Beside the seaside

Margate inspired Turner and gave Abdulrazak Gurnah, a refugee from Zanzibar, an unusual view of Engl

It was the summer of 1968. My first in England. The Beatles were playing over the PA at the miniature golf course over which my friend John presided. He was keeping an eye on the dads and their kids putting golf balls, all the while talking to me in a steady spate. He loved talking. I had been there all afternoon and the smells had changed as the air cooled, so that now, by early evening, the aromas of seaside-resort food had lost some of their edge. "Hey Jude" played on the radio again and again and no one grumbled. That is my earliest complete memory of Margate: the toy golf course in the early evening, that music, and John chattering away, while I pretended I wasn't a lonely teenager a long way from home.

Turner lived in Margate and described the skies over the town as the loveliest in Europe. The light that afternoon was bright in a hard-edged way and made the horizon draw near. As the air cooled with the breeze from the sea, I wonder that I did not think to compare where I was to Zanzibar. Because I did not. England seemed so alien then, so unlike anything I had known before.

I had met John in Canterbury where we were both students at the technical college. He sought me out as we left a class and fell into step beside me, huge next to me. After a moment he told me that he did not like wogs. The word was new to me, although I had no difficulty guessing its general drift. I asked him why and he said because they smelled.

But he became my protector against the brawling racist abuse that passed for teasing among the English students. And he invited me to Margate and to his home, where his parents fed me and spoke to me politely. They invited me out of curiosity, they said, because John had reassured them that I was not like other immigrants, that I was civilised. I don't know how John arrived at this, but I was not civilised enough that his parents neglected to tell me how much better off I would have been had I stayed wherever I came from. I lost contact with John at some point. He joined the army and disappeared.

John was not my only link with Margate in those days. Most of the students I knew came from elsewhere, several from the oil countries: Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait. For some reason, they liked to live in Margate. Perhaps they had first arrived there when they came to England. Crowds of students from Europe and from the Middle East came to seaside resorts to learn English, using up the otherwise empty accommodation outside the holiday season.

Margate seemed strange then because I had not known about this England. Canterbury was familiar from what I'd read: the cathedral, the river, the beamed houses, the butcher, the baker and the policeman. Margate was noisy and crowded with people finding pleasure in trinkety games and loud pop music, a place where bands of youths fought battles on the promenade. Margate was Dreamland, the amusement arcade from where, every Monday morning at college, came stories of seductions and escapades, of young women who agreed to have sex with several of my wealthy fellow students. They made Margate sound dangerous, and gave it a kind of tatty and unattractive glamour.

It was 30 years before I visited Margate again in 1997, when I went to record interviews with Czech Roma asylum-seekers. They had appeared in Dover in their scores after a TV programme aired in the Czech Republic had depicted the port as a paradise of tolerance and relaxed im migration procedures. Ferry-loads of asylum-seekers arrived and Margate, just down the road from Dover, got to take several of the refugees.

They spoke about harassment in the Czech Republic, about how their children were attacked and how the authorities did nothing to protect them. One young woman showed me a mouthful of shattered teeth, the result of an assault with a baseball bat.

Their entering the UK released the vilest xenophobia in the local press ("This human sewage", ran one headline). The frenzy reminded me of when I'd arrived in England and something similar was happening about the arrival of Kenyan Asians.

I think I expected the refugees I interviewed to be more distraught and angry about their reception. Instead, they spoke about the kindness with which they had been treated, about how happy they were to be here, about how good it was to be in a country that was a monarchy - because republics are dictatorships (such irony!) - about how good it felt to be free. They talked, describing their anguishes, showing their bruises, while their children clung to them or watched wide-eyed.

Afterwards, I drove along Margate's promenade past the harbour and realised that, although it had been an age since I was last here, the memory of its old self was still alive. The promenade was almost empty, the PA was silent and the funfair had closed. Even Dreamland had shut following a fire. That part of town had turned into an abandoned site, not derelict but empty, underused, dangerous, with an open detention centre and a hostel for displaced people. The asylum-seekers' lives are tense with insecurity; local resentment finds expression in fights, in vandalism and abuse. It is not quite an asylum- seekers' Gulag, but it looks a wreck, living up to its reputation as a decaying town.

The Margate Exodus, a contemporary retelling of the Book of Exodus, takes place with a day of events in Margate on 30 September. More info from: www.themargateexodus.org.uk