Tracey Emin has praised her native Margate as romantic and unsuburban. You can certainly feel something special when you get off the train. The long platform canopies are graceful and the spacious station interior, empty at noon on a weekday, is a classical delight. Outside you expect Bath but find yourself by the seaside, accompanied by a history of artistic celebrity and whimsical architecture to rival anywhere in Britain. Across the sheltered bay with its tidal free acres the first beach donkeys carried eighteenth-century children over the ginger-biscuit sand. Keats came for the air, as did Eliot a century later, only to write that ‘On Margate Sands./I can connect/Nothing with nothing.’ Past the ornate B&Bs of a marine-facing parade called Buenos Ayres you can see the Victorian shelter where a nerve-wracked Eliot sat in autumn 1921 working on The Waste Land. If you didn’t know you might most admire the sculpted rows of armchair seats, a truly convalescent experience of sitting on wood. George III and Nelson and Lady Hamilton and the young Victoria loved this resort, so what happened? Huge war damage, followed by rebuilding plans in the 1960s, of which the Modernist block that towers over the shore is mercifully almost the sole reminder. It stands like a monument to a peculiar English utilitarian madness. Ah, problem of mass housing solved, now let’s get on with our privileged style of living in touch with ‘heritage’. As Modernism goes the angled facades of Arlington House aren’t the worst, but the position is criminal. At Marseilles Le Corbusier built his white-washed tower blocks beneath the mountains. A Kent hummock was never going to provide the same visual cover for a grey concrete folly.
The latest architectural addition to the Margate shoreline mimicks the white cliffs that start at the far end of the still, by nature, indisputably lovely bay. Just behind the stone pier is where the painter Turner used to stay, and there David Chipperfield has built Turner Contemporary. The much-praised building opened last year is not looking its best at the moment, wrapped in a crimson chocolate-box ribbon to advertize Margate’s participation in an arts event shadowing the Olympic Games. But step inside and the spaces, with vistas out over the water, are a joy.
Emin, who has supported and encouraged Turner Contemporary, has a show there, through to mid-September, called She Lay Down Deep Beneath the Sea. The subject is the burden of inhabiting a woman’s body without possessing the feelings that lead to erotic peace. The media the artist uses range from neon to embroidery, and the latter, in marine blue on calico, gives her a thickness of line that recalls Matisse’s blue-and-white tissue paper collages from another seaside, at Nice. She has a basic motif, of elongated woman as a forked creature, and this is replicated by a forked stick on a mattress. A clever move has been to exhibit little-known, private drawings of the naked female body by Turner and Rodin alongside Emin, not because she ranks herself with the great dead white men, but because uniquely she inhabits the body they’re weighing up and she knows a sexuality they can’t imagine. She wants to be known as a text-artist, we’re told, and the text room is painfully true of some life or other. Word-strings such as ‘I SAID NO’ and I DIDN’T SAY I COULDN’T LOVE YOU’, written blue on white, but as if with lipstick on a windowpane, are a poignant exhibition of cultural impoverishment: testimony to a sentence from birth of CONFUSSION, saved in adulthood by PICASO.
If Margate was the place of Emin’s messy growing-up, it’s still messy, with tourism in decline since the 1970s, but still with art as a possibility close by. The Lido, with its grand facilities built into the cliff, must have been a 1930s wonder. Now, concreted up, it looks like a Rachel Whiteread mystery. The dodgems and the amusement arcades have become empty Babylons. As we walked for a couple of miles along the old promenade past only a couple of fishermen, and the odd parked car, the concrete and the rusting iron reminded me of films of the end of the Soviet Union.
The influx of economic migrants to Margate after the 2004/2007 enlargements of the EU has since imitated a film already in existence, Pavel Pavlikovsky’s torturous Last Resort (2000). Today along the main street leading from the once fairy-tale suburb of Cliftonville nine out of ten shops are boarded up. Of a pub sign all that remains is the iron frame, a viewfinder for the unlikely crowd gathered outside the Anglican church opposite offering on Wednesday evenings free food seasoned with mild Christianity. Along the once elegant side streets of WalpoleBay balconies are splintering, canopies stowed in. Women are squatting on doorsteps, men smoking something behind the railings. ‘Funny Czech,’ said my husband, whose language it is. ‘They must have asked the wrong person.’ The sign to the bottle bank, surely rather optimistically conceived, was also in Romanian and Polish.
The poverty sits like grime in the air, even on a hot summer afternoon. It weighs like her homeless sexuality on the young Emin. ‘Please don’t ask for credit…’ says a bi-lingual notice in a charity shop. By contrast, although still in stark opposition to wealth and fulfilment, at the enchanting Florence Rose tearooms, a beacon of prettiness across the far side of Cliftonville, I wouldn’t have been surprised to pay 3s/6d. for our 1950s spread of sandwiches on a doily and scones and jam. Our landlady for an hour invited us to read the latest on the new housing benefit arrangements. She’s become a gathering point for information and concern. It’s a huge problem central government has passed to local councils. In Margate they’ll be ending the second home exemption from Council Tax for a start, not good news for the one upmarket estate agent trying to sell historic properties at knockdown prices.
What is to be done then, to echo Lenin’s question. Regeneration is the word on some hoardings, and one has to hope that investment won’t dry up and brave souls will take on a Grade II listed property in the town centre for half the price of a tiny London flat. More trust has been placed in the new gallery, coupled with ‘the vibrant artists’ quarter in the OldTown’ to bring in visitors. I was in the train returning home when it struck me that now once again art has to save the world, just as Dostoevsky hoped in his day. Not art in its metaphysical guise, as beauty signifying divine perfection to come, but art able to create ‘communities’ here and now. People with money to spend on artsy things, and attractive places to spend it, is what Margate needs immediately.
Emin managed it. Margate’s best-known ambassador these days, she got from sheer troubled introspective need to being fashionable and interesting, through art. She’s a great example.