Book Review: Surf Mama – Wilma Johnson


Paperback: (Summersdale) £8.99
Hardback: (Beautiful Books) £20.00

Reviewed by Guy Sangster Adams

One could perhaps extrapolate that a defining formative moment for Wilma Johnson was the afternoon that she arrived late for a date with Joe Strummer, the legendary frontman of the equally legendary band, The Clash, to find he had already left and she never saw him again.

As she recounts in Surf Mama they had originally met in Camden Town, North London, whilst she was still a pupil at North London Collegiate School, when she chatted him up in a bar by asking, “‘Hello, are you Joe Strummer? Do you want to buy me a drink?'” To which, she writes, “‘I already have,’ he said with the coolest smile in the history of rock ‘n’ roll and handed me a can of Colt 45.” After which he would always put her on the guest list for gigs The Clash played, one of which coincided with her favourite day at school – the day she left! – when she hitchhiked to Aylesbury, a town to the north west of London, to see them.

Johnson had already begun her degree in Fine Art/Painting and Photography at St Martin’s School of Art in central London when Strummer took her out to lunch in nearby Soho and also bought her a present of some fabric from Berwick Street market. They arranged to meet the next day to go to an afternoon rockabilly gig, but she got stuck in a photography lecture and arrived late to find the gig had been cancelled and Strummer had left, and was heading off on tour soon after.


The what-might-have-been has stayed with her, and continued to irk her, and one could make the case that the lesson she learnt by staying in lessons that day and conforming to a timetable placed upon her, and by extension conforming to what external powers would consider the best choice for a girl at her age and stage, to put classes before “a date with my favourite rock star”, was a lesson hard learnt. Particularly brought to bear twenty plus years later when she had turned forty and was living the life of a self-professed “earth mother” with her husband, three young children, and ducks, on the west coast of Ireland. One day looking out to sea on the “westernmost beach in Europe” reflecting on her long held desire to be a surfer, she edged into the initially comforting thought that now being a woman, a mother, and over 40, no one would expect her ever to do so, and admitting to herself that no one had probably expected she would, or could, anyway.

But her comfort was immediately submerged, as she writes, “as if an icy wave has crashed over my head. What does this mean? That I will never learn to surf? That it’s too late? That I’m too old?” She resurfaced with the revelation that she did still want to become a surfer and a voice in her head repelling the dictates of convention with ever greater force: “‘NONONONONONO!’ the voice shouts. ‘I cannot be too old, I will become an extreme sports heroine if I choose to.'”

Though I am wary of underplaying the power of Strummer, and The Clash per se, challenging convention was in Johnson’s blood long before she met him. Her motorcycle riding grandmother was one of the first women dentists in the 1920s, and when she was growing up her economist, Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur, father would “wander around the house in a kimono at the weekends singing along to the soundtrack of The Jungle Book”, and took up windsurfing in his fifties. Equally, after Strummer’s departure from her life, Johnson turned away from punk to New Romanticism, of which her generation of St Martin’s students was the epicentre, and also, with Christine and Jennifer Binnie and Grayson Perry, in 1979 she founded the Neo-Naturist Cabaret, a ‘performance based live art practice’, whose idiosyncratic, body-painted, naturism took night clubs, galleries, festivals, public places, and even the stage of London’s Royal Opera House by storm.

Apres Surf at the Naturist Beach © Wilma Johnson

Après Surf at the Naturist Beach © Wilma Johnson

All of which, to my mind at least, creates an eccentrically perfect set of ingredients for not only taking up surfing in one’s early-forties, but also becoming an accomplished surfer! Although the ingredients did not begin to really blend until a few years after her epiphanic moment on the Irish beach, by which stage she and her husband had split up and she was living with her children in a village near Biarritz, the Atlantic coast city in south western France, which has become internationally renowned for surfing since the late 1950s. In addition to her own determination not to be beaten, Johnson’s surf chefs de cuisine came in the form of two friends she made in Biarritz, Johanna Matsson, a former professional free-skier, with whom she hatched a plan to form the Mamas Surf Club, a women-only surf club with the motto, ‘Out of the kitchen and into the surf’, and Matsson’s partner, Christophe Reinhardt, a former French surf champion, who became the Mamas’ instructor.

Now in her fifties Johnson is more than an accomplished surfer, she is a “surf addict”, her blood does more than stream, it crests with waves:
“I paddle down the face, then I stand up as the board becomes weightless and starts to accelerate. I can hear the white water breaking behind me and see the glassy blue curve stretching out in front of me. The spray blows into my face, flickering with prisms in the sunlight. In a moment I might be underwater swallowing seawater and small jellyfish, but right now I am an ancient princess of Hawaii, I am a bikini model, I am a goddess before the crest of a monster billow.”

Surf Mama is an exceptional memoir. Exceptional both in the story told and the storytelling. Exciting, funny, touching, revelatory, so completely does Johnson draw one in that one gets knocked for six when she wipes out, one dances for joy when she eventually hangs ten. Equally in all the exceptionality, in all Johnson’s brilliant upending of age and gender proscriptions and stereotyping, Surf Mama is a tale to which everyone can relate and take inspiration from. Because it is also a book about love and family, dreams and ambitions, and how one responds to, or more appropriately, rides the waves of, the changes that getting older brings to them all. Surf Mama is also a beautifully produced book, the publishers, Beautiful Books, very much living up to their name; the text is complemented and interspersed throughout with Johnsons’ wonderfully evocative paintings… writer, surfer, mother, she is also an internationally exhibited artist. Ultimately, Surf Mama is an highly inspiring, thoroughly enjoyable, and heartily recommended book.

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