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An essay by Israel Zangwill

Broadstairs And Ramsgate

Title:     Broadstairs And Ramsgate
Author: Israel Zangwill [More Titles by Zangwill]

A story is current in the Clubs that Mr. Henry James innocently went to Ramsgate, in order to possess his soul in peace. 'T was the height of the rougher Ramsgate season, and there is something irresistibly incongruous in the juxtaposition of the rarefied American novelist and the roaring sands of Albion. In the which juxtaposition the story leaves him; and we are ignorant of whether he turned tail and fled back to quieter London, or whether he stayed on to collect unexpected material. Our analytical cousin's stippling methods are, it is to be feared, but poorly adapted for the painting of holiday crowds, which require the scene-painter's brush, and lend themselves reluctantly to nuances. The colours have not that dubiety so dear to the artist of the penumbra; the sands are as yellow as the benches are red; and the niggers are quite as black as they are burnt-corked. The love-making, too, is devoid of subtlety. When you see--as I saw last Bank Holiday on Ramsgate beach--Edwin and Angelina asleep in each other's arms, the situation strikes you as too simple for analysis. It is like the loves of the elements, or the propensity of carbon to combine with oxygen. An even more idyllic couple I came upon prone amid the poppies on the cliff hard by, absorbing the peace and the sunshine, steeping themselves in the calm of Nature after the finest Wordsworthian manner. But presently there is the roll of a drum, and the scream of a fife in distress rises from below, and Angelina pricks up her ears. "I wish they'd come up 'ere," she murmurs wistfully; "I'd jump up like steam; I could just do a dance."

Yet all the same their seclusion among the wild flowers on the edge of the cliff showed a glimmering of soul. Not theirs the hankering for that strip of sand near the stone pier, which a worthy dame of my acquaintance once compared to a successful fly-paper. Scientific investigation shows the congestion at this particular spot to be due to the file of bathing-machines which blocks the view of the sea from half the beach. To the bulk of the visitors this yellow patch _is_ Ramsgate, just as a small, cocoanut-bearing area of Hampstead woodland is the Heath, most of whose glorious acres have never felt the tread of a donkey or a cheap tripper. Not that there are many other attractions in Ramsgate, which is administered by councillors more sleepy than sage. Having literally defaced their town by a railway-station, built a harbour which will not hold water, constructed a promenade pier in the least accessible quarter, and provided a band which plays mainly "intervals," they naturally refuse to venture on further improvements, such as refuges on the parade, or trees in the shadeless streets, and, in the excess of their zeal, have even, so I hear, declined the railway company's offer to give them a lift (from sands to cliff), and Mr. Sebag Montefiore's offer to allow the public gardens to be continued right through his estate on towards Dumpton. Even so, these worthy burghers have more of my regard than their brethren of Margate, who have sacrificed their trust to the Moloch of advertisement. Stand on Margate Parade and look seaward, and the main impression is Pills. Sail towards Margate Pier and look landward, and the main impression is Disinfectant Powder.

Baby Broadstairs has known better how to guard its dignity and its beauty; so that Dickens might still look from Bleak House on as dainty a scene as in the days when he lounged on the dear old, black, weather-beaten pier. I spent a week at Broadstairs in the height of a Dynamite Mystery. We were very proud of the Mystery, we of Broadstairs, and of the space we filled in the papers. Ramsgate, with its contemporaneous murder sensation, we turned up our noses at, till Ramsgate had a wreck and redressed the balance. For the rest, we made sand-pies, and bathed and sailed, and listened to a band that went wheezy on Bank Holiday. Broadstairs boasts of one drunkard, who does odd jobs as well. He is tall, venerable, and melancholy, and has the air of a temperance orator. "Joe's one of the best chaps on the pier when he's sober," said his mate to me sorrowfully; "but when he's drunk he makes a fool of himself." This was not quite true; for Joe was not always foolish. Why, when two gentlemen came down from London in a gipsy caravan to teach us Theosophy, and all Broadstairs fluttered towards their oil-lamp, leaving the band to tootle to the sad sea waves, I could not get him to mount the Cheap Jack rostrum in opposition! The most I could spur him to was an indignant defence of London against the lecturer's denunciation of it as an immoral city, a pit of unrighteousness. "'T ain't true!" he thundered raucously. "Many's the gent from Lunnon as has behaved most liberal to me." One day there was an attempt to disturb Joe's monopoly as drunkard, and I am afraid I had a hand in it. A human caricature in broken boots addressed me as I lay on the beach (writing with a stylographic pen and blotting the sheets with the sand), and besought me to buy sprigs of lavender. He proved to me by ocular demonstration that he had no money in his pockets; whereupon I proved to him by parity of reasoning that I had none in mine either. However, I remembered me of a penny postage-stamp (unlicked), and tendered it diffidently, and he received it with disproportionate benedictions. Later in the day he reappeared under my window, hurling up maudlin abuse. He had got drunk on my postage-stamp!

I told him to get along with him, which he did. For some time he staggered about Broadstairs in search of its policeman. He came across him at last, and was straightway clapped into an open victoria and driven across the sunny fields to Ramsgate. Meantime, Broadstairs was left unprotected--perhaps Joe kept an eye on it.

Broadstairs has also a jolly old waterman, who paddles about apparently to pick up exhausted bathers. One morning as I was swimming past his boat he warned me back. "Any danger?" I asked. "Ladies," he replied, ambiguously enough. It thus transpired that his function is to preserve a scientific frontier between the sexes. Considering that the ladies one meets at sea are much more clothed than the ladies whose diaphanous drapery one engirdles in ball-rooms, this prudery is amusing. It is consoling to remember that the Continental practice prevails in many a quaint nook along our coasts, and that the ladies are sensible enough to walk to and from their bathing tents, clothed and unashamed. Strange to say, Broadstairs has placed its ladies' machines nearest the pier, for the benefit of loungers armed with glasses; and I must not forget to mention that the boatman himself holds a daily _levee_ of mermaidens, who make direct for his boat and gambol around the prow. If anything needs reforming in our marine manners, it is rather the male costume. Why we men are allowed to go about like savages, clothed only in skins (and those our own), is to me one of the puzzles of popular ethics. What is sauce for the gander is sauce for the goose. At Folkestone, where the machine-people are dreadfully set against ladies and gentlemen using the same water, promiscuous bathing flourishes more nakedly than anywhere on the Continent; and the gentlemen have neither tents nor costumes. In Margate and Deal the machines are of either sex, and the gentlemen are clad in coloured pocket-handkerchiefs. At Birchington I bathed from a boat which was besieged by a bevy of wandering water-nymphs, begging me to let them dive from it. And they dived divinely!

Though the _profanum vulgus_ takes possession of our strands, and Edwin and Angelina are common objects of the sea-shore, yet I cannot help thinking that there is many a vulgar British beach that would ravish us did we light upon it in other lands. Oh, how picturesque! What a gay grouping of colour! What an enchanting medley of pink parasols and golden sand and chintz tents and white bathing-machines, and blue skies and black minstrels and green waters, and creamy flannels and gauzy dresses! And--_ciel!_ what cherubic children! and--_corpo di Bacco!_--what pretty women! What frank _abandon_ to the airy influences of the scene! What unconventionality! What unrestraint! See how that staid old _signor_ allows himself to be buried and excavated by the _bambino_. Watch that charming _maman_ unblushingly bathing _bebe_. Note that portly _matrona_ careering upon the _asino_! What cares she for her dignity? Listen to the babel--"[Greek: hokae pokae, hokae pokae]" "Drei shies a pfennig!" "Your photograph, _senorita?_" Look! the coquettish _contadina_ is slapping the face of the roguish _vetturino_! How the good-natured crowd, easily pleased, gathers round the Ethiopian troubadour, trolling in unison his amorous catches!--

Daisy, Daisy, donne-moi ta reponse.

And hark! Do you not hear in the distance the squeak of _Puncinello_? Ah! why have we none of this happy carelessness in England?--we who take our pleasures _moult tristement_--why have we not this lightheartedness, this _camaraderie_ of enjoyment? Why cannot we throw aside our insular stiffness, our British hauteur, and be natural?

I journeyed to Broadstairs, late at night, riding in a three-horsed brake with many a jocund passenger. And then something happened. Something ineffably trivial, and yet a matter of life and death. We were bowling merrily along the country lanes in the fragrant air. It was a dark, starless night, but so warm that the easterly sea-breeze fanned us like a zephyr. And through the gloom a flash-light leaped and waned, flickered and died and gleamed again with electric brilliance--"the Winnaker(?) light from France," a garrulous inhabitant assured us; a rare phenomenon to be seen only once in a decade, when an east wind clarifies the atmosphere, and allows the rays to pierce through two dozen miles of strait. It seemed like La Belle France winking amicably to us across the waters. And a little to the left twinkled "The Green Man"--no friendly public-house, but a danger-signal from behind the Goodwin Sands, likewise visible but by miracle.

And as we marvelled at these jewels of the night, that shamed the absentee stars, the brake stood still with a jolt and a shock that threw our gay company into momentary alarm. But it was nothing. Only a horse fallen down dead! One of our overworked wheelers had suddenly sunk upon the earth, a carcase. Dust to dust! Who shall tell of the daylong agony of the dumb beast as he plodded pertinaciously through the heat, ministering to the pleasures of his masters? Had he been a man, how we should have praised him, belauded the beauty of his end, telling one another sanctimoniously that he had died in harness. As it was we merely stripped him of his harness and deposited it in the brake! We unhitched the leader and put him between the shafts, side by side with the other horse, both incurious and indifferent, wasting nor glance nor nasal rub upon their defunct comrade. We men feign better. And then we drew him to the edge of the track, a rigid, lumbering mass; and the garrulous inhabitant discussed the value of the carcase, and the driver cracked his whip, and the living horses stirred their haunches, and in a moment we were spanking along, leaving our fellow-creature to darkness and solitude. Only the flash-light from France glimmered upon the poor dead beast, coming all the way to cheer him; only the green eye from beyond the Goodwins blinked upon his unheaving flanks.

And from far ahead came back to his deaf ears with ever-diminishing intensity our noisy madrigal--most music-hall, most melancholy--his only dirge:

Mary Jane was a farmer's daughter,
Mary Jane did what she oughter.
She fell in love but all in vain.
O poor Mary! O poor Jane!

[The end]
Israel Zangwill's essay: Broadstairs And Ramsgate