Arlington House Margate, Digital Images, 2008.
To Broadstairs, not to bathe – it being April, but merely take the air. The Isle of Thanet has always been a little problematic for me; I can’t even say it without recalling Ian Dury’s lines: ‘I rendezvoused with Janet / Quite near the Isle of Thanet / She looked just like a gannet…’ &c. Somehow the great bard of the Kilburn High Road perfectly summed up this, the very coccyx of Britain, with its seafowl and its foul maidens.
Of course, seldom has anywhere more gentrified become more chavvy. Dickens, a habitué of the town, has one of his characters in The Pickwick Papers almost expire with relief once she reaches the haven of the Albion Hotel in Broadstairs, having had to endure the day-tripping of Margate en route. Dickens wrote to a friend of the town, that “(It) was and is, and to the best of my belief will always be, the chosen resort and retreat of jaded intellectuals and exhausted nature; being, as this Deponent further saith it is, far removed from the sights and noises of the busy world, and filled with the delicious murmur and repose of the broad ocean.”
He eventually bought the misnamed Bleak House, that still stands above the little horseshoe bay, looking not remotely grim, but more like a castellated Victorian fantasia on chivalric domesticity. What, I wonder, would he make of the town now, perfused as it is with tracksuited, gel-haired denizens of Margate and Ramsgate? Indeed, the whole of this coast feels like some suburb of outer East London, so full is it of the sights and noises of the busy world.
The sandy bay that is the town’s focus remains, girded by white cliffs of chalk and terraced houses, complete with micro-interwar pleasure gardens and a lift down to the beach that looks like an off-whitewashed crematorium chimney. There’s Morrelli’s, the beautifully preserved 1950s gelateria, where you can get Jammie Dodger sundaes, and glass mugs of vaguely caffeinated froth, then consume them under a bizarre oil painting of a flooded Venice – the water creeping up over St Mark’s. These are good things, and up the steep High Street there are chip shops and charity shops and Doyle’s Psychic Emporium (“Open Your Mind”), and a sweet shop selling orange crystals, spearmint pips and liquorice wheels. There’s even an optician’s trading under the name of See Well.
We hung out on the beach, fetching teas from the Chill Time café. One ageing hopeful came metal-detecting along the strand, Dr Who gadget held out in front of him, nuzzling the sand. Then another came up along, his gaze fixed on the gritty mother lode, his headphones clamped over his cartilaginous ears. Disaster! One metal detector detected the other, and one treasure seeker grabbed for the other’s wand. A vicious mêlée ensued as the two men fought for the right to possess these found objects. The kids and I sat in the beach hut and laughed like gannets.
A happy scene, but come nightfall and the profile tyres began to screech on the tarmac, and the darkness was full of harsher, more discordant cries. I took the dog for a walk in the local park. The blackout was complete, but I was aware of the presence of many others. In any large city these might have been furtive seekers after fleeting, anonymous congress, but here, in Broadstairs, they turned out to be enormous gaggles of teenagers, wheeling around on the mown grass, their mobile phones held under their chins so that the wan up-light weirdly illuminated their vestigial features. As I grew closer to one of these gaggles I became aware of an insistent and peculiar gobbling noise; the sound of many breaking voices intoning “Fuck off, fuck off, fuck off,” over and over again.
I blame Hengist and Horsa for Broadstairs’ current fall from gentility. The two Danes – or, possibly, Germans – were invited by King Vortigern of Kent to come here in the fifth century: an early form of economic migration. Fifteen hundred years later, in 1949, the anniversary of their arrival was commemorated by some latter-day pseudo-Vikings: Danish oarsmen who completed the voyage in a replica boat. They landed on the sands below Dickens’ Bleak House, and the local municipality laid on a slap-up feed of hot soup, cold poultry, and potatoes with fresh salad in ample portions. Later there was heavy-footed dancing to the accompaniment of Joseph Muscant’s salon orchestra.
But, not content with such a welcome, the town councillors foolishly changed the name of Main Bay to Viking Bay. Doubtless they thought this would cement Anglo-Danish relations, but so far as I can see the main upshot has been that the town’s inhabitants go berserk from time to time. Waiting for the train back to London, I overheard two Thanet warriors discoursing on the platform: “‘E’s a cunt inne?” said one, “always bum-licking, but if you turns yer back on ‘im ‘e’ll give you a smack in the mouf.” They were drinking Stella Artois; if only it were reassuringly expensive.