So far I’ve only posted blogs about fabulous places that inspire our writing, but what about places we loathe, places that we know only too well, locations full of awful people intent on making their fellow human beings’ lives difficult or unpleasant?
Lady with a Van
If you’ve watched “The Lady in the Van”, a film starring Dame Maggie Smith, you’ll know that playwright Allan Bennett used his experiences of living in a particular part of London to pen a wonderful book on which the film is based.
When a homeless lady in a van arrives in a fashionable part of Town, snobbish residents at first want to get rid of her, later they begin to vie for her attention with attempts to be charitable. It makes them feel less guilty about being wealthy and having reached a certain position in life. Some 15 years later, the lady in the van is still there, parked outside Allan Bennett’s home, and she’s just as ungrateful as ever for any type of “charitable acts” inflicted on her.
As Bennett’s book shows, places we loathe, or are made to feel uncomfortable in, can be just as inspiring as the delights of Paris or Venice, Florence or historic Bamberg and serve to illuminate either our own state of mind or that of our fellow citizens (or both, as in the film/book).
The people in such places often deserve to be taken to task for how they behave. Parts of Allan Bennett’s story are set at the Kent coast, in Broadstairs, where Dame Maggie Smith, dressed as a homeless woman, is seen to enter the local fleapit cinema in the film and stand at the beach, looking wistfully out to sea. It’s an area where people retire to, and they don’t like seeing young people, or change or anything in fact that shakes them out of their daily routine. Indeed, the brother of the character Maggie Smith portrays in the film has retired to Broadstairs, where she visits him on occasion. He admits having had her committed to an asylum because she was “just so odd”. Here, being different is clearly tantamount to committing a crime.
With such a population, the place is ideally suited as a setting for a great satire or comedy. Such locations are perfect fodder for writers. Snobbery exposed, or uncaring attitudes or one-upman ship among neighbours…the possibilities are endless.
Other locations are excellent backgrounds for particularly brutal crime stories. One could be describing how society has broken down to such an extent that even horrific crimes no longer shock those who live there, Ian Rankin style. Ruth Rendell often uses the fictional location of provincial Kingsmarkham as a mirror of what’s going on in the mind and private life of her Chief Detective Inspector Wexford and demonstrates how the town’s proximity to London is changing rural societies over time.
Or how about a romance gone wrong – where the location is deceptively pretty but harbours dark secrets? Rural areas are ideal for that. Charming isolated farmsteads and villages, as Sir Conan Doyle’s character Sherlock Holmes put it, are often the setting of unspeakable crimes.
Nasty things that have upset us in a specific place bear within them the kernel for a great story, allowing us to deal with whatever happened to us in a constructive way.
Lady without a Van
I’m still digesting what happened to me, so don’t know yet what fictional work will come of my unpleasant experience. The following is a true story and happened to me just a hop and a skip away from where the sainted feet of Dame Maggie stood in the sand. No doubt at some point I’ll see the funny side of it, but right now, I’m just disgusted.
Because I’m using the Kent coast as background to a series of books (Inspector Beagle), I visit Margate, Broadstairs and Ramsgate occasionally to do research at local libraries and to take photographs of locations. It made sense to use the area, because I used to live in Ramsgate and know the Kent coast reasonably well. I can honestly say that I hated living in Kent, because the majority of people who reside along this part of the coast, called the Isle of Thanet, are truly awful.
If they’re not criminal and destructive, they are usually snooty and UKIP voters happy to embrace all that is reactionary and anti-foreigner. While I am used to people reacting to a German national with suspicion or even dislike, the Thanet way of “welcoming” visitors goes way beyond that and has little to do with my nationality. Anyone not being Thanet (in)bred and born is classed as an undesirable intruder.
Here the term foreigner means everybody who doesn’t hail from the Isle of Thanet. That includes even you, Londoners, and people visiting from Canterbury just up the road. There are many Thanet residents who have never taken the train or bus out of Thanet and to them, anything and anyone even slightly different is a threat. No matter that they are residing in what is supposed to be a seaside resort open to tourism. They resent people coming here to enjoy beach and facilities. Sit down with a book at Broadstairs’ Dumpton Gap beach on a sunny day and locals will glare at you until you leave. It is one of the most unwelcoming places I’ve ever been to – and that includes the former East German state.
In the summer, when National Express coaches disgorge South East London’s day trippers, I have seen locals stand around at the seafront and openly make hostile comments about such visitors…tourists who are spending hard-earned money in these resorts to support local economies. Would they bother if they knew how racist are large section of locals are? Doubtful.
So this is what happened to this pedestrian lady, permanently without a van:
I was camping to save money on accommodation. I walked along the seafront early in the morning, when it was still dark. Camping in the cold season isn’t a lot of fun, so one tends to leave far earlier in the morning than one would, when being in a tent is quite comfy. Realising that I was too early for the first cafe to open and serve breakfast, I sat down in one of those shelter things dotted along the Ramsgate promenade up on the East Cliff. I noticed, as I was sitting down, that on the street level (one level up from where I was sitting), a woman and her dog had just arrived for their regular morning walkies.
Taking out my little torchlight, I checked my watch to see what the time actually was and whether it was worth getting out my glasses and book to while away the time until the cafes opened. I heard the woman get out her mobile to make a call, but didn’t take any notice. Little did I know that my turning on the torch had alerted her to my presence and sent her inbred Thanet pea-brain into overdrive. No, deciding I might as well be comfortable and warm for the 20 minutes or so I had to wait, I took out my little travel blanket that I use when I sit around in underfunded, freezing cold Thanet libraries, and draped it across my legs.
What happened next?
A police car arrived and I was questioned at length. Their opening gambit was, if I’d seen a suspicious man with a large backpack. But this turned rapidly to my being questioned about my identity and what I was doing there. Why? Because the idiot dog walker had called them, reporting me as a potential suicide who had been “spotted near the railings overlooking the cliff edge”. I wonder, did Dame Maggie Smith have the same problem when visiting Broadstairs on a windy, rainy day? Ah, she’s a smart woman, she probably didn’t risk sitting down anywhere other than the ice cream parlour we see her patronising in the film.
I hadn’t been anywhere near the railings overlooking the cliff edge, having walked in a straight line through a small park, along the landscaped garden area that formed the dog walker’s level of promenade and directly up to the little shelter where I sat down. The dog walker would have been quite aware of this, having seen me arrive at the shelter at the same time as she arrived on the landscaped level overlooking the promenade.
However, mistaking me for a homeless person who was sitting where she obsessively walks her dog (in the pitch dark!), she needed a valid reason for the police to scare me off. How dare a person sit in a spot where she walks every day!
Why a woman should choose to walk her dog (without a torchlight) in a pitch dark area, when she could simply walk the beastie along the lawned area on the upper level lit up by streetlights is anyone’s guess. To me it simply proves that she has little common sense.
Had she simply reported me as a “homeless” person sitting there, the police wouldn’t have bothered to come out. Reporting me as a potential suicide made sure of their immediate investigation. I had seen the dog walker a couple of times before, so knew she always walked her dog there at roughly the same time every morning. My presence, a small change to her routine, frightened her so much, she risked lying to the police.
A Van of mistaken Identity
Ironically, her arrival was what had prompted me in the first place to check my watch with my torch, because I realised I had walked faster than usual and arrived far too early. I normally saw her depart, not arrive. And it had also made me feel safe, seeing another woman and knowing dog walkers were around. Otherwise I wouldn’t have sat down for a little rest where the shelter was, in the dark, but would have walked on to the harbour where there are lights and benches and CCTV.
She had reported me “as a man with a big backpack”, yet I was wearing a floral skirt so couldn’t possibly have been the person she claimed to have seen – nor did I have a backpack. Had she really seen me standing under a streetlight by the railing, she couldn’t possibly have mistaken me for a man. The police should have been able to work that out for themselves, and also noticed that one cannot actually see the railings from where the woman claimed to have seen the alleged suicide attempt. However, they chose to ignore these obvious facts. Doesn’t leave one with a lot of faith in Kent’s police force to do detective work, does it?
Lady ready to drive her van the hell out of Dodge
Instead of questioning the veracity of what was clearly a false claim made by the dog walker, the police (2 of them!) insisted on taking down my details, asking me where I was headed, my address etc etc. Throughout this procedure, the dog walker, who was quite obviously “the concerned member of the public” referred to by the police, stood there cool as a cucumber and threw in morsels of polite chit-chat such as “that’s a nice bag” (pointing at my large bag which was full of books I as going to review that day) and “where did you walk from this morning…oh, that’s a long, long walk, no wonder you wanted to sit down.”
She may have felt guilty about reporting a blameless member of public at this point, but still not guilty enough to apologise for the hassle caused to me. Why? Because I have a non-Thanet accent.
When I voiced my annoyance that a member of the public who had sat down harmlessly on a park bench for a couple of minutes (literally!) was being harassed in this manner, the police got stroppy and of course, having a foreign accent in a place famously anti-visitor, didn’t help matters either. They actually checked their records if anyone had reported me missing! Presumably from some institution where all foreigners should be detained as dangerous lunatics. I’m the first to admit that as a writer I’m as loopy as the next creative person, but this really is taking things too far. I sat quietly on a public bench at 6.25 am, not rampaged around the seafront at 3.35 am, roaring drunk, toting a gun!
Nothing, not even a handout of £5 million by some local benefactor would induce me to move back here. If I had had a van in 2007 when I left Kent to move to Wales, I would have erased Kent from my sat nav map to ensure my little van would never be able to find its way back.
Nothing but a Van-load of Trouble
It really was farcical to be told by the police that they are “concerned about everybody’s welfare” and must investigate claims of persons liable to harm themselves or others, when they clearly don’t give a damn and never turn up when hordes of youths (mostly grammar school uppity types) regularly rampage through the town centre smashing windows or throwing paint all over shop fronts. I know this as fact from talking to local cafe and shop owners and my own observations.
Throughout the summer gangs of youths from wealthy homes, sometimes as many as 20 or 30, party along the West Cliff every night of the week, leaving huge amounts of litter everywhere and keeping long-suffering residents awake with their shouting and screaming, loud music and revving of motorbikes.
Do the police turn up for that? No, they do not.
Instead, both the council and police apparently told West Cliff residents to put a sock in it and put up with normal “seaside resort” summer activities, even if these “activities” involve drunken brawls and public drug-taking in the streets. Indeed, I was told by one resident that the council told them off, when residents rang up to say they had formed a committee to clear the rubbish on a daily basis, as they were fed up seeing the mess every day those youths left behind. How dare residents take initiative was the council’s response. Clearing rubbish away was strictly council business. Residents were apparently ordered to stop cleaning up the lawned areas immediately!
Nor do the police bother to help homeless people sleeping in doorways in sub zero temperatures or in torrential rain conditions. There’s an old homeless man sitting regularly on a bench in Ramsgate town centre – does the police come and ask him, if he’s alright? No, they do not! I have seen them walk right past the old man without so much as a glance in his direction.
So why investigate me?
This is why: the dog walker lives on the well-to-do Ramsgate/Broadstairs border, where homes are large and rather expensive….where people are posh and have double-barrel names, and send their obnoxious offspring to local grammar schools to raise them in their UKIP image. The shelter I sat in was closer to Broadstairs than Ramsgate. Which is why the police never bothered to query the dog walker’s report. A general consensus to hide local poverty, homelessness and other problems caused by chronic corruption among those who should ensure there are jobs and housing means false reports like the one made by the dog walker are apt to be believed, when the person making the report is from Broadstairs (where those in charge of local finances apparently live).
Her call to the police was taken at face value, especially as the person she reported turned out to have a foreign accent. Broadstairs is Kent’s big draw tourism-wise and “The Lady in a Van” film will obviously ensure a new generation of tourists will come next summer. Broadstairs postcodes call the shots around here, their hotels, restaurants etc pay large amounts of business taxes.
Ironically, given the subject matter of the film, the presence of homeless people or emotionally unstable persons is strictly “verboten” and must be stopped. I’ve even seen local vigilante gangs walk along the cliff top in summer, wearing night-vision goggles, so they can find homeless people sleeping rough in the undergrowth of parks and along the seafront and drive them off.
When I questioned how I could possibly be the person the “concerned member of the public” had reported, I was told by one of the police officers, I “fitted the description”! Hang on, your colleague said the report was about a man with a large backpack…isn’t it therefore ludicrous to suggest a short middle-aged woman in a floral skirt without a backpack should suddenly fit that description?
Oh, the fear of the unknown…the sudden appearance of change in our lives.
Lady dismissing the Van of Oblivion
So let me offer an official statement to Kent police and all dog walkers along this stretch of coast – and please do take this at face value: If I ever feel like committing suicide at any point in the future, it won’t be in a dump like Ramsgate, Margate or Broadstairs. I wouldn’t want to be seen dead anywhere in Kent!
That’s why I sold up and moved away and am busy writing a series of books that ridicule the area. Sorry to disappoint, but I really am not ready to get into the van of oblivion and hurl myself down a cliff, especially as I’m neither called Thelma nor Louise.
However did Dame Maggie Smith get away with walking around Broadstairs dressed as a bag lady? She must have had a huge entourage protecting her from Thanet’s unpleasant dog walkers. Possibly a solicitor on stand-by to bail her out of jail in case Dame Maggie fitted somebody’s description of a suspicious looking man?
I wonder how the dog walker would feel, if I rang up the police and reported a “dangerous dog had tried to attack me at the seafront”, even though the claim giving a description of her dog would be false. She would be upset and disgusted. Now you’re getting it, Thanet pea-brain. Please hold on to that thought.
(In the interest of fairness, I would like to stress that many of the younger residents, the new generation of adults if you like, are quite different and rather ashamed of the attitude their elders display towards visitors. I have met some lovely young people here, who are as helpful, friendly and tolerant of foreigners and non-Thanet visitors as can be.
But I still wouldn’t want to be seen dead – or alive- in Kent.)
(copyright for photographs: Maria Thermann)