It started, like most habits, in childhood, when I’d take the bus to the beach at Santa Monica in winter. Winter was the best of all seasons. No one was there, not even the lifeguards. The Muscle Beach weightlifters had decamped to indoor gyms, and the adolescent girls whose incipient breasts taunted me in the hot sunshine were in their classrooms. The volleyball nets at the Jonathan Club were down, the grubby hot-dog joints were shuttered. The beach was mine for reading, dreaming and musing. Don’t ask why I wasn’t in the classroom – that’s another story.
Years later, as a writer who cannot write at home, I took refuge in popular places at unpopular times. Such venues draw the rich and poorer masses to sail in summer, ski in winter, explore antiquities in spring or marvel at changing leaves in autumn. But the best venues are better without traffic, noise or swarming delinquents. It is the difference between tourism and travel. During the Mardi Gras in New Orleans, you’re a tourist. Out of season, you’re a traveller.
I wrote my first book in autumn and winter on a deserted Côte d’Azur. My abode was a tiny house on a beach called Cabbé no bigger than a bed sheet. Crammed between Roquebrune Cap Martin and Monaco, its forlorn off-season ambience spoke of death and maidens. Yeats, who loved Roquebrune, died there in the cold January of 1939, thus sparing himself a world that would be “changed utterly” far more than Ireland was in the Easter Rising of 1916. Cabbé’s waters drowned Le Corbusier in 1965, a demise that many who share my opinion of his architecture may not regret. Le Cabanon, the modest wooden shack he designed for himself as a counterpoint to the concrete monsters he built for the proletariat, still stands.
While I laboured there, the only bodies lying beside the water belonged to women who swam and sunbathed au naturel. Their reassuring presence was an incentive to begin work early. The view from my little terrace kept me writing until sunset. At night, maîtres d’hôtel who in summer would not let me through the door without a substantial contribution to their children’s education fund greeted me in winter like a rich uncle: “Monsieur would like le ketchup with his foie gras? Bien sûr.”
Hors saison, the bars, cafés, museums and the area’s few Roman ruins, teeming and steaming for the three months of dogs’ days, belonged to me and the natives. What is more satisfying than to linger in an outdoor café over espresso and what was the International Herald Tribune without chatter about house prices, school fees and exchange rates?
The millions who migrate to the Riviera in July imagine its grand hotels rose from the sands for their summer pleasure. As with their judgment in recent electoral contests, they are mistaken. The southern coast of France from Toulon east to the Italian frontier began as a fashionable escape from the cold, fog and rain of English winter in the 18th century. Only later did the Riviera succumb to railways, roads and airports that drew the lemmings to sweltering summer heat at a time when England is at its best.
Ford Madox Ford wrote in Harper’s Magazine about his love of lonely Riviera winters before the first world war. When he returned, 14 years after the Armistice, he lamented the vulgarities and garish buildings that had destroyed its majesty.
The summertime mob turns the Riviera Olympus into Hades. Hungry visitors queue for beach tables amid the horse flies at Saint-Tropez’s Club 55 to admire one another’s jewellery. They then dive into water so laden with Ambre Solaire it looks like the Exxon Valdez crashed into another reef. Holidaymakers leave the south to its peaceful winter and reassemble there each summer, like defeated regiments needing one more go at enemy lines to prove that, this time, they will succeed. Of course, they never do. And so they return home wearier than when they arrived.
There were other places, like Cabbé, that I loved and went to write in when my fellow man considerately busied himself elsewhere: among them, Long Island, Gstaad, Kashubia, Tuscany and Venice. They all worked. So did I. I may yet return one January to Muscle Beach.