It started innocently enough. I was talking about the Royal Wedding with some people from North London and unthinkingly remarked that I thought that Kate Middleton would make a lovely queen. Obviously this was the wrong thing to say. If you are a Guardianista, you must regard the Royal Family and everything they do as an absurd and rather vulgar anachronism. I had committed a thoughtcrime.
Luckily, I got away with it. My companions thought that I was satirising the cap-doffing attitudes of Middle England and laughed politely, unaware that my statement was free of any irony or cynicism.
But the whole sorry episode weighed heavily on my conscience. I knew that I had committed a major transgression and only an act of atonement would enable me to look my fellow cognoscenti in the eye. But what? A box of organic vegetables or a bottle of artisan-made balsamic vinegar wouldn't be enough this time. I had to perform the Hadj.
The following morning, I began a long, difficult journey of pilgrimage to Margate, home of the newest contemporary art gallery.
Margate was once a promised land for the working classes. Families could escape from the drudgery and, sometimes, squalor of their daily lives and spend a couple of weeks in a fantasy world of music hall shows, fairground rides and sunshine:
But the two weeks passed too quickly and then it was back to the unlived life. For many Eastenders, the dream was that one day they would go back to Margate and never leave, spending their final days breathing fresh air. The whole town was fuelled by working class dreams (although, incongrously, Eliot wrote the third part of 'The Waste Land' here: 'On Margate Sands. I can connect nothing with nothing').
The last time Margate really buzzed with life was in the 1960s, when mods and rockers terrorised the bank holiday crowds:
Then the package holiday arrived. People quickly realised that for the same amount of money they could have a holiday in Spain, where the sunshine was almost guaranteed. Like many so British coastal resorts, Margate went into a long, slow decline, beset by high unemployment and under-investment.
Which brings us to the present. How do you revitalise a depressed area? Industry is no longer an option and the dreaded 'retail park' may create a few hundred jobs (if you can persuade retailers to set up in a town with no money), but it's a Faustian pact which ultimately does more harm than good to the local economy.
The only answer is to attract more middle class people into the town and the best way of doing that is to build an art gallery.
Once, the notion that an economically depressed town could be revived with an art gallery (and a modern art gallery at that!) would have sounded absurd, like something out of Sim City, but the evidence is irrefutable.
The phenomenal success of the Tate Modern, which opened in 2000, has shown that contemporary art is far more popular than many people believed and the last decade has seen an unprecedented number of successful gallery openings; many in very unlikely places. When these galleries opened, people were suprised by how quickly new businesses started to appear.
This was the rationale behind the Turner Contemporary in Margate. It wasn't a universally popular idea - many locals would have prefered a leisure centre - but the gallery had some very vocal supporters, including local girl Tracy Emin:
(If the Royal Family met with an unfortunate end, I would quite happily install Tracy Emin as the next queen of England)
Like all great building projects, the plans and budget for the Turner Contemporary underwent a number of revisions and compromises, but thanks to the tenacity of its supporters, the gallery was eventually opened earlier this month by Emin and Jools Holland.
From a distance, the Turner Contemporary is underwhelming, but the gallery is more impressive as you get closer:
Designed by Sir David Chipperfield, the Turner Contemporary boldly faces the sea. Some have questioned the logic of placing a valuable art collection in such a vulnerable position, but the building feels very solid.
I was pleased to see that the steps were packed with visitors and as I walked through the entrance, I was struck by how the building was already buzzing with energy, less than a month after opening:
This atrium is hugely impressive - a wonderful use of space involving mirrored walls and this stunning view of the sea:
I wasn't completely convinced by the steps up to the first floor. Inspired by Turner's enigmatic last words, which could have meant either "The sun is god", "The son is God" or "The sun is God", this all looked a bit like something out of art college:
But I liked the next exhibit. I tried to read what it was all about, but there were so many people in the gallery I became distracted and decided to read more on the gallery's website when I got home, but oddly there doesn't seem to be much content about the exhibits.
As far as I can tell, it's a mural of work by young people from Margate and reflects on the town's past, present and hopes for the future:
I wish that I'd read the blurb more thoroughly.
This section contains the great Turner quote "If I could find anything blacker than black, I'd use it."
At this point, I should explain (for anyone who is blissfully unaware of the Turner Contemporary) where Turner comes into the story. This is from the gallery's website:
“Where therefore, and in this very town of Margate, he lived, when he chose to be quit of London, and yet not to travel” John Ruskin
Turner’s connection with Margate was the founding inspiration for our organisation. He loved Margate for the sea, the skies, and his landlady Mrs Booth.
He first came to the seaside town aged 11, having been sent by his parents to school in Love Lane in Margate. He returned to sketch here aged 21 and from the 1820s onwards became a regular visitor.
Visitors who are expecting a collection of Turner paintings will be disappointed. There is only one picture in the collection, although the gallery hopes to remedy this. Admittedly it's a pretty impressive painting, but did it really need a 'tensabarrier' in front?
This installation looked promising:
This remarkable installation, by Conrad Shawcross, was far more successful:
In the art world, people are forever talking about 'the space' as being almost as important as the exhibits and in general, I'd agree. The Turner Contemporary is a fantastic 'space', but there's just a little too much of it. I would have liked to have seen some more exhibits. There is clearly some work to be done (including the amount of content on the website), but the gallery has got off to a good start.
At the moment, to coin Dr Johnson's description of the Giant's Causeway, the Turner Contemporary is "worth seeing, but not worth going to see", at least, if your journey is longer than a couple of hours. It took me over three hours to make the 90-mile trip from Lewes.
On the plus side there's a nice cafe in the gallery and it's only a matter of time before a succession of chi-chi resaturants and shops appear in this nearby road:
The future definitely looks brighter for Margate. Sadly, this will be the last new gallery in Britain for the foreseeable future.
Even if the Turner Contemporary doesn't have enough exhibits to justify a day trip, there's plenty to see in Margate and if you prefer your resorts to be a little more genteel, Broadstairs is only a couple of miles away:
I've never been to this part of Kent before and was impressed by the number of quirky, interesting buildings, including the original model for 'Bleak House', which towers above the beach:
Charles Dickens was a big fan of Broadstairs:
I had obviously come on a quiet day:
As Dickens might have said, "I searched in vain for a fish and chip emporium that was open for travellers and instead, decided to embark on an agreeable perambulation of the town's environs".
The alleys and back streets revealed many eccentric features, like this nautical gate:
It goes without saying that I am a big fan of 'David Copperfield', so I didn't miss the chance to visit the house which was owned by the model for Betsey Trotwood and now contains the Dickens Museum. It's strange to think the young Dickens sat in this very room:
The museum was a little disappointing. Apart from a few letters written by the author, it was mainly a collection of Dickens-related ephemera (with no pictures of Steerforth), but with an entrance fee of around £3, it was still worth a visit.
I finished the day by having a brief drink in Deal with an old schoolfriend. He has just joined a French punk band and told me some hilarious stories, which would be a whole blog post in itself. I know that he hates anything to do with blogging and social networking, so I will shamelessly steal his anecdotes.
After our drink, I began the ridiculously long journey back to Lewes. At first I resented the fact that it took over three hours to make a 90-mile journey, but on reflection, if we had more motorways and better rail links, everywhere would turn into commuterland.