In this new four-part series, Tim Burrows looks at England's misunderstood eastern side, starting with Margate and Dover.
What is it with the East of England? In recent years metropolitan consensus has characterised it as a wasted land, strewn with towns that are less functioning communities than they are grim pockets of abandonment. Coastal settlements such as Clacton, Great Yarmouth and Margate have undergone existential crises as tourism and industry have withdrawn in a time of cheap air travel and globalisation.
The East of England is a part of the UK that seems to have been dismissed, cast off, as " UKIP country", populated by those southerners who aren't privy to London's economic miracle and who have in turn become pariahs for our political class. Journalist and former Conservative MP Matthew Parris advised the Tories to abandon Clacton as it represented a Britain "going nowhere" compared to places with "ambition and drive" like Cambridge.
If the East's seaside towns are to be revived, goes the theory, it will happen via the Brighton Equation: cultural revival + artists moving in for cheap rents = new destination for the seepage of creative London.
Margate is now well into this process, and the town was named one of the 30 most fashionable places to live in the UK by the Times this month. There has been a big run-up to Margate becoming Kent's centre for art – The Turner Contemporary opened in 2011 but was announced nearer the turn of the Millennium – and the town has received all the usual editorial fanfare in the property pages to suggest that it's on the up.
Margate's regeneration showpiece is Dreamland, the derelict amusement park built in 1920 that will reopen later this year as a kind of vintage funfair, designed by Wayne Hemingway. Tickets for Dreamland's June opening went on sale last week. Those queueing were treated to a visit by none other than Only Fools and Horses' John Challis, who seems to have turned his life into one long nostalgia tour of England, as he shuttles from Redditch to Kettering, permanently in character as "Boycie".
Jamie Dobson, the owner of the Joke Shop at the bottom of the high street, is not convinced about the benefits of the revived funfair for Margate: "You need to take a lot of money to maintain those small little restored rides, and it is a big spot."
Jamie has lived and worked in Margate all his life. His father ran the joke shop before him, when it was nearer Dreamland on the front. He doesn't predict victory for UKIP in Thanet South or Thanet North, both of which contain Margate, despite the efforts of Nigel Farage: "UKIP have turned up and played around a bit, but people aren't as interested as they like to think."
Following Margate's decline in the 1970s and 80s, a lot of the big hotels in the deprived area of Cliftonville, where TS Eliot wrote The Wasteland, were turned into bedsits for London councils to rehouse their poor. "Cliftonville got carved up, usually by the chums of Tory councillors, into small, crappy bedsits and flogged off cheap to housing associations," says Jamie. "[They were] moving people around like chess pieces to make their money."
Investment has followed the Turner gallery, via arts-focused entrepreneurs and small businesses such as cafes and the like, and Jamie applauds the fact that people are buying up big Victorian houses and turning them back into family homes, rather than multiple-occupancy bedsits. But he questions the validity of companies such as Haeckels, which makes beard oil from Margate seaweed and last year set up a Kickstarter for a luxe new version of the Victorian bathing machine that once lined the beach. "You do think: 'Who is this product aimed at?' Because it is very expensive stuff, produced in an area where unemployment statistics are quite scary."
Jamie argues that Thanet Council should provide for a wider range of the community than just the incoming artists and creatives, but he isn't holding his breath – especially when it comes to the area's youths. "A few local lads made a concrete skate park near Cliftonville on an old crazy-golf course near the lido that no one had used for decades, and did a cracking job. All the community were involved, different nationalities, kids, adults, builders, lawyers...
"But after initially giving them the green light to do it, the council came along and bulldozed it. They spent more money on the bulldozers than anyone spent building this thing. Now it's just fenced off rubble. Prime development spot."
Uncertainty brings with it a desire to turn the clock back. UKIP supporters want to return to a more thriving United Kingdom closer to its former imperial splendour, so they dress in tweed, drink during office hours and tell jokes from the 1970s. The gentrifiers look to solve problems of local economies by opening vintage clothes shops that celebrate past subcultures, kitsch fun fairs and cute art galleries. It speaks to the feeling of dread one has about the future in this country, young or old.
We walk into Cliftonville, where South Thanet, the seat that Nigel Farage hopes to take, begins. We pass the Winter Gardens, where UKIP's 2015 conference was held. Scraps of rubbish float about the muted cliffside, which itself seems as if it's been left to blow about in the wind.
Cliftonville holds some of the poorest streets in Kent, and is never far from the news. There's been negative talk surrounding immigrants since it was known as "Kosoville" in the early noughties.
But Cliftonville doesn't feel too despondent. On Dalby Street, kids are playing in the street in a way you don't see much in more middle-class suburbs, shouting to each other in English with varying accents (at one of the local schools, 20 languages are spoken). The main stretch, Northdown Road, is made up of ragged, but mainly open and well-used shops: east European groceries, an unreconstructed 1960s bakery, second-hand shops, restaurants including the much-lauded Sri Lankan restaurant, Riz.
In the Bellevue pub on the corner of Godwin Road, two men watch the football. The elder is quite animated, talking excitedly about going to see local non-league side Margate FC every week. But soon, it is impossible not to notice how sad his eyes are. Conversation turns to the town itself. It is a "dump ... a shithole" he says, citing council corruption as the reason for its decline. In an independent report in 2013, Thanet District Council was deemed a place "surrounded by secrecy and corruption". The huge white fence that surrounds nearby Ramsgate's former Pleasurama site is known locally as the Great Wall of Ramsgate, a local symbol of the incompetence of a council that has lasted a decade or more.
"People think Margate's bad – wait until you see Dover," was the reply of one local in the pub when we said we were headed for the port town. The days in which "managed decline" was talked about as a viable option politically – as it was by the Thatcher government after the Toxteth riots in Liverpool – are gone but we live through a different time: of mismanaged decline. Nowhere is this more stark than in Dover, which has been the brunt of bad planning and indecision since it was flattened during World War II. Shops are boarded up. The port obviously dominates, but it feels separate from the fortunes of the town's inhabitants.
A vast car park (in Dover, the car park is king) peters out into a fenced off building site and The Castle pub. A badly conceived block of flats conceals the view of the English Channel. Up on the cliffs behind is Dover Castle, a vision of magisterial English pride, out of reach.
The Castle is owned by one Paul McMullan, the former News of the World journalist who was famously hacked by Hugh Grant and who is notorious for openly defending the hacking practices of the tabloids, advocating voyeurism as truth: "Privacy is for paedos."
McMullan is not at the pub when we visit – Twitter says he is in the Arctic. I talk to him later by phone. He bought the pub after looking for somewhere to run his paparazzi agency from. The agency never took off so he started selling beer. It opened as a wine bar, but things only picked up when he started putting on drum and bass nights, adding a backpacker hostel upstairs.
"To call Dover a shithole is glamourising it," he says. McMullan points the finger at Dover council, who destroyed 13th Century cottages and Roman ruins in return for yet more car parks. "The white cliffs are one of the wonders of the world. And Dover at night looks lovely. It's just when the sun comes up it's, 'Oh my god...' When Hugh Grant first came into the pub, he said: 'What have they done to Dover?'"
McMullan made an unsuccessful bid to run for UKIP. He claims the drinkers in his pub blame immigrants for the town's decline. A recent poll in the Dover Express, which under editor Nick Hudson looked to set the agenda for immigrant-bashing in the late 90s, said that there would be a UKIP surge in the election. "UKIP is far too mild for the average Dovorian ... It's very much them and us."
Dover Immigrant Removal Centre is housed in a series of large Napoleonic fortifications, known as the Western Heights. The site was converted into a prison in the 1950s; in 2002 it switched from a Young Offenders' Institute to its current usage.
In February, the Sun ran a story in complaint against a dental surgery that had been built to provide for migrants kept at Dover Immigration Removal centre: "Tools are locked up in case they are stolen as weapons and patients can't floss for fear they weave it into rope. Staff have a panic button."
The charity Samphire was set up in 2004 to provide support for the detainees of the removal centre. (There is a visitor group for each detention centre, and there are 15 detention centres UK-wide.) "The tabloid view of immigrants is far removed from the reality," says Samphire's Fraser Paterson. "It is particularly challenging to get the truth out there, as it's contrary to what people want to believe, and the image of immigration that is given to them. We hope that people will see the long tradition that the UK has of human rights and start treating people like humans."
The title "Immigration Removal Centre" is misleading. "Suspected terrorists have a 14-day time limit on detention without charge but there's no time limit to how long a migrant can be detained here," says Fraser. Of the detainees Samphire currently helps, three quarters have been there longer than a month (most are detained for at least a month). About 5 percent are detained for over a year, with a few at any one time detained for several years. Those deemed unreturnable are released and housed but can't work.
Dover has a capacity of 400, and there are ten times that many detention spaces in total countrywide. It is run by the Prison Service but most are maintained by private security firms, who don't always have the most useful or relevant training – for example, it is not clear that they have the sufficient skill set to ensure the safety and welfare of at-risk detainees suffering mental problems.
The migrant as a type is the fall guy of late-capitalist decline. Political duplicity masked by shorthand scapegoats. Refugee stowaways are being beaten up by truck drivers over the channel at Calais. In England, it can sometimes feel as if the hope of a civil society is drying up and crumbling into the sea, until the only way people think they can make a difference is through the negative, angry politics. Nowhere is this more so than in Dover. White cliffs sharpened, turned into a guillotine.
Thanks to Kit and Valerie Caless, and Iain Aitch.
Part two of this series will follow next week.
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