‘Margate’, writes Tracey Emin in her new memoir, Strangeland, is ‘the nub of the Isle of Thanet, thrusting like a bent forefinger from the crazed knuckle of England.’ The Kentish seaside town has long been infra dig and out of style; it stands for a certain sort of garish fun that faded to nostalgia decades ago. Where some English coastal resorts (Blackpool, for example) have managed to retain their place in the nation’s affections, and seem forever frozen in the sepia tones of the start of the last century, Margate has the once-lurid tonal range of a yellowing Polaroid: the last snapshot, perhaps, before foreign holidays became a real option. This stretch of the south-east coast is dotted with towns that succumbed, in the course of half a century or so, to changing fashions and altered economic expectations. There is Herne Bay, which once boasted the longest pier in Britain (a sketchy remnant still sits in the bay, amputated by a storm in 1978) and attracted, in its heyday, the genteelest of visitors. Its long promenade is now a scratted mess of car parks, amusement arcades, botched amenities and ugly monuments. At Ramsgate and Dover, Edwardian mansions still sell for remarkably low prices, and the towns’ grand hotels, in common with many on this coast, have been turned into housing for social welfare recipients and refugees – a disastrous policy: cramming the most vulnerable together in the most highly visible buildings on the sea front. And then there is Hastings, the deadest of dead towns, economically stranded without an arterial road, seemingly abandoned to crime and dereliction. On my first visit, several years ago, I expected a quaint tourist trap at the coastal extremity of ‘1066 country’, and I was alarmed to discover so many people with things wrong with them: a glum fraternity of the lame, blind and indeterminately afflicted, all lined up on a rainswept esplanade.
Margate is different: though it too has declined as a destination for family holidays or day trips on the train from London, it cannot really be said to have come down in the world. Margate was never respectable to begin with. As early as 1763, the poet William Cowper wrote of his stay there: ‘Margate tho’ full of Company, was generally fill’d with such Company, as people who were Nice in the choice of their Company, were rather fearful of keeping Company with.’ Margate was the country’s first popular bathing resort. Ease of access from London (by water, and later by rail) made it an obvious destination for the city’s working class, newly allotted a modicum of free time. It was so successful, in fact, that in the middle of the nineteenth century an alternative resort was developed to the east, at Cliftonville, to cater for wealthier guests who thought themselves too fastidious for the Margate throng. (Karl Marx, convalescing at Margate in the spring of 1866, was displeased to observe, in the dining room of the King’s Arms inn, a fellow guest warming his bare feet by the fire; the unfortunate author was then served ‘a rump steak, which seemed, in its natural state, to have belonged to a deceased cow’.) It was at Cliftonville that T.S. Eliot and his wife stayed in the autumn of 1921. Both of them were mentally frail, but Vivien, apparently cheered by the vigour of the neighbouring resort, wrote: ‘Margate is rather queer, and we don’t dislike it.’ Her husband’s more celebrated and unsettled response, in The Waste Land – ‘On Margate Sands. / I can connect / Nothing with nothing’ – was apparently composed in a small shelter facing out towards the beach and a long iron pier known as the Jetty, at the end of which stood a concert hall, bandstand and other attractions. Behind him, while he wrote, the newly constructed Dreamland – a brightly fronted agglomeration of amusements, modelled on a complex of the same name at Coney Island – would have sent ribbons of sound whipping out above his head and into the bay like stray bits of bunting.
Dreamland is still there – its vast glowing signage dominates the seafront. Smaller letters, underneath, advertise unspecified ‘Family Fun’. Like amusement arcades everywhere, it is known locally as the ideal venue for drug deals and casual violence, but behind the noisy foyer filled with slot machines and video games the vestiges of a more innocent entertainment are still extant. Dreamland is chiefly renowned for its ‘Scenic Railway’, a huge wooden structure built in 1920. Too leisurely to count as a rollercoaster by modern standards, but affording thrilling, precipitous views of the seashore below, it is the oldest such ride still operating in Britain. It has recently been the subject of some civic controversy: slated for demolition as part of a plan to regenerate the town, Dreamland (and in particular its Scenic Railway) has become the symbol of Margate’s uneasy accommodation to the notion of renewal. The surrounding area – the flat, reclaimed expanse of Thanet, known to the rest of the county, with unkind intimations about the limits of its gene pool, as ‘Planet Thanet’ – has lost more than its tourist trade in the last fifty years. Fishing and farming have slowly declined; the Kentish coalmines closed in the mid-eighties. It will doubtless be decades before current government efforts at regeneration (investing, especially, in infrastructure and education) will show real evidence of having worked. In the meantime, a town like Margate is stranded between its uncouth and unprofitable past and a still unpredictable future as a mooted hub of regional industry and culture. The local council has designated an ex-industrial section of the town centre as Margate’s ‘cultural quarter’: five minutes’ walk from Dreamland, cafés, art galleries and information centres have appeared, still abutting oddly the façades of decaying guest houses and small businesses on the verge of extinction. The harbour is soon to acquire a futuristic museum building, Turner Contemporary, named for the artist who painted numerous views of Margate.
That project could never have found funding had it not been for the one public
figure whose reputation has in recent years reminded us most of Margate’s rude persistence beyond its commercially useful prime. If there is an air of optimism about the town now (and it is still a tentative mood, mixed as always with a feeling of twitchy desperation), it is in part because Margate has this one advantage over similar candidates for renovation, one ex-resident who links its decrepit but brash history to its uncertain future, who suggests that a seedy seaside past is nothing to be ashamed of, that reinvention is a real possibility, but also that escape from the past is an endless and perhaps impossible process. Margate keeps calling you back to its perfect sunsets, its gaudy nostalgia, its crowded bodies and the ever-present suspicion that the day, before you can get out again, will end violently.
Strangeland gives us some sense of how far Tracey Emin has come. The artist was not born on the coast of Kent, but in London, in 1963, to an English mother and a Turkish father. Enver Emin was unusually dark-skinned: a remnant, he claimed, of his African ancestry. When her mother, Pamela Cashin, was pregnant with Tracey and her twin brother Paul, Londoners spat at her in the street and called her ‘nigger-lover’. Like Enver Emin, Pamela was already married; her friends advised her to have an abortion. He made an offer – three days a week, or nothing – to the mother of his latest children (he would later usually admit to 11, but once told Tracey that he had fathered 23). She accepted, and he installed his new family at one of several hotels he owned, the International, at Margate. Six separate guest houses, looking down towards the Victorian Winter Gardens, on the seafront, had been joined together to form a single building that seemed palatial to the young Tracey: ‘full of strangers, guests, kitchen staff and chambermaids, a juke-box and the Blue Room, where we used to dance. We were rich and spoilt and spoke three languages: English, Turkish and, of course, our own.’ Tracey and Paul ruled over their own kingdom: the six connected yards at the back of the hotel. Then their father’s business failed. He disappeared, the International was boarded up, their mother took them to live in the hotel’s now vacant staff cottage. She worked in local bars and nightclubs, she stole lead from the abandoned hotel, she saved as best she could for her children’s future.
Now that they were poor, Tracey and Paul were left alone much of the time. She recalls the time Paul took her into the bathroom and showed her what happened if he pulled for long enough at his penis. She remembers him telling her, as they listened one night to their mother having sex with her new boyfriend in the next room, that it was okay, that she should go to sleep. Other nights she lay awake, waiting for her mother to come home, hearing intruders who weren’t there, peering out at the rear windows of the hotel in the early morning, watching for the three squatters who had recently taken refuge there. When the police came and discovered her, aged eleven, hiding out with the three strange men from Manchester to whom she had been bringing food in the mornings, she cried as they were taken away in handcuffs. The following year, she spent her nights in the garden shed with Ryan, who was eighteen and homeless. He carved her initials into his leg with a razor blade, but when she begged him to make love to her, he said she was too young, that anyway he was a virgin, and that he had to leave.
She remembers that around this time she went to the beach alone one day and, after being teased and bullied in the water by five or six older children (they had wanted to know if this scrawny, short-haired kid was a boy or a girl), she sat and cried on the sundeck above the sand, until ‘a big, brown, hairy man’ asked her what was wrong. She told him, and he told her that she was beautiful, like a tiny mermaid. They went into the water; he ran his hands over her, ‘and I pulled at his willy until a giant spray of white covered my limbs. I wasn’t yet twelve, but I knew it could feel lovely to be a girl.’ Margate, she thought, was ‘like Las Vegas’. She worked at Dreamland, in the Garden Café, listening to Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran, in her homemade drainpipe jeans and dyed red hair. When the punks arrived, in the summer of 1977, they took her for a spin on the Scenic Railway and called her their ‘baby punk’. And one New Year’s Eve, after leaving a disco early to go home to Paul and her mother, she was raped in an alleyway off Margate High Street. As her attacker walked away, he said: ‘I’ve always wanted to do it to you. I like your mouth.’ She told her mother, ‘I’m not a virgin any more’, and her mother washed her stained coat, but she didn’t call the police or make a fuss.
When she was fifteen, Tracey tried to leave Margate: ‘I knew there was something better: there was an outside – an outside of me.’ She entered a local disco-dancing competition and made it to the regional finals. If she won, she would perform on television, in London, at the British Disco Dance Championship, 1978. But as she began to dance, a chant started somewhere in the audience: ‘a gang of blokes, most of whom I’d had sex with at some time or other’ began to shout ‘SLAG, SLAG, SLAG – until in the end I couldn’t hear the music any more, or the people clapping. My head was spinning and I was crying. I’d lost it. I ran off the dance-floor, out of the club, down the steps to the sea.’ She left Margate ‘with twenty pounds, a holdall with some clothes and two David Bowie LPs. I stayed all over the place – floors, squats, cupboards – met all kinds of people and had all kinds of jobs, mainly retail, clothes and shoes. I stuck it as long as I could.’ Eventually, alone and penniless, she returned to Margate. Her mother had moved away, and so she lived in a bed-and-breakfast and worked in a sex shop on the high street until the owner introduced her to a photographer friend who paid her six pounds to pose topless. She left that day, and wrote to the police, suggesting they investigate the shop. A year later, the police called to her door to show her hundreds of contact sheets of young girls in explicit poses, and to ask why she had let herself be photographed – ‘For six quid, of course. Why else?’
When she was twenty, she left her flat in Rochester, at the other end of the county, and took a train to Margate, already drunk, clutching half a bottle of whiskey and a note. She staggered to the seafront. ‘The sky above was a deep blue. I sat on the harbour wall, staring at the lights. The clock tower struck eleven. The black sea rolled by beneath me. I said, ”Goodbye” and threw myself off the harbour wall, fully clothed, the note in my pocket.’ She had always been a good swimmer: ‘I floated around for a while, a tiny part of this great world and more alive than ever. Slowly, I swam to the harbour wall and hoisted myself on to the ladder. I climbed up it. And, in my sodden state, I walked away.’
Tracey Emin’s Margate is the subject of ‘Motherland’, the first of the three parts of her arresting, and often perplexing, memoir. Emin’s prose is for the most part unexceptional; but it occasionally swerves (like a drunk hitting a lucid moment, making the most of it before he goes under again) into passages of such economical intensity that you have to conclude that she knows what she is doing. Why should there be any doubt? Because Strangeland is in a sense a compromised volume: one that has seen some critics scarcely able to treat it as a book at all, reading it rather as something stitched together out of disparate fragments and edited into something approaching coherence without (so it is implied) too much input from its celebrity author. Emin had originally announced her intention to publish a novel, then an autobiography; what we have is a fractured memoir made up, to a large extent, of short autobiographical texts already published elsewhere and reminiscences which appeared first as part of artworks: as the soundtrack to a film, for example, or the appliquéd legend on one of her blankets. Notwithstanding the extent to which editorial interventions are the surgical saving of more books than we usually admit, the widespread dismissal of Strangeland seems not just uncharitable, but straightforwardly at odds with the words on the page, which amount to a compelling, and formally eccentric, self-portrait.
The other popular way to treat Emin’s memoir is as unmediated confessional, a spume of self-advertisement that is of a piece with the supposedly crude ambitions and skills of her art. It is beyond the scope or remit of this essay to labour at convincing sceptics that Emin or her art ought to be taken seriously: readers inclined to doubt the attractions of her book on the basis of hearsay about her art, or the notorieties attendant on her public persona, are simply invited to wonder why it is that this woman’s life and work are so often used as shorthand for the grubby state of modern culture by people who have never seen her art. Strangeland is brilliant for some of the same reasons as some of the art, and in places redundant, amateurish and boring for a few familiar reasons too. But it is certainly worth taking seriously. Criticism of Emin often proceeds as if ‘confession’ were a sort of unconscious tic, a kind of peristaltic jettisoning of unsavoury experience, as if, quite simply, she can’t help herself. At the same time, she is seen as a consummate schemer, a manipulator of her own public image who has far surpassed, in the last decade, artistic contemporaries like Damien Hirst or Rachel Whiteread in terms of brand penetration (the evidence: a column in a national newspaper, a modelling stint with Vivienne Westwood, the way that her 1998 work My Bed has replaced Carl Andre’s ‘Tate bricks’ as the ne plus ultra of art-world insanity in the minds of many). In the public imagination, Tracey Emin, when not loved, is seen as both helpless and determined, moronic and cunning, a deluded victim and tireless self-mythologizer, whore and madame to her own past self. This is because, it can only be because – but I have tried not to say it so soon, because it seems so crude – she is from Margate.
Strangeland, at least in its opening section, essays a canny reflection not only on its author’s experiences as a child and teenager in Margate, but on the meaning of Margate itself, its place in her mythology (the story, as the title of one of her videos has it, of ‘Mad Tracey From Margate’) and its place in contemporary English culture. For Emin, being from Margate is a kind of vocation (it would have to be, given the punishment the place inflicted on her), a way of announcing her authenticity and revealing the invented nature of her self. That is to say: to be from Margate is to be from every middle-class art lover’s nightmarish vision of feral England – a littoral land of vulgarity, cheap sex and sudden violence, latterly of ASBOs and attacks on immigrants – and at the same time to have lived at the dreaming edge of modern culture, the cuspate shore where the bright, cacophonous future slips easily into nostalgia, melancholy and silence. Margate is an image of reinvention photographed in a lost era of optimism some time in the middle of the twentieth century: the place where, if only for a few hot days in summer, you could be someone else, somebody distinctly modern – a starlet, a teddy-boy, a gangster, a punk. The English seaside, as Michael Bracewell has put it, was in the last decades of the twentieth century a place of Pop Art futurism and stuffy Edwardian spectres at the same time: ‘these seaside towns have come to represent an intense, endlessly renewing contract with nostalgia’. But such fantasies of finding yourself adrift between past and future depend on the idea that you can go back to the present, that you can return to a normal you at the end of a weary train ride, nursing only sunburn. The place exists in two dimensions, as a succinctly captioned postcard from another, remembered reality: ‘On Margate Sands’. Nobody is actually from Dreamland.
Tracey Emin is from Dreamland. That, in essence, is the message of her book. I come, she says, from the place that all of you dream of in your most coyly thrilled conjurings of youth, physicality, intoxication, and erotic freedom, but also in your worst nightmares about financial or emotional disarray, addiction, abuse and psychic enervation. I am, she says, everything you are too fortunate and too frightened to be. And, more to the point: look at me now. Look at me with my expensive hair, my complimentary Vivienne Westwood clothes, my A-list dental work and my utter detachment, here at the centre of my entourage, in the VIP enclosure, where you have not been invited. But look too at how, from your point of view, I’ve got it all so wrong: I can’t stop drinking, I can’t stop talking about my drinking (‘Am I the George Best of the art world?’), I keep on detailing my failings with men in the columns of national newspapers, I won’t shut up about my need to be ‘fucked to the point of unconsciousness’, I am dripping with fat gold jewellery that only a girl from Margate would imagine she could get away with. And look at me here: back in Margate for the day, playing the art idol, being Tracey (‘We love you, Tracey!’) with the local schoolgirls, telling them how I became an artist, how I became Tracey, and how, one day, they could be Tracey too. All it takes is an urge to escape and an inability to get clean away.
Take a look at the black-and-white photograph that adorns the front cover of her book: the teenage Tracey, some time in the late 1970s – perhaps around the time that she decided to leave – snapped in a photo booth. Her faintly feathered haircut is just enough of a reminder of her adolescent hero, David Bowie, to suggest that she already sees herself as belonging to her own mythically glamorous version of Margate, to a historical elsewhere. (A few years later, Bowie would choose the Kent coast as the location at which to revisit his glam past: in the video for his 1980 single ‘Ashes to Ashes’, he is a fragile Pierrot picking his way across the beach at Hastings.) The collar of her corduroy jacket is turned up in imitation of the dead rock’n’rollers (Holly, Cochran, Presley) whose voices soundtracked the raucous arrival of the British teenager here twenty years before, and which still blare from the speakers at Dreamland. She is wearing a pair of sparkling 1950s-style sunglasses, which have slipped down her nose so that she has to tilt her head back, her face full of cheek, into a heavily lip-glossed pout. Whatever its occasion, it seems to announce more than mere adolescent bravura and fragility. It is a face that shows utter self-possession and extreme vulnerability: the precise qualities that the adult Emin has parlayed into an unmistakeable aesthetic.
But the picture also captures perfectly the era she describes in the opening section of the book, a time already, it seems, as much of nostalgia as of excitement at moving on. Strangeland, similarly, is in a sense nostalgic for the period just before Emin’s childhood, the era she could still grasp in the sounds and sights of seventies Margate, at the same time as the book unsentimentally records what this town has done to her. When she reproduces a handwritten text addressed to one of her unnamed abusers, she might also be writing about her childhood home: ‘I’M GOING TO GET YOU YOU CUNT YOU FUCKING BASTARD. And when I do – the whole world will know that you destroyed part of my childhood. Tracey Emin.’ Or, as she writes in an earlier (again, handwritten) attempt at autobiography, her 1995 work on paper and on video, Tracey Emin CV Cunt Vernacular: ‘OH TO COME TO TERMS WITH SUCH HUMBLE BEGINNINGS – IN SUCH – A fucking UNSYMPATHETIC SHIT HOLE –’.
The danger with turning your past into your life’s work is that you start to look like your own ghost. Emin’s confessional admixture of personae – prole-art-threat and professional victim – is at one level merely a reflection of two highly visible strands of contemporary British culture: a revalorization, since the mid 1990s, of boozy, druggy, ‘mad-for-it’ cheek, and a strain of sentimental revelation that, if we were to be really schematic about it, we might call the post-Diana pout. But such a journalistic précis does little to unearth the deeper roots of Emin’s self-fashioning, nor to suggest how a book like Strangeland is to be understood. In another sense, ‘Tracey Emin’ is the latest in a long line of self-invented English icons: those figures who have escaped early alienation by turning their displacement into an ongoing autobiographical monologue. In this, Emin is quite unlike her beloved Bowie, the useful part of whose career depended on his audience not knowing who the next ‘David Bowie’ might be. She has more in common with Quentin Crisp, John Lydon (the former Johnny Rotten) and Morrissey. She is in danger, in other words, of being trapped by the endless rehearsal of her original act of heroic overcoming, of finding herself being paid simply to be mad Tracey from Margate. In this, the artist-writer she resembles most is Andy Warhol, whose book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again moves as predictably between blandly registered fact and vivid, but in the end conventional, aphorizing. Just as there is a recognizably wide-eyed Warhol cadence, so there is also a certain inevitable Traceyness to so many of Emin’s utterances. When she writes, of setting out on a drinking binge in New York, that ‘we had gone to the bar on the basis of just one beer …’, you know, more or less, that things will end with ‘mad sex on a pier looking out across the Hudson’. You know you are in the presence of a persona (or a self-parodist) every bit as assured (or just stuck) as the Warhol who could write to his diary: ‘Friday, June 6, 1986. Dinner for the Oreo Cookie at the Waldorf, and I really want to do the cookie’s portrait.’ Like Warhol, she keeps up the act indefinitely: whether from a desire to project or conceal her real self, her public will never know. But where Warhol’s writings (typically dictated down the phone) reduce everything to a single, droning, affectless plane, Emin never stops emoting. She is all affect, all of the time.
This is precisely where Strangeland comes unstuck from its early, and earthy, promise. Emin’s reflections on her damaged youth by the seaside are always lucid about her own lack of clarity, about the chaos that she longed to escape. But when she comes to examine her other ‘homeland’, her Turkish heritage, all of that focus is occluded by a strain of pure sentiment and, in narrative terms, a lot of bland inconsequence. She accompanies her father on a trip to his childhood home, recounts page after page of his self-serving stories about his addictions to alcohol and sex, leaves credulously unchallenged his tales of brooding warrior forbears, and generally succumbs to a tourist’s view of a picturesque old olive-picker. And her recounting of her love affair with an older local man, during which she played the part of shameless foreigner breaking up a marriage before fleeing the scene, is in the end simply embarrassing. Drifting in a boat with her lover, she asks: ‘Why are the stars always closer in Turkey? I reached up my hand to touch them. I looked at Abdullah: his face was like a burnt old wooden spoon.’ This general recourse to cliché also allows her to slide without warning into louche but ultimately unengaging accounts of her dreams, some of which are revealing – she fantasizes about being shot in the head by a lover at the point of orgasm – but most of which are simply dreary. This whole section – ‘Fatherland’ – seems misjudged: at least in terms of what can be remade as plausible memoir, Emin’s real roots are elsewhere.
In the third section, ‘Traceyland’, some of the initial energy of the book returns as Emin describes her adult life. (As before, we see things from a number of different temporal perspectives: her earlier writings are inserted with scant regard for chronology.) Her account of an abortion, originally the voiceover narration of her video How It Feels (1996), is especially affecting. Strangeland ends with an account of some images and objects that recall Emin to the experience of abortion and the possibility that she will never be a mother. Here, she loses her knack for an unfamiliar image again. She visits one of her favourite paintings, Munch’s Scream, and spends, she says, days crying. In the museum at Niagara Falls, she discovers an entire family of Egyptian mummies: ‘father, mother, children, cats and all. But it is the mother who screams, her mouth wide open, tiny clenched bones. She screams a continuous scream. For herself, as they forced the poison down her throat. For her beloved. And for all the things she loved that would follow her.’ In Egypt, in the Valley of Kings, she finds a tiny mummified foetus, ‘curled up small with its big head, hollow eyes and bony little hands. I liked it so much … Dead for thousands of years, not completely formed, but he had soul. He still had soul.’ The passage is mawkish in the extreme: it is as if Emin is quite unable to bring to her adult life the kind of clarity with which she addresses her childhood in Margate. Instead, the ambiguous message of ‘Motherland’ about the nature of youth, hope, nostalgia and regret is made disappointingly stark: ‘DON’T BE AFRAID TO TAKE THE PAST HEAD ON’.
If you walked along the shore at Margate last summer, passing the seaward side of the cliffs, the Lido, the stretches of seawall, the Winter Gardens, you found the coast punctuated with huge photographs, each showing a child’s face staring out to sea. The series, entitled Towards a Promised Land, was the work of an American photographer, Wendy Ewald. The twenty-two children had all come to live in Margate; most were immigrants, others had simply moved down from London, their parents taking advantage of the low property prices. Towards a Promised Land was the first stage of a vast project to be completed in the summer of 2006 by the contemporary art foundation Artangel. The Margate Exodus will involve the dramatic staging, over several days, across the town, of the Book of Exodus. The cast will be the local population; Moses will descend from a crumbling tower block, bearing the Ten Commandments, towards the seafront. The event is part of the wholesale regeneration of the town: the ideal meeting of civic expectations of popular art and genuinely audacious experiment. But it also suggests that Margate, as Strangeland demonstrates on a more intimate scale, might be a place of refuge, of dreaming, of future golden years, as much as the kind of town where, in the full glare of its neon assault, you want to run for the shadows.
Tracey Emin, Strangeland. London: Sceptre.
Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 22 Spring 2006