We are going on holiday.
We approach by car. I lean over the steering wheel, an equestrian posture and a bodily instinct, urging the vehicle onwards. We are aiming for the sea, tucking the tarmac in ribbons behind us. We have unplumbed ourselves from home and burdened our vehicle with the physical goods required to set up a sizeable and technologically-advanced encampment. As we head east, we also carry with us the intangible urgency of the city. The road we are travelling on was known first as the Pilgrim's Way, but my attention is largely outwards, taking in road signs, the location and behaviour of my fellow road users. My internal landscape is ignored, except for the low persistent hum of stress. As the car hurtles through the hinterlands of redundant docks, I tune in and tune out the chatter and chortle of YouTube from the backseat and the curt imperatives of our satnav guide. The journey itself is an item scrawled on a checklist, imbued with anxiety until it can be marked complete.
Eventually, the motorway gives way to dual and then single carriageway. A tatty roadside sign tilted at a jaunty angle that announces, simply "Cherries!" prompts a sudden awakening: we are not in London anymore. The seaside begins to creep into the vernacular of the homes channeling us eastwards. A weatherboarded elevation to the right, a bungalow to the left, an ice cream smear of pastel paintwork and wrought iron balconies, angled coastwards. My son is in the company of some California traceurs who are taking dizzing leaps over the street furniture of a sun-bleached boardwalk. He is lost in time and does not think to ask "Are we there yet?". The unneeded reply, "Almost." is on my lips. The road tilts down towards the south eastern edge, the sky grows bigger and I feel illuminated, lighter. And suddenly, there it is: the sea.
On our first day, it is bright and clear. We walk seeking to get the measure of the place - long legs strolling in a straight line, shorter legs zig-zagging hither and thither across the shoreline. Squint, and the grainy gold half-moon and luminous blue seas of Margate's Main Sands could almost be Californian. We pause on the expensive sea defences, to rest our bodies on the steps and our eyes on the sea. The sweeping concrete buffer gestures towards the well-preserved Old Town and the modern pavilion of the Turner Contemporary gallery. Rising above the lairy primary-coloured strip of fish and chip shops and arcades is the whirligig Eiffel of Dreamland's big wheel bearing its cargo of swinging pods. Also taking up airspace is the Brutalist hulk of Arlington House with its undulating facade, looming over the seafront. It is a beacon, like Trellick Tower in my own neighbourhood. The visible "Block Brexit' banner and EU flags radio out a slightly unexpected message: reassuring in more ways than one. This concrete mass is at least partly populated by souls not bent on self-sabotage and with a better view of the rest of the Union than most.
Margate is the original seaside town. Since 1730, the town has welcomed holiday makers and health tourists seeking the benefits of sea water, many hundreds of years before the wellness industry was a thing. Like so many of the notable British seaside towns, it is now a zone of clash and contrast, between monuments of nature and geography and crumbling manmade grandeur, between the blues of sea and sky, and the brash neon tones of the arcade. This is the genius loci of the seaside and we partly come for this combination of personal and cultural nostalgia.
The package holiday boom of the 1960s and the lure of affordable foreign sun, compounded by the Beeching cuts to rail services, wrought a steep decline on this British costa, from which it has yet to fully recover. Over the past half-century, the local community have had to contend with the failings of central and local government to adequately fill the void left by the departing tourist industry. The grand Georgian and Victorian boarding houses rapidly fell into dilapidation. Councils from far and wide took advantage of low rents and placed thousands of vulnerable and highly dependent people in these properties and others like them. The town drew the homeless and migrants. Margate was a salty Charybdis of poverty, addiction and mental health problems writ large, under the promenade, in the back streets, in the sea shelters and the decaying rooms with thin walls.
But Margate is on the cusp of a slowly turning tide. The local authority is working to stem inward migration and a Margate Task Force has been established to co-ordinate grassroot initiatives to improve the life and prospects of the town's residents. The idea formed to commemorate the artist Turner's relationship with the town in the form of a gallery and, in 2011, the Turner Contemporary landed like a spaceship in an interstitial space between the vestigial pier and the Old Town. The outline of the building is familiar, like a row of fisherman's huts, pitched roofs nestled together. The elevations of the gallery are smart and clear, taking on a colour midway between that of the sea and sky.
Of course it was hoped that an iconic building would pave the way for culture-led regeneration. Reversing the decline of tourism in the south east of England is a heavy burden to place on the shoulders of any building and, eight years on, the transformation is not as dramatic as stakeholders might have hoped. As I meandered around Margate’s drab high street, I was interested to stumble upon The Margate School in an old Woolworths. TMS is a new liberal arts school which proclaims itself to be "in and for Margate". As befits its location, the school has significant connections across the Channel with art institutions in France. The meanwhile premises are intentional and TMS plans to utilise the not-few empty shops and other premises to deliver its post-graduate degrees, apprenticeships, short-courses and incubation facilities. Was TMS a fruit of Turner Contemporary, or is it a reaction against the gallery?
Regeneration was always going to be difficult in Margate with its deep social and economic difficulties. Today, eight years since the gallery opened with the venue closing in on half a million visitors, the hoped-for renaissance is still incipient. While, the trickle of daytrippers, weekenders and vacationers is building to a stream, you need venture only a short distance from the seafront or Old Town to find that large parts of the town are shabby and not-at-all-chic.
Overall, it seems there has been a refocussing and an appreciation for a more joined-up and collaborative way of proceeding. TMS is an example of a bottom up, community-led movement to build prospects for the town, hopefully one that is representative of the direction the town's regeneration will take.
We have come, mainly, for the fresh air, the white noise of the sea, and the horizon. We have come to eat chips, knowing they will taste better seasoned by the sea air. We have come to peer at the rumblestrip of the beach, where the tide has withdrawn to leave its most treasured gifts. Backs perpendicular to our legs, toes in the sand, we seek out a striped whorl of shell, a perfectly spherical stone, until our spines throb. We have come to eat petal pink whirls of candy floss, to feel the sugary sizzle as it melts on our tongues. We have come to feed coppery two pences into glassy machines, with the synthetic aural clatter and whine of the arcade in our ears.
I say "we". My eldest, autistic son is not so sure. A narrative of five days:
Do I live here?
I'm stuck in Margate forever, temporarily.
Will our Margate home be gone for good?
For him a holiday is an ambiguous thing and his binary brain struggles with that. This ambiguity is real and pervasive in towns by the sea, more so than in cities (and he is a child of the city). Are we, seaside lovers, drawn to coastal towns because they are peculiarly ambiguous places? These geographical boundaries between land and sea. A destination for leisure, a half-way place for those on life's bottom rung, a home? He is better, these days, at centering himself, finding steady ground and secure thoughts. Five years ago there were doorways he could not bring himself to pass through, he would physically hang onto door jambs rather than face the uncertainty of there. Over time, he is increasingly able to see the space between the 1s and 0s, the grey between the black and the white, but he cannot wholly relax, yet. In time, I hope the liminal nature of costal towns, hotels and borrowed homes will be an attraction.
The many-hued, noisy carnival of Dreamland is the throbbing centre of Margate's liminality. It exists, now, as a pleasant, sanitised version of its former self; an amusement park for the Instagram age. But the past is close. Dreamland has always existed to enable visitors to step outside the quotidien. Today, we are hurled into the now by various rides which propel you, variously, up, down, sideways and round. In the park's heyday, it was a bustling, lurching place of thrills and hedonism. Social norms could be left at the door and visitors free to pursue the pleasure principle in the ballroom, on the rides, at the bar. The restored Scenic Railway rollercoaster would have been climbing and plunging the rails behind T.S. Eliot, as he sat in the Nayland Rock Shelter, regarding the sea. Margate was where T.S. Eliot became unblocked, allowing the sigh of The Waste Land to emerge. In a suitable monument, the toilet block adjacent to the shelter bears a blue plaque marking his time in the town, and the station, a tiled mural bearing Eliot's quote, "My name is only an anagram of toilets". The shelter now offers scant comfort to some of the town's many homeless population, for whom "The Waste Land" might be less a metaphor and more a state of being.
Eventually, my son accepts his fate: he is on holiday. He sits, content for a moment, on the couch of our holiday home. The window frames a watery Rothko, two rectangular fields of sea-sky. Below, on the promenade, an airy thread connects the promenade joggers, plumbed into their silent discos, to the "health for all" industry that made the town. Tomorrow we will paddle in the milky shallows of Botany Bay and eat bacon sandwiches on a bus, marooned on the seafront.
In the words of T.S. Eliot's wife, Vivien, "Margate is rather queer and we don't dislike it."
Want to read more? Love is a Bourgeois Construct or Shepherd’s Bush