Harry Nightingale… Living Life In The MomentDuring the month The Beast caught up with one of the Eastern Beaches’ genuine living treasures, Harry ‘H-Man’ Nightingale…
Where are you originally from?
Mate, I’m originally from Bondi. I was born in Newtown, at Camperdown Hospital, and then when I could travel my father went back to Sri Lanka, that’s where my mother comes from, and we spent five years there. My younger brother Ray was born the following year. We came back to be schooled as Aussies and I went to Bondi Public School.
So your mum’s Sri Lankan and that’s where you get your year round tan?
Yep, my mum’s Sri Lankan. She’s Ceylonese, not Senegalese. She’s of European origin as well. She’s native but mixed with euro blood.
And how did your folks meet?
My dad met my mum through a mutual friend that was in Ceylon. Dad had been to the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin and stopped off in Sri Lanka, or Ceylon in those days, and was introduced to my mum and it was love at first sight. My mum was recently widowed at the time and she had a little boy, my half brother, and it blossomed from there.
How old were you when you lived in Sri Lanka?
I spent my first five years in Sri Lanka growing up. Our main base was Colombo, which is the capital of Ceylon, and we had many exciting adventures. My Sri Lankan granny and her husband lived up in the mountains and they were in a Church of England boys’ boarding school. My granny taught music and her husband Ted was the woodworks and gymnastics teacher. Ted was a British army officer in a Ghurka regiment prior to that.
Besides your five years in Sri Lanka, have you lived anywhere else for a significant period of time or have you always been in Bondi?
In the ’80s I got an opportunity to move out of Bondi. In ’83 a good friend of mine, Dave Siden, got a job as the manager of an brand new $2million sport and leisure centre in Kiama and he said, “Come on down, have a look at this opportunity for you, we need a pool lifeguard.” He knew that I’d done years of training in aerobics and aerobics instructing and the whole health thing. So I got the job down there, introduced aerobics to Kiama in 1983 and I stayed there for seven years before coming back to Bondi in the ’90s.
Given that you were an aerobics instructor in the ’80s, were you a fan of the tight fluoro?
No, but I had the grouse jazz flares and I actually fit them pretty well. I was a really lightweight model. I was a different shape of H Man in those days. I was quite slim. I was only 33, mate. I wasn’t even nearly middle-aged. I’ve always been fit. It was nothing unusual to train. Training is something that seems to be big these days but it was just part of the life I lived. My parents were both athletes. My mum was a ballroom dancing champion and a teacher and my dad was a swimming instructor and an open surf champion and board champion of the surf lifesaving movement.
What do you love about living in the Eastern Suburbs?
It’s something about where I grew up. Bondi has always been quite a geographically dynamic place. It’s always been interesting. I’ve watched it grow from a working class suburb where everybody knew everybody, so to speak, and we knew all the shop owners too. It’s become more and more multicultural. In my early days at Bondi I was pretty unusual because there weren’t that many people with a touch of tar brush, as Barry Humphries would say. My mum was Sri Lankan; she was quite unusual because there was still White Australia Policy in those days. So I’ve seen it come right around and become multicultural. Everybody wants to come to one of the best free countries left in the world.
As a young bloke, did you cop any grief for having dark skin?
Yeah, actually I did, and I didn’t even realise I was different but I was made to feel different in primary school. This guy called me a f**king Ceylonese and black c**t or something like that, and I was devastated because I didn’t realise I was different. I went home distraught and my mum, who was very, very strong, she just hit the roof. She went and saw the headmaster, who was incensed because even in those days people weren’t racist in Australia. It was how you were inside that mattered, how you behaved; it was not the colour of your skin. Anyway, every Thursday we had an assembly and at the assembly the headmaster, Mr McWalter, called out the two guys that racially slurred me and he caned them in front of the whole school and said that is was just not acceptable.
You’re not even that dark. It just looks like you’ve got a good tan…
Yeah, but you’ve got to remember it was the 1950s, mate, and it was all the soon to be cancer victims, the vanillas as I call them. You know, the Irish and English, that origin of white skin; I was only a minority.
Is there anything you don’t like about the Eastern Suburbs?
I just think the arrogance and lack of manners that’s become prevalent now. You’ve got these people with their big cars and their big attitudes. Some people have these acerbic, arrogant sort of natures where they think they’re superior, which is a delusion. It’s un Australian. Everyone’s on an equal footing, that’s how I grew up. And anybody who stuck their nose out like that they either had to be able to fight to keep their arrogance or they were soon brought down to everyone else’s level.
Does anything else get your goat?
Yeah, and once again it comes down to a lack of manners and it’s just total disrespect. You have people coming here with their party mentality. They come here and all they want to do is party and they forget that there are people who live here and have an ordinary lifestyle. They’re coming in and they just want to get blind and they just don’t respect the community. They dump rubbish, they park in inappropriate places and they just trash the joint. They don’t show the respect that they should. It’s like a greed thing and an ego thing. It’s just me, me, me and they don’t have regard for anyone else.
How do you feel about being chosen to appear on the 100th edition of ‘The Beast’?
It’s not really my gig to single myself out but enough people have encouraged me. They reckon I’d look all right on a dartboard. If I’m on the cover they can just stick it on their favourite dartboard and throw darts at me.
I believe this month also marks a century for lifeguarding at Bondi; is that right?
Yeah, it does, which is another landmark, especially in my heritage. My dad was a beach inspector in the 1930s and those Depression years where people really battled and they knew what a dollar meant and they knew what their fellow people meant. People looked after each when they had not so much money. This job’s kind of saved me. It’s enabled me to live the life that I have been heading towards all along unknowingly. All I’ve done is worked, earned money and travelled to educate myself. I never went to university as such but I’ve been to and I’m committed to the university of the world.
When did you first start lifeguarding at Bondi?
George Quigley advised me to, and Laurie Williams said, “Look, have a crack at getting on the job.” It was 1997 and I’d just been to Mauritius, my wife had got her Australian residency papers and it was great. I bought my new wife out to Australia and went to work straight across the road at the beach because we lived just near Bondi Public School. I kicked off as a Bondi lifeguard at 47 years of age.
And there was definitely no Bondi Rescue back then…
There was certainly no TV show and when I heard that they wanted to do it I was against it. I didn’t want it because I didn’t want anything distracting us. Our job’s too serious and I thought having cameras there would compromise the service to the job and I thought it would be a distraction. But it’s turned out to have its positive aspects too and it enabled me to gain another string to the bow – in other words being able to be a higher profile kind of figure, a figure that people can relate to. They tell me their children love me and people from all around the world have accepted me and they can read and see who I am, which encourages me in my evolution as a human being.
So on the whole do you reckon that the show’s a positive for the beach and for the profession?
Yeah, on the whole I think it is positive. It has its detrimental sides but anything does. There’s always two sides to everything but I think all in all it’s raised public consciousness of beach safety becasue a lot of people used to think we just looked at girls all day, but really it’s only about half the day.
What did you do before you became a lifeguard?
I left school in the first sixth form year, which was in 1967. The following year I had no idea what I wanted to do – I was 17 years of age – and my dad advised me to do an apprenticeship, so I did an apprenticeship with Consolidated Press. I worked in the printing field. I did a photomechanical camera operating course at tech and my speciality was retouching. Retouching was a skill, it was all hand done, correcting actually film imagery that was converted to inks. But as the years went on and computers started to come into the world, they developed scanners that did colour correction automatically so my job was redundant. During that time I was called up for Vietnam but was I was deferred because I was still doing a tech course. Then when I finished my trade I had to go and do a medical but by then I had a case history of sinusitis and bronchitis and I was also really anti Vietnam because I knew that it was just another economics of war thing and it was a contrived war set up by the big forces, the big powers that be, the multinational companies, etc. It was an unjust war. It was like bloody Western imperialism attacking the poor rice eating, simple natives, you know. It sounds simplified but that’s the way I thought. Both my brothers were called up as well. My elder half brother Nick went to Vietnam but not me or Ray. We were both medically unfit.
What was your next career move after that?
Because of my passion for education I wanted to travel. I saw ‘Morning of the Earth’, saw Bali, went wow and having lived in Ceylon, I already had a whiff of the scent of the island lifestyle. I went to Bali for 10 weeks, then went up to Europe, Frankfurt, and Amsterdam for 10 days, which blew my mind, and then I bought a Kombi with my buddy Stan and we went down the south of France. We lived in the south of France in the Kombi and had magnificent experiences in the surf and culturally, because the south of France is a beautiful place.
How old were you at this stage?
I was 23 and I went away for 17 months: 3 months in France, 3 months in Portugal – we lived in Ericeira; it was deserted and we surfed 8 to 10 foot waves with just two or three people – then we went to Morocco for four months, back for another month in France and then to England for a month and finally South Africa. It was like a surfing/sociological experiment and I just loved it and I was addicted from then on. I came back to Aussie in ’74 or ’75 I think and I just did brickies labouring and stuff like that. I did what you call honest, hard work. I got calluses on my hands and I sweated but then I put money away and I just had my eyes set on travel. During that time – that was ’74 through to ’76, ’77, ’78 – I went three times to a secret right hander called Nias, which everybody knows about now. They made a Coke ad out of it; I couldn’t believe it. I was sitting there one day in the ’80s and I see this Coca Cola ad come on with my heaven. So the mid ’70s were spent at Nias and then in ’78 I went to Hawaii for the first time, bought two boards from Barry Kanaiaupuni, who was my inspiration as a young bloke, a power surfer and just graceful. I loved his whole approach. After that I was just floating doing brickies labouring again. I can’t mention much about ’78 because that was when I had an extended stay courtesy of the Indonesian Government. That was one of the dark periods in my life. I actually then went back to the printing trade for a while and worked for ‘The Sun’ newspaper and I think I did 18 months there. I was on the graveyard shift. That really educated me because it was another world. They used to call me the sunshine kid; I don’t know why. I worked for them for 18 months and in that time, that was the early ’80s, I went to Tahiti three times. When I came home I got a job in one of these brand new things called health clubs. I went for a job as a trainee aerobics instructor at John Valentines in Edgecliff and I got it. They put me on as floor manager so I worked three days a week, 12 hours a day. I was living in Paddo with my girlfriend at the time and I used to cycle to the Edgecliff Centre and go up in the lift and then I’d spend a whole day training ordinary people. I taught them yoga breathing but I didn’t tell them it was yoga because yoga used to frighten people. They thought it was something you ate with a spoon. So I did that for just under a year and then the guy just put us all off, right when we were about to get our annual leave – typical. But, you know, they make money but that’s, you know, that whole philosophy is what ruins society. After that I went back to just casual work, hard work, and then in ’83 I got the opportunity to move down to Kiama, that was ’83.
How long did you spend down there?
I spent seven years in Kiama. I lived in probably 11 different places all around the Kiama area but always worked at the Kiama Leisure Centre. That was a rewarding experience because I was able to pass on my fitness experience plus I was in my mid 30s, and that was considered old, and I used to hang with this whole young team and they were quite curious about this old bloke who could out-surf them and had all this energy. It was a beautiful place Kiama. That was before they put the bypass in so it was a wonderful time and it was a good decision on my behalf to go down there. I spent seven real productive years there but then, like a lot of things in my life, it ran its course and I came back to Sydney in the ’90s and I worked for Nicky Noodles as a demolition labourer. They called me Dirty Harry because they’d give the hardest, dirtiest jobs to me and I’d take it on as a challenge because I knew it was going to take me to my next halcyonic experience, which in the ’90s was eight Mauritius trips in seven years. I went and surfed Tamarin Bay, which is a legendary left hander. I’d work six months demolition labouring for Nicky Noodles and I’d work hard, 10 hours a day, 6 days a week but when I asked myself “What the f**k am I doing?” I’d just think of my next adventure. I had fantastic experiences. The Mauritians are beautiful people and I had a wonderful surfing experience there. I met my wife there, on the third or fourth trip I think, and she came back to Aussie with me and after six months we got married. She had to go back to Mauritius but then we came back to Australia when she had her citizenship, and that’s when I became a Bondi lifeguard.
If you weren’t lifeguarding what would you be doing?
I’ve got this great faith in a higher power that guides me and I try to live my life a certain way and I think karma brings things to you. It sounds a bit ethereal and a bit spiritual but the thing is, I don’t know what I would have done. I was seriously over the Dirty Harry factor, although I prided myself on it because I gained a reputation as a hard worker and not a whinger and I wasn’t averse to doing it hard. I didn’t want to go the easy money thing because I saw what happened to my buddies that did that – fill in the dotted line about how you gain easy money but you always pay down the line. I just stuck to the philosophy that my parents instilled in me and then the opportunity came my way. I probably would have just had to box on with the labouring thing but it’s not relevant because I stepped up and I stepped into my next exciting epoch.
How many rescues do you reckon you’ve done over the years?
What’s the secret to your longevity in the lifeguards, because you’re the oldest by quite a stretch?
I just think with the lifeguards it’s such a mix of characters and the thing is we’re all an integral part of it. It’s an oligarchy. Everyone has power. We do have team leaders but the boys can all work without having someone cracking the whip, so to speak. But to answer the question, I think it’s my experience. I know people and I know things that can cause problems and my whole thing is solving problems, not creating them. I can see issues and I don’t get trapped, I don’t go into the quick sand, so to speak. I keep the boys out of the quick sand. I can see them getting upset and I know how to cheer them up and keep them focused on what has to be done. With the lifeguards, I feel the collective is greater than any one of us. It’s like a group of sticks bound together is stronger than any one stick by itself. I got that from ‘Act of Valour’, a movie about navy seals and stuff, but I like the analogy.
How many years do you reckon you’ve got left in you?
Physically, mentally, holistically, I just feel like I’m getting better and I feel like I’m part of this mad crew. As soon as I feel disjointed from it I’ll exit stage left, bowing all the way out. I think the future is an illusion; I think the past is something we draw from but I just think I live my life in the moment. The future looks great but it’s just not something that I am really planning out. I just see what comes my way because that’s basically the way I’ve lived my whole life. I think there’s something out there that’s greater than me and I just try and live right – correct practice, correct attitude, correct thinking. It’s the way I’ve been brought up and it’s working for me because a lot of the young blokes ascribe to where I’m coming from, they can dig it, and I feel useful. As soon as I feel like I’m a weight on the job I’ll bail, but at the moment I feel like I’m needed.
Can you tell us a little bit about your annual surfing pilgrimage to G Land in Indonesia?
People think that lifeguarding is such a cruisey job, but they don’t realise we do what we do for nine hours a day, six or seven days a week. I’ve done it for 16 years and to do something this extreme and radical you need to have an offset and my offset is a pilgrimage to the jungle. It’s always been one of my educative practices. It’s almost like a retreat and I challenge myself. Some people run marathons, but for me I’m looking at 8 to 10 foot waves and I want to surf those. People say, “I never see you surfing at Bondi”, but when you get to my age it’s about energy conservation and I keep my energy for my job. If I was 20 years younger I’d be able to do other things as well but I keep my energy for my job and then I live to go and surf. I can go and live simply and practice my philosophy, which is frugality.
How many times have you been there?
My first trip was in 2004 and my next trip will be my 21st mission. The last two years I’ve done three missions a year. I’d like to thank my wife for being such a free thinking person to let this the old sea dog off the leash.
Has she been to G Land?
Yeah, my wife loves it. She’s a Mauritian Creole so she has a real affinity with the people there. So yes, she’s been eight times to answer the question.
I believe when this magazine comes out you will be in the jungles of Indonesia?
Mate, that’s it, I love it! That’s why I’m doing this interview, because when the issue comes out I won’t be here. Like I say, it’s not really my gig to be on f**king magazine covers!
Can you tell us a bit about your father? What he did to shape the H Man?
Well before this H-Man there was Big H and my mother Zoe. I was so blessed to have fantastic parents and grandparents and their group of friends. I was surrounded by all these people who gave me fantastic inspiration and example. My dad’s nickname was ‘Salty’ or ‘Relaxation’. My dad was a master relaxer. He was like a Zen man before I even knew what Zen was. That was my dad. He was a pantheist. He believed that God is everywhere and that spirit is everywhere but he’d clip me over the ear for even talking about it because he was from the old school. My dad was in Bondi from the mid ‘20s in Lamrock Avenue. My Aussie grandmother Molly had an apartment there and my dad was an only child. He grew up in Bondi and in those days he became a member of Bondi Surf Club and became an Australian open surf swimming champion. In the ’30s he was a beach inspector (lifeguard) and in those days it was the Depression years so you were fortunate if you had employment. He was also selected to go to the ’36 Berlin Olympic Games as Australian swimming coach and it was a fantastic experience for him. He actually went with one of his protégés, Pat Norton, who swam in the 100 metres ladies backstroke there. I’ve got a lot of paraphernalia at home, Olympic stuff. My dad always talked about being in the arena when Jesse Owens won all those medals and that arsehole Adolf Hitler, the fucking supreme fascist c**t, refused to shake hands with him. He loved talking story. He was a real people’s person. You won’t find many people that would have a bad word to say about my dad – except maybe a couple of guys who lost girlfriends because he was quite attractive in his day. I guess that brushed off for a little while but I’ve retired from all that now.
I believe that your brother is responsible for the artistic grass creations down at Bronte Beach; is that correct?
The Nightingales are just artistic, mate. Ray’s a wonderful chap and he’s another real individual. He lives his own life, he does his job, which he loves and you can see his love – you muck up his plants and see how grumpy he gets. Ray’s been there 26 years or something and he just loves it. He puts something back into the community, which is refreshing in this day and age. He’s always been like that.
Does he surf at all?
Ray was a really good surfer. He was stylish. He had his own style because he grew up in the shadow of his older brother, H Man. We were always getting mixed up. People thought I was Ray and Ray was me. It worked sometimes because girls would think I was him. Anyway, he was a really good surfer but then he had a bad accident a couple of years ago where he fell on his head and now he finds it very hard to surf.
How long have you been married?
I’ve been married 19 years but we’ve been together for 20.
What’s the secret to a long and happy marriage?
Space. I think you’ve got to allow people to evolve and have a life themselves and I’ve always encouraged that in my missus and my missus has been like that with me. She’s allowed me to do what I have to do and I wouldn’t be the person I am without being able to do my thing. She’s always been wonderful though. It sounds likes a cliché but it’s kind of like she’s my soul mate. We just help each other grow.
Do you have any advice for youngsters looking to get into lifeguarding?
Advice? I guess I am experienced enough to give advice but, you know, young people know everything now. It’s certainly better than doing a dead end thing. If you have a genuine calling and you really feel the love and feel the dedication then go for it. With Bondi Rescue it’s become like this Hollywood crap, which I f**king hate, but it’s become equated with lifeguarding. Lifeguarding is not like that. That’s just what you see on TV. You have to be selfless. You have to be able to actually put the public ahead of yourself. You don’t become a lifeguard to blow your own image up. I think you should get educated, learn about life and experience hard work first. It sounds silly but be a labourer for a little while before you take on a job that’s like this and then you get depth in your appreciation of work. In other words, work hard, find out what it’s like to sweat and get calluses and then maybe try something else. I’m a big exponent for that because it builds a work ethic and then when you get on as a lifeguard you realise you don’t really get blisters on your hands, it’s more like blisters on your eyes from watching and looking out for trouble.
In an ideal world what does the future hold for Harry Nightingale?
Growth; I just want to keep growing and improving. Like my Zen master said to me one time, “Take this rock; polish it until it’s a diamond.” I looked at him and I said, “You’re kidding me, mate; what are you talking about your old flip? I can’t make that rock a diamond.” He said, “Yes, I know, but keep polishing.” It’s all about trying to keep on my path, which I think is a golden path. I’ve had good gurus in my time, good teachers, and I thank the Great Spirit for keeping me on what I consider to be a golden path. I feel green; I feel like this old twisted trunk of a tree with all these green shoots. It’s hard to express it but it’s a wonderful thing to feel growth. People think you get old, but my whole thing is “F**k old, it’s gold”. You keep growing, you know. People don’t want to get old so they jump off a cliff; they don’t realise that all things pass and nothing stays the same, that things aren’t always as they seem and it’s always darkest before the dawn. Keep growing – growing, training, thinking, laughing, being – it doesn’t end; you keep going. It ends when your lights go out and then we don’t know. Me, personally, I feel energy never gets destroyed. When the body goes the energy’s going to go maybe into a seagull or into a caterpillar; who knows? But I don’t feel like it’s finite. I feel like it’s an ongoing thing without an end.