CHARLIE CONNELLY on a superb new novel which creates a horrifyingly plausible near-future for Margate.
There’s a different kind of sky over the Isle of Thanet, a vast canopy, bigger even somehow than that over the flatlands of the Fens. And the light, the light is different there, and when the sun sets over the sea in front of Margate Sands it burns bigger and deeper than anywhere else.
Whether it’s the sky or the light or something else altogether Thanet still feels like elsewhere, somewhere separate, still carrying the sensations and name of an island even though the channel that once cut it adrift silted up half a millennium ago. You can barely see the join now, but you can definitely feel it.
The island has over time been feted and abused in not-quite equal measure. Decline has been steady and devastating since halfway through the 20th century: the growth of the package holiday during the 1960s took away much of Margate’s business and more recently Thanet has endured a series of hefty blows to its societal solar plexus.
The Pfizer plant at Sandwich closed a decade ago with the loss of 1,500 jobs. The Port of Ramsgate lost its regular ferry services first to Dunkirk and then Ostend, causing an estimated loss to the town of some £20million in the last decade on top of job losses.
Manston Airport, which among other routes hosted a twice-daily KLM service to Amsterdam before decline set in, was bought for a pound in 2013 amid encouraging noises about investment and expansion before closing down, at the cost of 144 jobs. Most recently Manston has been an overflow lorry park mitigating Brexit-related delays at the Port of Dover.
Margate in particular has seen its fortunes become decidedly mixed in recent decades. By the 1980s the once thriving holiday destination saw its hotels and guesthouses being converted into cheap bedsits, where there was money to be made by landlords trousering government money to house the poor and vulnerable displaced from London and other parts of the south-east by a combination of austerity and the ever-rising cost of living.
Newly-arrived refugees and immigrants also gravitated towards Thanet to the point where in the early years of the current millennium the Margate district of Cliftonville was nicknamed ‘Kosoville’.
The region has been frequently ill-served by its politicians too. In the early 1980s a Tory councillor got six years for fraud and forgery. Jonathan Aitken was the MP for South Thanet when he was convicted and imprisoned for perjury. A decade ago a former Conservative leader of the council went to prison for property-related misdemeanours carried out during his time in office.
This combination of circumstances built over time to turn Thanet into somewhere ripe for exploitation by populist dog-whistlers. The region became fertile ground for UKIP to the extent that in 2014 an in-depth analysis of the area’s issues in the London Review of Books was titled “In Farageland”.
Indeed the public school-educated man-of-the-people might be punting cheerful birthday greetings from his webcam these days but he came as close as he’s ever come in his attempts to being elected to the House of Commons when he stood in South Thanet in 2015, securing 32% of the vote.
Then, despite being among most vulnerable regions to the consequences of leaving the European Union, Thanet voted in favour of Brexit by a majority of almost two to one.
Yet in true Thanet style, the area continued to defy simplistic pigeonholing. When in the middle of the last decade Margate’s stock of affordable Georgian townhouses was unearthed by the property supplements, for example, artists, writers and people who could work from wherever they opened their MacBooks began arriving, bringing craft beer and artisanal cupcakes to an area that’s seemingly fated to be in a constant state of transition.
There is a long literary and artistic legacy on the island. Turner found the light at Margate better than almost anywhere else while the town’s own Tracey Emin was influential in bringing the Turner Contemporary gallery to the town in 2011. Dickens had strong associations with Broadstairs, which is also the location of the 39 steps that gave John Buchan the title of his bestselling 1915 novel. Wilkie Collins wrote a considerable part of The Woman in White in Ramsgate, which boasts two blue plaques at addresses where he would hole up with two different lovers.
For all its constantly overlapping transformations Margate endures, bathed in the richness of its light, home to the washed-up, the hopeful, the displaced, the aspirational, the vulnerable, people carried by different tides to this curious corner on the coast. What comes next for Thanet is, as ever, impossible to predict. In her new novel, however, Ramsgate-based author Rosa Rankin-Gee posits a horrifyingly plausible near-future dystopia for Margate, the island, Britain and the world beyond.
Dreamland – which shares its name with the long-established amusement park on Margate seafront – is a novel seven years in the making, its gestation predating the division caused by the build up to and fallout from Brexit. The B-word doesn’t appear in the book but the related and growing divides in our society are portrayed and expanded in unflinching terms.
In Chance, the novel’s protagonist, Rankin-Gee has created one of those characters that stays with the reader long after finishing the book. Part Little Nell from The Old Curiosity Shop, part Turtle from Gabriel Tallent’s My Absolute Darling, Chance is named with irony as hers is a life all-but devoid of opportunity.
She’s been abused for most of her life, is dealing with a mother who is addicted to drugs and enmeshed in a toxic relationship, and apparently has little chance of building anything like a conventionally fulfilling life. Yet from the start she is smart and resilient, quick-thinking and quick on her feet, drawing us through the novel with sheer force of will and personality against what seem to be long odds.
Chance arrives in Margate at the age of seven with her mother and brother, her mother having taken advantage of government grants called ‘reconnection policies’ to move out of London where the poverty-stricken family is a burden on the local authority.
As Rankin-Gee points out in a sobering afterword setting the novel in contemporary context, in 2016 alone 500 families every week were sent packing from London in this manner.
The Margate of the future is a grim place, an economic backwater running on cheap booze and ‘kem’, a crystal-meth-like drug whose ingredients include components from old e-cigarettes and legal highs that’s made in bathtubs in enough quantities to keep the town high and price low.
Chance lives in a flat in the 18-storey Arlington House, Margate’s only high-rise that dominates the seafront, with mother Jas, older brother JD, baby brother Blue and, occasionally, the abusive Kole, her mother’s partner. She inhabits the town in the way kids do, knowing every street, every alleyway, every crack in the tarmac, every face, making her living burgling empty properties long-vacated by down-from-London second homers.
Where the dystopia succeeds in Dreamland is in its almost mundane familiarity, subverting our perceptions with a relentless succession of minor jolts. When the family takes the train from London to their new home, Jas goes to buy something from “the man who was bringing through snacks”. As we picture a trolley passing through pushed awkwardly by someone in an ill-fitting waistcoat we learn instead that “the man with the snacks had nothing officially to do with the train, he was a random guy with a scuffed Bag for Life full of multipacks”.
Most of Margate’s shops are boarded up and the Turner Contemporary is a haven for drug users. Pubs open and shut at random, the booze subsidised to the point of being free to keep the locals docile along with the kem.
There are no jobs and little prospect of them. At one point the town’s power is shut off for nearly two weeks on a government whim. In schools eight-year-olds are taught ‘Life Class’ in which they learn how to ‘live within means’, making a bag of beans last a week, and how to differentiate between different types of chemical attack.
Climate change brings scorching summers and rising sea levels; there’s a great “washout” early in the book, a huge tide surging through the town causing devastating floods and drownings, something that becomes a more regular occurrence until townsfolk plan their day’s movements by the high tide times that make the streets impassable.
“When the government was bad, charity would come our way,” says Chance of her teenage years. “NGOs, non-profits, go-it-aloners. When the government got worse, we’d get less – people needed what they had at home. These were the rhythms we lived by.”
Dystopia? Or something uncomfortably close to the Britain we know today, where MPs pose beaming for the cameras at the opening of a constituency food bank? This is one of the great skills employed by Rankin-Gee in Dreamland, creating a vividly grim future that is never less than plausible.
A ‘Localisation Act’ is passed, through which local authorities are required to derive all their funding through locally-sourced taxation, sending poor areas immediately into a relentless spiral of desperate poverty.
There’s even a tubthumping fringe politician who “says it like it is” and keeps saying it like it is until he’s manoeuvred himself into power, ready to turn on the people he’d hoodwinked to get him there.
“He got away with everything,” says Caleb, probably the closest Chance will have to a father figure. “All this call-me-by-my-first-name, I’ll-drink-a-pint-with-you bulls**t.”
Yet as society breaks down Chance’s nuanced, unquenchable humanity sustains our hope. Powerless yet powerful, beaten down yet always fighting back, betrayed yet capable of love, unprotected yet protective, she becomes an unlikely beacon of goodness among the post-Brexit, austerity-ravaged carnage.
Perhaps appropriately, Dreamland is published exactly a century after T.S. Eliot sat in a seaside shelter close to Margate railway station and wrote part of The Waste Land: “On Margate Sands/ I can connect /Nothing with nothing./ The broken fingernails of dirty hands./ My people humble people who expect/ Nothing”.
Dreamland offers a similarly bleak prognosis 100 years on, but while this wonderful novel might be a stark warning of what may be coming down the line for post-Brexit Britain, it also confirms that where humanity endures, its innate goodness will always prevail. How could it be any other way under those incredible Thanet skies?
“Things can be rubbish, but then you see a sky like that and it’s like – I have that. That’s mine,” says Chance of a Margate sunset. “Which is why I wanna look in that direction. Not behind me.”
Dreamland by Rosa Rankin-Gee is published by Scribner, price £14.99
FIVE GREAT BOOKS OUT THIS WEEK
THE HARD CROWD: ESSAYS 2000-2020
Rachel Kushner (Jonathan Cape, £18.99)
From the Booker shortlisted author of The Mars Room comes this collection of essays and articles gathered together from the last two decades. The long time span doesn’t reduce the freshness of Kushner’s prose as she takes on topics ranging from a visit to a Palestinian refugee camp to her love of classic cars.
I AM A GIRL FROM AFRICA
Elizabeth Nyamayaro (Simon & Schuster, £20)
When Nyamayaro was eight years old she almost died when a severe drought hit her Zimbabwean village. A bowl of porridge from a UN aid worker saved her life and set her on a life devoted to humanitarian concerns. Driven by the African concept of Ubuntu, “I am because we are”, she rises to become a senior adviser to the United Nations, changing communities for the better across the world.
LONELY CASTLE IN THE MIRROR
Mizuki Tsujimura, trans. Philip Gabriel (Doubleday, £12.99)
A huge seller in Japan, this is the story of seven teenagers from a quiet suburb of Tokyo who wake one morning to find their bedroom mirrors shining, beyond them a magical castle with a set of clues which, if solved, grant them one wish. The catch is, they have to be out by a certain time. A novel that confronts anxiety and embraces the power of human connection.
THE RED PRINCE: THE LIFE OF JOHN OF GAUNT, DUKE OF LANCASTER
Helen Carr (Oneworld, £20)
Descended from the great historian and writer E.H. Carr, Helen Carr’s debut work of narrative history is an absorbing biography of one of the great figures of the English past. As well as detailing the rollercoaster of his life Carr, who also presents the excellent Hidden Histories podcast, unpicks her quarry’s complicated legacy.
BOYS DON’T CRY
Fiona Scarlett (Faber & Faber, £12.99)
A debut from another of Ireland’s golden generation of women writers in which two young brothers living in a tower block called The Jax (which is also Dublinese for toilet) dream of escape. The older brother Joe is determined that 12-year-old Finn won’t end up like their father but a series of events makes this a greater challenge than he imagines.
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