A few days ago my wife Hattie and I found ourselves staying in a seaside hotel as guests of a girls school reunion. The ‘girls’ in question were former pupils of the near legendary St Margaret’s School in my home town of Folkestone. The class of ’64 celebrating the fact that it is 50 years since they were first turned loose on the world.
Knowing the history of their alma mater I couldn’t help feeling that this curious rag-taggle of 66-year-olds were actually celebrating not only their shared history but also their survival. For St Margaret’s, though dearly loved by many of its alumni, was not for the faint-hearted. By the 1960s it was the kind of down-at-heel private school that had fallen on hard times after a rather glorious past.
It had originally opened in 1890 and enjoyed the prosperity of late Victorian and Edwardian England in its imperial pomp before continuing doggedly through two World Wars and the depression of the 1930s. When it finally closed in 1967, the school was a shadow of its former self. At the best of times it had been an eccentric institution. By the summer of love it was struggling to make sense of a world changed beyond recognition. I knew it back then or at least some of its girls. Indeed Hattie herself was a pupil there, though I wouldn’t meet her until 1969. St Mags continued ’til the money ran out, one foot firmly in the past, wondering what on earth all those beads, bells and sitars were about.
It was a sorry but defiant sight in its final days. There were several members of staff who could never have found employment anywhere else and the girls survived freezing dorms, near-inedible food served from cockroach-infested kitchens and an educational regime that was haphazard, weighted towards the gifted and utterly unforgiving of those who didn’t fit the bill. All that was left were memories and the two subjects in which the school really did excel – theatrical productions and women’s cricket. As for everything else? To an outsider it looked very much like the fictional St Trinians brought graphically to life. To insiders it was far worse. There were tales of gambling, drunkenness and mental breakdowns…and that was just the staff. No wonder that the good ladies of the class of 64 were an exotic little group. The first one I spoke to had jetted in specially for the occasion from her French farmhouse in the hills above Nice, the second owned a lighthouse and the third told me her husband was an Eskimo. You couldn’t make it up…..and I haven’t!
Believe it or not we weren’t actually in town for the reunion. We had been offered two free nights at the town’s Clifton Hotel courtesy of one of my wife’s twin sisters who was unable to make the occasion. Fortunately her single room (full board) was painlessly converted into a double room (bed & breakfast ) and we found ourselves on a Folkestone freebie ready to check out the 2014 Triennial – the three-yearly feast of art that has, since 2008, been putting my once battered and rather woebegone home-town well and truly back on the map.
I haven’t lived in Folkestone for nearly 30 years but it will always be special to me. Sadly its decline mirrored that of St Mags or maybe it was the other way round. Once a fashionable Edwardian resort, Folkestone was hammered by the First World War, slowly driven into economic decline through the 1930s and bombed to buggery during World War II. By the time I was born there in opening weeks of 1951 it was already a faded, jaded version of its pre-war self but its spirit was thankfully intact. The fishing port still thrived and down on the beach channel swimmers lathered themselves with lanolin and grease and struck out for the French coast 22 miles away. They were my early heroes, though I never sought to emulate their feats of endurance.
The beach, the bomb sites, the abandoned fortifications and the hills behind the town offered an endless playground. There was the Leas Pavilion Theatre with its traditional seaside repertory company presided over by Arthur Brough, a diminutive but loveable actor-manager who would later find minor TV recognition as Mr Grainger in the sit-com Are You Being Served? As a child my parents would take us to tea-matinees to watch creaking whodunits and light comedies played against a background of rattling teacups and low-level chatter. My brother and I loved it. Later there would be bands at the Leas Cliff Hall where, in the sixties, I saw acts like Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, Fleetwood Mac, Savoy Brown and Geno Washington, and Tofts – a wonderful sweaty loft club at the top of Foord Road – where John Mayall would regularly bring various Bluesbreakers line-ups, and people like Alexis Korner, Graham Bond, Jack Bruce and Duster Bennett would play a heady mix of jazz, blues, rock and R&B. Later I would be heavily involved with the Metropole Arts Centre. Great days involving some remarkable exhibitions and performances.
Despite these rather enjoyable distractions the decline of the town continued and as the Channel Tunnel at first promised to bring new prosperity then failed to deliver. Folkestone appeared to slump into a state of run-down torpor. All the redevelopment went to Ashford. Folkestone was effectively underneath the arches and the ‘chunnel’ was underneath Folkestone. She still exuded character though and while many sought to write her off, there was still something vital about this tenacious and strangely beautiful little town. Writing for the local newspaper and steeping myself in the town’s arts and music scene I never lost faith. Folkestone simply needed a helping hand. Her saviour turned out to be billionaire philanthropist Roger De Haan who invested heavily in the poor end of town and was instrumental in establishing the Creative Foundation – the driving force behind the now internationally acclaimed Triennial and much more.
A world-class event with the visitor statistics to prove it, this year’s Triennial has been curated by former artistic director and chief executive of the Liverpool Biennial Lewis Biggs. What a great job he’s done! The overarching theme is Lookout, a subject that chimes perfectly with a place that has for so long been on the front-line, fearful of invasion but ready to accept the new. Not surprising then that many of the installations, concepts and flights of fancy that make up this year’s Triennial include watchtowers of one sort or another. Gabriel Lester’s The Electrified Line offers a bamboo observation deck over the weed-strewn remains of the old Harbour railway.
Pablo Bronstein has created an incongruous and unlikely English Baroque Lighthouse rising like a giant periscope from a beach hut on the promenade. This structure, surrounded by concrete slab shelters in pastel shades is, he insists, filling a gap in architectural history incorporating the 18th century style of Nicholas Hawksmore with some decidedly post-modern elements. Will Kwan has used the old vinery on the cliff-top Leas to create his own lookout, a piece of latter day chinoiserie keeping a wary eye on the ships passing below. Yoko Ono meanwhile has a signal-lamp flashing morse-code across the channel from the top of The Grand, one of two magnificent Edwardian buildings. Above it a vast banner reads Earth Peace.
Slovenian artist Marjetica Potrc has joined forces with the architecture practice Ooze to install a turbine powered Wind Lift to take visitors to the top of the 70 foot high railway viaduct – probably the best view in town. While high above the harbour on a kind of giant hammock suspended from the top floor of the Grand Burstin Hotel artist Alex Hartley and a team of volunteers watch over Folkestone’s seaward approaches. A huge sign proclaims that this is a Vigil.
Ironically the very day we visited, as the vigilantes scoured the horizon from above, 130 asylum seekers arrived, temporarily moved into the Burstin on Home Office instructions. With Folkestone’s high unemployment, poor housing and limited prospects such moves do not play well with the local population. They voice fears of illegal immigrants arriving daily and speak of the often lawless scenes that make the harbour area a no-go area at night. Whether it is locals, immigrants or a mixture of the two that cause the trouble, it is clear who gets the blame. Taxi drivers call it the Gaza Strip. Again and again I heard people discussing this thorny subject and the most common opening phrase was “I’m not a racist but…” These are people who feel under threat as indeed does the Conservative MP for Folkestone and Hythe, Damien Collins, who knows that during next year’s general election he and his constituency will be firmly in the crosshairs of UKIP’s sights.
Of course troubled times tend to be good for art ( apart from that awkward funding business) and the Triennial more than does its bit by stimulating imaginations and provoking discussion. The biggest talking point this year has been German artist Michael Sailstorfer’s Folkestone Digs. The near-genius idea of burying 30 gold ingots in the outer harbour and then inviting people to come and find them has given the Triennial 24 carat media coverage. Whether it’s actually art or not is unimportant. No sooner was Folkestone Digs announced than it was more than living up to its name. Sales of spades, trowels and metal detectors went through the roof and, in addition to the people of Folkestone, thousands of visitors were digging in the hope of striking gold as a small patch of beach turned into a mini Kentish Klondike. The international media pack poured in too from newspapers, magazines, TV, radio stations and more online publications than you could shake a bag of gold at. It cost £10,000. The publicity it has generated must be worth much much more. Best of all, however frantic the digging, each incoming tide restores the shoreline and its shiny secrets to pristine condition once again.
I have a personal interest in Algerian artist Amina Menia’s Undélaissé - an intriguing response to the vacant lot between the buildings in Tontine Street that was once the site of my great grandfather, William Henry Stokes’, business – Stokes Brothers greengrocer. On 25th May 1917, a 50 kilogram bomb dropped from a state-of-the-art German Gotha bomber blew the shop to smithereens. Sixty people – mainly shoppers packing the busy street, many queuing for a newly delivered consignment of potatoes – were killed. Dozens more were injured. William Henry, 46-years-old, and his 14-year-old younger son Arthur Ernest were among those killed instantly. His 40-year-old brother and business partner Charles Fredrick Stokes suffered appalling injuries and died the following year in hospital. Thankfully William Henry’s 19-year-old older son, William Edward Stokes (my grandfather), was away serving with the Royal Engineers.
The bombing was the first enemy air-raid ever to target Folkestone. No one understood what was happening, no attempt was made to take shelter. The result was a street that turned in a few hellish moments from a scene of urban normality to a battlefield strewn with rubble, broken glass, splintered wood, twisted metal and human remains. The air-raid had been the result of an aborted attack on London. The squadron of newly designed Gothas had headed for the capital but finding low cloud cover obscuring their view had turned back towards the coast and dumped their deadly payload on Folkestone. Bombs fell across the conurbation destroying isolated buildings and killing 36 more people. Dreadful though it was the damage elsewhere in the town paled into insignificance in comparison with the carnage wrought in Tontine Street.
Confronted with a commemorative plaque, a gap between the shops and a rather fanciful version of the site’s history, Amina Menia set about creating an installation that appears to be based on two wrong assumptions – that the shop was a bakers rather than a greengrocers and that the site has been empty ever since 1917. As I and many other descendants of those directly involved could have told her, this was not the case. The bombed-out shop was quickly rebuilt and continued trading as a greengrocers for many decades. It was finally destroyed in a fire in 1985. Never mind. Amina’s attempt to reimagine the life of the old shop, complete with the stencilled ghost of the Stokes Bros sign, is a well-intentioned commemoration – even if it does centre around sound recordings featuring ethereal spoken word recipes for bread. I’m just delighted that a part of my family history should be incorporated into the Triennial and understand that moves are afoot to establish a permanent memorial garden on the site.
At the moment the garden is basic in the extreme and overgrown with weeds and wildflowers. If the memorial plan comes to fruition I would love to be there when it opens, presumably on the centenary of the bombing on 25th May 2017. I am genuinely pleased that Amina has helped to highlight the site and its history even if some of the facts are little askew. I hear that on the press day she was stung by a bee. Perhaps it was karma!
Of course human beings seldom get things absolutely right when looking to their past. History has a habit of getting re-written whether through Chinese whispers, misunderstandings or wishful thinking. Monitoring the often alarmist international news during the Triennial are a series of Withervanes sited on various rooftops across the town. Created by artists Cezanne Charles and John Marshall they take the form of headless chickens which react via the internet to the output of the BBC, Reuters and The Guardian. Predetermined keywords suggesting war, economic collapse or other disasters cause them to change colour from green to red.
Other Triennial entries tap into more abstract areas of our hopes, fears and aspirations. Strange Cargo has attempted to impart luck by finding people prepared to be 3D printed in their personal lucky colour and placed, along with their chosen lucky charms/possessions, under the town’s Central Railway station bridge. The old brick bridge – a stones throw from the house where I grew up – is now officially labelled The Luckiest Place In The World.
Back at Strange Cargo’s base – Georges House Gallery overlooking the ancient cobbles of the Old High Street – there’s more 3D printing for those prepared to spend up to £600 to have themselves reproduced. There are lucky badges and even lucky money. It’s not that lucky though! When we visited we found the front of the gallery boarded up. It seems someone had chucked a brick through the window. Can’t win ‘em all.
What you can win is a connection with a very special place. Even though I haven’t lived there since 1986 Folkestone still feels like home and I know with increasing certainty that one day I will return. Of course I got used to hearing people run the place down but now I feel it’s unique qualities are coming into their own once again. It may sound like nonsense but there is something in the air. Even the meeting of St Margaret’s old girls -SMOGS – was like a Triennial add-on as they looked out for their former classmates and a formative slice of life that could only have happened in Folkestone.
Yoko Ono, who arrived in town a couple of days before me, summed it up. Commenting after her Triennial visit, she wrote that she had expected to find a town that had once been grand but had been “asleep” since the First World War. She imagined it would need her energy but discovered instead a place with a quiet energy all of its own and full of ‘bright eyed, bushy tailed’ people of all ages. It reminded her, she said, of Iceland – one of the most enlightened, green and artistically progressive countries in the world.
“Folkestone was totally different from what I expected…The place was beautiful in the way we would like to see all cities now. Eco, bodily and spiritually. Very alive in a quiet way, as if everybody was into meditation, and mindfulness!”
That’s my town! Full of wonderful eccentricities and lovely surprises.
*The Folkestone Triennial runs until 2nd November. More information at www.folkestonetriennial.org.uk