Books: Flying Visits: Postcard from Biarritz |
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Postcard from Biarritz

The weekly Air France Caravelle to Biarritz took off from Heathrow only an hour late. The French air-traffic controllers must have slipped up. Most other flights routed over French air-space were being delayed for days on end, with passengers eating one another in the airports. But by some miracle we had been allowed through.

Nor were we intercepted en route. I was fully expecting (i.e. not really expecting but the fantasy dramatises a real feeling) a squadron of Mirage jet fighters to come screaming out of the sun and shoot us down. Not a bit of it. Popping the odd rivet, our ageing but trusty Caravelle made a gallant left turn over the Coast of Silver and alighted with its characteristic hot landing speed — none of that reverse thrust nonsense, just turn off the power and wait until she stops rolling — on the mini-golf course that Biarritz calls an airport.

Biarritz receives you like a clapped-out Disneyland with brains. In the days when the place was an amusement park for the rich, they outdid one another building holiday homes that would express their high spirits. The high spirits were mainly induced by the fact that they were not obliged to share the bracing ozone with the lower orders. Nowadays anybody is allowed in. When anybody arrives, he finds the enchanted playground looking pretty much as its upper-crust habitués left it. He also finds the ozone as bracing as it ever was, the beaches just as long, the water just as warm, the sunsets just as gorgeous, and the young ladies wearing far fewer clothes. The great days of Biarritz are over, but the nice days might just be beginning.

This was my second visit to Biarritz. Last year at about same date I went down there to work on a film script with my compatriot, the theatre director Michael Blakemore, who owns a house on the Rue Gambetta, right in the middle of town. Most of Biarritz is in the middle of town. The beaches are endless, with real sand on them, but the town itself is quite small. Turning some of his iffy West End earnings into a tangible asset, Blakemore bought the house seven years ago. The purchase cleaned him out, but the climate, cliffs and waves reminded him of home. They did the same to me. We spent two weeks not writing a film. This year we planned to spend another two weeks not writing a play.

Biarritz is on the Atlantic coast of France, just north of the Spanish border, which puts it in the Basque country. It used to be a fishing village before it became the most fashionable resort of the nineteenth century. With the end of the belle époque it went into a long decline, until by now the place is so far out that it’s almost on its way back in. People are starting to recognise the name again, even if they can’t say exactly where it is, or even tell the Côte d’Argent from the Côte d’Azur. Biarritz is starting to revive. But there are ways in which the prospect of renewed vitality is a pity as well as a blessing.

In the twelfth century the Basque fishermen of Biarritz used to hunt whales with deadly efficiency. When the whales sensibly moved away, the Basques chased them further and further, with the consequence that the fishermen of Biarritz discovered America before Columbus did. (This is a matter for local pride but on a larger view it is not quite so stunning, since with the possible exception of the Swiss everybody discovered America before Columbus did.)

Having too small a port for deep-sea trawling, Biarritz became a backwater and stayed that way until a certain Spanish noblewoman started sending her daughter there for the annual holidays. The daughter married Napoleon III of France, became the Empress Eugénie, and persuaded her husband that Biarritz was the ideal place for the Second Empire to set up its summer headquarters. Together, in the late 1850s, they built the Résidence Eugénie. Biarritz rapidly became the Beach of the Kings — a title it kept in good repair until the last spasm of the belle époque.

They all turned up. Reigning monarchs from all over Europe headed for Biarritz in special trains. Deposed monarchs went into exile there. Maharajas moved in. There was a commingling of crowns, a tangling of tiaras. Even after the Empire fell, the season didn’t slow down for a minute. In fact it lasted the whole year round. The English, a hardy breed, were there all winter. The Russians were there in the autumns, the French and Spanish in the spring and summer. The Empress Elizabeth of Austria was a regular. So, eventually, was the Prince of Wales, who acquired much of his girth in the Biarritz pastry shops and as Edward VII continued to favour the town with his massive presence, thereby laying the foundations of its lasting fondness for the English.

Why did the princes of the blood and all their parasites like Biarritz so much and for so long? Part of the answer was that it cost so much to get there. The train fare from Paris to the Normandy beaches was only 25 francs. From Paris to Biarritz was 125. So the commonalty couldn’t afford to make the trip. That left the nobs free to hob with one another. The word democracy was probably never mentioned except in jest.

Yet paradoxically the nobility and the high bourgeoisie gave more to Biarritz than they ever took away. Private patronage resulted in an astonishing array of public works. On Eugénie’s orders, a tunnel was driven through the rocks to give access from the Grande Plage in the north to the Côte des Basques in the south. Miles of walkways appeared, all lined with tamarisk and hydrangeas. Casinos and grand hotels duly materialised. Everyone who was anyone built a château or a villa. Architecture was encouraged to reflect the festive mood by running riot. Turrets, gables, gazebos and similar ridiculosities proliferated, forming a pop-up picture-book skyline against the pink extravaganza of the sunset.

Mad with enthusiasm, some of the more adventurous spirits even dared to immerse themselves in the sea. Previously the idea had not occurred to anyone. Eugénie had not been the only illustrious name to admire the onrushing ocean of Biarritz and environs. Stendhal, Taine, Flaubert, Victor Hugo and other great romantics had all, at one time or another, pronounced themselves awed by the remorseless waves. But it was a long step from admiring them to actually getting in amongst them. Eventually the fad caught on, but like every other nineteenth-century diversion it was accompanied by a lot of ritualised fuss and elaborate machinery.

Even in the closing years of the belle époque, a fashionable lady in full walking-out regalia needed a moving staircase, or trottoir roulant, to get her and her various attendants down to the beach. Once there, she disappeared into la cabine de l’établissement and spent three-quarters of an hour getting changed for an encounter with the waters that was never allowed to exceed more than a few minutes, lest death intervene.

Having approached the water’s edge, she was divested of her peignoir by a guide-baigneur and stood provokingly revealed — still fully dressed from neck to knee, but marginally less voluminously. The guides-baigneurs, most of them Basques, were themselves fully dressed, including straw hat: only their hands, feet and that part of the face not covered by a handlebar moustache could be regarded as bare.

While one guide-baigneur alertly held the peignoir, another guide-baigneur, or in the case of more exalted clients two other guides-baigneurs, accompanied the lady a few inches into the pitiless torrent. Supported by her muscular champions, the lady gave herself up to the mercy of the deep. What went on beneath the waves must remain forever unknown, but one trusts that class barriers were suitably eroded. Ankles must have touched. Knees must have collided. Surely the occasional rendezvous was made, as it is today in the winter resorts, where fine ladies sometimes invite their ski instructors to bed, although never to dinner.

Upon her retreat from the pounding vagues, the lady was once again enveloped in her peignoir and escorted back up the beach for another three-quarters of an hour in la cabine, after which the trottoir roulant was ready to hoist her back to civilisation. The rest of the day could be spent discussing her adventure with other ladies of her own rank.

The whole routine went without a hitch until the day in 1908 when the Comtesse de Madron put her foot in it. She got one of her buttoned boots caught in the mechanism of the trottoir roulant. Minus four toes, she sued everyone, and the offending device, like so much else, was closed down for keeps in 1914.

Sealed in a bubble of indifference, Biarritz was preserved by neglect. Two World Wars with a Depression in between left it looking pretty much as it had been when life was still sweet. Art deco was added to the conglomerate of styles; another Prince of Wales, thinner this time, was added to the aggregate of princely visitors; but the old confidence was gone. The fashionable action moved to the Mediterranean. Biarritz still served the turn as a plush funk-hole, but as a display case it was past tense. Picasso did some painting there, but he never made it a regular home away from home. The postcards on sale from year to year showed little that was altered, still less that was new. During the Second World War the Germans installed concrete gun emplacements to enfilade the beaches in case the Allies tried a right hook. The Allies never came and the gun emplacements, too solid to blow up, were turned into flower-beds.

To put it cruelly, Biarritz became a ghost town — a magnificent but dispirited relic of the old Europe. After the Second World War the high-born and well-placed still came for the season, but only if they were of a certain age. Their sons and daughters went to St Tropez, where the waves were very flat but there was a chance of seeing Brigitte Bardot’s behind. Nobody thought of the big waves at Biarritz with any special fondness until 1956, when Richard Zanuck and Peter Viertel arrived on the coast to scout locations for The Sun Also Rises.

Zanuck was the producer of the movie and Viertel was the writer. The minute they clapped eyes on the surf at Biarritz they started not producing and not writing. They had their surfboards shipped over from California. These were Malibu, or hot-dog, surfboards, the ancestors of the potato-chip surfboards in use today. When Zanuck and Viertel stood up on the waves, the locals were variously outraged and enchanted. Some of the village elders said it was against the laws of both God and gravity. But the younger men couldn’t wait to join in.

Few Frenchmen had ever gone in for body-surfing, and you still don’t see much of it even now. As a direct result of the long season Zanuck and Viertel spent not working on The Sun Also Rises, the French think of surfing as an activity carried out exclusively on surfboards. Old Australian crocks like Blakemore and myself can occasionally be seen shooting the breakers on our bare chests — all right, bare stomachs — but for the natives surfing is something you do standing up.

The awful truth is that young people all over the world think the same way. My generation has been bypassed. On the Sydney beaches when I was young, a surfboard was something only a weightlifter could ride: built of wood, it went straight for the beach like a landing barge while the rider crouching on top of it pretended to be in control. The first Malibu boards arrived at about the time I left, so I never learned to ride one. In fact I never even touched one until I met Peter Viertel in Biarritz. Viertel has white hair by now but his way of life — which includes being married to Deborah Kerr — keeps him young. He can still stand on the waves like a boy on a dolphin. Under his tuition I finally got to stand up on a surfboard, if only for a few seconds. It feels great.

Surfing has helped to revive the energies of Biarritz. Surfers come there from all over Europe and indeed the world: a new, penniless royalty. There are elegant French surfers with degrees in science, stunning wives or husbands, and surfboards with sails on them. There are German surfers who look as if they took up the sport because terrorism was too much like work. You see van-loads of Australians with John Newcombe moustaches and countersunk eyes like tacks in a carpet. Half my age and not even sure which country they are in, the Australians climb into their Rip Curl wet-suits and sit for hours half a mile of the Côte des Basques, patiently waiting for a wave worthy of their steel. Last year, on a flat day, I heard one of them say: ‘Shit, this is no good. Let’s go to Spain.’

Usually it is good enough. You can see why a generation brought up on skateboards, surfboards and Crystal Voyager should want to make Biarritz one of their summer stopovers. Unfortunately, from the viewpoint of the municipality, the surfing boom is not enough by itself to generate prosperity. Too many surfers are bums. They sleep in a van, dry their clothes on top of it, eat off the pavement and don’t even tip the lady in the WC. Most of the cash is brought to town by ordinary people who wouldn’t mind if the surf disappeared tomorrow, so long as the sand was still there.

Wealth resides not in the few hundred surfers but in the thousands of ordinary paddlers who bring their children. As the old hotels continue to rot away, it looks like common sense to replace them with the kind of modern building that will pack the punters in more efficiently. Alas, the results are horrible to behold. Rearing up out of Biarritz’s otherwise dinky eclecticism, the typical new hotels looks like a cross between a typewriter and a toilet. So far there are only about a dozen of them, but they point the way that things might go. By now the original buildings are falling down on their own accord. To restore and maintain so many bizarre old edifices would seem quixotic even supposing it were technically possible. The temptation to let them all collapse is reinforced by the suspicion that most holidaymakers wouldn’t care. What they want is hot showers that work. Yet a compromise ought to be possible. Perhaps the interiors could be gutted and the façades kept — apart from the people in the social swim, nobody ever saw what was behind them anyway.

Biarritz is a jumble of a town and no single solution to its problems can possibly be right. The Basques being a fiery lot, they might easily talk themselves into a ruinous snap decision concerning the town’s most immediate problem, which is what to do about the advancing sea. On the Côte des Basques the beach is reputedly getting smaller year by year, while the cliffs show a disconcerting tendency to cave in, with detrimental effects on property values. The mayor is in favour of a scheme by which piers would be built at regular intervals, thereby producing a string of bijou beachettes with plenty of sand in them but no surf. This is a notch better than an earlier scheme to turn the whole beach into a marina, but it still ranks as a catastrophe, since even the non-surfing Basque elders are well aware that the unbroken line of sable d’or on the Côte des Basques is the chief glory of Biarritz.

I went to a public meeting at which the mayor proposed his scheme at enormous length. A spoke was put in his wheel by a prodigiously ancient Basque who got to his feet — this process in itself consuming a good proportion of the evening — and announced that the Côte des Basques was exactly the same now as it had been when he was a boy. The meeting erupted. People were screaming at one another. Suddenly it was easy to see why successive Spanish Governments, whether of the Left or the Right, have always found it hard to keep the Basques in line.

If you drive down to San Sebastian the Spanish Basques will serve you a dish of prawns cooked in salt that taste better than anything else you have ever eaten. Unfortunately they might also blow up your car. The Basques are simply an explosive people. They play half a dozen different versions of pelote. One version is played with the bare hand, which comes to resemble a catcher’s mitt. The fastest version, cesta punta, is played with a long basket strapped to the right wrist. The venue is a sort of giant squash court and the ball travels fast enough to kill. The players wear crash helmets and spend a lot of time falling on their heads.

The chummiest version of pelote is called grande chiestra. It is played with the long basket but in the open air and against only one wall. The game is not quite as sensational as cesta punta but it involves the spectators in a big way, since there is no net between them and the action. If you take your eyes off the ball you can end up with a bad headache. A girl sitting only a few feet away from me got absorbed in conversation with her boyfriend. They had only just arrived. He was watching the ball and she wasn’t. It hit her in the right temple. He had to take her home. Having just blown 30 francs in a matter of seconds, he was one very embittered Basque.

The Basques were in Biarritz before the whales went away and will probably be there when they come back. But in the meantime they are willing to make the rest of us feel welcome. There has probably never been a better time in Biarritz than now. The old days had a lot of style but little substance. Think of all those elegantly turned-out gentlemen lined up on the esplanade and searching the beach for the glimpse of an ankle. Nowadays you can see some of the most heartbreakingly pretty girls in the world springing around with hardly anything on at all. Sucking in our paunches, Blakemore and I stride seawards in a masterful manner. Can anyone doubt that life today is better, now that the gap between those who lie about and those who work for a living has narrowed to the point that they are often the same people? Anyway, as a place in which not to do something, Biarritz is unbeatable. Already we have not written a film and a play. Next year we might not write a musical.

— August 27, 1978