It was a recent windy day on the English East Coast. Margate’s fine beach sand blew on oddly dressed sun seekers, some of whom were downing bulk lager while hiding behind wind shelters. The sea gave a cold impression, as if it was trying to squash our fragile dreams of an extended summer. Clouds were moving in, windbreakers pulled out of backpacks and goose bumps appeared on naked arms.
On Marine Terrace, the main road along the beach, run down beach front establishments and arcade halls stood empty. Outside one of them a proprietor was smoking a cigarette with a vacant expression, his white shirt stained as if he’d spent the morning frying hamburgers. The sparse sidewalk crowd was restricted to a few slow walking locals dressed in half-priced Sport Direct outfits.
Margate is not a place for first impressions, unless you want your first impression to be a relic from the 1960s concrete seaside building boom, which one blog describes as “brutalist”. Arlington House is more than a simple eyesore; the 18-story building is a kick in the head of concrete and ambition gone wrong. It’s tempting to use it as an example of the decay in seaside England, but perhaps it’s simply a very big, brute and dominant reminder of the hopes and dreams that never came true in this part of the country. Wops, I guess I fell into my own trap there.
No matter how you look at it, Margate has an aura of glory days passed. Both sides of the tasteless beach strip contain grand Victorian houses, hinting at that time when things were less grim. A recent BBC article gives a good idea of the ambition to turn this depressing trend on its head. With the help of Turner Contemporary, which according to a number of sources is an excellent modern art gallery, money seem to be pouring, or at least drizzling, down to this seaside town. I’ll refrain from giving my view on how sustainable this initiative might be, but the task ahead is clearly not a small one.
After having starred at the decaying concrete monster for an appropriate amount of time (2 min), we continued towards the already mentioned playa (as they say in Spain, where I suppose many of the would be visitors now chose to go instead). As we sit in the sand, trying to protect our Wimpy restaurant hamburgers, which compared to the hipster London kind has more in common with frozen low price beef (horse?) burgers. Probably because they are frozen low price beef burgers.
Wimpy has all the attributes required to become a perfect setting for a fast food version of The Office. It’s filled with long limbed teenage staff with and vacant expressions. By the window four elderly women, all dressed in various shades of cream and toothpaste green, drink pots of tea. As we wait for our food to defrost, a teenager next to us takes a bite of his burger and says “this is shit” to his family. The only thing not lacking colour, except the neon lights on the faded Marine Terrace hangout like Escape, Crown Bingo & Social Club and The Flamingo, is the black man by Margate Clock Tower. The fact that he is a black man is something he will reiterate several times. But as we see him looming around a large speaker on wheels, we do not yet know this.
Suddenly the looming man starts speaking in a microphone connected to the speaker, telling a small crowd sitting on the benches that line the small square that “in only 60 seconds (he repeats the 60 seconds part a few times for added drama) a breakdance show will begin, I’ve travelled all the way from New York city to do this for you”. He’s clearly a man of purpose and dedication, unafraid of trying to insert some life into the mostly lethargic Saturday crowd. “Come on guys, come closer, please” he continues as he walks around in his red track suit in an attempt to pump up the least pumped-up crowd I’ve seen I last saw an Arsenal game on TV.
Eventually a number of children come closer, accompanied by some sceptical looking parents. The music becomes louder and suddenly our NYC hype man starts throwing down some pretty serious breakdance moves. It’s actually quite impressive, although things do get a bit weird when he starts saying things like “You will now see a black man run, while not being chased by the police!” and other odd things alluding to what black men supposedly do, or do not do. A friend of mine points out that it feels “a bit racist”. A minute later the hype man/dancer says, “I’m not being racist, if that’s what you think”.
Racist or not, he finishes his show with an impressive session that seems to net him quite a bit of cash and local fame, which felt deserved. A man tirelessly working a sleepy and sparse crowd the way he did deserves some credit, especially in a place like Maregate, where based on random posters around town, the main coming attraction is a £20 show with a Robbie Williams impersonator.
After the strange breakdancing event we leave Margate, via the new museum, on a cycle trip around the area, highly recommended as the well signed-posted Viking Coastal Trail covers some beautiful seaside scenery and cute seaside towns like Broadstairs, with its numerous Charles Dickens’ themed establishments being the nicest.
When we return to Margate in the evening we head to the Lifeboat, a pub rightly recommended by a smartphone app, and by a friendly local woman who was eager to help as we stood idle by a crossing on the north side of town, looking like a group of lost cycle tourists. The Lifeboat has an impressive selection of ciders and seriously old school wooden floors. We capped the evening off at a newly opened Indian restaurant on the Parade, which smelled faintly of new paint, but also delivered some serious food for a very reasonable price. We then rushed back through the deserted down, the seaside wind still there to discourage any last minute thoughts of night swimming, to catch the last train to London.
On the train platform we met some really drunk teenagers, one of which looked about 11. It was, as people sometime say, a cultural experience.