The evening kindled at the end of a long, speechless day. I had settled into myself as the miles fell on leaving London. Seven hours to ponder the week ahead. The car was now connected to me. We urged each other along. Humming together.
James lived in Cornwall on the north coast by the sea. I had a map drawn from memory after a gin-soaked evening of garrulous optimism in the depths of Wales. ‘I live there because the first time I saw the landscape it spoke to me. It’s real. That idea you spoke about. It’s real.’
We’d met at the Do Lectures on the edge of Cardigan Bay. A weekend of talks and workshops attended by people at an inflection point in their lives. I was invited to give a talk about an idea that had ‘had’ me. It led indirectly to the founding of the business I now run. When I finished speaking, he and I queued for dinner and then sat next to each other to eat. We hit it off the way you do with strangers only rarely. He told me about his workshop on the remote, battered north coast of Cornwall and I pictured him as a Western version of a guru from the East. A wise man from my own land. One who drew on the same well of home as me.
It was almost a year later to the day. The middle of June. Rain came down so heavily the windscreen wipers made little difference as I skirted the New Forest, turning the A27 into a river as I squinted my way, the flickering brake lights kaleidoscoped by the water battering my windscreen. The torrent soon became too thick to see the woodland from a thousand years before William the Conqueror had declared his hunting domain. The line of cars became a spent dribble as I headed west. The rain helped somehow. The car felt safe. Cosy.
Staring as the treadmill of tarmac peeled away, I began thinking about the things I could have done and who I could have been
I saw the sign for West Compton, waved to a friend I didn’t have time to stop and see, and then passed Long Bredy, where the land would unfurl away from sight towards the sea. I’d stopped in Long and Little Bredy many years before without realising the church we’d parked outside was full of graves marked with the names of my distant family. I had sensed a connection to that place then. I could make out the landscape murmuring to me. I juddered up a steep, short hill. Shifted down a gear and drifted over the top.
It was the day after my 41st birthday. I was coming to terms with who I had become, which was not someone I ever expected to be. For the first time in a long time I was looking back. The previous decade had been a process of continuous change. After the financial crash of 2008 I lost my livelihood overnight as a writer and, with no qualifications or university degree, had to go back to working daily contracts for minimum wage. On my lunch hour, while clearing out the rat-infested basement of an accountants’ firm in Bognor Regis, I had an idea for what had, over the next eight years, grown into a multimillion-pound, global publishing company. But my marriage had collapsed in the process, taking me away from my two beloved children, and I was now engaged, with another baby on the way. I caught my eye in the car’s rear-view mirror. How had a description like that ever come to describe me?
I realised as I sped along how much I needed some time away. I was struggling to deliver on all the things required of me. To be a good father, fiancé, friend, CEO, employer and employee. Even ex-husband if that was possible. I wasn’t sure the ability to be all these things was within me. There had been times of pressure in my life before but they had always come and gone. Now, pausing to reflect, it felt as though it had never stopped.
Staring as the treadmill of tarmac peeled away, I began thinking about the things I could have done and who I could have been. Like any attempt to live an honest life, mine had been messy, but in my bones I knew I was living the right one. I didn’t believe the sadness or blind turns I’d experienced meant I’d gone wrong. Each episode was just the path I’d taken to gain a different perspective on who I would become.
I was in a dark place, though. Gravitating towards the kinds of books people read when trying to work out what gives life meaning. I read them slightly desperately, devouring them among harassed commuters, but soon realised all espoused the same, slightly unrealistic philosophy.
You had to remove yourself from the distractions of normal life completely. You had to go on a journey inside your own mind. Through meditation. Or fasting. Shunning work. But I had significant responsibilities I couldn’t just up and leave. Reading these books after starting a family and having signed up to long-term financial obligations became just another cause of anxiety. I worried whether the fact I was mid-life, surrounded by people I loved and with a decent job, meant self-knowledge, a life of meaning, was beyond me. And work weighed heavily. I was about to embark on a phase of stress I knew would stretch me more than I wanted it to. I thought it might break me.
The impact of failure would be calcifying. But if I could slay this preconception of my own limitations then anything was possible
Cornwall arrived hours later on a sign as I swept past Exeter, but the north coast I was heading for was still far away. Darkness in June takes a while to settle, as though the night can’t quite make up its mind to come. A few pondering hours later the road climbed, became my horizon and turned into cloud before falling as the unseen land funnelled towards the sea. The beach I arrived at was desolate. A few lonely gulls drifting across the vast expanse of sand. Grey houses people yearn to escape from clutched to the cli s next to empty cottages with glass extensions borrowed by strangers searching for summer sun. I opened the car door, pushing it with my right foot against the wind. The surf pounded. It fizzed.
I looked at the drawing which I had transferred from his description of the landscape that had spoken to him into my notebook so many months ago, and fought east up a hill on foot until I convinced myself the picture – albeit from a different angle – matched the scene beneath me. I was out of breath and bent my body over, pushing my hands down on my knees to draw in air and recover, and felt pleased I had made it. It was the right place. I stood up and stretched my back, pushing my shoulders behind my body.
At the top of the hill to my right I could see a crack of a path leading through what I imagined was green, turning into a slow-declining road that fell gently north to my left to the sea. James’s house was in the distance somewhere and this was the view he lived to see. The view that had connected him through the idea to me. There was a car park at the bottom of the road with a small hut and a payment machine. I looked at it from the west. The declivity of the road and the cli s ahead hid the end- less sea. If you dared to venture far enough through the gap, it would seem as though the beach of the world had been hiding behind it. Waves curled through the apparently at water below like fabric with an evolving seam. A mix of geography, power and dream. Something even a non-surfer like me could see.
There is one limitation I have held as being unquestionably true for as long as I can remember. It had become one of the indelible truths of my personality. An art teacher once told me I was not ‘the kind of person’ who can make things with their hands. And she was right. I am incapable of making anything. I don’t own tools. A few days before leaving for Cornwall I had broken a barbecue while trying to build it. I’m hopeless with my hands. Always have been. I’m too impatient to try to understand instruction booklets. So coming down here was a throw of the dice. The impact of failure would be calcifying. But if I could slay this preconception of my own limitations then anything was possible. It might give me a path towards believing I was capable of all that was required of me.
I woke with the sunrise and the sound of birds causing mayhem in the hedge and trees. I was no longer blundering through the land; the silence of sleep had helped it absorb me. The coolness of my face accentuated the warmth of the duvet and the mattress. I heard a brook rippling nearby I’d been deaf to the night before while the city still clung to me. The light shocked my lids closed and I squinted barefoot across the dewy grass, smiling towards the eco-toilet and shower block. Slightly alarmed to feel so human and free.
I had given myself a prescription for the week that I knew would help me mentally. No screens for one thing. No morning weigh-in to see whether I’d gone over 13-stone that week. No meetings. No emails. No investors. No being a CEO. No phone calls or voicemail. No being an employer or employee. The absence of this life thrilled me. Just wood, my hands, a teacher and me. Could I make it? And if I did, how would it change me?
I pulled my bike out of the car. Checked the brakes hadn’t been twisted into uselessness in the boot and pressed the tyres automatically. All good. I had a shoulder bag with water, apples and biscuits and set o along the track to the main road.
A black dog dozed with his nose on the threshold of the Otter Surfboards workshop who stirred and snuffled at my feet when a familiar face came out to greet me, wearing a broad smile and an apron covered in dust and wood shavings. He introduced the dog as ‘Buddy’. I don’t know what I expected, but when James then hugged me to say hello we unspokenly agreed to pause our familiarity. I realised then the deal I’d made. He had me. He asked if I wanted tea and pointed at the wooden work table.
There was a saw with Japanese writing on the blade next to a flat template of wood with shapes marked inside it. He showed me how to cut one of the pieces, explaining that Western saws cut on the push but Japanese ones cut on the pull (this allows the steel to tense so you can have a much thinner blade) and left the rest to me. I seized his knowledge hungrily, but hung up my bag, wondering how to reiterate my hopelessness when it comes to making anything. I watched myself perform a dance of nervous self-deprecation, my eyes watering as I laughed into stupidity, but it stayed in my head, which surprised me. Didn’t we both realise I would screw this up? I said nothing, realising at that moment the only thing I feared more than proving my incompetence was being irritating.
The walls were filled with saws, clamps, wooden detritus and shavings all over the floor. Wood in all its forms but most clearly, in those first moments, in the air. I smelled it before any other sense had caught up. I’d breathe it into my lungs all day every day, despite the offer of a mask, and by the end of the week I’d be wheezing and coughing merrily.
The shapes marked on the at piece of wood were pieces of the surfboard’s internal skeleton that had been machine-scored, but I had to cut them out and fit them together. The anxiety of screwing up was crushing at first. The poplar plywood was soft but every pull of the saw juddered until he guided the angle of my blade.
I calmed myself and looked around the workshop. My hands and arms rested on the table. Nothing was smooth. Dried glue, saw- dust and knots of wood gave every surface texture that I felt with my bare arms. It was a small workshop, with three tables where you could make boards on one side and some serious-looking machinery and saws on the other. At the back there were shelves long since bent under the weight of pieces of wood. Behind me, to the right of the front door as you looked out of it, was a rack filled with finished and incomplete boards and panels for others yet to be constructed. The pieces of mine must be in there, I thought. A small sink and kitchen area to the left of the shelves at the back would become familiar for making tea. Behind that a door hid a toilet, sink and boxes of bits and pieces and surfing magazines.
It was about moments in life when you find things that speak to you for reasons you can’t explain… Objects, relationships, ideas that you know intuitively ‘just are’ the way they are supposed to be.
My eyes fumbled with the textures around me. His workshop morphed into fractals as I stared into it. I blew away the dust while sawing as I increased in confidence. I saw fractals of depth in my conscious attention of the moment too. The sound and tension of the cut I felt through the saw was invigorating and new. The knot of doubt in my stomach continued to loosen. Wood coiled from the blade. I paused to write in my notebook. ‘It isn’t being cut, it gives way like the ocean as you walk into it.’ I smiled at the absurdity of such desperate poetry and put my notebook away. I was too keen. He sat on a bench drinking tea, smiling politely, watching me.
‘Surfing is completely selfish,’ he said unashamedly, filling the workshop with his voice for the first time since I’d arrived. Folding his arms across himself in defiance rather than defensively. ‘It benefits no one but me. But it makes me happy and that makes me a positive force in the world. I do very little harm, you see.’ I blanched as he said it. ‘So you don’t confuse suffering with virtue like everyone else in the world?’
His expression lifted. He smiled, and nodded. Wordlessly let- ting me know he was there for the same reason as me. It had taken my whole life so far to understand that was the root of my anxiety.
Once the pieces of the frame were cut out I sanded them to make sure they would t together seamlessly. They were strong but tight, so pushing them together required nerve as well as a powerful thumb and finger delicacy. Just as I felt I was getting the hang of it, one of the pieces snapped when I tried to force it into place. The second before it splintered I knew it was happening but I was too clumsy to prevent it. I was jolted by panic. I had not believed him when he told me I could make a surfboard. Now I’d screwed up before I’d even begun. I had no chance. I felt the white heat of childhood humiliation. There was too little of my life left for the adolescent nonchalance I used to wear so brazenly. I realised at that moment how much it all mattered to me. He smiled and shrugged. ‘We don’t use that bit anyway.’
He tensed his fingers and popped the fractured piece out of place like a mother crocodile carrying her young in her teeth. His fingers were thick and the nails were chewed, which sur- prised me. I saw then the muscles of his hands had dimensions of knowledge and aptitude too. He had dried glue on his fingers, giving them a yellow hue.
I assembled the rest of the skeleton with nervous determination and evolving relief. Each time the pieces popped in together I felt my confidence stabilise. In one place the groove was too shallow to make the cross-section sit flush. He pointed at the chisels on the wall and I stared, waiting for him to nod and confirm which one but he had already walked away. Taking Buddy for a walk. I looked at the range of chisels, hoping for inspiration.
I tried to pull away from my internal dialogue of doubt and force myself out into the world. I had to pay attention and take responsibility in the workshop, drag myself out of the current of expectation my normal life always pulled me along within. I felt uneasy but more alert and gradually grew content in that state of pure attention. I took the piece of the spine to the wall to find a chisel that would t in the gap. I selected one that seemed the right thickness and size and took it back to the table, trusting myself. Slowly and minutely at first, I used it to ease out a few millimetres until I could t the pieces together. I pushed it in and then sanded the excess away impossibly slowly. Taking my time so as not to remove too much. ‘You can take wood away but you can’t put it back,’ he had said. It became meditation. Calming and smoothing my nerves away.
I stood back and looked around myself again. My eyes kept spotting areas that were not flush enough for the top of the board to rest on so I shaved and sanded them meticulously. I realised then every inch of this board would be marked and changed by my hands. By me. I breathed in deeply, as though surveying a view from the top of a hill. I put the chisel back on the wall and knew in that moment I was different. I’d left the current of my normal life, my sense of what I was capable of, and was exploring a new course within, perhaps even outside, me. I smiled. Realising I was now inhabiting the space in his workshop my body was previously only filling.
I finished putting together the skeleton frame that would give the board strength, but in and of itself it was flimsy. No one would see this part when it was inside the deck but I took care over it methodically. Lovingly. I laid it out on the table as he told me about the base and top panels of my board and where they came from. ‘A forest in North Dorset. It’s self-sustaining. In the sense that they take trees at the same rate as new ones grow. It’s a forest not a farm.’
Then he pulled out the base of my board from the rack by the door, which was the first time I saw the pattern of the wood. I felt excitement as I began to imagine what it would be like to have a finished surfboard, pausing to look at completed ones among other tops and bases. I expressed amazement at their beauty. He beamed.
It was one of his boards that had introduced us back at the Do Lectures in Wales. Before my talk he had given a workshop that I was too late to sign up for, but I stood and watched at the end, introducing myself as he packed his things away. For the first few minutes of our conversation my eyes had stayed on his board. By the time we made eye contact he was laughing at me. I couldn’t believe anyone could make something so perfect. So poetic. It was unfathomable. I had felt the contours of it with my hands, smiling broadly, and he mirrored me. Our hands read something in that board as though it were a form of Braille. Unsure about exactly what it was we knew to be real. But the board knew what it was. 1 + 2 = 3. Self-evidently the way it should be. It brooked no argument. The destination of the material, his eyes, mind, design, hands – all unquestioning. It was as though the combination of each had created some- thing exactly the way the universe had contrived it to be. Yet it wasn’t uniformly machine-made. The thought that you can only achieve perfection in a frame of imperfection occurred to me.
Reactions like the one I had to the board were what I had been invited to talk about. The idea. It was about moments in life when you find things that speak to you for reasons you can’t explain. Things like his boards. Objects, relationships, ideas that you know intuitively ‘just are’ the way they are supposed to be. Immeasurable constants in a world of apparent chaos and complexity. They were truths. I’d come to believe that profoundly. These moments of incalculable perfection were signposts you could follow all through your life. If you let them. But too few of us were aware enough to do anything more than stumble between them unconsciously.
Dan Kieran’s new book, ‘The Surfboard’, is published by Unbound. Buy here