Ban­sky puts a smile on Dover’s face

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - PA­TRICK WEST

When peo­ple come to Dover, it’s usu­ally to pass through. The mag­nif­i­cent cas­tle on the cliffs may be a tourist at­trac­tion in its own right but, for the most part, Dover has been a place peo­ple go through on their way to or back from the Con­ti­nent.

It’s never been much of a sea­side des­ti­na­tion. The rise of cheap flights, the end of duty-free and the ad­vent of the Chan­nel Tun­nel di­min­ished its sta­tus as a port, and the 2008 crash hit it hard. The num­ber of va­grants, street drinkers and empty shop premises in the cen­tre bear wit­ness to a town that has seen bet­ter times.

Yet things are look­ing up. Back in May, to the sur­prise of Dove­ri­ans and the world’s me­dia, a new Banksy mu­ral was un­veiled on the side of an old amuse­ment ar­cade in York Street. When I went to look at the work, it was clear that Dover had a tourist at­trac­tion — peo­ple were com­ing to see it.

Sur­pris­ingly, the mu­ral, de­pict­ing a man chip­ping away at one star in the EU flag, has found much favour in the town. Its am­bigu­ous mes­sage has been a source of much dis­cus­sion. If the mu­ral has put a smile on the face of peo­ple here, per­haps it’s be­cause it sym­bol­ises the town’s long-over­due re­cov­ery. The build­ing it’s painted on was about to be de­mol­ished as part of the town’s re­gen­er­a­tion pro­gram, and the mu­ral is at the cen­tre of a huge row over whether or not it ought to be pre­served.

Last year, the nearby and much-hated Burling­ton House — most peo­ple driv­ing to the ferry port will have no­ticed this bru­tal­ist beige eye­sore — was fi­nally de­mol­ished. A shop­ping com­plex and cin­ema is un­der con­struc­tion in its place. All its plots have been sold. Else­where, empty premises in Can­non Street have grad­u­ally been com­ing back into com­mer­cial use. And lo­cal unem­ploy­ment is falling.

Even if Dover has been su­per­fi­cially grotty in re­cent years, I’ve al­ways found its peo­ple to be the nicest in East Kent. Go into The Eight Bells Wether­spoons pub in Can­non Street or the Beano Cafe on Wor­thing­ton Street to see the kind of warm, real-life com­mu­nity in­ter­ac­tion that tends to be imag­ined by soap-opera writ­ers.

Per­haps it’s be­cause they are aware of their town’s bale­ful rep­u­ta­tion in the county that Dove­ri­ans make an ex­tra ef­fort with strangers — I re­mem­ber Belfast folk be­ing sim­i­larly cor­dial in the 1990s.

The town has also been a rel­a­tively suc­cess­ful melt­ing pot. While Slo­vakian and Balkan im­mi­grants who re­side around the down-at-heel Lon­don Road area do live lives apart, the Pol­ish and Baltic new­com­ers of the past 15 years have in­te­grated far bet­ter. Many have bilin­gual chil­dren of school age, which en­ables con­tact with na­tive English par­ents. You will hear Poles and na­tives mixing as friends in cafes, and Lat­vians talk­ing to Dove­ri­ans in gro­cery stores as their cus­tomers buy cans of lager from the Baltic.

A few years ago, when a Banksy ap­peared in nearby Folke­stone, it was de­faced. Few were sur­prised; East Kent is Brexit coun­try. The fact that even Banksy, that metropoli­tan lib­eral par ex­cel­lence, has put smiles on the face of Dover peo­ple is quite re­mark­able.

THE SPECTATOR

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