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Gerry's Blog - October 2023
04 Nov 2023

I was the outsider. Perhaps that’s why Morag Butler invited me to be involved in this unique project. Born in a northern shipbuilding town, raised in the capital, and now living in a tiny Warwickshire village best described as the inside pocket of a place in the tweed jacket of merry old England. So, an exploration of living in England and Margate was a challenge and certainly well out of my comfort zone. I knew the town well. As a youngster and teenager in the 60’ and 70’s I had visited many times (for sandcastles and girls) and as a folk singer, played here regularly for the last three decades. But this visit was totally different.

The whole project experience made me question my own idea of ‘Englishness’: a process that is still ongoing. Well, the word has only been used for the last few hundred years and presumably came about as a reaction to conflict and an attempt to bond the country in hard times. A national identity for a country that in the 21st Century appears to have no identifiable identity.

The word is as hard to pin down as is Margate itself.

The town is a dichotomy: beautiful, ugly, energetic, lazy. The Bright Start Nursery opposite the Saint Paul’s church Foodbank. The impressive Turner Contemporary opposite scrubland peppered with needles and laughing gas canisters. Architectural wonders now home to a plethora of vape stores and vegan cafes and different music pumping out of cars and vans. Everywhere there is everything: tinged with the whiff of seaweed.

As I wandered from the uber cool vintage shop filled Old Town to the less gentrified streets I came across a front window adorned with a Union flag, under which a piece of A4 paper declared angrily ‘Its Not Right’. The first thing that sprung to mind was that whoever lived there was spot on: it wasn’t right…they had left out the apostrophe. At that moment I almost understood ‘Englishness’. My stupid pedantic observation concerning a punctuation mark and the homeowner’s unclear protest. Both were so English!

Perhaps the words and song element of the project would bring some cohesion to this town and its diverse community.

Each participant was asked to select words and a song that encapsulated their view of ‘Englishness’: a difficult thing when put on the spot by the only person in Margate wearing a Harris tweed jacket and leather shoes!! But I didn’t give up and the choices and conversations were well worth it.

The contributors were a pick and mix. Shop owners, the retired, the homeless, the old, the young, the we feel we don’t belong. Their words to describe living in England were just as varied: they included stressful, freedom, depressing, hopeful. Some said ‘We need a new word to replace ‘Englishness’.’

The song choices followed suit: a confusing catalogue of compositions. My now best friend Alex chose ‘Phantom of the Opera’ because, ‘England is ugly but wears a mask so you don’t see it and as the lyric says it’s ‘in my mind’. It’s not real’. Mary chose The Kinks genius ‘Village Green Preservation Society’ and added ‘I have never been anywhere with a village green!’ Lastly, Sunil the chef chose India vs England’ by Naa Akshaamsha which took me down a brand new and fabulous rabbit hole!! The video for the latter Indian song was filmed in an Italianate village in Wales built by an English aristocrat. Now that’s ‘Englishness’!

I was struck by how this place and the people were so many places and people all at once: just like everywhere in this fabulously flawed country I love.

And my choice of song? Even after weeks of debate I still can’t decide. But what I do know is wherever Englishness exists, no matter where on this globe or another, ‘There’ll always be an England’.

So, I submitted my data for someone much cleverer than me to make something of it.  But I am left with a renewed image of Margate and its beautiful, welcoming and exceptional melting pot of people. In the face of tremendous problems and hardship they have optimism, hope and an unshakeable feeling that all will be well. My prayer, or mantra for them, if they wish it, would be……

‘For theirs is a Kingdom, With Power and Glory, Forever a Dreamland -Emin’

Gerry Colvin

Image representing Gerry's Blog - October 2023 from Margate Songbook