The writer/poet can tend to seek solace in a day job of reassuring mundanity: Bukowski the post office clerk, Larkin the librarian. Perhaps the very finest of them all, JA Baker, filing AA memberships in Essex. Clerical endeavours soothingly solemn, municipal, methodical. A still place of admin bedrock, a counterpoint to the flimsy realm of the writer’s heady, airy swirl.
Not so Mike Lay, professional surfer, penman, and guardian of lives at the Gwenvor RNLI outpost. Senior Lifeguard, in fact. Upon his shoulders falls the responsibility of hauling the blue-faced and breathless from a churning rip headed towards Newfoundland under a marching sky of cumulo pillow. Politely asking rowdy cans drinkers to please stop trying to put the mankini on the herring gull. Above all, ever trying to find a piece of his own smooth water to stride. When the sea is calm, cross stepping north as delicate lefts mince up the Penwith Heritage Coast. When the sea is more energised, a stouter stance, poking under exotic Cornish pitching lips. Of his station in life – as well as his actual station – he reflects, “I rarely go north of Penzance.”
In prep for a summer baby well on the way, we find him washing bird poo off his ankle. He’s unsure of its provenance, he just knows he wants it off. Tap water splashes, chiffchaffs and pipits twirp in a nearby hedgerow. More distant, but never too far to register, the hum of a restless, churning sea.
It’s just another day, way out west.
ML: I grew up in St Just, the first and last town in Great Britain, recently we moved to Sancreed. There’s a cool energy here, not meaning to sound too mystical, but there’s a holy well across the road, lots of hill forts, neolithic settlements. The whole of Penwith feels like you’re immersed in something with a deep connection to the past, it’s still part of the fabric of this place, which I really enjoy.
SD: Take us through a Lay day.
ML: Today I did some filming, for the project. It was my first day off for a long time. But an average day means going to work at Gwenvor. Waking up horribly early, 5.30. Then I make a fussy coffee where I set the temperature to 80 degrees…
SD: 80 feels a touch under*?
ML: It might be. I’ll be mortified if I’ve been doing it wrong. But yeah I weigh my beans. And make it with an Aeropress, nothing too pretentious. Then I’ll walk the dog, maybe do a bit of writing. I studied writing at Uni, and now I’m trying to build it up to make some money, doing bits and bobs for people. Then go to work; surf as much as I can. Come home… Wait, this is really boring.
Never. This is great content.
(Laughs) A nap would be nice, but not realistic or practical. I’ve got a tractor, sometimes I’ll drive it around in the evening and cut the grass. I don’t really need it, but I like it. I’ll turn in around 10pm.
What’s lifeguarding like?
It’s been really busy, the weather’s been stunning, and people are allowed to leave home. The surf’s been pretty big, it’s been full on. It involves whistling a lot, telling people to stay in the flags as the whole beach is a rip current. We did six rescues the other day, which is loads. It’s quite isolated here, a bit of a walk in, so it needs to be sunny for it to be busy. Most lifeguarding is reading books and being alert, whilst also dealing with a lot of downtime, punctuated with incredibly intense busy days where it’s just non-stop.
Let’s talk about #RoastChickenGate.
I was promoted to the Senior Lifeguard role at 20, which is quite young. We’d had a really good season, it was the end of peak season on my first season as a Senior. It was a grey day, no one in the sea. I roasted a chicken and set a table out with all the trimmings, wild flowers, a red and yellow flag as a table cloth. I put a photo on my IG, which at the time, wasn’t such a sprawling hub, I probably had 30 followers. Nothing happened, but the same day the lifeguards at Praa Sands got caught fishing on a paddleboard and got told off. They’d seen my picture of the roast, and said, ‘What about him?’
Almost as if they don’t know snitches get stitches…
Then it turned into something. I got moved, sent to Porthcurno, which is a bit of a rough gig, not much surf there. Or I was told I go back to Sennen and be a Grade 3; I took the demotion. But now I’m back as a Senior at Gwenvor. Looking back, all I can say is it tasted great, it boosted the morale of the team after a great season, and I really think RNLI missed a trick there.
What’s surfing like in West Penwith?
Waves are either shit, or quite good. The banks change a lot, drastically. A perfect wind and swell combo can be obliterated by the sandbanks, but when the banks gather, we can get some really enjoyable surf. This year, it’s pretty terrible. My favourite wave is anywhere not crowded, probably the closest beach to me when it’s onshore, early in morning.
Tell us more about your writing.
I’ve done a little bit of stuff in magazines, but mostly I write poetry. A friend has a production company, and he uses it for voice overs. The current project is about rugby, which has been a learning curve. Until recently, my poetry has always been fairly personal. But I like the rhythm, I enjoy speaking the poems as well.
Any reading recommendations? Poetry or otherwise?
An amazing one, pretty relevant for the audience would be Heathcote Williams, Falling For A Dolphin and Whale Nation. That’s pretty special work. I’d recommend the poetry of WS Graham, he was a Scottish transplant to Cornwall, fairly unknown in his time, but TS Eliot was his publisher and Harold Pinter was a big fan. He wrote about life in West Cornwall. I used to read lots of Terry Pratchet. Also Susanna Clarke, she wrote Jonathon Strange & Mr Norell. It’s about wizards in a parallel universe.
Yikes! You happy with the film?
Yeah I love it. Sam (Breeze, filmer/director) is great. I would’ve liked to have it a bit more shortboardy, but it didn’t work out with the waves; I need specific conditions to look anywhere near passably good.
Riding longboards, or mids used to make one a bit of an outlier. Now it’s the mainstream. Do you feel vindicated? Gutted?
I knew I wasn’t good enough at surfing to ride a shortboard, so not really vindicated because I didn’t have much choice anyway. But yeah sort of gutted though… (laughs). Everyone’s at it now. I used to be able to catch loads of waves, when others couldn’t. In a respectful way I mean, the very average, in between ones that no one wanted, or that people on small boards couldn’t get. To me, it’s about the ability to catch waves. I know that’s not very poetic, but that’s the reality, or mine. I don’t care so much about quality, I just like standing up. And with a longboard you get to stand up alot, even when the waves are bad. Also you do things that make you feel good, hang ten, hanging heels, so on really average days, you can feel like you’re ripping (laughs). But yeah, now everyone’s on my average ones too, riding boards like my own. It is slightly galling, but also makes for a happier lineup. There’re fewer frustrated people in sea, people are riding boards more suited to our surf, and so generally a bit happier with life. So that’s good.
*While 90-93 deg C is given as the ideal temp for pour over, for the Aeropress system Mike uses, 80 deg C is optimum. Goddamnit, he’s good.