Sunday, 13 September 2015

Margate and me

Things I have in common with Tracey Emin:
  • We’re nearly the same age.
  • We spent our formative years in Margate.
  • Er, that’s it.
Tracey Emin is rich and famous and I’m not, but she’s got an artwork up on Margate harbourside that says “I never stopped loving you”. Me neither.

We never had much money when I was growing up but we did have a second home. It felt like that, anyway. My grandparents retired to the seaside, which was what Londoners did in those days. We spent nearly all our holidays there, and even lived there for a while in the middle of moving house. I learned the phrase “out of season” and felt privileged to be at the seaside when the visitors had gone home.

In winter, the sea was grey and bleak. In summer it was still grey but that’s because we were looking at the North Sea. (Or I thought we were: I recently discovered that the Thames estuary goes as far as Margate, which means that I can claim, like Dr Feelgood, to come from the Thames Delta.)

Growing up, we didn’t spend much time in Margate itself: living a few miles away, we had our own seaside. We went to town if we needed to go to Marks & Spencers or Chelsea Girl or the Green Shield Stamp shop. We went for the cinema. We went to marvel at the rock shops with their rows of dummies, bananas and false teeth all made of sugar. But mostly we went for Dreamland, the pleasure park that opened in the 1920s and was still going strong through the 60s and 70s.

A few years ago while visiting my mother I took a day trip to Margate. There was an exhibition on about the proposed new art gallery, conceived as a way of kick-starting Margate’s regeneration. I felt quite cross looking at the video of council types talking about all this: what happened to art for art’s sake?

And the nostalgia kicked in and I thought, we could move here. And the cynical bit of me thought, this could be a good time to buy.  I didn’t, of course.

Since then, I’ve read articles saying, it’ll never work because Margate is a dumping ground for people other councils don’t want. And I’ve read articles saying that UKIP have taken over the Isle of Thanet

Then I heard this year about Dreamland reopening. And more recently, I’ve read articles about people “selling little boxes in London and buying quite extensive properties in Margate”. Which filled me with fear for the people who already live there, or who might be trying to get on the housing ladder in Thanet.

So I went back a few weeks ago to find out. I found that where there were fishing stores there are now micro-pubs. Where there were rock shops, there’s an indoor market “coming soon”. In the Old Town, there are vintage shops and bars. Yes, the hipsters are moving in.

Away from the seafront, and the Old Town, nothing much has changed since my last visit. In the backstreets, I recognise the faces: these are the same type of people who live in my inland small town, struggling to get by. There are the same cheap shops, and there are empty buildings. One of them still has the Woolworths sign, and how long is it since they went bust? As visitors, we all like "shabby chic" seaside towns but shabby on its own isn't much fun if you live there.

Like tourists, we went to the Turner Contemporary, a lovely building full of light with huge windows overlooking the sea (and a Grayson Perry exhibition: more about that next time).

And we went to Dreamland. It’s nothing like I remember it; it’ll be good when it’s finished, but it won’t be the same. We had a great time, all the same.

As a child in the 60s, I loved Dreamland. I went with my parents or grandparents; we were given half a crown and it bought a lot of rides. We went on the safe ones: the carousel (it’s still there, or something very like it), the helter-skelter (it looks just the same, but apparently it’s a replica), the River Caves. The River Caves had little boats that travelled through darkness showing beautiful things. The anti-ghost train.

As a teenager in the 70s, I loved Dreamland.  I went with my sisters or friends, with our pocket money; we’d gone decimal by then. We went on the waltzers, screaming as we were pushed by flirtatious boys from the wrong side of the tracks who offered to meet us after work but never did.

There are no waltzers at the moment, but there are bumper cars and Husband and I went on them eight times – the advantage of going “out of season”.

I worry a bit about what’s going to happen to Margate. Will it lose its character, and will that be the right price to pay for going up in the world? And I know that if my grandparents’ old house came on the market tomorrow, I’d still try very hard to buy it.


  1. Lovely piece - I think it's going to take an awfully long time to become gentrified, if it ever does. I go over there quite often, and it doesn't take long (about 2 minutes!) to reach the streets that are perhaps not as inviting as others. It's quite the enigma, all in all!