The Vagaries of Swing


In February this year a slim volume called ‘The Vagaries of Swing’ was quietly slipped into the public domain. Its author, Mac Carty, was unknown and had chosen to self-publish rather than to try and negotiate between the different publishing houses and compete with the likes of Hilary Mantel. At first sight the book appeared to be an attempt to record cricketing and occasional hockey tales from the Sixties, when life was largely about being irresponsible and revolved around sport, alcohol and girls if you were lucky. However it became apparent from the sub-title, ‘Footprints on the Margate Sands of Time’ that the stories revolved around the seaside town of Margate and that Mac Carty had been born and grown up there. Coincidentally the Rough Travel Guide had identified the town as one of the ‘must-see’ destinations not just in the UK but in the world. What on earth had caused them to make such an explosive statement and was it time to re-evaluate the role that Margate has played historically?

The Thanet Vagaries Blog will over the next few months try and penetrate some of the mysteries. We have an exclusive and intimate relationship with Mac Carty and will probe some of the assertions made in the book. For example, is it at all possible that the Big Bang originated near Cecil Square and did Thomas Paine really get the inspiration for much of his writing (which of course had a significant influence in both the American and French revolutions) from time spent in the town? Was he ever in the Ruby Lounge? In addition what role did the island of Thanet play in the development of cricket and why was Kenneth Horne not better briefed by the town council in the 1965 seasonal promotional video? Who was Biff Ford, did he really work for the Ministry of Defence and more importantly did anyone ever see him wearing a suit?

In this post we should perhaps focus on the comment regarding Thomas Paine, which at first sight just appears to have been tossed into the mix mischievously. However when we actually took down our tattered copy of ‘The American Crisis’ by Common Sense, a principle rarely embraced by politicians both local or national, we found two interesting quotations. The Common Sense pamphlets, commencing in 1775 rocketed Paine into the American public domain. They were described as abusive and seditious, questioning the legitimacy of control by organised religion and monarchy (the latter something kept behind a curtain – presumably like the Wizard of Oz). He asked, “Have you lost a parent or child by their hands and yourself the ruined and wretched survivor?”

It was, of course, Paine himself who saw his wife, Mary Lambert, die in childbirth in Margate in early 1760. There is also some comment that the local gossip seemed to indicate that he may have contributed to his wife’s ill-health by his attitude to her  and so he may well have spent those lonely months there after her death in deep and painful reflection. We know that he would have had no work there as a stay-maker as Thanet women then rarely wore stays – nothing changes does it? He would have been 23 then and, very much like Biff Ford, thereafter had very little to do with women. What better time, in between a few halves in the Ruby Lounge or its predecessor and bathing in the sea and swallowing the health-giving water, than to contemplate the vagaries of life. Doubtless too he caught sight of the donkeys toiling inland with their smuggled wares and that may well have been the trigger (wasn’t that the singing cowboy Roy Roger’s horse?) that caused him to write to his father-in-law seeking a job in the Excise. He left Thanet shortly afterwards, never to return.

‘Common Sense’ had a significant following not only in Boston but also in Paris and in London. The clinching argument about his inspiration though comes from the second quotation. “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot ….”. Any man who can envisage a sunshine patriot would surely have spent time in Margate, with its wonderful record of hours of sunshine unrivalled in the country. Indeed the concept of a summer soldier – working in the summer and on the dole in the winter – sounds exactly right. Nelson complained of something similar when he had control of the coastline defences in the South East so Paine must have recognised an identical trait. So there we have it. Margate may well have played a hand in both the American and French revolutions and this seems to have been missed by historians down the generations. Perhaps more important than doing a bit of painting on the jetty, splashing odd colours on a bit of old canvas.

Mac Carty’s book itself, ‘The Vagaries of Swing’, has received a widely differing reception from those who have had the dubious privilege of reading it. The author has been described by one old friend as demented and the book by another as rambling and confused. However others have described it as clever and scholarly, thought-provoking and occasionally hilarious and having brilliant humour and devastating satire. One of our senior judges commented that he had enjoyed the book immensely but that he would have preferred less cock and dick. So what are we to make of this conundrum? Each week we intend to analyse a chapter and try to bring some clarity to some of the issues raised. On a more mundane level we will try and bring some sense to some of the characters and references in the book, as clearly if you weren’t alive in the 1960’s and more specifically in 1965 then some of the comments need further explanation.

Mac Carty does say that Margate was actually a great place to grow up. The beaches, as you well know, are splendid, the climate healthy and the views of the ever-changing seas and skies had attracted the likes of J W Turner. It was lively, raucous but sadly in decline. Once an elegant and favoured resort, it very quickly moved to the realms of a culture best described as kiss me quick. In its time though it has attracted many famous visitors and he decided to weave into his tale some of the history, using poetic licence to extend the work. There are references to John Wayne, General Custer, Lincoln, P T Barnum, Putin, Pope Benedict, Winston Churchill, Charles Dickens, Michael Caine, The Who, Biggles, Popeye, the Wizard of Oz and a cast of many others. Surely not all of them came to visit? Apparently some did which adds to the mystery. The year of 1965 was Mac Carty’s last year before university but was memorable not just for the great music but also because the cricket club almost split and a girl was murdered in the local park. That drew him firmly into the subject of violence against women and in trying to effectively identify the causes, he strayed into thoughts of cricket played celestially. The humour is broad, as maybe you would expect from a place where Donald McGill’s seaside postcards sail close to the wind – or to the sea breeze. We look forward in future posts to unravelling more of the story and placing the Isle of Thanet very firmly at the centre of civilisation.