Here in the Southern part of England, we are now officially in drought after an extraordinarily dry winter. Water reserves are low and as from midnight tonight, we will be banned from using our garden hose pipes. Some are predicting that 2012 will see the worst drought in Britain since the famous one of 1921 which still holds the record for the driest February to October on record.
Stagsden Village, Bedfordshire
This photograph was taken 91 years ago during that most relentlessly dry year and shows a man carrying water from the well at Stagsden, Bedfordshire. You can feel the heat by his shuffling step and by those little cottages’ opened upstairs windows. They still wore thick clothes in the summer though in those days, poor things. Technology may not have got our water authorities very far in those 91 one years but if we are to be hot and dry this year, we can at least swap our tweed suits away for shorts and flip-flops even if that means a certain sartorial sacrifice.
T.S. Eliot (1888-1965)
It was in the September of 1921 that the poet T.S. Eliot, probably in a suit too, spent three weeks recuperating from what was probably a nervous breakdown in the seaside town of Margate in Kent. It was Kent that saw the worst of the English drought that year receiving only a mere annual 9.29 inches of rain. The land was cracked and dry, roots were exposed and, so local people said, the sun was unrelenting. T.S. Eliot was feeling pretty miserable, of course, and the drought may not have raised his spirits when he was writing his most famous poem The Waste Land (published 1922):
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
Whole sections of the poem were, apparently, written sitting in a Victorian seaside shelter on the promenade at Margate, a structure that is the centre of a preservation campaign in the town today.
It is a remarkable fact that anyone could even think of demolishing this building, pretty enough anyway in its own right, but also a monument to probably the greatest poem of the 20th Century.
“On Margate Sands.
I can connect
Nothing with nothing.
The broken finger-nails of dirty hands.
My people humble people who expect
J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851)
Margate Sands inspired another genius too as you can see in the great English painter J.M.W.Turner’s The New Moon, a somewhat less pessimistic view of Margate’s wonderful stretch of sand painted probably in 1839, oddly enough during one of England’s wettest years.
The New Moon by J.M.W. Turner (exhibited 1840)
It wasn’t just Eliot and Turner who found inspiration on Margate beach, I can still remember being deeply inspired by my very first donkey ride there in a long hot summer when I was very small indeed. The ice creams were good too.