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There are some things that just don’t go together, though God knows I’ve tried. Custard and horseradish. Eczema and satin. Margate and December…
On this trip, the rain didn’t let up all day, and it was so cold that Nhung’s fingers struggled to operate her cameras. It was more an endurance test than a fun day out, but nevertheless, through the shrieking gloom, we kept glimpsing perfect examples of seaside architecture, though the wind howled through our crannies like an immense paper cut and the dark skies meant only a few pictures came out.

flash on flesh

flash on flesh

We started off in a joke shop where Nhung stocked up on exploding cigarettes. According to the friendly salesman, the strangest things they sell are “blow-up sex dolls to creepy old men”. What do the dolls look like? “Shocked”. As we’d not had much breakfast, Kalli’s Family Fast Food Restaurant soon tempted us out of the rain, with its red leather seats, Formica tables and cheap menu. We hoped the weather would pass while we snacked on toasted sandwiches and tea. No such luck, so we continued on to the charity shops. In the first one, we overheard the assistant warning all comers; “Don’t put your bag down, even for a second, you never know what might happen around here”. It seems a customer’s purse was stolen by a mysterious woman who hid the booty under a cape. Whether Margate’s male shoplifters also wear stripy tops and carry sacks saying “swag” was not revealed. The town’s criminal underbelly continued to rumble in the next store we visited, a pet shop called Paws and Prince. The shop’s vibrant lovebirds and parrots charmed us, but when Nhung tried to photograph them, an assistant came rushing over saying “you can’t take photos in here and you’ll have to delete any you’ve taken”. It seems we had been mistaken for potential bird rustlers.

turner gallery

turner gallery

Out of all the seaside towns we’ve visited so far, Margate felt the most decrepit, the most beaten and run-down, although admittedly, the weather didn’t do it in favours. However, the town has its hopes for a future renaissance, balanced like a beer can on the droopy boobs of Art. There are plans to build a Turner Contemporary Art Gallery facing the stormy seas, so in the run-up to this, there are little piss trickles of artistic effluent dotted throughout the town. An empty shop had been converted into something called the Far East Store, a parody of Chinese commerce, saying something vague about consumerism. An electricity substation held an exhibition called Glitter, selling pieces of kitschy tat sprayed with gold sparkle for £10 a pop and erm, saying something vague about consumerism. The Far East Store had an interactive element that could get children interested and the Glitter show had a cute DIY feel to it (and they gave us a free glass of mulled wine). But despite these points, you wander if any of this will really improve the life of ordinary people living in Margate.

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Let’s face it, fascinating as the town’s crumbling edifices are to trippers like us, outside summer time, when the beach’s glorious orange sands come into their own, this town must be a fucking grim place to grow up in. And if the only alternative teenagers are offered, is art built on sneers not passion, then who can blame them if they turn to bird rustling and hawking blow-up sex dolls. If Tamsin ruled the world, and Margate Council, she’d use the money and site planned for the gallery, to build a gleaming new community centre/venue offering all kinds of subsidised classes and training to everyone. And she’d re-open Margate’s extinct theme park Dreamland, where one of the only two of the UK’s remaining early wooden rollercoasters once lived. And that’s where the Art would be. All the rides would be designed by the world’s most imaginative architects alongside top fairground engineers. Tatlin’s Tower would come to life. Artists would be invited to design regularly changing installations to feature throughout the park –Wisconsin Death Trip ghost trains and waltzers that make you feel like you’re taking acid in Midnight Cowboy. Hell, you could even have Hook-a-Duck stalls that said something vague about consumerism! The food stalls would sell stuff posh people like, like wheatgrass smoothies and exotically garnished offal, as well as the usual theme park fare. Thousands of jobs would be created and Margate would own something unique that reflected all facets of its history, and best of all, would have a place where both the arty and everybody else could enjoy themselves.

launderette

launderette

Ye Gods, the rain was still pelting down and we were half frozen. We had a look in a fancy dress shop (“take off your gloves if you touch the clothes” barked the proprietor). We hunted for the Shell Grotto, a mysterious cave system tiled in shells, but like most of the renowned tourist attractions we search for in the Lost Promenade, didn’t find it, though we did come across a nice gasometer instead. We checked out a sex shop called Pillow Talk that is said to be haunted. We saw no spooks but we did overhear the following conversation:
Female assistant: “Does she have, like, breasts?”
Male punter, in definite tones: “Oh no”
Enough was enough, we couldn’t take any more, so we headed back to Kalli’s for jam roly-poly and custard.

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I know of two poems that mention Margate; John Betjeman’s wartime poem Margate 1940, eulogises the small yet powerful joys of England and her seaside towns, and fears the loss of their freedom and innocence. ‘Beside The Queen’s Highcliffe now rank grows the vetch/Now dark is the terrace, a storm-battered stretch;/And I think, as the fairy-lit sights I recall,/It is those we are fighting for, foremost of all.’ That war was won, but maybe another war was lost, and now T.S. Eliot’s words from The Wasteland, ‘On Margate Sands./I can connect/Nothing with nothing./The broken fingernails of dirty hands./My people humble people who expect/Nothing’, seem more apposite, as you look at the defeated-looking faces of the few Saturday shoppers, skirting the boarded-up windows. But maybe we visited on a bad day. Maybe, despite our cynicism, the investment in art will lead to a boom in the town’s fortunes. Maybe the local teenagers will wake up and be hopeful for the future. And maybe the fairy lights will shine again in Margate. Just maybe.

Lost
Cream teas (again)
The Shell Grotto
Feeling in fingers and toes (again)
The light (again)
Dreamland
Dreams

Found
An old children’s’ book called ‘Sally Cocksure’
Exploding cigarettes
Mystic Smoke (makes smoke appear to come out of your fingers)
Vintage hip flask
Batwing-sleeved tan and white striped Kath and Kim jumper
Black pleated skirt
Thick walking socks

dreamland

dreamland

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