Review: Margate Pride 2023 ★★★★★
It would be impossible to review the entire Margate Pride 2023, which hosts events throughout most of August, but our roving correspondent Lucy Nordberg had a whirlwind weekend experiencing as much as she could at this community-focused celebration, from art exhibitions to cabaret to queer sea shanties.
I hadn’t been to Margate since the mid-90s as an attempted escape with my partner from a quiet life at Kent University, only finding a rusty, run-down Dreamland, the tide definitely gone out far, far away, life happening elsewhere – celebrated former resident Tracey Emin beginning to make waves in London, years away from bringing it all back home. Since then, we’d heard all the tales of the town’s transformation, but hadn’t been tempted to return until booking a few days away to coincide with Margate Pride. It was time to pack up the sequins in the old kit bag and fluff up the feather boa, slightly bedraggled after surviving the storm force gales of Brighton Pride parade only the weekend before.
Thankfully the sun was shining on Margate when we arrived at the Beetroot guest house, which opened in 2018 as the UK’s first vegan hotel. Situated just a minute from the sandy beach, rooms are set around a quiet inner courtyard. Those at To Do List HQ know all too well I have a weakness for tea, and here we hit the motherlode – jars of loose leaves from Margate tea company Chai Wallah – plus a coffee machine in each room. Shampoo and body wash are supplied by Haeckels, a local company that harvests Margate seaweed to make their products. But these extras don’t come at an exorbitant price, as the Beetroot was one of the cheapest guest houses we could find in the area. As owner Paul says, he finds it more economical to buy quality rather than opt for those tiny plastic disposable toiletries.
So, fresh, clean and wired on caffeine, we hit the beach, glad that the seaweed in the bodywash smells different to the aroma of its fresh counterpart, very evident on the sea breeze. After a refreshing swim and shaking off as much sand as we could, we set off to creative hub Olby’s for our first Pride event. Punk and Judy is the fourth and final in a series of nights showcasing of punk, queer and experimental performance, hosted by local non-binary feminist punk rock duo Pink Suits. The reigning Mx Margate – about to be replaced in a couple of days – treats us to their pop punk drag king act T33N ANGST, followed by a performance by Serafine1369 that mixes poetry, dance and a different kind of audience participation to haunting effect, just moving among us in the dark. Midgitte Bardot displays casual comic timing with an intro that leads into a poem about being mauled by a large dog, playing on her size compared to the height and bulk of us in the audience, followed by songs including a suitably punk rendition of My Way.
The Lipsinkers provide the finale with a set showing that they have reached a state of messy perfection with props, wigs and costumes flying about all over the place – their masterpiece might just be their Hollywood housewives party-gone-wrong scenario mimed to Tinie Tempah’s Pass Out.
The next morning, we pay a visit to the Turner Contemporary gallery, which is showing work by artist Beatrice Milhazes, a leading figure in Brazilian art movement Geração Oitenta (1980s Generation) that embraced painting as a form of energy and expression. A good choice to exhibit during pride, Milhazes is very active in the LGBTQ+ community. Her large-scale canvases are intensely colourful, and we spot references to the UK in a bright dynamic work inspired by 60s London, and in her installation across the gallery’s large window that complements the surrounding coast, echoing the seaside environment that influences her work in Rio.
Then we head over to the Margate School, which – in contrast to the Turner – is an independent not-for-profit postgraduate liberal art school housed in an old Woolworths building on the high street. Here, there’s an exhibition of banners made in yearly workshops preparing for Margate’s pride parade. It’s a great chance to see the detail and personal messages put into work that’s usually just glimpsed among the general spectacle as a pride march passes by. There’s also a film, Weirdness of Queerness, made by the school’s volunteer curators, and a community quilt.
On the day of pride itself, we stroll up to the Oval bandstand, where performances take place all day before the parade. It’s a friendly and welcoming event, free but ticketed to control numbers. We’re there in time to hear queer shanties from Seaweed in the Fruit Locker, an LGBTQIA+ choir that reworks existing sea shanties and write new ones, incorporating slang language Polari. Seaweed is a term to refer to a sexually available gay sailor and a fruit locker is a cabin on a ship housing gay shipmates.
The much-anticipated Mx. Margate contest follows, hosted by Johnny Woo and judged by Tracey Emin, with Russell Tovey and Robert Diament – the actor and Margate-based gallerist host hugely successful podcast TalkArt – and medic and presenter Dr Ronx. The jury award the crown to poet and musician Chuck SJ, who gives a heartfelt, political and entertaining performance.
After listening to speeches emphasising the need for unity and support at a time of increasing hostility – particularly for the trans community – we pick a spot further down the road to watch the parade. This truly is a joyful, community affair, wave after wave of people marching with home-made banners and no barriers between the parade and the spectators.
Afterwards, we end up at Sundowners – Thanet’s only LGBT bar, restaurant and club – where there’s been entertainment outside on the terrace all day. For the after party, hosted by Mrs. Moore, we grab a wristband for a £12 to watch a seemingly non-stop array of cabaret at the club inside.
But our ‘performance of pride’ has to go to Drag With No Name, also on the Sundowners terrace the night before. Fed up with people ignoring her act to take pictures of the sunset, she leaves the stage and sprints across the road, vaulting over the high sea wall to the beach below, where a mariachi band are singing at a wedding reception. After a chat with the newlywed women, she serenades the whole of Margate with ‘Running Up That Hill’, at one with that admittedly spectacular sunset, while the public stop to watch and drivers beep their horns as they pass by.
Prides and their marches, always in motion, changing from year to year, give time for reflection. There wasn’t a Margate Pride when I was here last, and in wider society there weren’t even the words for a lot of us. Now, there are so many events for the weekend – let alone the whole of August – that we can only scratch the surface.
Just as the proliferation of prides around the country contrasts with continuing hostility to LGBTQ+ people, there’s no doubt that despite the changes in Margate, deprivation stills runs high and there are the usual questions about how an area can change and adapt while benefitting all. But seaside towns are perennial blank canvases for doing things differently, which has a lot to do with the freedom of silly pursuits like paddling in the waves and the possibility to serenade a crowd with all of nature and a fantastic sunset behind you. This latest wave of modern galleries and public art, artistic communities and pride events is another adaptation for coastal towns to add new attractions alongside the pier theatres, ice cream parlours and arcades where people can amuse themselves and also perhaps discover something deeper. There’s a poem by ee cummings that seems to still ring true:
‘For whatever we lose, like a you or a me
It’s always ourselves we find in the sea.’
Lucy is a scriptwriter and producer in theatre and film – find out more about her work here – and a researcher who enjoys getting out from behind the desk to find new things to do and sometimes review.