Saturday, 30 August 2014

Two Nights in Two Towns

For the past two weekends Caroline and I have taken advantage of extended rest periods at my place of work to spend a couple of individual nights by the seaside – first at Cliftonville, near Margate, and then at Southend.

At Cliftonville we stayed at the iconic Walpole Bay Hotel on Fifth Avenue. The hotel is simultaneously a museum, with antique furniture and artefacts strategically placed throughout, along the corridors and outside each of the rooms. Particularly quaint was the wonderful trellis gate lift which services every floor from the heart of the Reception area.

Cliftonville has a special significance for me as it was the place we used to travel to as a family for our summer holidays when I was a child. In those days however it was much, much different. Then the coastal road was dominated by several hotels run by Butlin’s – Queen’s, St.George, the Norfolk and the Grand – and over many years we both stayed at and used all of these. The hotels operated as a boxed set so that residence in one allowed for full use of all of them, including bars and dance halls, amusements, shops, television rooms and a children’s cinema with doubled up as an entertainment theatre.


The mobility between TV rooms was particularly useful. In those days even the best hotel rooms did not have a television provided, and so by having three hotels with three televisions showing each of the three channels one was able to watch whichever side one wished at any time without there being any arguments. My particular penchant at the time was for Top of the Pops, so I would head to the Grand which, if memory serves me correctly, was the appointed venue for BBC1. There I and thirty or so others of a similar age would occupy the small viewing room and listen enthusiastically to the dulcet tones of Brian Connelly or Noddy Holder.

The Queen’s Hotel was on the opposite side of the road to the others and featured a large swimming pool, which later became a dolphinarium. It also hosted a spacious hall in which bingo was played and where I once (unlawfully) won the then immense sum of fifty pounds on the final, Friday night full-house.

Back on the “main” side and almost opposite the Queen’s was a really useful seaside shop, which sold all sorts of stuff from the usual beach paraphernalia and saucy postcards to Ghurkha knives and boxes of stink bombs (“Stinkbomben”, I seem to recall).

A short walk in the direction of Margate took one to the lido which boasted several amusement areas as well as a large entertainment bar where, during the later visits of my Margate period I would enjoy a refreshing (and again unlawful) Sunday afternoon pint of lager whilst listening to the liberating sound of the Wurlitzer. Oddly, my most abiding memory of this period was walking into the ladies’ lavatory by mistake and being observed by scores of puzzled people swiftly departing it again.

This all happened back in the 1970s. In those days Cliftonville was a popular and thriving holiday resort which complimented perfectly the brighter lights and seaside sounds and smells of Margate itself, a mile or so along the road. The Margate experience was epitomised by Dreamland, too grand to be labelled a funfair but too puny to be thought of as a theme park in the modern sense of the word. As well as providing amusements and rides Dreamland was also a zoo. Plus of course Margate had a pier.


By the time I visited Margate in the 1990s it had come to a sorry pass. Dreamland had been renamed Bembom Brothers – it was later to change back to Dreamland before closing entirely. The old seaside shop was derelict, the seafront was ghost-like due to the lack of any discernable activity at any of the adjoining buildings and the once proud Butlin’s hotels were no more. One of them seemed to be operating independently, still within the trade, but the character of Cliftonville had altered astonishingly. Whilst I happily acknowledge the duty we all possess towards those less fortunate that ourselves, the number of residents who were clearly living under the local authority’s duty of care, including by no means a few from various parts of Eastern Europe, had altered the demography of the town radically. This was no longer bucket and spade territory by any stretch of the imagination. All that seemed to remain was the sturdy old harbour and the hideous early 1960s tower block overlooking Dreamland – apparently called Arlington House – which can only have bypassed conventional planning procedures as no serious local authority anywhere, at any time, could seriously have considered it appropriate development in the surrounds in which it stood.

It is from this low ebb that Margate (and Cliftonville) needs to be considered today. Dreamland is still derelict, but its much anticipated relaunch is well under way (it is scheduled to open again next year). Plans are afoot for Arlington House, if not to demolish it at last then at least to make it somehow less of a slum. The fame and recognition achieved by local girl Tracey Emin and a local connection of some kind with the painter Turner seem to be in the process of transforming the town into some kind of oasis of art. A new building at the old pier head named the Turner Contemporary, observed not unreasonably by Caroline to resemble a large public convenience, opened in 2011 and has already attracted over a million visitors.

The harbour itself has more activity than of old too, with two excellent little bars and a café having been established. Here we enjoyed a couple of pints of Old Rosie cider at the folky Harbour Arms (which at 7.3% ABV meant at all times having to remain alert to the severe drop into the drink from the unfenced harbour wall).

Cliftonville had changed too. The magnificent buildings of my childhood holidays, once proud hotels and later hostels for those in need, are now smart flats. It’s becoming “nicer”, property prices are doubtless on the up, but the spirit and soul of Butlin’s (pre-Bognor megadump) are long departed.


Over in Southend I had less to ponder upon. I’d only been there, at most, four or five times, the most recent being in February 2013 when I had checked in for the night at the splendid Ilfracombe House Hotel in Wilson Road before flying to Portugal from the absurdly-named “London” Southend Airport the next morning. Having had a good experience at this modest but wonderfully well-run little hotel on that occasion I took the risk of taking Caroline along on Bank Holiday Monday, and I’m pleased to report that the experience was repeated. Immaculate rooms, friendly staff, a relaxing comfortable bar and unhurried “eat as much as you like” breakfast combined to make a perfect stay in spite of the horrible Bank Holiday weather.

During our stay we took a stroll up the 1.33-mile Southend Pier, the world’s longest leisure pier, and back – all in horrendous driving wind and rain. A nice and very popular café at the head of the pier breaks the mission up nicely, and we returned for fish and chips at one of the many such outlets along the seafront. Those of a less adventurous bent could always take the train, which travels to the pier head every half hour on the half hour, and returns exactly fifteen minutes later.

All in all we did a lot of driving for two nights in two seaside towns, but it’s nice to get away. Next stop, as normal, will be the Isle of Wight.

Monday, 25 August 2014

On Taking My First Church Service

This evening I did something that I've never done before and which I have been dreading all week. I took a service at my local Church, the Isleworth Congregational.

A few weeks ago our long-serving Pastor the Revd. Antony W. Ball retired after forty years of thorough, loyal and dedicated service to our Church. As our Pastor it was always a pleasure to listen to Antony whenever he was in the pulpit. The scholarly, logical and analytical way in which he dissected the texts always captured my attention and even on my tiredest days my concentration seldom drifted. We have had some excellent visiting preachers, but speaking personally Antony's sermons were always the ones I gained the most from.

Fortunately although he has stepped down from the post to take well-deserved retirement he has assured us that he is happy to continue to preach to us, as well of course as serving still as a Church member. For this we will be eternally grateful (npi), because he is in my view irreplaceable.

Whilst I am under no illusions about my own abilities as a "preacher", I stepped into the breach tonight as I and all of my fellow Deacons attempt to fill the massive void created while he spends a few weeks away from the Church. Although I have spoken at many a political and public meeting, to audiences of up to 3000 in number, giving a sermon in a Church is so thoroughly different that it is reasonable to consider tonight as having been "my first time". I was very nervous.

I spoke (rather than preached, I guess) about the logic of Christianity and the way in which the laws given to us by God are for our own benefit and for that of wider society rather than being arbitrary or gratuitous. It was in essence a justification from a Christian perspective of the principles that guided me throughout my time as a community activist.

In numbers terms it was a modest audience, but those who were there seemed to think I did okay. Ideally I should have spoken for longer as the service finished about ten minutes earlier than usual. If there is a next time, I will know better.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

The Community Forum That Never Was

I had an interesting meeting last week with the pastor of a local church, who was keen to hear of any ideas that I and/or the ICG may have had with regard to the role that organisations such as his own could play in community-building.

It was a poignant reminder, if any were needed, of the sheer depth of involvement and potential participation that exists within our local environment. It is when we step into a church, a temple or a mosque - or indeed into a tenants' meeting or a social club, or see a self-help group or a local charity in action - that we come to really appreciate the strength in depth of what a real community actually has to offer.

Then we visit the local Area Forum and see half a dozen or so politicians, mostly from the same group, huddled together nodding sagely in recognition of perceived mutual wisdom, and we so naturally despair for what could be.

Amongst many other things I told the pastor that during the administration of 2006-2010 a serious proposal had been mooted, and discussed with a number of local residents' groups, to establish a local "community forum" to shadow the "official" Council body that was at the time called the Isleworth and Brentford Area Committee. It had been our intention to subordinate IBAC to the power of such a body, either by adapting the constitution of the Council to enable it to happen or, in the event of us being unable to do that, by the simple expedient of an Area Committee majority (which, with the support of the Lib Dem member, we had) voluntarily relinquishing its authority in recognition of the primacy of the community body.

The outcome of this would have been to transfer true decision-making powers to the real community rather than a bunch of politicians – albeit that that power may not have had any formal legal status.

As well as being morally the right thing to do, this would have had the added advantage of circumventing the numerical stalemate which would have existed on IBAC should our Lib Dem ally have lost his seat in 2010 and we been left with a 6-6 split between the ICG councillors of Isleworth and Syon and the Con-Lab establishment councillors of Osterley and Brentford, who throughout the 2006-2010 period had tended to band together to oppose most of our more ambitious projects.

For whatever reason, this project never came to fruition during the 2006-2010 administration and any idea of introducing it during the following one was dashed when we lost all six of our seats and IBAC was returned to a Labour majority. The rest, as they so often say, is history.

There is still, of course, a role for faith groups and for all other stakeholders and that role will be forever present. The pastor and I bounced some useful ideas around and hopefully one or two will be set in motion. But it was a spiritually useful, if practically pointless exercise considering for a moment how things might have developed had the maths been different.

The idea is out there in the ether, who knows it may happen someday somewhere?