Margate Dispatches


I spent most of yesterday and this morning in Margate. I wanted to get away from London on a cheap awayday, and jumped on a train at Victoria to a town which I dimly remembered from the 'Only Fools and Horses' show my father and I loved in the 1980s, and which was immortalised by the cockney singers Chas n Dave.

It's good to get out of London, and also to familiarise yourself with what England is actually like. I thought that there was sea, the prospect of fine weather, some cockles and mussels, and drink to be had, and anyway, the break would do me good.

It did, but in going I found a place in the sunshine which really can't fall that much further. Peely-wally charm is all very well, but the place is a virtual ruin. It's famous 'Dreamland' amusement arcade burned down three years ago, and four out of every five stores seem to be shut along the seafront. The fifth store is usually a pub, or a Victorian-style gambling den full of old cheap machines from the past thirty years.

That aspect, funnily enough, appealed to me. Games on electric shove-tuppence machines which I remember from trips with the steelmen from the football supporters' club where my mum was a barmaid were as bright and pointless as ever. The food was cheap, the sea breeze nice. Yet this was a town, like most British resorts, which had its heart broken long ago, where the young men seemed drunk, the women let themselves go, and the disappointed old were everywhere.

The only life in the place were the wandering gangs of language students, who must have been promised some different environment. Places like Margate get a living from such rites of passage, and most people in this country do not realise that. The streets of really run down places are the introduction of many bright people from abroad to Britain, and they keep the memories of their freedom, learning, drunkenness as close as their understanding of the shabbiness and squalor. This may in fact be a large part of the way parts of the world view Britain when they go home

I also noticed something else. There were very few cars, very few signs of any sort of economic life outside of Primark--a seventies woolworths with a beach view, basically--and the young men and women were almost uniformly white, and acting in the knowledge of each other. Immigration seemed to have passed the place by, although perhaps people were in a different district. The true mark of hard pressed people was all around; cash machines which would have been free where the rich could be counted on to run up overdrafts and debts usually charged for money, in a little bow to theories of money value and velocity.

I saw no black faces, two muslims, a very good Salvador Dali impersonator, and an Italian person selling very good English breakfasts after a nice Irish lady told me I'd missed mine at the hotel. I almost forgot; there was a Lenny Henry cut-out at the Premier inn too. The staff were friendly, competent, and ministering as far as I could tell to no one else, bar a very beautiful Korean woman who had somehow ended up in my hotel's restaurant.

It was very very odd; here was I surrounded by all this shabby Englishness and I ended up talking about Japan, and the global economy, with a talented Korean musician over some wine and cognac in a bay window by the sea. What shinigami had the poor woman offended that she had to put up with me? Still, though she must have wished for some other company by the end, we enjoyed the conversation.

It wasn't important to me that I saw any of the global majority, and it may well have been that they were all at work. English people and the likes of me were the ones in the arcades or watching others drink at 930 this morning, for example. It just struck me as odd, and yet another reason why London is different from a good part of its hinterland. I don't think I've ever seen so many early morning gamblers and drinkers in ties, however, and I'm a Balliol and Middle Temple man so I've seen a few, I can tell you. Mostly in Trinity College, and the Inner Temple, obviously.

The place reminded me of nothing so much as some squalid Rimini mixed with Rome--a place where living was quite good so long as one acknowledged that the bright lights and music were really just a form of whistling in a very old graveyard. Someone far away had planted a wind-power experiment just over the waterline on the horizon. I guess they could claim that as forward looking, but they'd have to be about thirty feet under the water for that future to be around them.

I relaxed, as I wanted to. But really, I just can't be bothered with England for more than a couple of days. Margate, as Wellingborough or Swindon or somewhere like that would have done, and as a lecture trip to Birmingham did last week too, made me realise how much I love London, and how much London isn't England.

I'm also more sure than ever that England is held back by London and its concerns running it, because if truth be told no one around here would understand or give a monkey's cuss for Margate and its burnt-out dreamland. It was yet another reason why London should receive legislative devolution from England, and why England should find some way of governing itself again.

This state is on the verge of a monumental economic storm which is going to shake the world. It is largely falling apart. Eighty per cent of the peoples of this state did not vote for its government. Large parts of its territory have effectively seceded, via devolution. The national 'church' of England is a sort of splintered husk with a multiple choice catechism written, as increasingly the law is, by the liberal middle classes.

This is a shame, because good people once found meaning in that ecclesial community--indeed, the whole of the British establishment was once a bit like a church. Some of its phantom sinews still spasm and snap, occasionally.

For example, it isn't surprising to me that senior judges--Master Phillips of my own inn--and the Archbishop of Canterbury are being interpreted as calling for Shariah law. They are not, of course, but perception is part of the thing, and once legitimacy goes from a state people will impute anything to its highest officers.

How long is it before most of England becomes a sort of permanently winded, happy but pointless retirement home, waiting for the wind and waves amidst a sort of shabby permanent recession and presided over by misinterpreted people with no democratic or popular currency about them at all?

We can't even hope for the sea air, nor fish and chips and holiday breakfasts with beer or good builders' tea like those one can get in Margate. Except for pleasant July days, it'll be hell on complan and mush.

I feel like heading down to the Irish or Australian embassies first thing on Monday, because the longer I stay in this collapsing state the more alien and crazy I will seem. Yet a part of me likes it so....

Here's a video of Margate in better times. It all starts at around 2 minutes and 12 seconds in, if you want to fast-forward.

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