Today's Weather for Cliftonville

Monday, 19 March 2007

Cliftonville, Margate and T.S.Eliot's "The Waste Land"

I've been reading extracts from David Seabrook's book "All the Devils are Here" (published by Granta, 2002 ISBN: 1862074836 ) .

It took me some time to make any sense of the cover. (Turn your head 90 degrees!).

In one chapter Seabrook writes of the significance of Cliftonville and Margate to the great 20th century poet T.S.Eliot. Convalescing for several weeks in The Albermarle Hotel, Cliftonville (long since gone and buried somewhere in the rubble beneath new retirement homes) and spending much of that Autumn of 1921 in a shelter overlooking Margate Sands, Eliot drew inspiration for what would become his most famous, and possibly the century's most academically criticised poem, "The Waste Land".

Click here to order All the Devils are Here from the publisher.

An extract is reproduced below.

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 Albermarle 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 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 grew quickly 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.

Click here to listen to T.S.Eliot reading "The Fire Sermon", (Part III of The Waste Land).

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