England’s Dreaming: Going Home To Brexit Britain
Ramsgate’s Royal Harbour Brasserie looks- intentionally- like a large concrete ship that’s ploughed into the far end of the East Pier. Aground it sits, serving up battered fish and oven chips and mini bottles of Prosseco and vast tankards of beer. The clientele are Ramsgate’s newly combustible mix; old school Thanet working class with murky tats; coastal eccentrics muttering through catweasel beards, and, naturally, the ever increasing ranks of DFLs*, all Mamas & Papas buggies and middle class boozing. The separate groups are as unsure of each other as teenagers at a school disco. Everyone drinks.
As we walk in, music strikes up. Dominating the prow of the restaurant, a blind pianist sits at a shiny electronic organ, faithful mutt laid at his feet. He’s giving it heart and soul, pounding through orchestral renditions drawn from the Great British Songbook. Creep arranged for synthetic flute, strings and piano, segues seamlessly into a light classical rendition of The Air That I Breathe. The volume is bracing. There’s no telling where he’ll go next. Some pensioners applaud. The middle classes take their drinks outside.
The food pricing is bizarre. Half a lobster is cheap at fifteen quid. A duck egg on a slice of bread is seven. The children’s portions are mountainous plates of battered items. The view of the sea and the harbour is beautiful. The staff look harried but seem sweet. It’s 2pm and a good third of the diners are pissed. We look at the view and head to the beach.
The streets are busy. No one sent the memo to Old Thanet; Ramsgate is being gentrified. The new comers vibrate with righteous energy. This is a property hot spot! We are the new brooms! We have civic pride! We have organic food! Our tattoos are ironic and impeccable! We sort our wine by the year! But no. No one sent the memo. So the streets are lively with the dreaded locals. Young men, stripped to the waist, bowl through crowds and bawl glottal stopped obscenities. I hear variations of FACK OFF U CANT a hundred times or more and sometimes the lads are saying it laughing and sometimes they’re screaming it raging, and any which way they’re obnoxious and gleeful and cracked and they most definitely didn’t get the memo.
My kid wants a bucket and spade, so I’m picking through castle shaped plastic at the shop that sells tat. To my right two lads – they look like brothers, late teens- start lumping the shit out of each other. One of them smacks the other a prize hook to the mush. A nose just goes. There’s blood all over matey’s face and all over the street. The inevitable rubberneckers form. The fight expands; an older women is yelling from a few feet distance (a mum?) and a younger girl is yelling and sporadically jumping on the lads’ wrestling backs (a girlfriend?). It’s escalating from a drunken punch up into the well-rehearsed violence of experienced dualists. Bizarrely, the action is contained in a roped off area of pavement that no one is walking through. There’s an air of street theatre. This is Friday night chucking-out-time action and it’s only about twenty past two on a Sunday afternoon. You get your money’s worth in Ramsgate.
I buy kiddo a bucket and spade and a pirate themed beach ball (hmm, cheap, I think approvingly, ever the tightwad) and I studiously ensure that I don’t catch the eye of any of the combatants. I’ve been around Thanet long enough to know there’s nothing like a common enemy to help nutters bury their differences. My mum, on the other hand, tries to phone the police. The police don’t appear to give a shit. I hustle her off to the beach. “Of course that’s not really much of a fight round here,” she tells me, “It’s only a problem when there’s 14 of them.”
It's pretty disorientating when a place is simultanously this beautiful and completely batshit crazy. Here's a photo my brother took a couple of weeks back that shows the harbour. Nice, huh?
On the beach, fifty yards from the dust up, a four man camera crew- apparently from Sky Arts- are filming a living recreation of a 19th Century watercolour. There are 50 odd people dressed in oldey-timey clothes, simpering and posing for some twee TV bullshit. Meanwhile the sounds of the fight, a mix of meaty thwacking and drunken howling, drift down from the promenade. As the camera crew wrap up, sirens finally wail past. The show’s over.
We settle into enjoying being by the beach. It’s a genuinely lovely stretch of clean sand, stones like buried bones, and bright sea. The kids dig holes and argue and shovel ice creams into their faces. Family members tag team to the boozer. After a few hours, it’s time to walk back up to the main stretch.
There’s a festival going on- Ramsgate Festival, prosaically enough. A samba band wind through the street. They’re not bad at all, rat-a-tatting summertime rhythms while four women dressed in the gaudy plumage and barely-there outfits of carnival queens gyrate upfront. The procession makes its way past the outside tables of the waterfront fun pubs. Gammy old soaks rub their glasses and peer at exotic arses.
The fun pubs are insane with noise. One place is pounding relentless high energy EDM to an entirely unmoved clientele of gently sloshed pensioners. Directly next door a singer- with the looks and mannerisms of a fifty year old Buddy Holly- performs Walking in Memphis over a laptop backing track. His rendition is only a quaver or two off syncronising with the dance anthems blasting from the neighbouring pub. Together they're tantalisingly close to delivering an unwitting folk recreation of Shut Up & Dance’s Raving I’m Raving. I feel emotional.
By now we’re by the old casino. It’s a beautiful domed building, mock renaissance statues adorning its long dormant entrance. No one has gambled money in this place for an age. Apparently Weatherspoon’s are buying it. Next to the old casino is the Ramsgate clock. Here’s a little known fact about Ramsgate; it exists in its own timezone. Ramsgate time runs 5 minutes and 40 seconds before normal time. No doubt there are entirely banal reasons why Ramsgate has its own timezone, but what do I care? From my position of ignorance, the concept thrills me. What happens to those 5 minutes in Ramsgate? Where do they go? Does crossing the Thanet Rubicon mark some minor, cumulative breach in the rules of space/time? If I time my departure from Thanet just right, can I meet my younger self?
I’m distracted by the sound of kitsch Hawaiian music. In the car park next to the casino they’ve set up a mini market; food stalls with posh burgers, pulled pork, jerk chicken and artsy crafty things, a little piece of Shoreditch Street Feast dropped wholesale onto Ramsgate harbour. There’s a stage, upon which a set of girls in matching hula skirts are hip-swaying to the kind of easy listening Hawaiian music that makes me think of Americans with neat hair who murder hitchhikers. A mad looking bastard, mid 50s and hammered, struts in front of the stage. He peacocks around, gesturing to the sky, hefting his pint high above his grizzled head. He’s having a great time. No one bats a lid. The clouds draw in and the wind picks up. The hula girls smile gamely and step through their routine. The flags by the side of the stage flutter and snap. Right now, Ramsgate is a ragged and beautiful and quite literally of another time. But, still, it looks like it’s going to rain. Time to go home.
*”down from London’s”, in the local parlance