Prelude

At some stage in the early eighteenth century it changed its character. An insignificant fishing village on the Kent coast became England’s first commercial bathing resort, catering annually for the thousands who came to test for themselves the newly alleged curative and health-giving properties of its sea water. It developed accordingly and grew so popular that by the end of the century it had changed its character again, shedding its genteel image and becoming the first resort to cater for the working classes. Vast numbers of Cockneys descended on the town by cheap direct sail from London. They came to bathe, to drink, to whoop it up. The slide had begun. William Cowper observed that ‘Margate tho’ full of Company, was generally fill’d with such Company, as People who were Nice in the choice of their Company, were rather fearfull of keeping Company with.’

There are hunched sedated souls lingering in cafes and souped-up milk bars. There are groups of squabbling Albanians outside. There are the young men of the front, this front, all bare arms, body art and fast-working furious faces, faces that ought to be spouting water from the walls of Gothic buildings. But they’re here, and they speak, spraying spittle.

I drift past the entrance to Dreamland. Margate’s main attraction opened its doors in 1920, importing the name from an amusement park on Coney Island and the main ride, the Caterpillar, from Germany. While you queued for the big thrill you could look up at your kids looking down at you through a grille set in the huge horned head of the Snailman, a tall wooden structure with stairs. The park was also the place to get your pocket picked, and probably still is.

There’s no money in Margate. Eye contact has replaced it as the root of all evil and, yes, this town’s as ripe as ever for a low-budget remake of Brighton Rock: the joyless amusement arcades, the facial scars . . .

So what did I expect to find?

Well, I never expected to find what I came for, but here it is, still standing, overlooking the Sands. I move around inside, stamping on the bare boards, appraising the wood. It’s the ori- ginal Victorian timber, built for eternity. The benches are coated a ketchup red, beginning to flake, and in the window frames plastic replaces leaded glass. But I don’t doubt for a moment that I’ve found it.

I look for a plaque; there isn’t one. Yet Margate plays a deeper game. When I grow tired of examining this sea shelter I glance across at the building next to it and read:

TOILETS

It takes a few moments for the spent penny to drop. I rub my eyes and look again:

T.S. ELIOT

Lest we forget.

The Waste Land appeared in October 1922 in the first number of the Criterion, a literary quarterly founded and edited by T.S. Eliot.

Subscribers must have felt a shock of recognition at the strange new patterns on the page. They knew what this poem was talking about, even if they couldn’t fathom what it said.

‘Consider its archduke,’ wrote Paul Fussell, ‘its rats and canals and dead men, its focus on fear, its dusty trees, its conversation about demobilization, its spiritualist practitioners . . .’ Consider its jump-cuts, flashbacks, German, gibbering, its birdsong out there in the ether . . .

Here was a poem unmistakably seeded and shaped by the events of World War I, a poem which appeared to have been blown to bits and put together again at high speed.

But it wasn’t put together quite right. Logic, searched for, was missing. Some quotations were intact but others had sustained injuries or were only dimly recognisable owing to disfigurement. The Waste Land wasn’t a joke, it was a stitch-up: the world made new with a needle and thread.

Yet The Waste Land isn’t a war poem in the accepted sense of the words, for had its author seen service in the trenches it would be a radically different poem, or most likely no poem at all. (Eliot’s war record amounted to a foiled attempt to join the United States Naval Intelligence Service in the spring of 1918, a year after America had entered.) The civilian’s point of view produced incalculable gains by treating the war as a background rather than a theme, highlighting what was lost by describing what was left. By the end of the war the death count had run into millions and there was hardly a family in Britain which hadn’t suffered a bereavement. The Waste Land, like no poem before or since, was possessed by the ‘posthumous’ feeling of what it’s like to survive a war – all those voices and all in your own head. Mediums such as Eliot’s Madame Sosostris haunted family drawing rooms picking up what money they could while attempting to avoid prosecution under the Vagrancy Act (‘One must be so careful these days’). The clairvoyant, it seemed, was indeed ‘the wisest woman in Europe’. Who else had any answers? And then again the very form of this new poem appeared to mimic the planchette’s pencil and its poignant course.

Controversial, carrying all behind it, The Waste Land established Eliot as a major poet and somewhat overshadowed his later career, so that he grew to resent the poem and its success. At the time he seems hardly to have known what he was doing. The poem’s completion, long delayed, ‘blocked’ in his mind, was the result of a two-month spasm of activity towards the end of 1921 and was completed in a sanatorium in Lausanne, Switzerland, in December.

But before Lausanne, crucially, came Margate. Whatever happened to remove the block happened there.

 

*

 

In September 1921 T.S. Eliot suffered a nervous breakdown. The causes were numerous: anxiety over the mental health of his wife Vivien; delay in launching the Criterion, whose first issue did not appear until a year later; concern for the postwar state of the nation, with its two million unemployed; and concern for the state of the long poem he had planned, which should have been finished months before yet still refused to take shape. But the event that triggered his collapse was a visit that summer from his mother, whom he hadn’t seen for six years.

Eliot’s austere New England parents had disapproved of his marriage in 1915 and of his decision to remain and work in England after completing his doctoral thesis. Charlotte’s visit to London, though eagerly anticipated by her son, promised to be difficult: ‘another anxiety and a joy’ as he put it in a letter to his friend and patron John Quinn. His mother’s health was frail, Vivien’s was unpredictable, and moreover he felt the need to justify his new life.

Charlotte turned up with his sister Marian and older brother Henry. Her visit appears to have gone smoothly, though the fact of her presence may have been reproach enough. Shortly after her departure he collapsed.

Vivien also fell ill. She had a history of nervous illness dating back to childhood, Eliot discovered shortly after their marriage. She was needy, sometimes hysterical. He was reserved to the point of paralysis. By this stage their marriage had razored itself down to little more than a shared set of nervous symptoms.

In autumn 1921 matters were serious. Eliot had been advised by a nerve specialist to leave London for three months and had duly obtained leave of absence from Lloyds Bank, his current employers. The seaside had proved therapeutic in the past. On a previous occasion Vivien had convalesced in Torquay. When Tom’s turn came round they chose Margate. His intention was to move on later to rest in a cottage near Monte Carlo owned by Lady Rothermere, a friend and financer of the Criterion.

By late October 1921 the Eliots were installed at the Albemarle Hotel and breathing the perfumed air of Cliftonville, an exclusive area to the east of Margate, developed in the nineteenth century to separate the wealthy from the vulgar hordes. The Albemarle, though basically a superior guest house, nevertheless had an excellent address, for at 47 Eastern Esplanade it was close enough for reflected glory from the Grand at 43. ‘This is a very nice tiny hotel, marvellously comfortable and inexpensive,’ Vivien wrote to their friend Mary Hutchinson. She stayed for another week to see him settled in before returning to London.

Eliot’s condition soon began to improve; he was gaining weight and looked younger, according to Vivien. He was certainly eating well. Lyndall Gordon reported that the first week ‘he indulged himself in the “white” room and took all his meals. The next two weeks were spent rather more frugally in a modest room en pension.’

‘Facing Sea’ proclaimed proprietor Walter Beazley’s advertisement, yet though the Albemarle’s location was pleasant enough it can’t have been particularly peaceful, especially from a convalescent’s point of view. The hotel also faced, en route to the sea, the Oval bandstand on Fort Green and was flanked by Miss Courtney Page’s School and Godwin Girls College, at 45 and 49 respectively.

Yet Eliot may have found the schools’ proximity cheering. Prior to his clerkship at Lloyds he had been a schoolmaster for a time, a job he quickly grew to hate. Now, high on the Kent coast, he was once more surrounded by pupils, though happily with none to teach.

Eliot remained at the Albemarle for several weeks and made a good recovery there. He sketched the people of Margate, practised scales on the mandolin his wife had bought him, rested for two hours every day and read nothing (or so he claimed). But he was writing. He resumed work on the projected long poem that had bothered him all year and he did this not in Cliftonville but in a shelter overlooking Margate Sands.

A seaside shelter in the middle of autumn – it seems a strange choice. But Eliot was soothed and stimulated by the sea, important to him since childhood days when he would sail out of Gloucester harbour and along the Massachusetts coast on family holidays. Moreover, the sea of Margate Sands was a ‘muddy yellow’, according to another American visitor on August Bank Holiday that year, and may have recalled the Mississippi in St Louis, where Eliot grew up. And this way he could compartmentalise his day; he could return to Cliftonville with his manuscript (the tram passed directly behind his shelter) and leave the poem’s tired lifesick voices to drown in the Margate tides below.

By early November Eliot had completed fifty lines which became, in the published version, the final section of Part III, ‘The Fire Sermon’. Six of those lines concern Margate itself: ‘On Margate Sands. / I can connect / Nothing with nothing. / The broken fingernails of dirty hands. / My people humble people who expect / Nothing.’

‘On Margate Sands.’ The eye snags on that full stop. The statement is a postcard to himself, tugging his mind back from another place. It’s a postcard to us as well since it appears to be the only occasion on which he described a real scene before his eyes at the time of writing.

So what exactly did he see?

Well, in that season the most impressive sight would have been what was always known locally as the Jetty, an iron pier with a vast hexagonal head accommodating a concert hall, pavilion, bandstand and other amusements. The Jetty was one of Margate’s main attractions, heaving with holidaymakers during the summer season. (A stone pier was visible further down the front, forming part of the harbour wall.)

Out of season the poor could often be seen fishing from the Jetty, for cod, maybe, or eels, to supplement their diet. They also combed the beach below for summer sovereigns, trinkets or treasure from Margate’s many shipwrecks, while the less optimistic searched for lugworms and peeler crabs to use or sell as bait.

That was the typical view along the sea front in autumn, but this autumn was different. Read Eliot’s lines again and you hear a king addressing his subjects: ‘My people humble people who expect / Nothing.’ Eliot would have noticed more and more of these people, looking humble, looking elsewhere as they dispensed paper flowers in the weeks leading up to the first National Poppy Day, 11 November 1921.

Not all of them made it. On the morning of Thursday 6 October the body of an ex-serviceman named Henry Charles Castle, aged thirty-two, was discovered in nearby Birchington. He had hanged himself in the lavatory of his mother’s house, where he had lived for the past two years. According to the Thanet Gazette the dead man ‘had served in the Army for some years, and was discharged shortly after the outbreak of the late war’; a piece of shrapnel had lodged in his head, tormenting him. Castle had worked in Margate up to his death and, like Eliot, was employed by a bank, though not as a clerk at five hundred a year: ‘He was engaged as a night-watchman . . . but subsequently became a cleaner, and as such did not earn as much money as he had previously done.’ He had begun to suffer from depression at his low wages. A search of his body yielded fivepence and a suicide note to his mother. The report tells us that Castle ‘had been promised the job of stoker at the Bank during the winter’, an offer which, unfortunately, he had to decline.

11 November 1921 was the first anniversary of the burial of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey. The original idea, later copied around the world, had been suggested to the Dean in 1920 by David Railton, an assistant priest at Folkestone parish church who became vicar of Margate shortly afterwards. The Thanet Advertiser reported that on 16 November Railton delivered a talk entitled ‘Ramble of a Rotarian’ to Margate Rotary Club in which he related how he had recently ‘left the comfort of his domestic circle and tramped across Cumberland, simulating the accents of a Scotsman looking for work, begging his way from town to town’.

His motivation, he explained, was twofold: to study the plight and point of view of the unemployed ex-serviceman and to return with more money than he took with him, trading in his tramp’s coat for a better one. He donned the coat at the start of his adventure (‘He was driven in a motor-car by a relative to the spot from which he was to commence his weary search for work. He was kept covered up in order that he should not be recognized’) and later daringly presented it to another vicar, who ‘was afraid that the only coat he had to give away was not as good as the one the beggar was wearing’.

He was unable to acquire a new coat, yet almost everywhere he went he was offered money, often, it seems, by those who could ill afford it. (‘ “You take it,” said the man who offered it, “and if you strike eggs, send it back.” ’ Eggs were then prohibitively expensive.) He reassured his audience that in each case the sum was later returned and an acknowledgement received. Railton’s easy, anecdotal style charmed his fellow Rotarians – there was much laughter – and he even managed to exceed the time limit unnoticed. ‘Adding a few words of thanks, the President (Dr. F.E. Nichol) said the address to which they had listened was full of humour and touches of human nature. But there was underlying it all a bit of a choke at the back of the throat . . .’

He do the Poor in different voices.

 

*

 

Eliot left the Albemarle in the middle of November and attached the hotel bill (about £16) to his manuscript. His plans had changed. After much consideration he had decided to travel to Lausanne to undergo a course of psychiatric treatment at the hands of a Dr Roger Vittoz, who had successfully treated his friends Ottoline Morrell and Julian Huxley. He left Margate for London, travelling via Paris shortly afterwards. ‘Margate is rather queer,’ Vivien had written in her letter to Mary Hutchinson, ‘and we don’t dislike it.’

 

*

 

Queer

As you approach Cliftonville from Margate town centre today it still feels as if you’re entering a different world and there are queer signs everywhere (please make sure / you have the money / to pay for the fuel). On the kerb a slightly soiled Stanley knife blade winks in the autumn sun. It’s obviously had one very careful owner, for in an area where hypodermics are discarded like fag ends you don’t get too close to the blood.

And now Cliftonville (aka ‘Kosoville’) is playing host to a vast influx of refugees from eastern Europe, to the delight of a few hard-up hoteliers and the general disgust of the locals, who allege a marked increase in thefts. ‘We’ve got our own deadbeats, we don’t need to import them. The kids are going round beating up all foreigners now. Things are getting worse by the day.’

I stand in the middle of Fort Green on the Eastern Esplanade, in front of a notice that begins ‘Sorry folks / bandstand burnt down’ and signs off with ‘Fuck u’ in another, faster hand. A double-fronted stone facade, the remains of the Albemarle Hotel, now rests above McGill’s Fish Restaurant, part of a Butlin’s complex known as the Grand (which can hardly hope to be confused with the original). The rooms I’m staring up at are still in use; a curtain twitches eventually and an elderly face peeps out.

No one indoors knows anything about the Albemarle and I can’t afford the time to enlighten them, not right now.

I have appointments to keep.

 


 


The above is taken from All the Devils Are Here by David Seabrook. Order your copy here.

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