As regular readers to this blog will be aware (fear not, I know only as much about you as my old university chums are able to find out through Zuckerberg’s Magic Database), on holiday I’m more of a Grand Tourer than a Beach Dweller. This perhaps stems from childhood memories of being packed up in the palanquin and hauled off to some god-forsaken hole such as Biarritz or Cap Ferrat and told to amuse myself for a month, with nothing but a retinue of servants and a succession of glittering social events to help fill my time, which puts me off. I was always envious of tales of old London – of brave, ordinary folk wearing heavy, inappropriate clothing trundling down to Kent on stuffy trains to forget their cares and worries during a week of back-breaking toil in a labour gang picking fruit or using little buckets and spades to sort all the beaches into pebbly ones and sandy ones.
It seemed strange then to find myself in the trusty two-seater, carrying only the bare necessities (my man obliged by bringing everything else in a panel van) on the long winding road to Margate, where I had booked myself into a very civilised Hotel, with the singular resolve to enjoy a week at the seaside. I was attracted partly by the resurrection of Dreamland, the somewhat chintzy fairground in that reborn resort, and partly by the information I had gathered on one Thomas Stearns Eliot, who made this trip some ninety-seven years ago in a bid to unblock the Twentieth Century’s greatest poem written about teeth.
As far as I am aware none of the Pitshanger Poets at tonight’s workshop ever had to do anything as perilous as spend a week in Margate to gain inspiration, but perhaps I am mistaken. Owen Gallagher is known to take the odd trip, he unfurled his beach towel with a development of a piece recalling his evolution into adulthood. Doig Simmons cast about for a clear space without too many rocks in order to introduce an enigmatic poem on the subject of fear. John Hurley made sure he had a clear path to the ice-cream van in order to reduce the level of confusion he is feeling about the world today. Martin Choules took a deep breath of the ozone and prepared to return us to the hymns we rarely enjoyed singing at school. Alan Chambers was also thinking of music, but his are the tunes that live in the ear and refuse to leave, such as those being played by the brass band on the front. Christine Shirley continued the musical theme (it’s funny how that happens) but focused on the spaces between the notes in her piece. Daphne Gloag has been standing on the shore staring at sunsets, as she evoked the time-mangling effects of supersonic air travel. Pat Francis spent her time on the excursion train out of Victoria Station thinking about her Aunt Min and the terrible news she refused to break. Finally, Nick Barth decided it was high time for a ride in the charabanc and a trip down memory lane, a very specific memory lane which keeps coming back.
The cultural mavens among you will have guessed that my journey to Margate was inspired by the recent exhibition at the local branch of the Tate Gallery, taking ‘The Wasteland’ as its theme. The events surrounding this dense, almost impenetrable work are well known. Eliot was recovering from a nervous breakdown in 1921 and being stuck at section three, set about packing up some of his best vocab in a porte-manteaux and trailing down to Margate for a dose of light and air. According to received wisdom he found a seafront shelter near his hotel and sat and shivered his way through the remaining sections, and references to rocks, sea, Margate and whelks are cited as clear evidence of this.
Except that this image of a thin, mournful man in a greatcoat two sizes too big for him, trilby pulled down firmly over his ears, scribbling lines in a salt-spattered notebook are contradicted by a cache of postcards recently located in the Pitshanger Poetry Archive. Eliot was a regular at the Tuesday night Workshops by this point and he was keen to keep his fellow poets up-to-date with progress on the great work. According to this correspondence, he lost no time in getting himself along to the Dreamland Fairground and availing himself of the many amusements therein. He reports himself enormously fond of the Scenic Railway, a form of early roller-coaster, and its stomach-churning motion may well have been the inspiration for the references to the District Line between Richmond and Kew, which has always given me the collywobbles, I can tell you.
It is somewhat heart-warming to read of the many happy hours he spent reinventing English Poetry while gently orbiting in the sunshine on the Ferris Wheel over Margate. At the end of the weeks’ stay he was so enamoured with the place that he approached the management of Dreamland offering the use of quotes from his new poem as mottos for their fairground rides, though I feel they may have been put off by Eliot’s ideas for an Old Tiresias Fun House and a Death By Water Boating Pond, as they politely declined. Even more remarkable is the postcard Eliot sent to Ezra Pound suggesting the whole thing be renamed The Dream Land and have an image of a gold fish in a jam jar on the cover. What could have been, eh? If you have been, thank you for reading.