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Oh I Do Like to be Beside the Seaside...

December 23, 2011

Few urban environments in the UK offer such radical cultural contrasts as Margate. The seaside town located in the southeast of England which I visited today with my parents who live in nearby Canterbury, is going through a bad case of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder these days.

Up until the mid 20th century, Margate was a thriving resort. My dad remembers taking family vacations there as a child. The place attracted its fair share of celebrities, including T S Eliot, who reputedly wrote part of The Wasteland in a windswept shelter (pictured) close to the sea. In earlier times, King George III's brother lived in the middle of town, in a grand house on Cecil Square.

Today, that building is occupied by a NatWest Bank.

It was at this bank today that my dad found himself held up at gunpoint by a robber while trying to make a transaction at the counter. The assaulter fled, the police came, no one was hurt. Needless to say, my father didn't finish his transaction.

It was hard to believe that only half an hour before this incident, he, my mum and I had been wandering around the sparkling Turner Contemporary museum -- an amazing new addition to Margate's waterfront. We had taken in a somewhat unfocused yet eye-catching exhibition dedicated to youth culture in the 20th century featuring works by an eclectic array of artists including Phil Collins, Diane Arbus and the museum's namesake, JMW Turner. We followed that up with a gourmet lunch at the museum's cafe -- all local-organic this and sustainably-harvested that -- and then pottered around the revitalized "Old Town" area with its multitude of trendy vintage boutiques and art galleries.

Our stroll through town made me see Margate in a new light. No more a derelict, seaside town, the sort of place that might inspire Morrissey in his darkest moments, I thought.

And yet...

Though blue plaques detailing Margate's proud cultural heritage adorn buildings all over town, the city is still mired in muck. Crime in broad daylight. Drab, post-war buildings that look like they might collapse. Beautiful old facades in peeling paint disarray.

And that's to say nothing of Margate's effort at holiday decorations. The city is home to the saddest Christmas tree I've ever seen in a public place. Threadbare and keeling slightly to one side, the tree had been carelessly strung with a meagre spiral of weak lightbulbs which winked apologetically from the sickly evergreen's scrawny trunk.

I'm hoping that the museum, which is free to visit and was well-attended in the middle of the day, together with the slew of artisans making the most of Margate's relatively low-cost real estate, will gradually help to pull the town firmly out of the swamp.

Not that I'm completely comfortable with the squeaky yuppification that's going on in many small towns across the land. A city ought to have frayed edges. But its citizens and visitors should be able to walk around without feeling afraid.


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