By Ralph Edney
“Well, it’s still a mystery. Why Margate?”
Graham Swift: Last Orders.
(In Swift’s novel a group of war veterans journey to Margate to scatter the ashes of their butcher friend Jack Dodds, who died of cancer, into the sea.
The 2001 film of the book had Michael Caine, Bob Hoskins, David Hemmings, Ray Winstone, Tom Courtenay and Helen Mirren. Now that’s what I call a cast list.)
This was a little trip to Margate to celebrate Debbie’s birthday. We were four, with the fourth Mary, Annette, recently holidaying in Agde in Provence, alas slyly absent. The register has been marked. Debbie found an elegant well-appointed Georgian house in a square just behind the front, and everything went swimmingly.
Debbie knew something of the area from the five summers she had spent in her beloved chalet at Whitstable, just a short trip away westwards along the coast. Both Gel and Liz had vague memories of seaside bucket and spade summer holidays as kids at one or other of the string of resorts here which include Broadstairs and Margate. Jane’s cousin Adam had enthused about the area, and Jane and Michael had made a recent visit.
I never went on seaside holidays as a kid, and always felt particularly jealous of friends who had been to Butlin’s camps in particular. Sticks of rock, seashells, amusement arcades, that was all only ever seen through an adult lens, darkly. So it was all an adventure to me. I was visiting the mysterious Isle of Thanet as a complete naïve.
Stuck out into the North Sea at the easternmost tip of Kent, the Isle of Thanet was once just that, an island, separated from the mainland by the Wantsum channel, which was at places two miles wide. As late as the eighteenth century there was still a ferry from Sandwich across to the island. But the River Stow gradually silted the channel up. You can trace its course and see that the land is at places barely above sea level. In 1953, the channel was flooded briefly making it an island again for a short time.
We stayed in Ramsgate, which has its sister port Margate just round the corner. The two towns are very similar. Margate has an undeservedly glum modern reputation. Why? Well, partly because it was the point of entry for so many dispossessed, so many of the economic migrants fleeing west across Europe, looking to make new lives for themselves in Britain. When Ann Widdecombe set up a detention centre at the port, the incomers were demonized and held like refugees. She declared:
“My first priority is to detain all new asylum-seekers. That is the only way we are going to send out a deterrent message.”
The place became a sort of site for human landfill.
Then the 2000 film Last Resort by Pawel Pawlikowski, which sought to dramatize the plight of a young Russian woman asylum-seeker, was set in Margate, and with the plot turning on the friendship the young mother has with an arcade geezer, the tatty old Dreamland, currently being restored, was a perfect ironic setting.
To highlight the bleakness, the film was shot in a certain somber register. As one critic put it:
“ Sea the colour of used gum. Sky like dead Copydex. A haven for stones.”
But we were quickly taken with the charms of the island. In Ramsgate and Margate and Broadstairs there was so much that seemed to have been preserved, as though, cut off, like one of Darwin’s Galapagos Islands, intact from evolutionary change elsewhere, it had escaped the depradations of the mainland. Here we found perfect Georgian squares, perfect colonnaded Victorian terraces, fine old timbered harbor houses, pretty beach huts and example after example of playful seaside ironwork architecture, full of lightness and fancy.
What is it about the seaside? The ozone? The long, imperfectly chronicled history of the dirty weekend? The imported spirit of carnival, the sense of moral relaxation that is almost written into local byelaw? The long stretch of the sea weighing in with its reminders of mortality? The shifting sky insisting on the evanescence of all things?
We quickly learned about the island’s famous visitors. Dickens in Broadstairs, Turner in Margate, OK, but there were so many others. We knew because every other house seemed to have a blue plaque. Vincent van Gogh had lived in the house next door, for instance. You could see the empty absinthe bottles still slung in the corner of the basement service area.
So many people who learned or lived or recuperated or created in one or other of the towns along the coast.
Who were they all? In no particular order:
Jane Austen’s brother, onetime Admiral of the Fleet; actress Brenda Blethyn; the writer of the Jennings novels; Quaker prison reformer and philanthropist Elizabeth Fry; Ted Heath, who went to the local grammar school Chatham House, as did hockey player Sean Kerly and arch comedian Frank Muir; John le Mesurier, who lived out his retirement in Margate, after his lifelong battering by Hattie Jacques; Marx and Engels, who took in the sea air and dreamed that all would be changed, changed utterly, and a terrible beauty born; the Gothic revival architect, designer of the House of Commons Augustus Pugin, who built a church at his own expense at Westcliff, trying out his new ideas; the director of FOREST who coughed out his last from lung cancer; our neighbor van Gogh who taught French as a supply teacher, and made some sketches from his views over the harbor; AN Whitehead, the great mathematician, creator, with Bertrand Russell of the doomed Principia Mathematica; John Buchan, who got his idea for the thirty-nine steps from those on the beach at North Foreland in Broadstairs; Thomas Crampton, the first engineer to lay a telegraph cable under the Channel; Dickens who wrote David Copperfield and Bleak House in different holiday homes; Siouxsie Sioux of the Banshees, who listened there to the howling winds of winter; Stevie Smith, whospent several years on and off in a sanatorium near Broadstairs while suffering from tuberculous peritonitis as a child, looking out at the sea and wondering if she was drowning or waving; Annette Mills on the sands watching the Punch and Judy show and dreaming up Muffin the Mule;the most prolific writer of all time Frank Richards, who wrote a hundred million words of fiction in his lifetime; Gert and Daisy, that is to say Elsie and Doris Waters; TS Eliot, who penned part of the Wasteland in 1922 whilst recuperating from nervous strain in Margate; Marty Feldman, who picked up swivel eye as a kid trying to take in the sweep of the sky; Buster Bloodvessel, who ran a hotel in Margate called Fatty Towers;RobertWalpole, the prime minister who had the hotel where we took tea and watched the preparations for a wedding, and Turner, of course, who sketched many skyscapes which he later incorporated into his genre paintings.
I can picture Eliot, hunched against the wind in the Nayland Rock Shelter in Cliftonville writing these lines:
Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss
A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers.
Jean Jacques Tissot: A Passing Storm
Tissot was another painter drawn to the area. A decade or so back he was fashionably dismissed as a mere salon painter, a charming illustrator, no more than that, of Victorian life. Nowadays, as fashions change, he is acknowledged as a master. I think his best paintings have great dresses in them, and even better skies. I love that you are invited to construct a story. The severer art critics think that is a filthy habit.
The picture doesn’t need a title. The drama of separation, of exile. Think of the modern refugee camp at Margate. But in fact Tissot names it as The Prodigal Son.
We could have concocted a tale or two about this one over a bottle of bubbly.
A lifelong friend of Dickens, he introduced into fiction those elements of suspense which are such a modern sine qua non of the detective story or the thriller, as if there was no other way in the world to keep a reader turning the pages. A hero and a villain in one, this man. In later life, suffering from rheumatic gout, Collins turned to the sea air of Ramsgate as a curative.
Margate was significant for Turner. He painted more than a hundred oils and watercolours of the town and its surrounding coastline and once remarked that with its “dawn clouds to the east and glorious sunsets to the west” the Isle of Thanet was home to “the loveliest skies in Europe”. Those skies again.
In 1833, at the age of 58, he began a relationship with a recently widowed landlady named Sophia Caroline Booth, described as kindly and buxom, if inarticulate, who ran the Rendezvous seafront guesthouse. The new gallery stands on its site.
Turner and Mrs Booth (his second mistress after another widow, Sarah Danby) never married. After the artist’s death she confided:
“…for about 18 years we lived together as husband & wife, under the name of Mr & Mrs Booth … But the most extraordinary part of my naritive [sic] is that, with the exception of the 1st year he never contributed one Shilling towards our mutual support.”
However, they shared an active sex life, by all accounts; some of Turner’s notorious erotica is thought to have depicted Sophia. The prudish Ruskin described these erotic sketches and oils as
“painting after painting of Turner’s of the most shameful sort — the pudenda of women — utterly inexcusable and to me inexplicable”.
He claimed to have destroyed them, but such was his reverence for Turner that he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Instead, as if they were porn mags, he bundled them up in brown paper and labeled them
“kept as evidence of a failure of mind only”.
They are now in the (prudish) archives of Tate Britain.
The Beacon Light at Ramsgate, found recently in Sophia Booth’s house, and authenticated as by Turner, using CSI-like techniques of paint analysis.
Who else? Well, Baroness Orczy and Phyllis Broughton for two…
One of local artist Ann Carrington’s twelve commissioned life-size ladies who famously spent time on the Isle, fashioned entirely from scallops.
Baroness Orczy, Hungarian by birth, was most famous for her series of historical novels featuring the Scarlet Pimpernel, a British aristocrat who rescues French aristocrats from revolting peasants at the time of the Revolution. So, a Hilary Mantel of her day. Carry on Chopping, with Sidney James as Sir Rodney Effing posing as the Black Fingernail and outwitting citizens Bidet and Camembert, is probably the best modern rendering of the tale.
The Baroness professed effusively her love of Ramsgate, but when her books became best-sellers she bought a place in Monaco.
Gaiety Girls were the chorus girls in Edwardian musical comedies, first coming to the fore in the 1890s, and getting their name from the Gaiety Theatre in the Strand.Many of the best-known London couturiers designed costumes for the stage productions. The illustrated periodicals were eager to publish photographs of the actresses in the latest stage hits, and so the theatre became an excellent way for clothiers to publicize their latest fashions. Gaiety girls projected themselves as polite, well-behaved, still chaste young women. They became a popular attraction and a symbol of ideal womanhood. When an arrangement with the Gaiety Theatre was made that the girls could dine half-price at Romano’s on the Strand, it quickly became the centre of London’s night-life. The young women on show each night at the theatre became so popular that wealthy gentlemen, termed Stage Door Johnnies, would wait outside the theatre hoping to escort them to dinner. In some cases, a marriage into society and even the nobility resulted. The chorus was effectively a matrimonial agency for girls with ambitions to marry thus. PG Wodehouse took this as theme for several of his Blandings Castle novels.
Phyliis Broughton was the most famous of them all.
Who else? Well, leaving aside Dickens, since the story is too long, would have to be serialized like his novels, there was Coleridge.
‘O I wish, you were here, and that we could all Ramsgatize till the midst of December!’
In all Coleridge visited the resort ten times between 1819 and 1833 spending roughly the same amount of time in Ramsgate as Dickens was to spend in Broadstairs- over a year in all. Over fifty of his collected letters were written from there and many pages of his Notebooks were written up during these holidays. His social life was full, even hectic, and he is an ironic commentator on the manners of the time. Coleridge always came down to Ramsgate with the intention of writing, and though, what with drugs and dodging lovers he fell short of his aims, he found time to write many letters.
On dodging lovers Charles Lamb remarked:
‘Such it is if Ladies will go gadding about with other people’s husbands at watering places.’
The saucy seaside again. Coleridge tinkered with and polished several poems while there, and in at least three of these there are clues if not signposts to the town.
For instance he changed the line that in draft form had limped along lamely as
‘O’er hill and dale and sounding Sands.’
‘O’er aery cliffs and glittering sands.’
Airy cliffs and glittering sands could refer only to Ramsgate. In another he named as ‘trim skiffs’ the new paddle-steamers operating between London and Ramsgate.
Coleridge, a raging hypochondriac, came down regularly for the sea-cure, which involved, largely, fresh air and sea-bathing. He and his house-companions exercised regularly along the cliff tops, and the seascape was to him almost as familiar in his declining years as was the landscape of the Quantocks or the Lake District in his prime.
He regularly used the horse-drawn bathing-machines. From one of his letters:
I was myself very unwell on Monday & Yesterday – but this morning, I have cleared up again, and had such a Trio of Plunges into the very heart, Liver, and Lights of three towering Billows this morning, the last of which fairly hurried me back, I might almost say, into the Machine – but actually, to the top-most step of the Ladder – so that I narrowly escaped a bruise – The wave set the Carpet afloat, and had I not instantly called out to Philpott, that his Pot was over-full, I should have had my outsides, alias, extra-cuticulars, alias, Cloathes, seized by the grim old Surge-on without any to redress me… It was glorious! I watched each time from the top-step for a high Wave coming, and then with my utmost power of projection shot myself off into it, for all the world like a Congreve Rocket into a Whale.
As for the steam-packets:
I never saw a Steam-boat look beautiful—tho’ always interesting—till yester evening ¼ past 4, when it pencilled it’s way toward the Pier and then described a horseshoe wake of grey lustre within the Harbour as it curved round in the largest possible Circuit to the old Station at the Landing-steps, all in a glory of the richest golden Light reflected from it’s sides and Uprights, & transmuting it’s long pennant of Smoke into a huge Cylinder or what shall I call it? Of Topaz.
His writing is so vivid. In his poem ‘The Delinquent Travellers’ the target of Coleridge’s gentle satire was the fashionable rush by English holidaymakers to visit France and Italy at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. For the constantly hard-up Coleridge, always relying on the generosity of his friends to subsidize his Ramsgate holidays, France was beyond his purse—though not his view on a clear day from Ramsgate’s East Cliff—and it may well have been a case of sour grapes, but he implies that the average holidaymaker would have been as well off at his own hearth, from where he might travel further afield in his fancy.
From his letters you can learn of smuggling plots and of the departure of the convict ships for Australia.
Coleridge took an informed interest in local affairs; he attended the consecration by the Archbishop of Canterbury of St George’s Church, a landmark with its great lantern-tower, he visited the newly dedicated Synagogue, the pet project of the Jewish patriot and Ramsgate benefactor Moses Montefiore, and he gave a riveting account of the great storm of 1824 which left many ships wrecked on the nearby Goodwin Sands and in the Harbour entrance.
He is at his most entertaining when it comes to the passing show in Ramsgate.’ He was sharp in his judgments. A certain Sir William Curtis, buddy of George IV, an illiterate Wapping merchant who had made a fortune in ship’s biscuits and become Lord Mayor of London, and reputedly the unwitting coiner of the phrase ‘the three Rs’, had retired to Ramsgate. The biscuit magnate owned the best yacht and became Chairman of the Harbour Trustees. He snubbed Coleridge at the public dinner commemorating the laying of the foundation-stone of the Obelisk marking the King’s visit to the town the year before, and in revenge Coleridge showed up Curtis’ ignorance at a later dinner when he tried to elaborate on the origins of the steam engine. A social-climber wife of a banker Coleridge dismissed as ‘genus, Remora, or Sucking Fish’. He was delighted when a statue of the Duke of Wellington in Crescent Gardens, sponsored by a local blacksmith, which he thought to be tasteless, was vandalized. Of the Harbour Master, Captain Martin, memorably depicted on the Pier during the great storm of 1824, Coleridge commented that not only was he hoarse, but ‘his very speaking Trumpet has got a sore throat’. He mentioned the man who ran the bathing machines, Philpott, who after the same storm spoke of ‘the delights & great advantages of a good Wreck’, and having salvaged from the sands ‘Telescopes, Spies-glass, Barrels of Brandy and Wine’, justified it to Coleridge as ‘a diffusion of Property. a providential multiplication of Properties’. At the very end of his last stay there was the ‘stately old Lady, certainly not less than 80’ coming down the hill, which the sixty year old Coleridge was crawling up, who made way for Coleridge to pass, adding, ‘No, Sir! You are far the Elder. It is my Duty to make way for the Aged.’
Coleridge appears to have been a conversationalist much in demand at dinner tables, though none of it has been recorded. Written on the sand. ,
In his Notebook, a month after his return from his last holiday in Ramsgate, he writes:
So standing before the door of No. 4 Spencer Place, Ramsgate, Mr Lockhart said to me—Surely you cannot look at yonder point at yonder Bay without attaching a livelier interest to it, when you remember that there Julius Caesar landed on this Island!—I replied with perfect truth—I attach a delightful interest to Julius Caesar on Shakespeare’s account—(I mean, from having associated him with Shakespeare’s play, so called), but no interest to Pegwell Bay on account of Julius Caesar. Nor do I need it. You cannot look at it with more delight than I do.
Reculver Point is where Caesar first landed, before going on to conquer Britain. This is one of only two memorable dates in the entire history of Britain according to 1066 And All That.
The first date in English History is 55 BC in which year Julius Caesar (the memorable Roman Emperor) landed, like all other successful invaders of these islands, at Thanet. This was in the Olden Days, when the Romans were top nation on account of their classical education, etc.
ERRATA P 44 For sausage read hostage
For pheasant read peasant throughout
We didn’t just admire blue plaques however. We got out and about.
A Word in your Shell-like
The Shell Grotto was strange. Dark, musty, delicately fashioned narrow passageways entirely encrusted with seashells. Gel had to get out as soon as she got in, and Debbie, with her cold, soon after. More than four million individual shells go to make up the mosaic patterns. It was discovered in 1835 when a man broke through into its roof while digging a duck-pond. The purpose of the structure is unknown, and various theories have dated its construction to any time in the past 3,000 years, and speculated possibilities as to the builders include the Knights Templar. The shells are all local, but some of the designs suggest associations with Phoenicia. These associations have recently gained more credibility from the fact that the name of the Isle of Thanet, where Margate lies, is now thought to derive from the Phoenician goddess, Tanit.
The age of the structure is uncertain. Attempts to use radiocarbon dating have failed because of the carbon deposits absorbed into the shells from the Victorian lamps that were used to light the grotto in the 1800s. Some of the mortar has so far defied analysis and all that scientists can be sure of is that it is fish-based.
But if science can’t date it, what about art? Surely, instead of getting in your scientific time team, bring in a squadron of art connoisseurs. They do it all the time to establish provenance of Old Masters. Surely this decoration is firmly in the eighteenth century world of rococo? The word rococo comes from rocaille, shell.
As to the use, I had a dark feel that it may have been a Hellfire Club like secret venue for masonic rituals and orgies.
Nice gallery, shame about the paintings. The pub with no beer. The gallery with no pictures.
The idea was to help regenerate the town. The original design, by Norwegian architects, would have made the building part of the harbor itself. Experts said that would put the paintings at hazard of sea damage. What paintings? The design was ditched and a legal battle is still running to recover some of the costs. The second design by David Chipperfield, is not the work of a magician, that’s for sure, and has none of the charms of a circus big top either. It has been called “alien, brutal and bleak”. That is gentle criticism. We thought it looked like an IKEA warehouse. Construction ran from 2008 to 2011 at a cost of £17.5 million. It is claimed that 14,000 people visited in its first weekend.
Where has the money come from? Kent and Thanet councils, South East England Development Agency, the Arts Council and the EU. As if the artwork at the moment, in these conceptual times, was the fund-raising. Can you realize a giant project like this in the teeth of a double dip recession?
It’s great that it provides jobs, has a café, a shop with chocolate packed like sardines and the like, and a room with a great plane glass window looking out to sea where kids are invited to play with paints, but the whole place had a ghostly feel. Where’s the art?
An installation on the ground floor by a Brazilian artist, made of brightly coloured beads and ropes coiled into organic shapes, in which you could play, was good fun at least. I fashioned a nice blue clitoris.
Born in 1976 in Rio de Janeiro, Maria Nepomuceno studied painting and drawing and then industrial design at the University of Rio de Janeiro and art and philosophy at the School of Visual Arts in Rio de Janeiro. Learning how to draw and colour in without going over the edges isn’t enough these days. You have to study industrial design, otherwise your beaded hammock will tip over and injure art lovers, and you need to study philosophy to write the face-ache conceptual bumph about how the spiral echoes the fundamental geometry of all life in its similarity to the helix of DNA blah de blah.
And then, just when something deeper seemed lost to us, upstairs, there was one little painting, by Walter Sickert of a man and a woman on a bench on the front at Hove, which was worth the world. OK, it has a Latin tag from Ovid: Turpe senex miles turpe senilis amor
An aged soldier and an aged lover are sad sights.
Sickert repays study. An Anglo-German, never seduced by Impressionism, he was the leader of the gritty urban Camden Town group. His paintings have always been overshadowed by dark rumours about his personal life.
Patricia Cornwell, the American crime writer, bought and cut up several of Sickert’s expensive paintings in her effort to prove that Sickert was in fact Jack the Ripper.
This painting in particular has been read as the moment after a murder. But its original title was What Shall We Do for the Rent? Sickert, who you could read as a precursor to Francis Bacon, had been linked to the murders before, but usually as an unwilling accomplice in a masonic conspiracy to cover up for the Duke of Clarence, Queen Victoria’s dissolute grandson, whose passion for whoring in the East End left him with syphilis of the brain. The artist’s name came into the frame when a man calling himself Joseph Sickert, and claiming the childless Sickert was his father, said the painter had confessed his part in the plot shortly before his death in 1942.
More generally, why this obsession from Fritz Lang to Powell and Pressburger to Chaplin even, with obsessive ladykillers? Give it a rest.
We all loved this one, William Nicholson’s the Hill Above Harlech, painted in 1917. William was the father of Ben Nicholson. The child is the father of the man. Bill and Ben, Bill and Ben, Paint Pot Men.
After the Gallery we took teas in the Mad Hatter tearoom, recommended by Jane. I thought the shrine to Lady Di feeble and also sickening, and the willed eccentricity of the place wearying. Eccentrics are only masked philistines.
Alas, we had to talk about Jimmy Saville, however hard we tried to drop it. How could he have duped the BBC, the NHS, the Prison Service, his various charities so completely and for so long? No excuse for the fourth estate here. Couldn’t some of the NOW hacking energy gone into researching Saville rather than Hugh Grant or Steve Coogan?
The programme Who Do You Think You Are? got us talking about ways of linking back into the past. I suppose it’s part of the Local History Workshop approach really. Why did we get so heated about it? Is it that it’s usually linked to celebrities, who have ego issues, who haven’t absorbed the classical seventeenth century precept
Le moi est haïssable?
We had some fun talking about the poster in the kitchen of the famous kiss by Robert Doisneau. Of course the picture invites you to unspool its back story, to frame it in a narrative. We noticed that nobody, unless it is the eye of the lens, is looking at the lovers. Who was this in the foreground. At the table? Albert Camus, obviously. With The Stranger and the Myth of Sisyphus behind him, he was penning an outline of The Rebel. The man in the beret? A Vichy collaborator, still working on recreating himself as a Resistance hero. The woman behind the couple? Clearly Simone de Beauvoir, with chapters of the Second Sex already published in Les Temps Modernes. The man in the trench coat? Maigret of course. The crime? Well, sex is the parody of crime. The amorphous figure at the back? Gel, for some reason, insisted this was Don Giovanni’s father, the Commendatore, risen from the grave to wreak vengeance on faithless man. Who were we to argue?
The lovers themselves. We decided that he was an actor, and she was a dancer. Just look at his scarf, just look at the way she holds that arm.
Who were the lovers, caught so innocently, so eternally:
He who binds to himself a joy
Doth the winged life destroy
But he who catches the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise
Who were they really? Well, thereby hangs a tale.
Jean and Denise Lavergne erroneously believed themselves to be the couple in The Kiss, and when Doisneau met them for lunch in the 1980s, thirty years on from the date of the photograph, he “did not want to shatter their dream”, so he said nothing. But then they took him to court for “taking the picture without their knowledge“, because under French law an individual owns the rights to their own likeness. The court action forced Doisneau to reveal that he in fact had posed the shot using Françoise Delbart and Jacques Carteaud, lovers whom he had just seen kissing, but had not photographed initially because of his natural reserve; he approached them and asked if they would repeat the kiss. Doisneau was a shy man who began his career by photographing cobblestones. He remarked:
|“I would never have dared to photograph people like that. Lovers kissing in the street, those couples are rarely legitimate.”||”|
He won the court case against the Lavergnes. The couple in Le Baiser was in fact Francoise Delbart, 20, and Jacques Carteaud, 23, both aspiring actors. In 2005 Françoise Bornet said:
“He told us we were charming, and asked if we could kiss again for the camera. We didn’t mind. We were used to kissing. We were doing it all the time then, it was delicious. Monsieur Doisneau was adorable, very low key, very relaxed.”
They posed at different places in Paris before settling for the Town hall. The relationship between Delbart and Carteaud only lasted for a further nine months. Delbart continued her acting career, but Carteaud gave up acting to become a wine producer.
On the Saturday night we ate out at the pub round the corner. We were all struck by the friendliness of the staff. We felt like the jaded metropolitans distrustful of the open-hearted locals. It took us a while to recognize that we could afford to lighten up.
I went home to play the last game of cricket of the season on the Sunday morning, but the Maries had a fine time, exploring the maze of back streets and even being taken for a trip on the harbor pilot’s boat. He wasn’t alas Liz’s Captain Digby:
The name’s Digby, James Digby, Captain James Digby.