I visited Margate’s golden sands in the last sunny days of autumn. Radiant light shone through the glass roof of St Pancras, casting silhouettes across the station as the sleek train known as the Javelin glided away from London’s 21st-century transport hub, before we disappeared underground, shearing through miles of tunnel, clearing the whole East London sprawl in 15 minutes.
We emerged at the thrilling, end-of-the-world spectacle of hyper-capitalism tumouring along the soured floodplains of the Thames Estuary, bleached concrete flyovers arching past colossal wind turbines and monstrous oil tanks rising from the soggy marshland. It felt like a day-trip to Blade Runner’s beach, some way into a future shot through with fluorescent toxic beauty, seen from the slick, air-conditioned interior of the High Speed 1.
I didn’t know what I was expecting to find. Margate is emblematic of the English seaside, and has been one of its most dramatic cautionary tales. I remember the overwhelming sense of desolation when I last visited several years ago: as I got off the train, a young man was screaming and crying in the station, booting the wall hard with a ragged Reebok Classic.
It was a glorious sunny evening in high summer but there were only about a dozen stragglers on Margate’s mile of sand. There were no punters in the sex shop with the waterproof plastic nurses’ outfits in the window. The only signs of life were in the pubs, which were full of drunken hard bastards from deep Kent, teenagers with tops off, Tupac tats on fighters’ torsos, hands down tracksuit bottoms cupping degenerate bollocks, and the feeling a kicking was a wrong look away.
Margate then felt like a brutish, irredeemable place but last summer I’d heard enough positive mentions of it to make me wonder whether this seaside town that had been in free fall for as long as anyone could remember had finally found its bounce: conversations turned on its new “arty” vibe, people moving there, people even calling it “Shoreditch-on-Sea”.
These conversations were always with people who’d lived in the East End when it was a ropey, colourful no-man’s-land where creativity had the space to flourish, who’d woken up one morning around Olympics time and found themselves living behind enemy lines, out-priced by international rich kids, shit celebrities’ children and members of the band Mumford & Sons.
I’d been to Hastings a few weeks earlier, which I’d also heard called “Shoreditch-on-Sea”. Like Margate, Hastings was full of reminders of how far the English seaside resort had sunk: lots of pound shops and bleak, empty amusement arcades defacing the crumbling elegance of the regency terraces above them. A confusing, kaleidoscopic muddle of heroin addicts in jogging bottoms, feather-in-their-cap bohemians, dilapidation and intriguing hints of arty activity in the shady undergrowth. I’d even seen a compilation from an indie label called Thinking About Moving To Hastings.
There was clearly something afoot in these southern coastal resorts. I decided to return to Margate and compare notes, and not for purely anthropological reasons: my vested interest being I’m also one of those displaced East Enders who can no longer make the sums work in the arsehole’s paradise that Boris’s London is fast becoming.
The train pulled into Margate station. A faded banner reading “Dreamland Welcomes You” hung on a grim concrete wall below a strangely beautiful, bleak Stalinist towerblock caught in the sun. I got off to the sound of seagulls squawking, along with a Noddy Holder-haired bloke in white snakeskin cuban-heeled boots, a couple of urchins with a pitbull and an old boy struggling with a walking stick. Margate’s grandiose station hall hinted at the volume of punters who would have passed through it at one time.
The stink of stale fat drifted out of the station’s cafe, but the posters scattered across the walls told a different story: Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner, set partly in Margate, was showing, as was English Magic, Jeremy Deller’s new exhibition at Turner Contemporary. I walked into a town seemingly caught between these two opposing social signifiers.
I walked out of the station right on to the town’s famous mile of golden sand, past the shelter where TS Eliot wrote The Waste Land while recovering from the nervous breakdown he’d suffered as a City banker: “On Margate Sands. I can connect. Nothing with nothing”. In the low, golden mid-afternoon sunlight, the bleakness felt altogether less desperate, more bittersweet.
Beside the golden mile was a boarded-up, brutalist arcade, backing on to the closed Dreamland amusement park. A little “To Let” sign sat pathetically next to huge lightbulb lettering running up the side of an amazing art deco fin that looked like the back of a dilapidated Chevy: a tragic, poignant sight.
Fortunately, all was not lost in Dreamland. There was a temporary exhibition staffed by volunteers in a disused room full of vintage pinball machines. The exhibition was something of a revelation: Dreamland is more than just a deserted fairground at the heart of a fallen seaside resort. It’s one of England’s earliest amusement parks, opened in 1921 at the birth of English popular culture.
The more I looked round the exhibition, the more impressive Dreamland’s pedigree seemed: the Grade 2 listed Edwardian wooden roller coaster, the first in England, based on the ride in Coney Island, New York. The cinema, with its fantastical fin, was the blueprint for the golden age of English art deco cinemas, inspired by the revolutionary 1928 design of the Titania Palast in Berlin. Dreamland was clearly one of the crucibles of our pop culture: its role continuing after WWII, when mods and rockers christened Sixties youth culture here by kicking the shit out of each other along the golden mile.
I watched a film about Dreamland being regenerated with lovely old Super-8 home movies of donkeys, dodgems and 99s. It was a multitude of old cockney voices recalling how Dreamland was the heart of Margate: the Margate of everyone’s childhood memories, a lost world of hook-a-ducks and candy floss.
Designer Wayne Hemingway has been brought in to renovate the amusement park. His total enthusiasm — “We’re gonna bust a gut to get this place back up and running!” — and his profound understanding that Dreamland was a people’s palace, not another identikit temple to Culture with a capital C, couldn’t help but win you over. I even enjoyed the voice-over by Barbara Windsor. The exhibition tugged deep on my heartstrings. It seemed to have only the noblest of intentions, and I found myself rooting for Dreamland and for the fortunes and people of Margate.
The volunteer who gave me a newspaper about it clearly cared about his town, really wanted it to recover and, I have to admit, all the love and hope I felt focused in this little exhibition almost put a lump in my throat.
It all seemed so different to the last time I visited.
“Why did you come here?” a cab driver asked me then.
“Just for a mooch about,” I said.
“Oh, you don’t want to do that. It’s a shithole here... Shithole-on-Sea.”
And on he went, despondently, for the entire ride. By the time I got out I’d almost lost the will. You’re supposed to be an ambassador for your town, I thought. Overwhelming pessimism seemed to be so deep-rooted it had consumed the place.
The problem for former resorts like Margate and Hastings is they were developed to cater to leisure time during the Industrial Revolution, when tourism was on an industrial model and an industrial scale. When the masses went to Spain and the English seaside resorts collapsed, the ruins were as epic as any of the industrial age.
Hastings has its own version of Dreamland. Next to the rusted, buckled legs of the burned pier, there’s an incredible, mile-long concrete collonade; crumbling, piss-stained, daunting, haunted by smackheads and rough drinkers, known as Bottle Alley. It has the feel of an abandoned Cold War structure, a ruin from a past civilisation whose meaning has become obscure and mysterious. I don’t think there are any definite plans to save the South Coast’s biggest tramp shelter, but like Dreamland in Margate, Hastings is rebuilding its own temple of pop culture — the pier.
When I visited, the hi-viz workmen were busy, and photos of The Who with mod roundels behind them adorned the enclosing billboards. Everyone played on this pier, from The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and The Clash to Sasha and Digweed in its final days as a muntered rave venue.
Back in Margate, the wreckage of that bygone era of industrial leisure was still strewn along the seafront: the sorriest row of “family amusements”, the rotten plastic signage of a defunct bingo parlour, a pawnbrokers with cashiers behind plate glass, a boarded-up old Woolworths. But something felt different about Margate this time. All around I saw subtle signs of new life, fresh shoots of something cool and interesting quietly gathering momentum.
Men in sharp black Harrington jackets with tartan lining, sideburned and mod-cropped, were drinking pints that glowed amber in the sun outside a bar proudly displaying a Northern Soul fist and a Trojan Records logo on its front. It all fit in perfectly with what I’d just found out about Dreamland. They looked fucking cool, too: an alternative style cult channelling and up-cycling that old spirit of south coast youth culture that Margate was a midwife to.
Though when I saw three lads bowling past in elasticated tracksuit bottoms, hooded Kappa fleeces and black Adidas trainers — the actual contemporary working class youth style, rather than the arty appropriation of its past — it put a slightly confusing spin on things.
A side street into the Old Town showed a different and decidedly more bourgeois side to this retro-modernist current bubbling away in Margate: a mid-century Danish furniture shop, a craft beer pub, a “Delivery to London” sign in a yard with vintage bath tubs and Seventies reclining chairs. Gift shops and do-up-your-new-house-stylishly stores, as sure a sign as the Farrow & Ball-coloured estate agents that things were on the move and this end of Margate was coming “up”.
Turning a corner, I was reminded why. The Turner Contemporary art gallery glowed like carved marble as the low autumn sun laid flat colours on it, its cerebral, classy beauty the opposite of the busy, infantile joy of Dreamland. I was looking forward to the Jeremy Deller show but at the entrance I couldn’t work out how to get in. “We’re closed,” said a man up a ladder, installing the new Christmas gift shop.
I cursed but soon got over the disappointment. In my experience, seeing the contents of the Big White Box was generally the least important thing about the Big White Box. In all the galleries we’ve inherited from New Labour, it always seems like the content’s almost incidental; an excuse to come and see the spectacle of the gallery. It’s all about how the light falls in the atrium, about the Tracey Emin tea towels in the gift shop.
These galleries almost become empty sculptural spaces; the cathedrals of the cultured classes’ Sunday leisure time. Where I grew up in England’s North East, Baltic — a similarly colossal shed with no permanent collection — occupies the same role at the heart of the leisure/culture infrastructure of Newcastle, and has provided the vital catalyst for the trendy metropolitan classes to reclaim the decayed industrial heart of the city. I’m not complaining about this, I love Baltic and everything it’s done to upgrade the banks of the River Tyne. But I’m struggling to remember any of the “world-class art” I’ve seen exhibited there since it opened around the Millennium.
The death of industrial England hit Newcastle just as hard as the southern seaside resorts. As with Baltic, the recent parachuting in of Turner Contemporary in Margate and the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings seem like successful attempts to try and pole-vault this downward trajectory and open up a niche for the cultured classes.
As to whether this is sensitive to the town’s existing DNA, or relevant and appropriate to the needs of the locals, is a more complicated question. In Hastings, the Jerwood and the old fishing area around it face each other uncomfortably, on opposite sides of this fault-line. Among the rusty tractors and the peeling boats, “No Jerwood” is prominently graffitied on a wall among the shambolic fishing sheds with hand-painted door numbers, pirate flags and ragged Saint George’s crosses flapping in the wind.
The fishermen of England’s biggest beached fleet hate the Jerwood because it has replaced the coach park that used to bring busloads of punters who’d buy their fish each day. They worry this’ll be the death blow to an already precarious and near-extinct way of making a living. This gaping disconnect between the precarious and the fashionable ends of our society is the trickiest aspect of Margate and Hastings’ similarity to Shoreditch, unfortunately.
The cynical side of me worries that “culture-led regeneration” is all too often more like “art-led social engineering”. But my hopeful, generous-hearted side that feels unexpectedly moved by Dreamland or the Hastings pier charity, by the voluntary staff who care about their towns becoming better, says the knock-on effect of these Big White Boxes seems to be the re-awakening of the old slumbering spirit that made these resorts special in the first place. Dreamland and Hastings pier are “culture-led regeneration” that really seems like “local pop culture-led regeneration” for once, and it can’t be a coincidence they’ve followed in the contemporary art galleries’ footsteps and that can only be a good thing.
The implications of such questions quickly become paradoxical, ambivalent and complicated. Thankfully however, Margate’s sunset made me forget my thoughts about the gaping chasms of class in modern Britain, about gentrification and my ambiguous place within it. In what little sun was left that autumn afternoon, I caught the most exquisite Turner sunset. He described the skies here as “the loveliest in Europe”, the reason he visited so often (rather than the landlady of a local boarding house he was knocking off).
I drifted through that perfect hour when everything is saturated in light and gold and the glistening on the calm blue waters, and thought about Turner’s dying words: “The sun is God”. As the sky turned magenta, the gallery glowed like a tiny marble Sydney Opera House from its commanding position at the end of the bay, facing its God beginning to redden and rest. Maybe the light here is the prettiest: it certainly felt that way. There’s also something lovely about the bruised beauty of this little town at the birth of the English seaside, at the place where the Thames becomes the luminous blue sea.
A heritage plaque told me Margate had the first donkey rides, the first deckchairs, the first boarding houses. I watched happy-looking immigrant families with children throwing chips at seagulls, a bloke slowly painting a bad Impressionist seascape (and good on him), a straggle of lost-looking teenage foreign language students, the odd arty type trying to film the sunset on their tablets. Being among the people of this beach, all of us hanging in the pink sunset by the shining water, was an ecstasy of sorts.
The light was so exquisite, it was a small torture to tear myself away from the view as I neared the station for my train home. Then I was rudely jolted out of my poetic rapture by some arsehole in a grey Sports Direct jogging suit bombing over the crossing on a BMX and pulling a wheelie down the middle of the pavement — a big “fuck you” to society in general and me in particular while almost taking my toes off in the process.
And that parting incident seemed to contain the central, contradictory yin and yang dynamic at the heart of Shoreditch-on-Sea.