Douglas BoothJun 21, 2022
Representations of an Iconic Australian
Palgrave Macmillan 2021
Today we are joined by Douglas Booth, Dean of Adventure, Culinary Arts and Tourism at Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia, Canada and Professor Emeritus at the University of Otago. He is also the author of Bondi Beach: Representations of an Iconic Australian (Palgrave MacMillan, 2022). In our conversation, we discussed the geological and climatological origins of Bondi Beach; the contested histories of iconic Australian archetypes such as surf bathers, surf life savers, and surf boarders; and what it might mean to write an autobiography of Bondi Beach.
In Bondi Beach, Booth works across the boundaries of the social and physical sciences, encompassing anthropology, geography, geology, history, and hydrology. In the first two chapters of the book, he critically assesses the role of sand and storms as actors in shaping the beach, which only arose in its current instantiation 6,500 years ago. Current debates over the shape of the beach can take the “natural” as desirable, but as Booth shows in his chapters “Nature and Culture” and “Pavilion,” powerful civic forces can also help to remake the environment to suit human needs.
When it comes to the beach, Booth seems to argue that the only constant is change. His chapters on the Eora (Indigenous Australians) and Berewalgal (European settler-colonists) trace the changes in beach use. Contrary to later colonial officials’ assertions, the Eora did not leave Bondi barren, nor was their use of the land static, but instead Indigenous Australians use of the land altered in response to the environment and the development of new fishing and manufacturing techniques. Eora and Berewalgal people possessed different ontological understandings of their relationship to the country. Indigenous Australians saw themselves as part of the land and as a consequence worked within its homeostatic limits. Settler-colonial people saw their role as one of management and consequently they sought policies to make the land more useful from an economic point of view, causing significant changes to the geographic and social landscape of the Bondi-Rose Bay Valley.
Booth’s work challenges assumptions that underpin the historical discipline: how do we recapture the past, what facts do we include and what do we leave out, and how do organize our histories into narratives. His chapters on avatars of Australian beach culture: surf bathers, surf life savers, and surf boarders simultaneously highlight the impossibility of writing origins stories while they also highlight the various narrative possibilities of different mythological types. There is no single authoritative history of surfing in Bondi – but it is open to numerous story arcs: surfers as heroes or victims, surfers as environmental crusaders or landscape devastators, and surfers as counter-cultural icons or social problems.
In his last chapter, “Autobiography” Booth writes a biography from the perspective of Bondi Beach. This “autobiography” is of Booth’s imagination, but it’s daring narrative form offers new possibilities for thinking through what the natural environment might think of man’s stewardship of space.
Booth’s work has broad appeal – clearly of interest to people who are focused on sports studies, but also broadly to scholars from a range of fields, both physical and social sciences, who want to re-think the assumptions of our disciplines.
Keith Rathbone is a Senior Lecturer at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. He researches twentieth-century French social and cultural history. His book, entitled Sport and physical culture in Occupied France: Authoritarianism, agency, and everyday life, (Manchester University Press, 2022) examines physical education and sports in order to better understand civic life under the dual authoritarian systems of the German Occupation and the Vichy Regime. If you have a title to suggest for this podcast, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him at @keithrathbone on twitter.