Surf writer pats shark

Tim Baker in his place of the heart. Photo courtesy Peter Eastway.

Last Friday night on social media I picked up a thread from friend and colleague of many years standing, Tim Baker, and did a double-take.

It contained an element that was entirely unexpected in a man who has proven to be, over the last half-dozen years, one of the bravest I have known. It was plain, old-fashioned fear.

Not fear of death.

Tim’s been poking that bear for long enough to know there’s nothing to fear down that road, other than a decided and unwanted lack of existence.

No, this was the cold fear of consequence that only a writer knows. What if they don’t get why I am so totally exposing myself to the brutal court of public opinion?

Although not to the same agonising degree that Tim was feeling the other night, I too have been there. I’ve opened the curtains to the brain, the bedroom, the powder-smeared coffee table and just about everything else, fretted about it until I made myself sick and then just waited for publication day.

The occasion the other night was the eve of publication of the first reviews and excerpts of Tim’s long-awaited cancer memoir, Patting The Shark, (the title perhaps a nod to Mick Fanning, with whom Tim enjoyed considerable literary success).

Although in the very early stages of this project, I got a hint of where he was going with it through some magazine work I had commissioned from him, I could feel his intensity as publication dawned, and understood for the first time how bare he must have laid himself.

We exchanged a couple of matey thoughts that night, and I went to bed thinking that Bakes would have his confidence back in the morning, and that I need to make his book the next read on my bedside table.

I knew Tim’s work quite a while before I met him, and he grew up knowing mine.

I then met him at a few surf-related bunfights, but only got to understand something substantial about him at the last of the Quiksilver G-Land Pro events in East Java in the ‘90s before Suharto screwed the pooch and we had to stop coming for a while. The contest was reaching its final stages which meant that fewer surfers were still in the mix and more who weren’t were sensibly using the time to go completely berserk in the jungle.

So it wasn’t completely unexpected that late one night as I was wending my way back to my bungalow in the pitch dark after a nightcap somewhere, that I should be accosted by two drunken lunatics skipping down the path with open beers, singing a Duran Duran song. This was Derek Reilly and Tim Baker, both magazine editors and fellows of substance, which we began to find out on someone else’s lanai.

Roll on into a new century, many books, book launches, book festivals later, and we certainly punched a few out in those years, including one year when we both produced a big fat history of surfing for the same Christmas market. That was a bit unfortunate.

Fit at 50, still a fine surfer, at the peak of his literary powers, in love with the family life he shared with wife Kirsten and their two kids, in July 2015 Tim received the news no one wants to hear.

He was diagnosed with stage 4, metastatic prostate cancer with a Gleason score (for the aggressive nature of the cancer) of nine out of 10. With appropriate treatments, the prognosis was five years of reasonable health.

Three years into it, Tim wrote in an article for Tropicsurf Annual: “No words can adequately describe the sheer, surreal terror of receiving such a diagnosis, or the baffling maze of treatment options, conventional and alternative, you are confronted with by earnest doctors and well-meaning friends.”

Editing that upbeat, uplifting article, I first understood the enormity of what Tim was going through. Having had several friends around my own age survive prostate cancer, I figured that a younger, healthier man would have even better odds.

I was wrong.

In fact, athletic men under 60 produce more testosterone, and therefore have higher Gleason counts.

Now here we are another four years on, “patting the shark”.

Tim has hardly been silent about his cancer in the intervening years – in fact he has written and blogged millions of words about natural and conventional therapies, about the bridge between lifestyle and health and about the importance of mind over crumbling matter. But he has never written anything like Patting The Shark.

As I read the excerpt that appeared in last Saturday’s Weekend Australian Magazine, I laughed, I cried, I laughed again. Not going to lie, I was a blubbering mess before I finished.

Rarely have I ever read the cancer journey told with an honesty and candour borne not of the need to get it off the chest but the need to share it in the common good, because much of what Bakes writes, particularly concerning the declining sexuality of the cancer sufferer, is not stuff we really know about.

It’s not easy to read, but it is compelling, and only a writer of Tim Baker’s calibre could have made it so. Tim’s defied his prognosis by two years now, but who’s counting? Just go for it, mate.

Patting The Shark – a surfer’s journey, learning to live well with cancer (Ebury $34.99) is on sale now.