Written by Justine Brooks

Voices

Letter to my hometown: a new Deal

There’s nothing so motivating in life as the ‘fuck-you’ energy you find at rock bottom, writes Justine Brooks.

The Quarterdeck, Deal.

Deal’s seafront, including The Quarterdeck.

To me, you initially seemed like the land of eternal winter. Salt wash flying through sea gales on grey days that ended at precisely 3.30 pm: the time I was released from school.

I wasn’t born in Deal – nor were any of my family, it just seemed that we all ended up there somehow, like flotsam washed up on the shore. It was in those various intersections of all our lives that it became the only place any of us ever had in common.

My grandmother had Made A Decision in the 1950s that the family would move there from Prestatyn in North Wales – her sister was already there, she must have been the first of us. After the move, my grandfather soon took to the shingle beach, spending long nights sipping whisky from a hip flask, fishing with long lines for cod. My mother hated the place and only ever wanted to leave, which she did by the time she was 19.

Mum returned in ’79, this time with my father and me, after we’d spent eight years living in Central Africa, my first home. I was eight-and-a-half, so sunshine was all I’d ever known.

“I too found solace in the sea and would often scramble down the shingle beach and stare out across the English Channel, towards France and Europe, thinking of my beloved first home far beyond.”

When the plane landed at Heathrow and they wheeled the steps up to the gaping door where I stood in my cotton frock and sandals, all I wanted to do was turn around and run back into the plane and make it carry me back to the land of sunshine. But instead we drove through unfamiliarly verdant countryside and rain to the cold, sea-lashed place that was Deal.

Soon after we arrived, my grandmother, a staunch papist, sent me to St Mary’s Roman Catholic School on St Richard’s Road and I found myself in a very strange new world. The school was run by Irish nuns in dark robes, who dispensed lessons with a dose of holy entitlement. On Sundays I’d dress smartly and go to St Thomas’s church to please my grandmother and breathe in the holy smoke.

There was another force that filled the school, more with hatred than holiness. The boys in the playground spat out words like ‘Scab’ and I quickly realised they didn’t mean the crusty things that covered my knees.

Similarly ‘Picket lines’, ‘Scargill’; through their unfamiliar language they channelled the frustrations of their parents, victims to the harsh demise of the coal mining industry. The pits, Chislet, Snowdown, Tilmanstone and Betteshanger were picked off one by one until the last, Betteshanger Colliery, closed in 1989, leaving those families devastated and seemingly without hope.

The former Snowdown coal mine. Photo: Lielais Rolands, via Wikimedia Commons.

The former Snowdown coal mine. Photo: Lielais Rolands, via Wikimedia Commons.

Many of the other kids were the sons and daughters of fishermen. I remember a classmate at school: fishing was his passion and it ran in his blood. It consumed him and he endured his weekly schooling dreaming of freedom at sea each weekend. “Fishin’ with me dad” he called it. It may well be that he is one of the scant 180 Kentish fishermen still fishing those waters and I hope he has made it in that steadily declining industry.

I too found solace in the sea and would often scramble down the shingle beach and stare out across the English Channel, towards France and Europe, thinking of my beloved first home far beyond.

The IRA bomb that sent 11 Royal Marine musicians to their graves in September 1989 sounded a particularly literal death knell for Deal. The loss of the Royal Marines Music School signified a loss of prestige for this town but perhaps in retrospect it sparked an impetus for change. There’s nothing so motivating in life as the ‘fuck you’ energy you find at rock bottom.

My parents stayed on in my grandmother’s house after her death before moving to Yorkshire in 1999 to be nearer to me. For over a decade I didn’t go back, caught up with getting married, having a baby, working. So it wasn’t until last summer, as I battled through a vicious and exhausting divorce, that I found myself drawn back to a time from before Yorkshire and before my marriage: in times of sadness I always want to be by the sea.

Deal Pier Cafe. Photo: Oast House Archive, shared under Creative Commons licence.

Deal Pier Cafe. Photo: Oast House Archive, shared under Creative Commons licence.

What I found last summer was a town transformed. The last 20 years have seen Deal’s fortunes change spectacularly.

The regeneration of that depressed and forgotten south coast has brought with it music festivals and artisan bakers, Arts Council funded jazz evenings, restaurant tables that need to be reserved weeks in advance, galleries, holiday homes, soaring property prices and general gentrification.

Deal has caught the eye of holidaying Londoners – perhaps as it did back in the 1950s, and now The Royal Marines Barracks has been converted into des-res housing; The Quarterdeck is also a luxury residential development; the bingo hall where my grandmother spent Thursday nights gambling her pension is closed, awaiting a similar fate, and life is being breathed back.

The crumbling buildings have been spruced up and painted in a slubby rainbow of Farrow & Ball, regaining the beauty of their Victorian heyday. Deal pier has been renovated, with an award-winning architect-designed cafe at its helm. Deal has transformed itself into a well-to-do seaside paradise.

There’s something about the way the town has picked itself up off the floor, dusted itself off and made something of itself that was really wonderful to see for this mid-40s divorcing woman with a great deal of uncertainty in her future. And while I miss the old ramshackle town with its working roots and traditional integrity, I also like this new Deal: prosperous, fun, beautiful. I love you, Deal and I can’t wait to be back. See you next summer. xx

@JustineFBrooks

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Written by Justine Brooks

Justine lives in beautiful north Leeds with her 12-year-old daughter and a lurcher called Lionel. She runs a PR and marketing agency and is writing a novel.