Of White Tents and Unwanted Things: A Coastal Despatch from a Kent Car Park
An shorter version of this piece first appeared at Unofficial Britain
So there’s that scene in alien films. You know the one: it happens about halfway through, long after the hero has been established. It’s the moment when dimwit authorities pull their shit together, cease jeering at the overlooked lead and begin grudgingly to work with him (it’s usually a him). It’s the same moment, in other words, that everyone realises they’re scared. So scared, they’re willing to listen to the wacko. So scared that they don plastic goggles and crinkly synthetic babygros. So scared that they begin to set up tents.
Tents! White tents, like squared-off teepees. When you see the tents in the film, that’s when you know: it’s bad. This time round, the tents are real, and they’re in the car park right beneath my flat. I peer out of the window, between the seagull shit which encrusts the glass, and quake.
I do not quake.
I sort of quake.
I know that I am supposed to quake, but in truth I am just weirded out.
As they say, truth is stranger than fiction.
It’s funny being in a seaside town during lockdown. Everyone talks about how great it is, about how thankful they are. The whole nation is hankering to be where we are, apparently; during the brief interlude between the first lockdown and this one, half the populace was on Rightmove, searching for coastal properties. Stamp duty! they yelled. A patch of land to call my own! A moat! A drawbridge! Sea! Sun!
But now it is winter and there is no more sun, and the impassive sea goes in and out –
You little things, it says. You wretched ants.
I arrived during the first lockdown. It was early June, and I was alone. I was here to begin a new life, but there was little life to be had. The shops were dusty. Grilles were pulled down over doors, like closed eyelids. Litter rolled down the High Street, and the windows of Costa Coffee were coated in grime.
As we edged into July more people began to emerge, to emerge and to linger; the concrete benches outside Poundland were occupied with scrawny teenagers, the crumpled tops of McDonalds’ bags scrunched in their fists. Then the heat wave brought bucket-loads to the beach: one could scarcely make out the sand between the sunburn. Merry-makers jostled for space, drinking lager and breaching guidelines; should it be one metre or two, nobody seemed to know. The authorities issued statements: You are not welcome here. It made no difference. The town was in its element. The streets were paved with fat golden discs: chips squashed by hundreds of feet into a vinegary mash.
A tourist town! Cars filled the car park, shining like beetles in the sun: Margate was getting back on its feet. People looked – vaguely – happy.
But today the car park is filled with tents, and it’s like those few short weeks never happened. Everything’s being repurposed. The car park, to be precise, is now a dedicated Covid testing site, and in nearby parts of Kent, a camp has been fashioned out of army barracks. This camp is to serve as makeshift housing for the channel-crossing migrants this country is not gracious enough, or human enough, to properly welcome.
The disease and the migrants have each been given a ghetto of their own.
If ever one needs a reminder that one isn’t supposed to be going anywhere, let me tell you: a car park filled with tents does the job rather well. No, we can’t go anywhere, and no one is coming here either. No one is coming to save this tourist town. It is Lockdown Mark-Two, and everyone is at home. The gift shops are closed, and the pizza place is closed, and the stalls selling ice cream and fried doughnuts are closed, and the fancy seafood bar is closed, and the gallery is closed. And the Italian is closed and the Thai is closed and behind all of the windows of each of the cafés, all of the chairs are upturned. They look like the legs of dead insects which have rolled onto their backs: the world is spiky, forbidding. In one restaurant window, I see a sign which has been left on: its scarlet LED bulbs flash on and off, sending the word ‘OPEN’ into the darkness like a strobing call of SOS. All around the town, there are signs of neglect: a rather grand establishment on the corner pronounces itself as the purveyor of ‘Urkish Cuisine.’ When I pass it on my way to Aldi I find that I feel a little urkish myself. Yes, when it comes to this second lockdown, urkish seems to describe exactly how I feel. Whatever that means.
So once again there are fewer people on the streets.
If you want to see people, you have to go to Aldi. Everything’s happening in Aldi! Aldi’s where the life is.
People are friendly in Aldi; the hushed consternation which clogged supermarket aisles during Lockdown One appears, this time round, to have dissipated. Masks are old news; protective screens are so much so normal. Most curious of all, leaving space for others in line has become the new way to connect. This is the case even when the queue snakes halfway to the back-wall freezer: out of the grimness and distance, camaraderie. Going to Aldi feels like quite the social event.
The staff behind the checkout are indefatigably buoyant. They make conversation. We, the customers, are also chattier than usual – the sole exchange of the day for some, no doubt. Oh, I know, people say to each other, with a mixture of exasperation and empathy. I know: meaning, isn’t it awful. Everyone wears an air of cheerful exhaustion. Of well-meaning, uncomplaining, despair. The desperation has been made presentable; it is like a cactus in a brightly painted pot. We’re alright, say the staff, at least we’re working.
Frequently I find that I am served by the lady who wears Hand of Fatimah earrings. I like your earrings, I say to her one day. She gushes. Thank you, she says, They were only cheap. She adds: I like them because they mean ‘peace’.
Now people only go to the car park – testing site – if they’re in fear of death, or of spreading it. From my window, I can see red-and-white hazard tape snapping in the wind. The tape has been stretched between numerous traffic cones, and scores the once-empty space so that it looks like the long lines at the airport for immigration. There never seem to be any people around – no one but the staff. That they’re staff is obvious: they are men in high-visibility jackets. The men stand around in small clusters of three or four, their gaits disconsolate, like limp teachers in the school playground chancing a sneaky fag break.
The car park occupies an odd patch of land: car parks usually do. It is bordered by Dreamland – a ‘traditional theme park’ whose Big Wheel I have never seen turn, and whose Scenic Railway is empty of carriages – and by a rubble-strewn back alley which stretches gutter-like behind Wetherspoons. On the side, there is a rhombus of wasteland. This is strewn with scrap metal and old bottles; diapers languish between scrubby tufts of grass. There are also a couple of abandoned caravans, and several rusting shipping containers arranged in two storeys. A busy road runs along the final edge, home only to a large discount furniture showroom.
Once darkness falls, the tents are floodlit, like a football pitch, and their brilliantine radiance swells haughtily into the Margate nights. The bleaching glow overtakes Dreamland’s bold lettering, which is illuminated in juvenile yellow and underscored in naïve royal blue. The glow competes with the moon which, even when full, looks tired and sallow in comparison.
Sometimes the tents seem to me to move. Each morning I wake and look out, and wonder at their curious positioning. Like heedless toys which come out to play under cover of darkness, they seem to have put themselves back in their places too hastily: one has nosed that bit forwards, one has inched that bit back. The tents are not quite in line. They look giddy, slapdash; they are poorly arranged. For some reason this bothers me.
Margate has one of the highest poverty gaps in the country: fact. It is worn in the landscape. There are charity shops next to boutiques, and posh bars whose clientele, in normal times, sit on stools and look out at twelve year olds getting shit-faced on the town’s famed sea-facing steps. There are beggars outside the kebab shops. I see one frequently, loitering with his polite plea beneath the blush of Tracey Emin’s neon pink scrawl, which is mounted on the front of the tourist office. I never stopped loving you, is what the scrawl says.
Some of the highest rates in the Covid in the country have also been recorded here. In Cliftonville – a part of Margate composed in unequal parts of hipster, immigrant, and of the generally just poor – Polish supermarkets are interspersed with organic stores and coffee shops. On Athelston Road people hang out on the steps of large terraced houses, which have been broken into flats; mattresses, cracked glass-topped tables, and defunct fridges doors left to swing open, appear at regular intervals along the pavement. (An artist I meet tells me: I love it here – I just love finding free shit on the street!). Around the corner is Haekels which, despite its laudable eco credentials, charges £160 for a bottle of perfume. Another fact.
So yes, Margate is a place of edges. But an edge is not a wall, as migrants well know – and as the virus does too, apparently. If it is anything, an edge is an encounter.
In lockdown, it is encounter that we are avoiding.
If something threatens to touch? If something encroaches? What do we do?
We enclose it.
The poverty in Margate is real, but nobody likes to think much about it. Instead they talk about gentrification, and wring their hands; they look obligingly stricken with guilt. Being part of the problem is, for a DfL (a ‘Down from London’-er), a source of both shame and identity, and it is met with the same sort unmotivated resignation as that which people bring to the issue of climate change. Feeling a nebulous responsibility is by itself sufficient, in the way that the use of a cotton shopping bag, metal straw, or one’s own flask in the coffee shop excuses one from having to think about the use of one’s car or, until the virus hit, those annual, long-haul trips.
But yes, the poverty is real, and it is being made worse by the virus. Small shops are shut, and small traders are prevented from operating. The edges are getting louder. The edges are getting bigger. They cluster up together ever more tightly, forming inchoate little scrums.
Haekels produces a few different scents, and each variant is named after a local spot. One amongst their range is called Dreamland, and the description says that: ‘To experience this location is to walk around this monumental disused ride, itself a victim of arson, with the scent of burnt wood and charred leather surrounding you to then find yourself at the back of the site where there was once the ornamental gardens.’
It seems that Margate’s poverty is edgy, and edges, as ever, are game for the sell.
One could think of the virus as a phenomenon of surfaces. Surface, edge: both are what we have been newly taught to beware. We must not touch surfaces, and we must not let edges touch. In this way surface, edge – each have, in themselves, become a curious sort of substance. Surface and edge form the Stuff of our days. Constantly we are reminded that a surface is a surface for a reason. Like an edge, it must remain unbroached. Our bodies, and those of others, should operate as though they were each some sort of Land’s End.
Car parks are big, and the virus is small. The virus is very small. Suddenly, the two are in the same place.
This seemed odd to me at first, but perhaps it is not all that odd. Perhaps, after all, it is appropriate that a Covid testing site is in a car park. For, when we are going somewhere, pulling up in car park signals that we are there…and yet, not there. Not quite there. Like a car park, lockdown is an interim, it is not a destination in itself. Or it ought not to be. We hope that it isn’t.
Now that it is winter, the roofs of the tents sparkle with frost. The pandemic is starting to feel like the waiting room of the future. From my window, I look at the tents. In Hollywood, when the tents arrive, things are bad. But the film’s not done yet. Surely it is not done yet. I look at the tents again; I watch them hold space. And I wait.