that amount of time to wade through. From his early days as…18
Alistair Cooke still alive!
He’s the one I met that was there at the Ambassador: Like the stone face of a child, he said.
Everybody’s at the Ambassador — Cooke, Bekynton, me!
AC forever! AC rules the waves!19
Friday, at sea, in a calm, about seven in the evening, as we thought, a fish, called a shark, pursued the ship, and was driven back, after being twice struck with a harping-iron : but in spite of his wounds he again followed the ship; upon which the master, with the harping-iron, pierced his sides.
We are in daily expectation here of the return of the artist whom we sent, and desire most earnestly to receive the likenesses which he will bring, that we may carry them with us, and so all things be speedily concluded. Farewell: commend us to your lord.20
Waffers? I want waffles. Proper waffles. And strawberry pancakes. And American coke. And some west coast waves.21
6 T. S. was at Wells Cathedral at the request of his sister Pauline, a medieval historian resident in Paris. She had asked him to deliver a copy of Nicholas Harris Nicolas’ remarkable edited volume A Journal by One of the Suite of Thomas Beckington (1828) to a colleague.
7 Nineteenth-century historian Nicholas Harris Nicolas self-funded a magnificently thorough edition of a set of documents related to a significant fifteenth-century Crown diplomatic mission. As Nicolas explained in his introduction, “During a search in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, the volume from which the Journal in the following pages has been printed, accidentally fell under the Editor’s notice” (Nicolas, vii). Nicolas is referring here to MS. Ashmole 789 ff. 147-359. A later edition of this document is included in the Rolls Series: Memorials of the reign of King Henry VI. Official correspondence of Thomas Bekynton, secretary to Henry VI, ed. G Williams, 2 vols, (London: Longman & Co., 1872). In his edition of 1828 Nicolas gives biographies of the major characters, plus copious historical and political context, and subsequent events. He is particularly strong on details of the Duke of Armagnac’s eldest son, Viscount Lomaigne, and his Grand Guignol-style forays into treason, incest, and mischief.
9 These extracts are copied from the book in the briefcase, Digging up the Past, (1930) by Sir Leonard Woolley (1880–1960), a British archaeologist famous for his excavations of Sumerian civilization at Ur, in what is now Iraq. In the preface Woolley explains, ‘This little book is based on a series of six talks broadcast by the B.B.C., to whom I am indebted for permission to re-publish the substance in permanent form.”
10 Photographer Frederick Evans (1853–1943) made images of landscapes and church structures of England and France, including several of Wells Cathedral. This famous image (copies held here and here) shows the staircase leading from the ground floor to, on the right, the chapter house, and, on the left, a passageway to other quarters.
11 Russell Crotty is a Californian artist noted for pictures of waves and surfing. He is not known to have any relationship with T. S., but it is possible that his work, for instance Surf Drawing Blue, 1990, inspired T. S.’s sketched elaborations of the Evans photograph.
12 T. S. appears to refer here to the construction and maintenance of surfboards: boards, originally of wood, now commonly of polyurethane foam cores and fibreglass surrounds, are shaped into desired form, allowing for variety of length, volume, hydrodynamics, vibe. Before entering the water, a surfer waxes the surface (actually using a paraffin compound), to increase traction of the feet on the board.
16 Archbishop Thomas Bekynton was a munificent donor, who “bequeathed courses, fountains and waterways, in the name of him who for the gift of cold water hath promised eternal life” – J. Britton, The History and Antiquities of the Cathedral Church of Wells (1824), 45. Nicolas explains that he “granted permission to the inhabitants [of Wells] to have a reservoir or conduit near the cross in that city”; in return, they committed to praying each year for his soul (Nicolas, lviii).
“The tomb of Bishop Beckington, which, like the chapel, is partly of wood, is extremely curious. It is raised on a basement step, and consists of two divisions; viz. 1st, a table slab, whereon is a recumbent figure of the Bishop, in alabaster, habited in the same way as he had appointed to be buried; and 2d, a low pedestal beneath the former, on which is another effigy of the deceased, in freestone, represented as an emaciated corpse extended on a winding-sheet.” (111)
T. S. reveals his pleasure at finding the tomb of the figure who has prompted both his sister’s scholarship and his own journey to Wells. His final comment refers to a perceived resemblance between the carving of the archbishop, and a surfer reclining on a surfboard, though not in a posture ready for catching a wave.
17 T. S. appears to be referring to Carl von Clausewitz, On War (Penguin, 1968), originally 1832. Book 1, chapter 7, “Friction in War”:
“Activity in War is movement in a resistant medium. Just as a man immersed in water is unable to perform with ease and regularity the most natural and simplest movement, that of walking, so in War, with ordinary powers, one cannot keep even the line of mediocrity.” (165)
“Further, every War is rich in particular facts, while at the same time each is an unexplored sea, full of rocks which the General may have a suspicion of, but which he has never seen with his eye, and round which, moreover, he must steer in the night.” (166)
It seems likely that he is using the J. J. Graham 1908 translation, edited by Anatol Rapoport, 1968. For a later translation, see the Howard and Paret 1976 edition from Princeton University Press.
In his second query to Pauline, T. S. refers here to a glowing over the surface on the water at night, caused by phytoplankton.
18 So far unable to identify paper that ran this review. N. Clark’s book, Alistair Cooke: A Biography, was published in September 2001.
Alistair Cooke (1908–2004), British-born, American-naturalised broadcaster, whose weekly fifteen-minute radio pieces in the series Letter from America were transmitted over the BBC’s World Service from 1946 to 2004.
19 T. S. shows surprising enthusiasm to learn that Cooke is still, as of 2001, going strong. His comment refers to Cooke’s broadcast made in the week following the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, in the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles, on June 5, 1968.
Cooke (like T. S., it appears) had been present at the party celebrating Kennedy’s advancement towards the presidency, and came on the scene very shortly after the shooting. As he described it in his Letter: “There were flashlights by now and the button-eyes image of Ethel Kennedy turned to cinders. She was slapping a young man and he was saying, ‘Listen lady, I am hurt too’ and down on the greasy floor was a huddle of clothes and staring out of it the face of Bobby Kennedy. Like the stone face of a child, lying on a cathedral tomb.”
T. S., increasingly live to every linkage or apparent pattern, seems here to have been struck by a coincidence: the similarity of names, between Cooke's presence at the “Ambassador” Hotel, while Bekyton was among the group of ambassadors sent to France. One might, indeed, trace a (tenuous?) parallel between Cooke's predicament in 1968, stuck there by the dying figure of Robert Kennedy (who could not be saved); and the position of Bekynton and the other ambassadors on their hopeless mission to Guyenne, messaging back to England for saving help (that will not come).
20 These photocopied pages are from the Nicolas edition of Bekynton’s Journal. The first two extracts, dated, are from the narrator’s description of daily activity. The third is a transcript of a letter sent on December 30, 1442 from the ambassadors to Armagnac’s councilor, explaining that they have to leave, even though they have not fulfilled their mission to obtain oil paintings of the three daughters of the Count, so that Henry can choose his favourite. Armagnac later explains that the cold weather had prevented the artist from rolling out his paints, but it seems more likely that political considerations — siege, war zone, threat — contributed to the lack of progress in the courtship.
21 On January 1, 1443, during a general swapping of New Year gifts among the English delegation, Bekynton was the recipient of wafers, or little cakes, the mention of which reminds T. S. of his own home and destination. Days later, Bekynton embarked on his own return journey, which must be made by water, to England.
Melissa McCarthy is the author of Sharks, Death, Surfers: An Illustrated Companion (Sternberg, 2019). You can find out more about her work at sharksillustrated.org.