Bob Marley’s Surfboard by Chris Green
I hadn’t had Bob Marley down as a surfer. He seemed to belong to the wrong generation, or the wrong ethnic group, or both. Maybe I was showing some prejudice but to me surfing conjured up images of blond hair, VW campers and The Beach Boys. Although I had never been to Jamaica, it was hard to imagine that the government yard in Trench Town Bob grew up in would have offered many opportunities for surfing. Or that the tight security on his punishing touring schedule would have allowed this kind of freedom. It was a surprise therefore when on my daily trawl through the miscellaneous collectibles on ebay I saw Bob Marley’s surfboard advertised.
Before you start thinking that I must have a lot of time to waste, I should point out that I am an avid collector of celebrity memorabilia with a preference for the unusual. I have in my collection Elvis’s drugs cabinet, the harmonica on which John Lennon composed Bungalow Bill and Jimi Hendrix’s kite. And while I do treasure each item I own immensely, l am still in business to make money. I do not go to work in the more conventional sense. I gave up my office job over ten years ago. In order to provide me with an income and stay ahead of the game, I trade in all manner of collectibles, not just celebrity memorabilia. I have a sought after set of stuffed barn owls for instance and in case you are interested a collection of rare frontier telephones. You would be surprised at the curiosities collectors will pay good money for. But if I am honest, my passion is for items owned by famous people.
Collecting celebrity memorabilia is not without an element of risk. Painstaking research is necessary and it sometimes takes a trained eye to confirm that an item is genuine. With Elvis’s medicine cabinet, authentication was relatively easy. It was not the gold EAP monogram, the inlaid rhinestones or the bullet holes that gave it away, but primarily the sheer size of the cabinet. Only someone with Elvis’s huge appetite for prescription drugs could have needed one so large. The shipping cost me nearly as much as the cabinet and then I had to modify the houseboat to get it inside. Quite often there is an element of trust involved, for instance Roy Orbison’s prescription Wayfarers. Had I not bought them on a bona fidé collectors’ site, I would have avoided these. But how could you certify an item as random as Bob Marley’s surfboard?
I had encountered similar problems authenticating Buddy Holly’s yoga mat. Who would have thought that growing up in post war Texas that yoga would have been a significant feature of Buddy’s daily life? Who would have thought that he would have had time for yoga, what with writing hundreds of songs, touring non stop and then dying at the age of twenty two? But a little research showed that Buddy had in fact met beat writer, Jack Kerouac on several occasions and seemed to have picked up a little Eastern philosophy from him. Buddy may well have written Peggy Sue or Raining in my Heart on this very mat.
A few exchanges of emails with the advertiser of the board revealed that he lived in the small village of Rhossili on the Welsh coast. This part of the coast was popular amongst surfers and the seller, who was called Grover, maintained quite simply that he had acquired the item from a fellow surfer who strangely enough was also called Grover. Grover was a common name in those parts he assured me, nearly as common as Delroy or Tupac.
I wondered momentarily what had happened to home-grown names like Rhys and Ifan, but did not dwell on it. There was business to be done.
‘How did Grover know that it was Bob Marley’s surfboard’, seemed the obvious question so I mailed this enquiry to him.
While he was a little light on verifiable facts, he informed me that surfing was very popular amongst reggae artists and Peter Tosh, Gregory Isaacs and Prince Fari were all frequent visitors to the Gower peninsula. And Beenie Man was there just last week on the beach with two sistas in tow. If I was interested, he also had a pair of Oakley sunglasses that had once belonged to Big Youth on his ebay auction site and a wetsuit belonging to Althea of Althea and Donna.
I had a look on his other ebay items. There were in fact no bids on either of the items that he had mentioned, nor Burning Spear’s barbecue, or Max Romeo’s snorkel. But with the houseboat absolutely chocca, I was not especially interested in C listers mementos. I had resolved to concentrate my attentions on memorabilia of major celebrities.
Alarmingly though the bidding on Bob Marley’s surfboard had gone up to £1000. Clearly other collectors were after it too. And still two days to go. I needed to make my way down to Rhossili to research first hand before committing myself to what could be a reckless bid on the item.
I browsed the Gower websites and although these were thin on the ground I could not help but feel a little concerned that their photos of surfers revealed a noticeable absence of dreadlocks. Not even a token Rasta. But there were photos of miles and miles of sweeping empty beaches. It seemed plausible that the Jamaican surfers preferred the more private spots where they could light up their spliffs and chalices and that they had managed to avoid being caught on camera. The sites had all stressed the point that The Gower was the country’s best kept secret.
I decided, what the heck! Either way, it didn’t matter. I had had a bit of a windfall having just sold my collection of antique hand held trouser presses and I deserved a nice break by the sea. I hadn’t had a holiday since Rosie had left last year. I don’t think Rosie had the same enthusiasm for living on a houseboat that I did. She wanted a summer house and a fitted kitchen and somewhere to hang her dresses. I heard from Geoff that she is now living in Reading with someone who directs television commercials. All water under the bridge.
Looking at the map Rhossili was not all that far away, perhaps a hundred and fifty miles, and the Volvo needed a good run. To be honest it probably needed a proper service but this could wait until I got back. I packed a few clothes in a bag, the laptop, a few cans of Red Bull and some crunchy nut chocolate bars for the journey and set off. It was mid morning and the weather forecast for the rest of the day was good. I stopped off at Blockbuster to take back my overdue DVDs and the pharmacy to pick up my tablets.
I bumped into Downbeat Don outside the newsagents. He asked me if I was still interested in buying his collection of cork lined bottle caps. He reminded me that it included some rare Old Milwaukee and Coors from the 1930s, some unusual Guinness ones and some original Sprite and Coca Cola.
‘Over three hundred of them altogether,’ he added.
I was not really sure I needed more bottle tops, but I was too polite to give Downbeat the brush off. He took offence quite easily.
‘Why don’t you advertise them on ebay, I asked?
‘I was waiting to see if you wanted them first,’ he said. He had that hangdog look about him.
I was anxious to avoid a long conversation. Something awful was bound to have happened to him lately and he was just waiting for the right opening to tell me all about it. I told him I was off for a few days and that I would be in touch when I got back.
I drove down the M5 towards the M4, a route I had taken many years before, when I was beginning my career in collectibles. On that occasion I had bought Eddie Cochran’s wristwatch from an auction in Chipping Sodbury. My intention had been to buy Brian Jones’s alarm clock, but I had been outbid. This was around the time that Stacey had moved out, saying that I was obsessed with dead pop stars and that there was so must junk around the flat that there was no room for her and the children. I had argued of course that none of it was junk and I was certainly not obsessed and anyway not all of the pop stars were dead. For instance David Bowie, whose stylophone I had just bought, was not dead. Nor were Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich as far as I knew. And where would we be without their tea towels.
I had missed the children very much at first, especially Simon who was the elder of the two. He was the one most affected by Stacey and I splitting up. Garfunkel, of course had been too young to realise what was going on, although we have kept up a relationship and he does still come to see me occasionally on the houseboat.
I like to listen to Radio 4 when I’m driving. It’s not that I don’t like music. Quite the reverse. I play music all the time on the boat and have a wide and varied taste. A collection from A to Z. Well not Abba obviously. Or ZZ Top. Music from B to Y then. Although I can’t remember when I last played anything by Yes. The traffic was not heavy and I settled down to listen to the play, a dramatisation of Daphne Du Maurier’s The Birds. Different from the Hitchcock film, which was set in California, it was set in Cornwall, one cold winter after the Second World War. Disabled farmhand, Nat wanted nothing more from life than to be allowed to eat his pasties in peace. But the jackdaws and gulls, the finches and larks, even the tits and wrens had other ideas and, having killed some locals, lay siege to Nat’s farm cottage trapping him and his family. Listening to radio broadcasts on the then equivalent of Radio 4 Nat discovered that all over the country birds were replicating the attacks and a national emergency was declared. The play ended rather enigmatically, just as I was crossing the Severn Bridge, leaving me wondering what it was that Daphne Du Maurier was really trying to say.
I became distracted by the Glamorgan welcomes Careful Drivers roadsign The sign had its equivalent in Welsh and displayed a silhouette of the profile a dreadlocked Rasta with a bloody great spliff in his mouth, which to me failed wholeheartedly to illustrate the point about driving carefully. As did the billboards advertising Red Stripe, the hooray beer, that lined the road at strategic vantage points. The ads showed four scantily clad Caribbean babes driving along a sand track lined with coconut palms in a stripped down landrover raising cans of Red Stripe in the air. The tagline was Stir it Up. What on earth was going on in South Wales?
I managed to catch the beginning of The Archers (a new outbreak of bovine viral diarrhoea in Ambridge) before I lost Radio 4 completely. I tried scanning the radio for another station to listen to but all I could pick up was a station playing Dennis Brown’s Money in My Pocket, which I had to admit sounded pretty good. The tune finished and an animated DJ started gibbering away in Welsh, with a marked trace of patois, or perhaps it was patois with hint of Welsh. I picked up ‘riddim, niceup, herb, collie, rasclaat, irie and jah’. He followed this by cueing in Night Nurse by da cool rula, Gregory Isaacs. ‘Dis Niceup Radio,’ he interrupted just as the vocal came in.
As an admirer of landmark sculpture I had long been impressed by The Angel of the North and The Wicker Man, but the figure of Haile Sellasie by the side of the A483 put them to shame. It was truly spectacular; it must have been two hundred feet high. Haile had, you may be aware, been lionised by Rastafarians in the 1970s through reggae music along with their worship of him using cannabis as a sacred herb which they believed brought them closer to him. I had to remind myself that this was 2014 and we were in South Wales, a place not renowned for embracing new cultural ideas. What I was witnessing suggested a major Jamaican influence in these parts, adding considerable credence to Grover’s claims. Which was good? Wasn’t it?
I tried to conjure up the picture of a Welsh male voice choir singing Exodus, Movement of Jah People, which was now playing on the radio. Or indeed Shaggy tackling Men of Harlech. The DJ came back on. ‘An a jus lass nite mi dideh. No one cyaan test Shabba.’ I could pick out the odd word but that was all. I almost hit something coming the other way; I needed to put my concentration on the narrow windy roads and maybe avoid crashing the Volvo. Since Abertawe (Swansea) navigation had been a nightmare as the place names and road signs were no longer displayed in English, just Welsh, their legibility was further impaired by being on a background of red, gold and green, with what I imagined to be the conquering lion of Judah alongside the Welsh dragon. Even the speed camera I had just passed was red, gold and green. The Gower was living up to being the country’s best kept secret.
Given the circumstances it was quite easy to get lost and after several miles without a sign of life I considered that this was indeed the position. To add to the predicament, the Volvo, which had been behaving remarkably well of late, became a little hesitant. After a few hundred yards of juddering along the dirt road it stopped completely. I recognised the symptoms. I remembered the same thing had happened when I was on my way to pick up Buddy Holly’s yoga mat in Romford. This was not a mechanical problem; the bloody thing was out of fuel. I had passed a filling station just after Cardiff but there was a long queue. There hadn’t been another one. Sooner or later, even on a track like the one I was on, a motorist would be along. I’d flag him down and get him to give me a lift to the nearest filling station. This would represent the optimistic view.
It could be however that I was naturally pessimistic, as I hadn’t even thought to try the phone. I had assumed that being in this remote corner of South Wales that there would be no signal. This was what numerous accounts over the years had led you to believe. One of the main reasons people came here was to avoid being contacted. But after twenty minutes of free-fall meditation lying on Dusty Springfield’s air bed in the back of the Volvo to calm myself, there was still no sign of the cavalry. I felt the Motorola was worth a shot. Remarkably there was a signal.
I went through the identification with the AA centre and everything seemed to be going smoothly with Loretta until she asked, ‘what is your position?’
I had to admit that beyond it being somewhere in South Wales, I had absolutely no idea.
I also had difficulty with the question, ‘what was the last place you passed through?’ I explained about the roadsign being in red gold and green.
‘That will be The Gower. They’re all like that in The Gower. But we’re looking at quite a large area. Can you see any landmarks’, asked Loretta?
There were fields and hedges and a field of tall leafy plants in the distance. I had the feeling this was not the precision Loretta was looking for.
When ‘I think I’m about twenty miles from a large roadside sculpture of Haile Sellasie’ drew a negative response, I suggested she might be able to use the global positioning information from my mobile phone.
Her ‘we’re the AA not International Rescue’ was I felt unnecessarily sarcastic.
With the conversation with Loretta going nowhere it was fortuitous that Delroy should choose this moment to appear out of nowhere. I had not heard him arrive; suddenly he was standing there in front of me. At around six foot six and built like a Russian war memorial, Delroy cut an impressive figure. With locks nearly down to his waist and an alligator grin he offered his hand and introduced himself. I pretended not to notice that his ring finger was missing. I asked instead where his car was. Delroy laughed and added that he lived nearby, pointing beyond the field of tall leafy plants that I suddenly realised were cannabis plants. This probably explained why he was carrying an AK47.
He did not point the gun at me; it was more of a sartorial accessory to his camouflage gear than anything else. He seemed to sense that I posed no threat. After all I did not look like a policeman or a gangster. And of course there was a beaten up twenty year old Volvo, with 250,000 miles on the clock, that might have helped him to arrive at his judgement. It was very much a ‘this man is harmless sort of car’. Nevertheless had I been guarding a colossal cannabis plantation I might have been less accommodating, but as it was Delroy was quite open. I explained that I had run out of diesel. He laughed out loud again. When he laughed his whole body moved and contorted as if he was performing a hip hop dance. Once he had settled, he said, roughly translated, no problem a friend of his named Tupac had a farm where we could get some red diesel. I thanked him and we stuck up a conversation about The Gower and I explained how easy it had been to get lost. Delroy laughed again and told me he knew why I had come, and that he knew Grover who was selling Bob Marley’s surfboard.
‘What are the odds against that? I said. Even given the fortuity of our meeting I would have had this down as a bit of a long-shot with there being so many Delroys and Grovers in the locality. We were talking serious tight knit community here.
‘Ain’t no odds mon, is Jah,’ he replied. ‘im know you come so I is ‘ere to mek ting ting so.’
He phoned Tupac on his mobile and although the phone conversation lapsed into a more rootsy patois, making it more difficult to follow, the jist of it seemed to be that Tupac was going to bring the diesel over and that we just had to stay put. There was also some discussion about Charley who might or might not be on his way.
What happened next is a little hazy. I expect you are familiar with the precept of a little memory loss following a traumatic experience and it was a traumatic experience that was to follow. I recall Delroy starting to tell me a little about the board, pretty much confirming what Grover had told me earlier. It was a two metre single fin pop out board and it was red, gold and green and had the conquering lion of Judah painted along it with the words Jah Rastafari melting over the tip. Delroy added a little biography. Bob had originally been given the board by a blind Australian aboriginal in recognition of his contribution to the cause of black emancipation, a gift for all that Bob had done to ensure that black people everywhere should no longer have to endure the fiery cross of the oppressor. Bob was deeply honoured and wrote a song in gratitude called Righteous Surfer. It had never been released. No-one knew if Bob had ever used the board.
I think Delroy was about to tell me how it had made its way to South Wales and why if it were so important a symbol of struggle Grover was selling it, when Tupac came along in a heavily customised Suzuki jeep with a can of diesel. They carried on talking about Charley and the rocks he was bringing on his rebel boat. They seemed concerned about ‘bag a wire’ and ‘the babylon’. As I say it is all a bit hazy, like trying to piece together the plot of a film you saw years ago. I can remember filling up the Volvo. The fumes made me feel nauseous. Delroy and Tupac began laughing and joking about my technique. Suddenly there was an air of unease. Tupac’s phone rang or perhaps it was Delroy’s. It was a very short call. It was one of those situations where you feel instinctively that something is wrong.
The police helicopters may not have arrived straight away but when they did it was like a military invasion. I don’t know exactly how many helicopters there were but the expression shock and awe sprang to mind. There followed a mad scramble and an overkill of flashing blue lights and sirens as armoured vehicles arrived from all directions. Two of the vehicles collided sending a blanket of flame into the air. Shots rang out. I think Delroy caught one in the chest. Clouds of thick black smoke from the burning vehicles added to the battlefield effect. Delroy and Tupac may or may not have got into the jeep. In the confusion they may even have got away. Everyone seemed to be ignoring me so I dived into the Volvo and drove in the direction I had came with my foot firm to the floor. I have no recollection of a police chase so I imagine that they were not concerned about catching up with me. I gave up on my mission there and then.
I kept my eye on the television news for the next few days and bought a selection of the broadsheets and even the South Wales Evening Post but there was no mention of the incident. About two weeks later, just as I was reducing the dosage of valium and getting my life back to normal, I received an email saying ‘an ebay item you were watching has been relisted: Bob Marley’s Surfboard’. I deleted it.
I have not been back to the Gower since. Last week I bumped into Errol and Cheryl, two friends from years ago. They said they had just got back from a lovely week in The Gower. I asked them what they thought of the sculpture of Haile Sellasie, by the side of the road. They were bound to have seen it. They would have had to drive along the A483. They both looked at me blankly.
‘Were there any surprises?’ I asked, not wanting to put words into their mouths. I expected they would mention the hordes of Rastafarian surfers.
‘It was pretty much how the brochures described it,’ said Errol.
‘Miles of lovely sandy beaches,’ said Cheryl.
‘Totally unspoiled,’ said Errol.
‘The country’s best kept secret,’ said Cheryl.
‘Even had good phone reception,’ laughed Errol.
‘What about radio reception?’ I asked, seizing the opportunity.
‘Funny you should mention that,’ said Errol. ‘Coming back earlier on we were listening to Radio 4 in the car and there was an interesting discussion about the madness that can be caused by the obsessive collection of celebrity memorabilia.’
‘Who would really pay thousands for Marilyn Monroe’s chest x rays or Michael Jackson’s codpiece?’ said Cheryl.
‘One guy collected Frank Sinatra’s toupees. He had about a dozen of them,’ said Errol.
‘You wouldn’t believe the lengths these people go to,’ said Cheryl.
‘Anyway, we haven’t seen you in years, said Errol. What are you doing with yourself these days? Are you still in the civil service? How’s Rosie?’
© Chris Green 2014: All rights reserved