The Old Lady and the Sea

Waves at Guethary © nick gammon

To put it bluntly, in the late 60s early 70s as far as the public at large was concerned, surfers were simply bums. But some of those, en route to Taghazout for the surf and sometimes the hash, stumbling on the Cote Basque, found beyond the obviously perfect waves, the faded grandeur of a glorious past. In other words they found class, and oddly it fitted them like a glove. In response, the decaying city of Biarritz adopted the air of a geriatric dowager who’d finally discovered Hendrix.

But here’s a thing. The surfers behaved with all due respect and good manners to the old lady who seemed to have kindly invited them in. Somehow — assuming, of course, they’d dodged the Guardia Civil at the Spanish border on the return trip from Morocco with their bootleg intact — within a decade they’d created a “surf industry” along the coastal strip from St Jean de Luz to Hossegor that out performed both California’s and Australia’s combined. Revitalising the regional economy, apparently by simply being very cool. So much so, that forty years later the echoes of these golden boys and girls made the nearby commune of Guéthary, at the western fringe of the city so alluring that France’s “Le Point” magazine would breathlessly described it as “the new St Tropez!”. Thus motivating the citizenry of Bordeaux and Paris to visit all at once, during the wrong month — August.

Of course you were not supposed to be there in the winter either, when the unlovely Atlantic gales howl, emptying the village from November to March. But then being there then would be inevitable if you had moved in, as I had, and unlike many of the other inhabitants, lived there full time. I had inadvisably fallen not only in love with a building in the village, but also it must be said, with the wave. And that was an affair that had begun in ’74, one opalescent afternoon when I caught a glassy wave so big that it stretched both credibility and for an hour or so, my capacity to speak.

Watching footage of big surf in Waimea Bay in Oahu, several decades after he last ridden it, pioneering big wave rider Greg “da Bull” Noll wistfully eroticised the wave, comparing it to a woman. Which might seem a little hyperbolic, but he was right, you really can fall in love with a wave. So it probably was the wave that triggered the purchase of an apartment in the crumbling old residence ‘Itsasoan’, largely because it overlooked the wave at Guéthery, and stood as imperiously close to the sea as a Venetian palazzo. By some quirk of linguistic ambiguity ‘Itsasoan’ translates from Basque as not only, and satisfyingly, “The Sea”, but also and perhaps more appropriately as, “At Sea”.

Even as I crossed the passerelle for the first time to look at the place I was overtaken by a vertiginous sense of inevitability — any fool could see the building was falling apart and equally any fool would spot that it would cost a fortune to fix. And so within minutes, I was signing incomprehensible documents with abandon at the immobilier’s office, to shortly become the possessor of 6% of the copropriété at exactly twice the price the same apartment on the floor below had sold for only a year earlierWhile, of course, always accepting a 6% liability for every cost and repair the neglected building would require to remain standing.

Residence Itsasoan, Guéthary
The Itsasoan’s passerelle ©nick gammon

Cheap at half the price — I hadn’t just bought a view, the building also had a past, having been originally one of the grand hotels in the village. But most of all I had acquired access. To be able to see the wave simply by raising my head from the pillow in the morning. Which meant in turn often being the first one in the water in the morning. This at a time when the very popularisation of surfing threatened to crowd out the possibility of being actually able to do it — in the peak months of September and October it could become so crowded you could often count numbers in the water into the low hundreds, each scrabbling for a share of a wave that simply couldn’t sustain those numbers. On days like that, if you managed to actually catch a wave, it meant weaving your way through the pack, like a ball in a pinball machine.

But sometimes — whisper it — even in winter the wind could turn to the south and offshore. Lifting the air temperature into the balmy 20°s while out to sea, stacked lines of swell ran to the horizon, advancing metronomically towards the reef. Until each swell formed a perfect peak in the centre of the bay, with every great green wave pitching forward in slow motion as the updraft threw back rainbows of iridescent spray. When asked one day how a session like that had been, Xabi, one of the locals, could only say after an elastic pause, “C’etait regal”…. with long emphasis on “reeegaaal”.

The access I had, living so close to the break, gave me the opportunity to paddle out across the lagoon all alone in the early morning chill on days like that. At every stroke pods of mullet broke the surface, until emerging from the lavender shadows of the cliffs the sunlight would magically hit the back of my hand and I could pause to feel its heat properly. Taking it easy and slow, until finally out at the peak, heart beating like a drum roll I could edge towards the take off zone.

The major attributes required to surf waves of all sizes, are firstly a certain quota of arrogance and secondly an equal amount of humility. So that later, when finally a wave comes, it seems not only just beautiful, it also seems so very rare. In a revery, instead of sensibly paddling up the face and over the back of the feathering wave, a moment of hubris could tempt you turn and paddle in the other direction, the revery rapidly evaporating in the realisation of what you have just done. Because if things are to go badly wrong, they will do so now. There is no turning back — You. Must. Catch. This. Wave.

It all becomes something like the half-seconds immediately before a car crash. When everything seems to be happening so very slowly and you can think of lots of things at once, but anything you do also seems to be happening very slowly. The wave surges as it picks you up as if to launch you from a giant xistera and you have a clear image of the nose of the board pointing straight down in free-fall and into oblivion. Until, by some white magic of the board shaper’s art, some invocation or incantation sung over the board at birth, that gave it its rocker — the parabola from tip to tail — astoundingly allows it to reconnect to the face of the wave. You become deeply aware that everything that has happened so far, has hardly involved any skillset of your own. Like Eddie the Eagle somehow you were simply there and had somehow clung on. Next you drop at improbable speed with the board beneath your feet violently chattering against the wave, which fans out beneath you, absurdly as if you were rapidly descending into a modestly sized football arena — it has that kind of improbability of scale. And then that’s that. At least it is after you’ve completed the round bottom turn, and you’ve looked over your shoulder into the maw of the wave. Because in Guéthary, as they say it’s all about the drop. You fade up to the shoulder and down again, up to the shoulder again and down, drawing lines across the wave then make an arcing cut-back, but the wave is much smaller now until it becomes just a matter of continuing the ride to the end out of simple respect. As the wave reforms and closes, the white water offers a free ride, gratefully accepted, and you ride prone to the beach.

Then, on a day like that, to return alone to the old deserted building. And then to pause and reflect, sitting dripping wet on the wide stairs, until the silence seemed to fill with benign ghosts. Straining my ears it was as their distant music and laughter hung indistinctly in the air in between the surge and draw of the shore-break, that crashed against the pebbles on the beach outside. It was as if you could still hear the shuffle and whisper of soft soled shoes — the shoes they used for dancing — echoing down the staircase and down the decades.

And I began to wonder, what if you could step backwards in time, across the art deco passerelle that swept over the tamarinds? Perhaps it would be a balmy evening in the season, the night heavy with jasmine as the oleanders rustle in a hot breeze out of Spain? To push past the bell boys, waiting in a huddle in the doorway, back to the days of glory and out into the bright lights of the roof bar. Who might be dancing in soft shoes in the soft night, on the roof-terrace. Whose laughter might I have heard echoing in the stairwell of the “Itsasoan”?

It was a question that hovered at the back of my mind half forgotten until, in what appeared to me to be a neat piece of synergy — both as a surfer and a painter, I found a photo hanging in a corner in the café Le Madrid in Guéthary of Paul Klee drinking a glass of wine with Kandinsky as they sit at a table in the restaurant’s garden, just above the “Itsasoan”. And what you don’t see when you look at the picture is that Josef Albers also a master at the Bauhaus was there too.

I began to understand why there had been such a rapport between the place and the surfers who arrived in the 70s. It was almost as if the building whispered “welcome back!” as the first long haired neo-Bohos in their brightly painted kombi vans chugged along the Basque corniche, having crossed the frontier at Hondarrabia. Because that “grande dame” had seen something very similar before. Buildings being always female in the Basque country, in the same way boats are everywhere else.

It was fortuitous too that the picture was of Kandinsky and Klee as there are plenty of echoes of Wiemar culture in the counter-culture of the sixties and seventies, and not least in France. As time confers respectability it is worth remembering both artists would be denounced as degenerate in less than four years. That the Bauhäusler spent much of the summer of 1929 here is testimony to how fashionable Biarritz was for the avant-garde in the twenties.

Not fifty metres from Villa Louisiana where Klee, his wife Lily and his son Felix spent the long summer of ’29, overlooking the beach at Guethary, is the villa where Man Ray made Emak Bakia, earlier in 1926 with Kiki de Montparnasse. But Man Ray was also here in the summer of 1929, this time with Lee Miller. The nineteen year old Miller just showed up unannounced at Ray’s usual café in Paris, Le Bateau Ivre, looking for photography lessons.
Ray had tried to brush her off, saying, “I’m leaving for a holiday in Biarritz.”
“So am I,” 
replied Miller.

Jaques Henri Lartigue was also on the Côte Basque in the summer of 1929 — playboy, photographer, flaneur and chronicler of les annees folles, he had even taken pictures of filmmaker Abel Gance, on the “Itsasoan’s” early Art Deco passerelle, in September 1928, only a year after it had been built by neo-basque architect Henri Godbarge. Gance poses with his dog, along with Margueritte, Bibi and Toutoux. Over Gance’s shoulder you can glimpse a little of the roof terrace with its railings and planters. Lartigue then took another in front of the building with Koubinsky, who played Danton in Gance’s groundbreaking film Napoleon, who adopts a heroic pose on the digue while Toutoux hoiks up her skirt to expose an insolent thigh.

The summer of 1929 was a pivotal moment — and a moment of release, as you can see in the photo, as Kandinsky and Klee sit happily in the garden of Le Madrid. In writing a postcard to the art dealer Rudolf Probst on his way back to Dessau, in September Klee said, “…In a week the whole dream is over and I will be able to think reasonably again. In the moment I cannot think very sharply because everything is mixed with the Champagne Waters of the Sea of Biscay”.

The comparison of the effervescent sea here with champagne is apt — the fizzing, dazzling white shore-break in summer has always reminded me of Perrier water. One of Klee’s most famous dictums is that drawing is “like taking a line for a walk”, could anything describe surfing better? It was said a little earlier, but the insouciance of the phrase fits that charmed summer. Albers even made series of photographs of the champagne waters during the course of the summer, but in a sense it was also a champagne moment in the twentieth century. Europe’s cultural borders are for the time being open, free thinking and free movement reign. It is also significant that Josef and Anni Albers had joined the others in the Cote Basque having just visited the Barcelona International Exposition, where the Bauhaus’ exhibit had played an important role introducing modernist thinking to Southern Europe.

So now we know some of those who might, conceivably have danced together on the roof of the Itsasoan, one warm night at the end of the twenties, along with all the other bright young things. It was a halcyon moment as the horrors of the First World War faded, before the terrors of the next one began. It is at this point that you want to call out a warning as if in a waking dream, because everything is about to change.

In October 1929 Wall Street will crash. In December 1929 Paul Klee will turn fifty, at the height of his creative powers the following year, almost prophetically, he will be the first European artist to exhibit at the recently established MOMA in New York. In January 1933 Hindenburg will appoint Hitler Chancellor, in April the Bauhaus will be closed, and the same year Klee and the others will be declared degenerate. He will move to Switzerland, where he will die at sixty in 1940, after a long painful illness just over ten years after his long vacation in Guéthary. Kandinsky will leave for France in ’33 when the Bauhaus is closed and die in Paris in 1944. While Albers will be luckier, sailing to America in November 1933 to teach at Black Mountain College, the progressive art school attended by Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and John Cage. Lee Miller will abandon Man Ray in 1932 driving him to distraction, but he will recover, and follow Albers on a ship to returning to America in 1940.

As the lights dim and are extinguished across the continent of Europe, the grand transatlantic liners will carry fewer and fewer visitors eastwards, and more and more refugees west. The proprietors of the grand Itsasoan hotel will be bankrupted when their guests stop visiting. Those emigres of the avant-garde who were able, like Albers, will carry their torches to America, which will become, for a while, the locus for progressive art. Johns and Rauschenberg will be significant contributors to that, and indirectly to the emerging counter culture of the sixties.

Meanwhile, after 1936, Republican refugees from Franco’s Spain will fill the empty hotel Itsasoan and smoke will pour from the chimneys that they have drilled through the roof for cooking fires. Soon it will be as if a brou-atta, the cold regional wind that can suddenly descend on the most beautiful of summer days in the Basque country, will have swept away the jasmine and the oleanders and no-one will dance on the roof of the Itsasoan in the hot night. That is, until a new jeunesse dore returns to dance on the waves. Pleasing a Grande Dame in Guéthary.

The sea at Guéthary
The Sea at Guéthary © nick gammon

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