Thursday, 4 August 2011

In the press: After 35 years away: Roger Boyes on a changed Britain

A rather miserable article on Margate. But he has a point? What is the hope the seafront will improve along from Arlington if the planned amount of traffic that will come with the Freshwater Superstore? You don't get a better seafront from more traffic. People don't enjoy walking or sitting near traffic. Period.

Best of Britain

After 35 years away: Roger Boyes on a changed Britain

Roger Boyes
Last updated August 4 2011 12:01AM
Dreamland, that’s what Britain has become for me after 35 years across the water. A country left behind, whose slumbering rhythms are still dimly familiar, like Aboriginal songlines.
Brief return visits to the Mother Country were shock awakenings — the heaving, hustling crowds in London; the sheepish acceptance of slipshod service. And, everywhere, the New Bossiness, the fines and warnings and video cameras. Safely back at my various bases across the Channel, foreigners, even enlightened ones, would lather me with unctuous admiration for British fair play and British irony and Scottish golf courses and PM’s Questions and Jeremy Paxman. All I wanted to do was shout, treacherously, “No, no, no!” Fair play was now Dutch, e-government Estonian, and Newsnight viewing figures corresponded to the population of a Welsh mining village.
But I let it be. What did I know, after all? When I left Britain, Morecambe and Wise were still big. So were Wimpy Bars and Kenny Dalglish. Now, having returned from exile, I needed to reset my compass with a Great Britain Test. What has changed? What have we discarded? Is it better, ruder, more forgiving, more European?
It started badly, this trip. In Margate, a wheeling seagull raided my fish and chips and, in a frightening statement about the eating habits of a nation, ignored the cod and ate the batter.
We kicked off there because it was the last place in Britain that I had vomited — on the rollercoaster, one of the ruins of the defunct funfair that was called, yes, Dreamland. I can still remember the choral nagging of my parents, the stench in the car. Margate had been a treat just for me. Ramsgate was more sophisticated; the hovercraft for Europe taxied out of Pegwell Bay when the sea wasn’t too choppy. Ted Heath, still our most European of prime ministers, went sailing in nearby Broadstairs. But Margate was cheerfully downmarket and even then had an enveloping sense of decline.
“It was a wonderful place to be as a child,” says Sandra Cooke, 41, whose parents came to work at Dreamland in the 1970s. “There was the lido with its two pools, Tony Savage put on a show there — that’s gone now. Then there was the rollercoaster, the big wheel.”
The lido is desolate, whipped by the wind. There is a plan to make a few of the rides — still charred from a fire — into a heritage amusement park and maybe it will happen. In the meantime, a chunk of the seafront has to make way for a Tesco superstore.
This was, I was to discover as I tramped around the country, one of the great pitched battles of modern England. A dozen towns seem to be engaged in debates about the commercial use of urban space and the steady demolition of traditional corners.
“Yeah, that’s what Margate needs,” says Glenn Hall, 50, sitting on the doorstep of his boarding house. “Come to Margate and see Tesco’s.” Clutching a mug of tea, Mr Hall looks as if he has just got out of bed — but that can’t be right, it has turned 11am — the very model of the seaside drifter. Yet it turns out that he is writing an oral history of the York and Lancaster Regiment’s experiences in the First World War and upstairs in his room he paints pictures of the Somme. When it’s sunny he goes for a swim. Later he chases us down to the front — that’s Margate, not Ypres — and shouts out: “See that shelter, that’s where T. S. Eliot wrote The Waste Land.” And indeed, T. S. Eliot did write about the place: “On Margate Sands./ I can connect/ Nothing with nothing.”
No wonder that Margate doesn’t use T. S. Eliot in its marketing campaigns. For years, the place has had only one ploy and it has nothing to do with poetry: get people on the trains, get them off, put them on the beach, hope they spend money before they head back. “It’s the jewel in our crown,” says the woman who runs a souvenir shop that will have to shift for Tesco. “The station is so close to the sand, you can travel in your swimming costume.” It was ever thus. But not enough to divert holidaymakers from the Costa del Sol.
What has changed, though, is that British towns are learning to brand themselves and compete mano a mano. Margate now has a fast train connection from St Pancras and a magnificent new gallery, Turner Contemporary. Margaters have been flooding in. “We are running workshops to bring them in,” says Chloe Barker, of the spectacular gallery that looks out at sea and sky.
But the real hope is to make Margate a logical outing for culturally aware, deep-pocketed Londoners, to make the place posher than it has ever been, a gentrification of the British seaside.
Somehow I don’t have great faith in this new formula that is being tried out not only in Margate but in Liverpool, Wakefield and across the country: high-speed train plus cultural attraction equals regeneration and improved property prices.
On first coming back to Britain, I took the Heathrow Express — 15 minutes for £18 — and was astonished by what seemed to be a metaphor for the acceleration of Britain. Then came the letdown: a 40-minute queue for a taxi at Paddington as someone occupying the newly invented job of taxi marshal chaotically allocated the cabs. The Underground lines were undergoing engineering works, a phrase familiar to me from the 1970s. The cab drive across a clogged city cost more than the air fare.
That has often been the way of recent British modernisation. Every five years there is talk of a white-hot technological revolution, and then the country shoots itself in the foot. New, for me, is the British urge to catch up with Europe, and outperform, overtake it even. Yet on my whistlestop tour I found a different concern that has little to do with Pharaonic projects such as the Olympic Games and more to do with the shaping of communities, the return of local pride. That will be a theme of the next leg of my journey.
A predictable drizzle settled on Margate, awnings teased by the wind, and I felt almost guilty about abandoning it. A man got out of his car and threw away a ball of silver foil that had once wrapped his sandwiches. He had been watching the sea with his wife from the security of his sensible vehicle, sipping tea, opening the window occasionally to gulp some air. Now, apparently, it was time for them to head home.

1 comment:

  1. On a more positive note, Margate Winter Gardens (which has almost certainly given more people pleasure for a longer time than any other Thanet building) celebrates it's 100th Birthday tomorrow! A proud day for Margate.