Historical novel set in 1930s SINGAPORE
Following in the footsteps of Viscount Edward George William Omar Deerhurst: surfing and death
1st August 2020
#TalkingLocationWith... Andy Martin, author of Surf, Sweat & Tears: The epic life and mysterious death of Edward George William Omar Deerhurst – the world to HAWAI’I
I first met Ted in France, in the late 1980s. He was competing at the Quiksilver Pro surf contest in Lacanau, on the wild Atlantic coast of France, north of Bordeaux, and I was a surfing correspondent. The last time I saw him, nearly ten years later, was in Hawaii, where he was still in search of the perfect wave and, in his phrase, “the perfect woman” – and where he died too young, on the North Shore of Oahu, aged 40.
But how did he die exactly? I wrote his obituary for The Independent, but it was another 20 years before I could cut through the typically Hawaiian mix of myth, omertà, and mystification, and get close to the truth. To solve the mystery of his death I needed to reconstruct his life. To do that I had to retrace Ted’s steps around the world.
Ted – Viscount Edward George William Omar Deerhurst – was the son of Bill, the Earl of Coventry, and Mimi, an American ballerina. He was born on the grand Croome estate in Worcestershire, England, home to generations of Coventrys. But when his parents divorced, his mother took Ted (aged 9) off to Santa Monica, which is in effect the nearest beach to Hollywood, and where he learned to surf. When he was 15, his dad turned up, had his mum thrown in jail, and dragged him back to England to finish boarding school. But California Dreamin’ was in his blood and he dyed his hair orange in protest.
In Santa Monica I interviewed his old friends from school days, his surfing guru (skateboard legend Tony Alva) and his elusive object of desire (TV star Heather Thomas). I had a conversation with Margaret at a Hollywood hospital, where she was being treated for a heart condition: Ted had once proposed to her in Australia and she was sure he had been murdered. I went to Santa Barbara, an hour’s train ride north out of LA, with a defining world-class point break, Rincon, to meet Shaun Tomson, former world surfing champion, who had surfed with Ted in Hawaii during the years of high tension and violent encounters which came to be known as the “Bustin’ Down the Door” era. “The aloha had long gone,” as one of Ted’s old mates said.
But before I could follow Ted to Hawaii, I had to track down his ex, Susan. He met her in South Africa, but I found her in Brisbane, Queensland. In search of the people who had known him best, I went inland, up into the rain forest (where I had a close encounter with a friendly python), north as far as tropical Noosa Heads (on the “Sunshine Coast”) and south to Coolangatta (on the “Gold Coast”) and the hippy mecca of Byron Bay. Ted had been best man at the wedding of the guy I met in the shadow of Sydney Harbour Bridge. Each person I spoke to filled in some of the gaps. I started to feel I was reliving Ted’s life, with all its passions and perils, the high-points and the wipeouts. One habit of his I picked up: sheer persistence, which serves you well whether you’re surfing or writing.
Ted’s quest – and mine – finally took us both to Hawaii. The “islands” are a constellation of volcanic rocks poking up out of the Pacific like periscopes. Huge swells born off Alaska sweep down south in the winter and collide with their palm-fringed shores and throw up some of the biggest and gnarliest and most beautiful waves in the world. Ted’s dreams of success on the pro circuit were never fully realised, but he conquered Sunset, Pipeline, and Waimea Bay, and bought a condo up at Turtle Bay, at the tip of Oahu’s North Shore. I went out surfing with him, but one memory that stands out is the time he took me to a nightclub in downtown Honolulu where he introduced me to his “perfect woman” – Lola.
She was a pole dancer, a modern equivalent of the hula dancers of yore, at least in Ted’s mind. There was only one problem: a “boyfriend” who happened to own the club and was the Mr Big of a North Shore mob. Soon Ted found he had some heavy Hawaiian dudes knocking on his door, politely suggesting he could either keep away from Lola or see what it was like surfing on just one leg. Which helps to explain why, so many years later, I spent some time at the Honolulu Police HQ trying to obtain copies of their Ted-related records and the post-mortem.
I’ve been in Hawaii long enough to know it’s not quite as advertised. But, as Marcel Proust once said, “the only true paradise is the lost paradise”.
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