Sunday, 11 August 2013

Gadje in Dreamland

The stairs in Margate where I met Jan and Olga, a Roma couple from Slovakia

Having come to Margate to practise Czech I was a bit disappointed to find myself sticking a thumb up and saying “Bonjour!” to a French rapper. “Big star, big star right here,” his mate muttered grumpily at me. Said star was lounging sort of sleepily on a deckchair and miming into a camera. A woman wearing a peach bikini and some truly extravagant navel jewellery waited sulkily out of shot, heels sinking slowly beneath the surface of the sand. Quite what had brought this big star to Margate beach to film a music video I was never to learn. “What’s his name?” I whispered to the grumpy friend who replied only with “Big star from France” and half waved me off. A woman with a clipboard interrupted her hissing of instructions to the rapper and turned angrily upon me. I took this as a sign to leave and called “Good luck with the shoot” as I backed away. This resulted in a round of dismissive waves and swift resumption of miming. Like Muhammad Ali the forehead of the mega star was being (superfluously) mopped by the woman in the peach bikini, who suddenly turned devout and attentive upon stepping into frame.

I walked barefoot over Eliot’s famous sands (“I can connect/Nothing with nothing”) and thought how like sallow baby mice my feet looked. So rare is it for them to see the sun that they actually glow in it. I trod awkwardly over smashed shells and consoled myself that the discomfort might yet bear fruit. I was convinced that I could find Czech and Slovak speakers in Margate. If only because I’d found some before, though had been too scared to speak to them at the time. I’d also read the Czech writer Ilona Ferkova’s account of her four years in Margate (actually translated from Romani, a language hardly used for literary purposes, but a Czech speaker nonetheless). In it she writes about her discovery of the sea and a genuine sense of wonder at seeing “water as far as the horizon.”[1]

Red Sky over a Beach (1845) by Turner

I’ve been getting newly appreciative of Ferkova’s discovery. In an elemental case of Brechtian verfremdung I’ve been seeing the sea with totally new eyes. Growing up in Margate the sea assumed the same constancy as the sky or one’s own hair. It was always just there and hardly worth commenting on at all. Coming back from landlocked Prague changed all that. Nowhere else can you find such extraordinary natural expressions of colour as where the sky touches the water. If there’s one reason to visit Thanet it’s the sunsets. Short of this Turner’s watercolours of Thanet skylines run the real thing a close second. Though almost void of figural representation they are so dense with colour, shape and tone they take on a profound vividness. In this way they verge on sultry abstraction, a sort of uber-sensory, controlled chaos. They are a reminder that the sea and the sky, this endlessly changing encounter of light and mass, is itself an aesthetic production.  

Sunset with Sea Monsters (1845) Turner

Some very bright people had the idea a few years ago of putting some broad concrete stairs between Margate’s promenade and the harbour bay below. This has had the transformative effect of making the sea directly accessible from the road while massively expanding the visitable part of the beach. It was on these giant steps that I came across Jan Horvoth and his wife Olga Horvathova.

A Roma couple from Slovakia, Jan and Olga had come to enjoy the same light as me and Ilona before them. I introduced myself in English and shook both their hands. When Jan told me he didn’t speak English I said I spoke a bit of Czech and we could try with that. What followed was a mixture of Czech, Slovak, English, and a lot of patience on their part.

Margate harbour arm and new stairway
 My range of conversation in Czech is woefully limited, and also – I realized – oddly intimate, especially for a conversation with total strangers. I can ask lots of personal questions about family and hobbies, but find small talk impossible – not really surprising given I’ve only done a very basic beginner’s course. Thus armed I proceeded to stumble gamely over a language only similar to their own. Olga smoked with a look of wry amusement as Jan patiently assisted with my pronunciation.

“Odkud jste?” I asked (Where are you from?)
“Prešov, Slovakia.” He replied.
She nodded assent.
“Ahhh,” I said (I did this a lot during our brief conversation). “Byl jsem v Bratislave.” (I’ve been to Bratislava).
“v Bratislave,” they both said nodding.
As casually as I could I asked: “Mate radi moře?” (Rather inanely: Do you like the sea?)
He craned his ear toward me at this point. She nudged him playfully.
“More,” she said in Slovak.
He nodded and chuckled, shifting his frayed blue cap around on his head. “More. In Slovak more.” (Slovak doesn’t use the famously fiendish Czech letter ř, pronounced by rolling a r sound into a hard z sound, which I’d no doubt said wrong anyway.)
I laughed at this and said: “Ale české a slovenské jsou stejné.” (Rather reductively: Czech and Slovak are the same!)
Thankfully, whilst disagreeing, they both laughed.
I asked how long they had been in Margate.
“Osm roků,” he replied (using Czech). Eight years. I felt it was a shame that they’d been here so long and not been able to learn English. Ferkova mentions the difficulty older Roma people had trying to pick up the language. Though it’s sad I doubt it’s necessarily a new phenomenon, especially among more insular, family-centred immigrant communities. A friend from a big Italian family told me her grandparents hardly spoke a word of English, despite living in Essex for thirty years.

I asked if they had family in Britain (“Máte rodinu ve Velké Británii?”) and they nodded. Their son Kamil was sixteen and went to the Marlow Academy, a school in Broadstairs that was famously ranked worst in England a few years ago. These days it’s clawed its way out of special measures, though cynicism remains about its academy status. I checked how to say goodbye in Slovak (rather like Polish it’s dovidenia) and bade them farewell, moving awkwardly on and remaining unsure if they thought I was the weirdest person in Margate.

Despite the Roma reputation for keeping their distance from what they call gadje (non-Roma) for fear of being made “unclean”, both Jan and Olga were friendly and open. After all, I had showed up wearing no shoes, speaking very little of any language they knew, and had kept writing in poorly spelt Czech in a small notebook. None of this seemed to put them off me. There was no hesitation from either of them, even when it came to talking about family, which is a more private matter than most. Predictably Jan did most of the talking. Patriarchal hangovers still structure Roma communities, making it difficult for people like me to approach Roma women freely. I was initially unsure whether or not the women I met would be happy to talk to me, but Olga seemed relaxed enough. Indeed her reluctance to speak seemed to have less to do with Jan and more to do with me: I think she simply knew we didn’t have enough language in common to get very far.

Against English language hegemonists (to coin a phrase), I should stress that I don’t think the lack of a unifying language necessarily leads to social disharmony. Indeed many of Margate’s Balkan-descended residents could attest to this. Throughout southeastern Europe not speaking the same language as your neighbour is the norm, whether you are a Hungarian-speaking Romanian, a Serb-speaking Montenegrin, an Albanian-speaking Serbian, and so on. Of course, violence has sporadically erupted, but language has hardly been the catalyst in each case (though it has been manipulated for nationalist reasons). Cliftonville, home to eastern Europeans as well as plenty of black, Asian and Arab groups, pretty much gets along ok despite its obvious poverty. In a very real sense, however, Britain depends on neighbourhoods like Cliftonville. The very flight of wealth from declining towns makes the particular model of immigration we have at the moment possible. Partially ghettoized the inhabitants may be, but that’s no deterrent to the scale of their ambitions. Without the cheap rents implied by urban flight, generations of immigrants would not have been able to make a home in Britain. Without them our economy would surely be in much more dire conditions than it is at the moment.

The entrance to 'Dreamland', now shut

 It was to Cliftonville that I went next. Even as Margate’s Old Town basks in a kind of kooky, modest gentrification (courtesy of the astoundingly successful Turner Centre), the old “rump” of the culturally uninspired has been shoved up the hill. One implicit assumption of “redevelopment” is that wealth should like a place enough to hang around there, thus spreading itself spontaneously to others in the vicinity. Clearly in order to encourage wealth to hang around a bit of the old poverty has to be kicked out. Where those unable to start pop-up boutiques end up is Cliftonville.

Cliftonville runs along the eastern cliff-tops of Margate and encapsulates all that is best (and some of what's worst) about British seaside towns. Its focal point is Northdown Road, once home to furniture stores and a big branch of Woolworth’s. It is lined with fantastic early 20th century townhouses often intended for use as hotels, though most have been turned into bedsits and private flats. They even used to have a large Butlin’s hotel complex. These days, however, it’s home to every kind of immigrant community in Britain. This results in the bustling spectacle of Baltic sklepy (advertising “Italsky salamy”) alongside Halal shops; a Polish owned car wash next to a Turkish kebab house. There are still a lot of shops shuttered, but not perhaps as many as on Margate high street itself.

Another surprise is the tendency of people to hang around on door steps and convalesce on stairwells. Walking through one notices how people are literally everywhere, congregating in any space they can find. Front doors, in much the same way we did in my old neighbourhood, are all left open, kids from all over the world rushing in and out of each other’s houses. Older men sit and grumble at each other between cigarettes. Tall Lithuanian women with huge bundles of bleached hair stride down the road. Their boyfriends, in wraparound shades and sports vests, trail after them, dogs tugging at their leads. Muslim families are identifiable by the brilliant colours of the women's clothes. It is, after all, high summer: Why would anyone want to be shut in?

True, the bins are overflowing. Quite who is to blame for this I don’t know, but one famous gripe of gadje about Roma is that their neighbourhoods are always a mess. Inside the houses are spotless, but no one ever seems invested enough in the local neighbourhood to keep it tidy. I wonder if Cliftonville’s growing Roma population brought their old ways with them. But to my mind Cliftonville has always been messier than Margate centre, and I’m reminded of how many towns suddenly learn to look after themselves where there’s a higher concentration of tax-payers.

Not finding anyone speaking Czech on Northdown Road I wandered down to the sea-front. On the cliff-top a new kids’ playground was busy with all kinds of activity. I noted how the Roma families all sat together inside the railings, while the British parents sat on benches outside. As I approached their bench two white British women were looking over at the Roma with something like discomfort.

“I wonder if that’s how they behave toward each other in their own country,” one was saying, her voice a mixture of genuine shock and polite displeasure.
“What happened?” I asked them.
They pointed over to an older white guy, bleeding from the head.
“The two little ones went over and beat up the big one,” called a third. “We usually drive straight past this one,” she continued, meaning the playground. “I don’t think we’ll be stopping here again.”

I went into the playground and walked over to where a group of young men were gathered around the older guy. Four Roma women sat on benches, apparently nonplussed by the hubbub around them, rocking their buggies back and forth. Kids ran and yelped everywhere. The old white guy with the bleeding head was talking in conciliatory tones, but I couldn’t hear what language he was speaking.

Margate seafront
I asked one man – this time Czech –  what had happened but he just looked at me vaguely suspiciously. I asked again: “Kdo je starý člověk? (Who’s the old guy?) but no answer was forthcoming. I changed tack and introduced myself. “Jmenuju se Adam. Bydlím v Praze. Chcu... ” (My name is Adam. I live in Prague. I want to…) Here I trailed off, not knowing a word for “practise”, so instead said, “…cvičení čeština.” This is basically meaningless because cvičení is a noun meaning “exercise”. So, in a very grammatically incorrect way, I had said “I want exercise my Czech.” The Czech guy grinned at me and darted off to play-fight with his son, who screamed and promptly fell over in the sand-pit as he tried to get away.

I left the playground feeling a little dispirited. I hadn’t found out why the scuffle kicked off between the Czechs and the old guy and I was too demoralized to even try to speak to the unimpressed women. Instead I walked through a car park and onto Dalby Square. One reason you might have heard of Dalby Square is that the now-deceased tabloid News of the World ran a story on it titled “Sicko Square”. It cited research which suggested the square had the highest number of sickness benefits claimants in the country. I’ve always felt an attachment to it because it was here that me and two friends got to hang out in a house without parents while we were teenagers. My friend Russell’s parents had moved to York leaving him in the care of his older brother. Adopted into this rather chaotic teenage maelstrom was Jason (from foster care, and yes, mostly at that time on the dole). I insisted on going round most weekends, if only for the novelty of being allowed to smoke weed without being told off. Together we would sit on the roof, drink beer and shout abuse at people walking past. Though it sounds like a recipe for disaster things seemed to work more or less smoothly. The older brother was strict enough to keep things in working order, while Russell and Jason learned to cook (though this was mostly limited to pasta bakes) and clean.

The square has a new children’s play area built into it along with extensive landscaping. Not only this but the abandoned building at the far end – for so long the victim of minor arson attacks – had been torn down and replaced by a row of modern flats. In the park I met Eva from Michalovce, Slovakia. She was hanging out in a typically large group, nearly all female. Indeed this was the central problem with my plan: although I had intended to talk to the men there were very few around. Seeing Eva and co. in the park I decided to ditch the fear and speak directly to the mums themselves.

It turned out Eva had been to school in Broadstairs (“I can’t remember the name – it was in a church”), so the conversation was conducted mostly in English with only occasional interruptions by her less fluent friends. Eva’s sister and all the kids were also pretty good at English, though a few of the other adults claimed to speak none. This proved false when they asked teasingly if I was married, gesturing mock-slyly over at Eva. This game of teasing, cajoling and ignoring (directed mostly at me) went on for the full half an hour I was talking to them. They seemed by turns curious and utterly uninterested in me.

The playground on Dalby Square. Eva is standing on the right.

“Why are you living in Prague?” Eva asked. “How much is the rent? Why do you pay for that?” This volley of questions came too quickly for me to answer. Not that this stopped her from handing out financial advice. “It’s British prices but Czech wages over there. You wanna come back to Margate.”
“So what made you decide to move here?” I asked her eventually.
Her answer was probably the same as that of immigrants the world over: “For a good life.” This was as obvious for her as the number of fingers on her hands. “I don’t want to always share a small flat with all my family. I want to have a house with just my husband and my kids.” This was aspirational of course – at the moment she was single, a fact which I was (perhaps unfairly) surprised by given she was Roma. Czechoslovak Roma are perhaps the most “integrated” in eastern Europe. Though what this amounted to under the Communist regime was anything but peaceful. The old Roma professions were torn away. Travelling was banned. Roma were forced into the heavy industrial economy of the central plan, working badly paid but steady jobs. Yet communism’s collapse had been devastating. A report from 2006 – two years after the accession of the Czech Republic to the EU – stated that up to 85% of the country’s Roma population was unemployed.[2] The corresponding number for Slovakia was 70%. Throughout eastern Europe they have been democracy’s greatest victims.

“For a good life” was intuitively understandable. The economic causes of immigration, as well as its desirability, are also readily graspable. Nevertheless I remained confused by what it was that motivated individuals to risk everything to move to a foreign country. What was the trigger in each case? For me moving to the Czech Republic was a rather simple, pragmatic and quickly reversible decision. What did it mean to leave home without certainty of when you would return or under what conditions? Without the guarantee of a flat or a job in one’s new host country? The motivation “for a good life” (conceived as combining personal autonomy with relative affluence) was compelling for reasons that I still struggle to properly empathise with. The determination of anyone who moves to Britain to create a new and better life for themselves is ipso facto admirable. No further proof of their eligibility should be necessary. I am firmly of the belief that as few restraints on individual movement should exist as reasonably possible.  We are, I think, yet to discover a point where limits really must be imposed.

The lifeboat memorial, Margate seafront

As Eva spoke to me an older friend was eating sunflower seeds, spraying the floor with the shells, the whole time teasing me in Slovak. Eva broke off her monologue to tut and scold the woman. “You see,” she said to me, nodding over at her friend. “This one’s messy and a bit stupid.” I looked around at the hundreds of sunflower husks lying on the floor. This joking awareness of the “mess” created by Roma communities – what Isabel Fonseca describes as a sort of self-deprecating internalisation of Roma stereotypes – ran throughout our conversation. Also, the unique Roma grasp of truth kept leading to gaps in life story and length of time. Eva claimed to have been living in Britain for eight years, but also that she had gone to school in Broadstairs. This from a woman clearly in her thirties. Her claim to not remembering the name of the school was equally peculiar. And although Eva seemed intellectually to grasp that I had in fact been to Slovakia she couldn’t resist patronising me: “Slovakia is a country, like Britain. Michalovce is a town, like Margate.” I had to keep pointing out that I did in fact know all this. “You know, the Czech Republic is sort of near Slovakia.” How, I wondered, did she think I had failed to grasp this when I lived in Prague? I also couldn’t help noticing how those speaking Slovak kept referring to me in the informal register. It will, however, be a long time before I can tell if this is meant to be friendly or just vaguely disrespectful.

As I walked away I called out “Dovidenia!” To which a chorus of voices, old and young, rang back: “Doviiiid!” Whatever else was a mystery about them, this goodbye sounded genuinely enthusiastic. Happy to see another stranger leave? Or gratified by the peculiarity? After all, anyone who travels hundreds of miles to live in a town they can’t even pronounce the name of must have some taste for the peculiar. To them I was certainly that.   

[1] Her account can be found in full here:
[2] See: Tanner,

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