Monday, November 15, 2010

Craft: A second Clive James study

My second analysis of Clive James' travel writing is, like the first, based on a piece in his Flying Visits collection, now out of print but included for free on James' website. "Postcard from Biarritz" (available here), begins, as is often the case in his travel writing, by indulging James' knowledge of aircraft and flight schedules.

1) Then, he gets the reader there (2 paragraphs), that is, to "the mini-golf course that Biarritz calls an airport". And some background: what was/is Biarritz, the author's previous visit (2 paragraphs).
  • As with the Rome piece, James includes himself in a way that adds a humorous/personal element, and that also begins to hint at theme. His friend and compatriot Michael Blakemore has bought a house in Biarritz: "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."
2) A history of the rise of the town as a summer destination for the European nobility (5 paragraphs): the broad sweep of the town's rise and fall; a twelfth-century fishing village; the arrival of Napolean III; the resort town of kings and queens; a last resort of the exclusive/anti-democratic culture of old Europe.
  • In typical James style, the history lesson is kept fresh through pacing (James skips through a big history by keeping it close to a central theme of the rise and fall of the town) and through his humorous turn of phrase: the whales "sensibly moved away"; during the town's high point, there was "a commingling of crowns, a tangling of tiaras"; the then Prince of Wales "acquired much of his girth in the Biarritz pastry shops". 
3) A narrowing of the historical perspective (6 paragraphs): the public works and architecture of the nobility; swimming in the sea ("Previously the idea had not occurred to anyone"); "the ritualised fuss and elaborate machinery" of going for a swim in the nineteenth century.
  • The piece becomes a little frivolous at this point: James enjoys himself in the precise terminology associated with a nineteenth-century swim: the terms peignoir, guide-baigneur, la cabine, and trottoir roulant are not there so much for historical precision as the precise impression of absurdity they create. It's all a bit silly, so James can be a bit silly, too: "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."
4) Finishing off the history lesson (3 paragraphs): the town's fall from favour; the beginning of a period when Biarritz "was preserved by neglect": "Biarritz still served the turn as a plush funk-hoe, but as a display case it was past tense." The young rich now went to St Tropez, "where the waves were very flat but there was a chance of seeing Brigitte Bardot's behind".
  • The last sentence of these paragraphs signals the move back to the theme that is hinted at the beginning of the piece: "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 Run Also Rises." With the surf rising, we are a little closer to Sydney... 
5) Back to the personal (3 paragraphs): Zanuck and Viertel surfing instead of movie-making brings us back to James and Blakemore not writing their film.
  • The return to the opening idea of surfing instead of working brings the historical sketch up to the present point in the town's history and in James' encounters with the place. It also helps to develop a second, related idea, which is that leisure and indulgence are not necessarily wasteful things: sometimes it is best not to do anything - Biarritz, after all, has in the past been saved by neglect. Renewed interest in the town is not necessarily a blessing.
6) Biarritz today, home to a "new, penniless royalty" of surfers, including Australians "with John Newcombe moustaches and countersunk eyes like tacks in a carpet" (5 paragraphs): increasingly popular with surfers and families, Biarritz is no longer able to crumble quietly into the sea - but how can it afford the redevelopment costs, and the broader costs of redevelopment?
  • This section ends with James attending a public meeting that erupts into disagreement, allowing the author to make the last transition in the piece, towards some thought about the Basques and their famous temper.
7) Final thoughts (3 paragraphs): the local game pelote as a symbol of the local temperament; the time to visit is now, when "those elegantly turned-out gentlemen" of the nineteenth century have been replaced with "some of the most heartbreakingly pretty girls in the world springing around with hardly anything on at all."
  • The final final thought is that, "as a place in which not to do something, Biarritz is unbeatable." The sentence pretty much does what James hopes it will, which is to bring the elements of this piece (which are, in the main, historical) together around the more broadly social theme of leisure and its consequences. Surfing, doing nothing, watching girls: they suit James the Sydneysider, and James the artist, even if we really know that he has been busy writing all along.