“…the skies over Thanet are the loveliest in all Europe” – JMW Turner
I was in Margate in the final week of August. The beach was packed.
The sandwich queues were long. Skins were crackling under the sun.
There were no shakes in Dreamland because the ice cream had run out.
Now November, Dreamland is still as the train pulls in.
The big wheel is motionless.
For those wanting a new tattoo, followed a bowl of soothing melted cheese, you don’t have to walk far in Margate. Outside the station there’s Reaperz Ink Studio next door to the pink neon of The Melting Pot’s fondue bar. A man is sprucing up the graffiti on the colourful metal shutters where Superman is sprayed.
It was in Margate that Turner first saw the sea.
There is a strip of blue and sunshine on the horizon, above it, the sky is dominated by grey clouds just shy of ominous. The pavement pillars are pasted with posters for Glen Matlock and The Pop Group, coming soon to the Ramsgate Music Hall (and Jesca Hoop too).
The beach is empty, save for a family of five at the furthest edge, baiting the waves.
A gust of sulphur goes up my nose.
Mannings, family purveyors of seafood is the solitary beachside shack open today.
I have planned to interrupt my journey to the Winter Gardens, once summertime home to Hughie Green, Frankie Howerd and Arthur Worsley, with a visit to the Turner exhibition at the Turner Contemporary.
Inside, I think I may have experienced the elusive peak experience written about by Colin Wilson many times in his many books.
The peak experience began with Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus and then ran wild with Landscape with Water.
According the caption glued on the wall, Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus was a rebuttal the critics of his later work. It illustrates the victory of devious intelligence over muscular magnitude. The critics were not won over.
“Colours running mad”
“putting out both the yes of us, harmless critics..violating nature and defying common sense”
The exhibition was not so busy that I couldn’t sit and stare at the canvas for a while. I wondered how much of the sky goes unnoticed because my eyes just flit up and then move on. If I kept looking, would I see what Turner saw? I am better at concentrating on the night sky than I used to be. If you keep staring on clear night, the sky slowly fills up. Photons at first unnoticed unnoticed start to dot the back of the eye.
Then, I found myself with a peculiar emotional state of mind, a quiet elation.
A sense of happiness, not tearful, but as if that might have been some possibility because I had lost track of what I was seeing and had experienced something briefly without my perpetual watchman homunculus giving commentary.
I was smiling at a painting. No one sat beside me, who’d want to sit next to an art gallery smiler?
Was this my Rorschach test? The more I looked, was I seeing more detail subtly placed in the light by Turner, or was I seeing what was in my mind. If my atheism turns out to have been a delusion, and when I die, I see the light, I hope that the god has used Turner to paint the light that I drift towards as I become lifeless.
It reminded me of the Caputo effect. Stand opposite a mirror in a predominantly dark room, with only your face lit, and stare intensely into your eyes. After a while, you’ll see your face changing. You may suddenly look old or your head may bubble or it may start to vanish.
You may even experience something else. It’s your mind making stuff up because it’s getting so little feedback. I stared and stared at Turner’s light to see what I may see.
I only had an hour at the Turner Contemporary, I’d give yourself three hours and aim for a quiet morning. The time taken will be rewarded. There is much about his fascination with new pigments, like chrome yellow and cobalt blue, and his eagerness to use them when they were unstable.
There is a picture of apology, Spilt Milk. When staying at Petworth House, he spilt milk on a lady’s fine merino wool dress at breakfast and causing such upset that he painted her as way of recompense.
John Ruskin wrote, “Turner only momentarily dwells on anything else than ruin”, but within these ruins, and in time when there is anxiety that we are on the way to some imminent cataclysm, there is potent delight in these rooms thicker than the sulphurous air outside.
I walked down the corridor of the Winter Gardens and looked at the posters of Little and Large, Leo Sayer, Petula Clark, Bernard Miles and The Barron Knights, I wonder what they made of the skies over Thanet during their summer seasons?
I didn’t get time for fondue and a tattoo this time. I wonder how long it would take to ink Ulysses Derides Polyphemus either side of my spine?
A great book about the dark stories of Thanet is All The Devils are Here.
The latest Josie and Robin’s Book Shambles includes Nick Offerman talking about how much he enjoyed his trip to Margate, you don’t get that from every carpenter and US sitcom star.