Welcome to Margate: Cultural commentator Iain Aitch reflects on his hometown's 'regeneration'

If you’re planning on coming down on a Bank Holiday beano this weekend, you might be surprised by what awaits you in my hometown, says Aitch

Iain Aitch
Saturday 24 August 2013 00:53

Anyone heading for a coastal resort this weekend could be forgiven for wondering exactly what will greet them upon their arrival. Ministers, TV retail experts and property speculators have all been talking of a seaside revival, while the Centre for Social Justice, welfare campaigners and many coastal traders have been painting the British seaside as a busted flush where only slumlords thrive.

Day-trippers who have read all the recent coverage are no doubt expecting a trip down to the seaside to reveal something resembling Blade Runner, but with added cupcake shops and Victorian properties at knockdown prices.

Never too far from either positive or negative coverage of the seaside is the town of Margate, where I was born and where the rest of my blood relatives still reside. Its now-faded bed-and-breakfast hotels first found new trade in the dole-on-sea boom of the 1980s, which coincided with the popularity of the Spanish package holiday, recession and my teenage years. Older mates' state-funded bedsits provided me with welcome refuge from the seafront skinheads, as well as a place to listen to records when I'd run out of change to pump into Pac-Man machines.

The spacious properties next played home to refugees, children in care and London's social-housing overspill. But those same streets are now also attracting exiled Hackney hipsters seeking space away from overpriced studio flats to breathe deep, breed fast and scoop up some bargain retro furniture. But what, you may ask, does this model of regeneration offer to Margate, or any seaside town for that matter?

Like many seaside resorts, Margate has used the arts as a driver for its regeneration, and its Turner Contemporary gallery (pictured top right) can certainly claim to have exceeded expectations in this respect, though the gallery was not behind the town's artistic tipping point; that came in 2006, when the American avant-gardist Laurie Anderson was spotted having an al-fresco cuppa just before locals set fire to an Antony Gormley sculpture. (I should point out that this arty conflagration was part of a film project. Margate will always come out to watch a fire, but they are usually ones set by property developers or gangsters. Regeneration by jerry can.)

Turner Contemporary has drawn visibly new demographics over the past two years in terms of visitors, residents and businesses, as well as earning the town a place in the Rough Guide's top 10 places to visit in the world. Not bad for a gallery that my nana insisted would be washed from its harbour-side foundations at the first hint of a high spring tide.

To be fair, my now-deceased grandmother has not been the gallery's only detractor. Many residents followed up a slew of angry letters to the local paper about cost, design and location with a stubborn refusal to enter the place.

Taking on a residency with the gallery in its opening months, I found myself at the nexus of the conflicting views, contrasting economic realities and local politics that arts-led regeneration elicited. I had never made any bones about supporting the idea of the gallery, and as an arty working-class local-done-good, I had grown used to trying to explain why a new hospital wing or ice rink was not a realistic alternative way of spending the money, nor a useful driver for renewal. But I also had protective reservations about levels of engagement with locals, which is why my work leaned heavily upon bringing groups that felt excluded into the gallery, both in image and in person.

As I worked in Margate, I heard plenty of hatred for the gallery and the crowd it brought with it, but I also witnessed praise and excitement from those who had never been touched by art before. I would brace myself for another anti-art tirade from a dog walker or taxi driver, then kick myself for pre-judging them as they waxed lyrical about Rodin, Turner or even local-girl-done-good "that Tracey Emins". Many residents always add that extra "s" to her surname, just as they refuse to acknowledge the "Contemporary" in the name of what they refer to as the Turner Centre.

Rewardingly, my work with those who had played a creative part in the town's youth subcultures conspired to bridge the road that divides the seafront pubs from the gallery. Given the chance, the old mods, rockers, punks and skinheads I interviewed and photographed made Turner Contemporary their own, rubbing shoulders with art-world royalty at the private view and drinking the bar dry at an event held in their honour. Having said that, fear of the unknown and a feeling of this "not being for the likes of us" still keeps others simply staring across the road to the gallery as they sip a pint.

This fear of the "other" works both ways, with a smattering of DfL (Down from London) types seeking to wish away the boisterous seafront pubs and the locals who frequent them.

A Twitter storm provoked last November by the owner of an independent pizza outlet showed the enmity bubbling beneath the surface. Citing racist cab drivers, grubby kids and open drug use as things you were likely to find in the town, the pizzeria accidentally blogged its way into a war of words, with battle lines drawn along class divisions – although wood-fired crusts eventually won over locals with more cosmopolitan tastes.

The truth is that many long-standing locals may share more in common with these fixed-wheel-bike-riding, latte-drinking, vintage-shirt-buying incomers than they realise, given both seem to dream of an idyllic 1960s Kodachrome Margate that never really existed. As a seaside resort, Margate has always had an urban feel – more south-London-on-sea than Southwold.

The false nostalgia is driven by half-memories, saucy postcards in antique shops and wishful thinking. The reality of Margate's downtrodden exists in neither party's fantasy. A Ukip landslide in recent council elections points to a lack of patience with the social problems that poorer incomers bring with them. The more vituperative speak of "sending them back", whereas the liberal art crowd will simply price them out eventually.

Regeneration is never simple and often not pretty either. The artists are being priced out of London's East End and their conquering of a new territory cannot be consequence-free. Creatives have long been the traditional advance guard for the developers of luxury flats and the franchisees of chain restaurants. The same will be true for Margate if the property speculators are to be believed.

During my youth, it was mostly the changing haircuts along the seafront that I paid attention to. But pubs were closing, amusement arcades shutting up shop and donkeys on the beach becoming fewer. The old model ceased to work, which is why I positively embrace the new, just as the town always has. You can love, preserve, pine for the past, but you can't keep it captive.

Margate was Modernist even before the mods hit the seafront, and we had space-age architecture long before the space race took off, in the shape of the Art Deco fin of the seafront cinema. We were even undertaking our own experiments in zero-gravity, as anyone who has sat on the back seat of the Dreamland amusement park's Scenic Railway will attest. For me, it has always had the feel of a frontier town: sometimes lawless, sometimes messy, but always about to mutate.

This new Margate seems to be thriving, if the numbers at events, attention in the media and number of new eateries opening is anything to go by. Tentative accords between new and old Margate are being made as former locals move back, drawn by the sea and a sense that there is something there for them now. Others are just seeing themselves and their tastes reflected in the more creative spirit fostered by Turner Contemporary and its satellite galleries. Likewise, efforts are being made by the gallery and astute new businesses to make sure that this regeneration is not simply a colonisation.

Some change will be welcomed and some won't. You'll have a job to find many Margatonians who will admit to enjoying their fish and chips served in a restaurant atop a MasterChef-style mushy-pea smear. But you will find those who can easily square enjoying an al fresco lager with sipping tea in the old town. Margate's nascent café society may not be in danger of making the town appear anything like genteel, but the air of change is certainly making it more attractive.

Many will remain ambivalent about the changes to this and other seaside towns, but that is not necessarily wrong. Nothing is for everyone. Having said that, I have yet to find anyone who doesn't adore our local delicacy, the pea fritter. It may be rebranded as crushed-pea tempura in years to come, but I can live with that so long as Margate keeps the sea in the same place and the onion vinegar in the chip shops.

Iain Aitch is a contributor to 'Connecting Nothing with Something', an anthology of fiction, poetry and illustration about seaside regeneration published by Influx Press, priced £9.99 (influxpress.com)

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