In Margate by Lunch Time. Maggie Harris Cultured Llama Press.
The first thing that struck me and indeed drew me to this collection of short stories was the remarkable front cover designed by Mark Holihan. It has all the elements we associate with Margate: sand, parakeets, and the Victorian sea front. The type face for the name Margate is jaunty and harps back to the town’s saucy post card past. A biker chick mermaid on a motorcycle dominates the cover hinting at the strand of magical realism running through the collection. Such a cover would make me want to read the book even had I not been reviewing it.
This is a collection of short stories steeped in place, that of the Isle of Thanet. It is clear that Harris although hailing from Guyana, made her home there for a substantial period of time and got to know not only the landscape but also the myth and mysteries of the area. Each narrative is set in a different part culminating in ‘A Mermaid’s Tale’ that is in effect a whirl wind guided tour of the area. As such I think the subject matter will chime well with those who have memories of holidays and daytrips, who have heard of it by reputation and of course locals like me who like to spot the land marks.
Thanet is a quite unique area. It is a peninsula, once an island, whose inhabitants have often lived there for many generations. The place is however now a battle line in terms of immigrants who have become somewhat ghettoised. Added to this there is a sense of a place on the cusp of change. Turner contemporary, a healthy vintage trade and renovations of old buildings creates a tension at this point in time. The place is now both forward and backward looking. Thus we have stories like ‘The Parakeet Café’ where Dilys recently widowed takes a nostalgic trip back to Thanet to relive the time and area where she met her husband. Many of the places are gone now but the simple story has the charm of revisiting hotels such as the Nayland Rock once grand that is now on its uppers. The story as with many skilfully moves between the present and the past of a 60s Margate hay day. It is clear in other tales such as ‘Homes under the Hammer’ that a tension lies between the locals and the ‘arty farty shops’ that are springing up changing the area bringing vintage tourists rather than seaside tourists.
The collection ambitiously starts with historical tales from the origins of the area. Such tales are fittingly placed at the beginning of the collection, ‘Bright Island’,’ Dawn’, ‘The Shepherdess’; give us moments in time from Viking to Roman invasions. They suggest a violent back ground even in the Victorian era nodding to the harshness of smuggling. In many cases such as ‘The Shepherdess’ the time frame more moves smoothly between eras, the ancient and the modern, giving us not just a sense of the Thanet’s past but also the similarities in human experiences and emotions whatever the era. Moreover this switching between time frames leads well into the inclusion of magical realism. In many cases this concept is merely a slight addition to the story, a sense more than a reality that something unusual is occurring like something seen out of the corner of the eye. In other tales such as ‘The Smack Boy’ magic enters the real world fully in a modern ghost story set around the Sailors’ church. Harris does well to include such buildings and myths of the area and build on their narrative potential. The most obviously fanciful story is ‘The Mermaid Tour’ where a young man is met off the train by a glamorous mermaid on a motorbike who gives him and by extension the reader a guided tour of Thanet.
Whilst the early historical tales set the tone of the place it is the more modern tales I enjoyed most. Such works are a mix of simple reveries on modern life such as ‘At Nayland Rock the Poet Watched the Sea’, a snapshot of TS Eliot’s state of mind whilst staying in the area to ‘Homes under the Hammer’ where a local bemoans the changes in the area. We also have full blown narratives such as ‘The year the Flamingos came’, ‘Alice’ that although set in the mid-1970s have universal truths of the perils of being young and innocent. Harris is unafraid to deal with the more challenging aspects of race and immigration endemic in the area. She sets the tone with the tales on invasion subtly pointing out that Thanet has a diverse tradition of mixing races. This idea is firmly rooted in her first narrative ‘I, Parakeet’ that deals with the invasion of the exotic birds that have since colonised the area. The parakeets that are a constant thread throughout the collection are symbolic of all the other races that have made their homes in Thanet. This is further examined in a rich collection of stories dealing with a Greek restaurateur and Muslim girls on a sneaky night out. The story that touched me most concerned a book club. A mixed bunch of members meet during the day in the library. All are unemployed and making the best of it. What struck me most was the loneliness that seemed to attach itself to all the characters.
The tales that are the most current are littered with references to a modern Margate attempting to pull itself up and doing so seems to leave the locals behind. Thus in ‘Let’s Dance’ the character Indira cramped by motherhood spends her time taxing kids to amongst other delights to a dance gala at The Winter Gardens, who herself longs to dance but finds she is too old. In ‘Homes under the Hammer’, the narrator likes ’’ nuttin betta than catch the bus and nose round them Westwood Cross shops even if I ain’t got a penny to me name ‘’
The language throughout is lyrical as befits the detailed level of description. Harris is also a poet and she has a flair for simile that enlivens her work. The stories are well structured and it is clear that a good editorial hand has done well here. The only issue I have is with the dialogue. All characters seem to use a blend of estuary that doesn’t quite ring true to me. I appreciate that Harris is in many cases writing dialect, thus we have ‘wuz’, ‘nuttin, ‘ere’ but this dialect seems in many cases to be out of date especially when issuing from the mouths of younger characters. Moreover she has a habit of including terms of endearments such as ‘ducks’, ‘my dears’ that are not current and detract from the thrust of the conversation. There is too an undertone of a Caribbean accent throughout that slightly skews the authenticity , the issue may lie in Harris’ own legacy of being Guyana born, it may be a challenge for her to zone out the Caribbean and attune to the nuances of a genuine Kentish dialect. Interestingly this tension does not arise in her descriptions or when writing standard English conversation that is both fluent and authentic.
Nevertheless this is a rich collection of tales. I should add that all the idiosyncrasies Thanet is currently notorious for from teenage pregnancies to recent immigrants are handled sensitively and without censure. Indeed the inclusion of magical realism, a sense of history and detailed descriptions make it seem a remarkable place.
Fiona Sinclair © 2015.