I spent the last ten days marauding up and down France in a camper van with my friends. Eating excessively, drinking obstinately and caring about little else. We sailed from Dover, a town that gives you the feeling it wishes it wasn’t forever dipping its feet into the Channel; instead wishing it was just somewhere else in England’s Green and Pleasant Land. It’s much akin to the feeling one would appropriate to a motorway service station; it wants to belong in its own right. The white cliffs a sad, final attempt at averting your eye from the cold, grey metal of its port.
Our crew of 6 left from London for Dover, some had initially travelled from Sheffield, but London was the place from which we would leave. Our camper, a creamy box of a thing with technology hidden inside that would flatter its earnest exterior was a ‘Contiki’. It was really, almost perfectly square, and a place that was to become our home from home for the next ten days. From London to Dover the Contiki dragged its heavy bones around corner, after corner, after corner. The first destination, however, was a service station for a breakfast to cure the ills of an ill-advised night out the previous evening.
Each corner that preceded the service station was lined with tall, high fern-like trees, and a heavy, grey dew dragged the tips of the leaves down and surfed mid-air on the shoulders of the half-dead zombies making their way to some yellow arches they had been told about in their dreams. The service station had much the appearance of a Centre Parcs for people who like coffee, burgers and bandits, or indeed all three at once. We hadn’t slept very much and the slowing of the van as it swung widely round the corners stirred us. Cold and with arms folded I shuffled myself upright and glanced outside the window to my right to see where we were, praying we were ‘there yet.’ But what I saw was unusual. To my right, I saw heads, limbs, eyes and other flashing body parts, hidden and then unhidden, deep in the trees that aligned the road. These incomplete humans were running, skulking, ducking and diving in a way a man knowing he is to be beaten cowers his shoulders and tucks his neck in. They were moving cautiously but quickly.
The camper continued to bounce up and down, as if in an attempt to bounce the sight out of our heads. But it was real.
“What the f…?!”
Our proximity to Dover and the current ‘news cycle’ soon allowed us to surmise that these were indeed ‘migrants’ or ‘people’ or ‘refugees’ or ‘benefit claimants swimming hundreds of miles, using their kids as life rafts so as in order to claim their free house, car, swimming pool, facelift and tummy tuck.’ Embellishing on the part of the dumb and depraved too tempting. These people were running, darting between trees hoping to get deeper and deeper into England and further away from their other fate.
We ate and were on our way again. Apart from our sighting of the people who had managed to cross the Channel into Blighty, we were to see no more on ‘our side.’ Instead, we rolled onto the ferry and unpacked ourselves onto the deck. Refugees forgotten and arriving in Calais on the other side, no other people were seen. We had heard all about ‘The Jungle,’ but there was no sign of anything of the sort.
As the holiday passed, we had been spending our days somewhat detached from the furore back home. Staying in-sync with the news when you have a mobile data limit is somewhat difficult and without any English newspapers, I felt suitably ostracised. Not an altogether nasty feeling. In fact, it is similar to that when one finds themselves detached from their mobile phone for a few days; there are times when it really does feel good.
Our holiday was a blissful series of antonyms to the events elsewhere. Syria, Iraq and Yemen continued to crumble and Libya maintained its course towards ultimate destruction. Back home, the reality of a five year Tory government was one that our journey allowed me to neglect for a while longer. In rural France, social media and the internet were largely neglected, apart from the odd Instagram jaunt or desperate Google translate session. We had been kayaking down the Dordogne, barbequing by the most graceful rivers, cycling through vinyards in the Loire Valley and altogether doing things I’d have hated myself for a few years ago. Life was good. But there was just one thing; kids were being washed up dead on a beach.
The mention by one of the lads, “have you seen the picture of them kids?” was the first we were to see or hear of the maelstrom that was beginning to grip the sane part of the nation. People were indeed drowning all the time in the Mediterranean, 900 off one boat in April, 200 just the other day. Almost 3,000 have died this year trying to make it to Europe. Over 17,000 have drowned in total. We know that. This was meant to be different.
The fact that the sight of a dead child on a beach still perturbs some people is in itself perversely reassuring; our moral degeneration is still not yet complete. Dead children in Gaza’s ice cream freezers temporarily nudged the collective awake last summer; Aylan appears to have potentially done something similar.
The holiday continued however and I wondered to myself several times about our place in the wider world. We were welcomed in France, Brits reside in Spain in number and Brits in general travel the world with an ease that conveys ignorance and entitlement in measure. Russian and Middle Eastern oligarchs eat up housing land in the south whilst hundreds of thousands have no hope of living somewhere decent. The Irish, of which I am gratefully descended, were treated with contempt when they made their way to Britain, as were black people from Africa to Jamaica and further. ‘NO BLACKS, NO IRISH’ were living epitaphs for our recent ancestors, hung from pubs, shops and anywhere else where these vermin weren’t wanted. Extend this narrative to Poles, Romanians, Muslims and now the current group of desperate refugees and it occurred to me there is one thing in common with all these groups who share all the same insults and chastisements. They came with no money. Those who do are always welcome.
Throughout the holiday I had been reading ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists,’ an autobiographical tale of an early 19th Century tradesman, who despite battling against chronic, poverty-induced illness, tried to convince the rest of his impoverished colleagues that they had indeed been conned all along, and that the system that condemns them to poverty and illness and unhappiness is one they happily uphold. His attempts to convince them that foreigners, technology and others’ supposed idleness were not to blame for their destitution fell on deaf-ears. This was published in 1914, and the symmetry is still frightening:
“The country was in a hell of a state, poverty, hunger and misery in a hundred forms had already invaded thousands of homes and stood upon the thresholds of thousands more. How came these things to be? It was the bloody foreigner! Therefore, down with the foreigners and all their works. Out with them. Drive them b–s into the bloody sea! The country would be ruined if not protected in some way.
“The papers they read were filled with vague and alarming accounts of the quantities of foreign merchandise imported into this country, the enormous number of aliens constantly arriving, and their destitute conditions, how they lived, the crimes they committed, and the injury they did to British trade. These were the seeds which, cunningly sown in their minds, caused to grow up within them a bitter undiscriminating hatred of foreigners.”
Our journey in France was almost at an end and we decided to leave our final campsite at 7am, which would leave us plenty of time to reach Calais, accounting for the innumerable delays that were recalled via a series of Chinese Whispers, or English Whispers. Whichever. Pulling out of the camp site, we were greeted by a fellow camper, gesturing, in his underwear, to the front of our van, then to his ears, and then back again in a series of loops that encouraged one to believe they were well practiced and performed. We surmised the gentleman was displeased at the noise of our van’s engine at that time of the morning.
“Oh, well sorry, I’ll turn the van onto silent mode next time, fucking prick.”
Before the morning we left, we spent our last night in Versailles, eating out and then visiting the famous palace, long unshackled from its monarchy and us soon to be shackled to our reality back home. On that gloomy night the golden gates pierced the grey sky like a bright torch through a clenched fist. But, alas, home it was.
We began our journey back toward Calais, but first we were to get the van filled up with some diesel. We thundered our camper through the streets of Paris, looking, looking and looking and then looking, looking, looking at our watches. Anyone who has been to France often (not us) knows that most parts slam themselves to a halt on Sundays. Panic ensued and those among us drifting off to sleep were pulled up by a tangible anxiety. The camper was not a van that drank politely, and electing to chance the petrol gauge was not one to entertain. Almost an hour later we filled up and were on our way.
This time, it was impossible to ignore. Right in the belly of Paris. Before, the sight of a few wandering people was as easy to miss as it was to spot, but here from front to back, and side to side, there were crowds of people and bigger crowds of bags, packed with clothes and other miscellaneous items deemed necessary for life. Many were gathering under a bridge and many were coming from all other directions to join them. Police were there, talking to some in a relaxed manner. Other members of the police placed a keen eye on our van as we drove through. A place to hide, they probably thought. Among the throngs of people were children, a woman breastfeeding in the dirt and another child playing in some rubbish. People were waiting calmly, but it was not clear to tell what for.
Paris slowly melted away, and so did our chances of making the ferry. Our detour had left us with little time to spare and we booked ourselves onto the next one.
As we arrived into Calais. Things began to change once more. The low, cautious moving figures seen in Dover began to be seen again, this time out in the open. Walking across industrial estates with no apparent direction in mind. Some seemed to be walking away from the direction of the port, others going once more in to the fray. Soon enough, to our right was ‘The Jungle.’ A chaotic pile of tents, tarpaulin and rubbish. Some were inscribed with messages to the outside world. ‘APARTHEID HOTEL’ read one, and others simply flew emblems and flags of where they had come from. Syrian, Palestinian, Libyan and Afghan flags could be seen as well as mementoes from many others. In the distance there were larger, more permanent tents erected. We assumed these to be charity headquarters or potentially some workable sanitation for the people trapped within. It is one thing hearing about the desperate living conditions of some people, conditions they have chosen to suffer under rather than something else. It is another thing seeing it, even from a distance.
‘The Jungle’ to a large extent does really look like just that. A myriad of sorry, desperate structures encased by thick, dense shrubbery and low lying trees. Beyond the foliage is a wall, recently rebuilt. It has been painted green. A jungle within a jungle.
How long are these people to be here for?
Passing into the queue for the ferry, we aligned ourselves alongside the usual heavier vehicles. Vans, lorries and others were given a going over by border staff. Drivers, now accustomed to the process walked around their vehicles, slightly ahead of the examining staff member, opening door after door, and compartment after compartment with ease, their route around the vehicle unbroken and seamless.
On board, we too skulked the decks of the ferry and looked around at a sea of people worn out by life. British people with faces and eyes that suggested death was not anything they feared anymore, more something they wished for. Above on the outside deck were the smokers, as well as parents showing their kids the rumbling of the sea below. Everyone in the smoking area looked tremendously ill and people cowered resolutely against the wind. Back inside, The Daily Mail, Express and The Sun were draped from every hand like an evolutionary fixture to the human anatomy gone horribly wrong. Mostly grey haired people sat in their groups, deconstructing their fish and chips. They appeared to have long given up the art of conversation with the other.
And I thought, some of these people here, clutching their racist newspapers, are a part of the problem we see on both sides of the Channel. Their indignance to other suffering humans and their servility to the immoral agenda of the media form the walls of Britain’s very own ‘Jungle.’ Papers that cheered the deaths of ‘migrants’ and forewarned of ‘swarms’ and ‘invasions’ still hang from the hands of people like cheap jewellery. I do not doubt these are, on the whole, good people, but the growing pernicity in dehumanising the evil foreigners and allowing them to lay broken in Calais and elsewhere mean ‘The Jungle’ can exist. As Martin Luther King said: the true enemy of black progress is the ‘white moderate.’ They uphold a system that creates crisis after crisis, and where there isn’t one, seek to create it. These the very papers that were cheerleaders and stenographers to the war on Iraq that created over 1.5 million refugees. These that rang the bells to rejoice at Britain’s destruction of Libya only a few years ago. These that supported the invasion of Afghanistan as sacrosanct. These people encourage the existence of a system that creates and then dehumanises victims of policies that they support.
On July 20th, the Daily Mail front page was ‘The Swarm on Our Streets.’ On September 3rd, after Aylan’s death it was ‘Tiny Victim of a Human Catastrophe.’ Just this week, The Sun perversely suggested we ‘bomb Syria’ ‘For Aylan,’ only weeks after publishing Katie Hopkins, saying: ‘show me bodies floating in the water, play violins and show me skinny people looking sad. I still don’t care.”
Returning home, one thing I was glad to be rid of for the few days I was away was the xenophobia that has become a stubborn barnacle on the UK. Those devoid of any imagination suggest it’s a choice between helping Britain’s homeless or Syria’s, or between helping Britain’s veterans and feeding a family from Eritrea. Those protesting say the opening of the borders of good-will will harm those desperate people already residing in Britain. It would be nice to know if these philanthropists have ever volunteered at a foodbank, or if they proudly voted Conservative and plunged thousands more into poverty, increasing homelessness in Britain by 55%. Or, indeed, if they were on the streets protesting against the war on Iraq and Afghanistan, in which plenty of their beloved veterans were slain. Every ‘logical’ argument they try to use as to why we should not help these desperate people is always wrong and is proven so. Every warped fact about travelling thousands of miles to claim benefits is exposed as a putrid bucket of lies. Yet more of these buckets continue to fill. They are part of a corrosive conservatism that loves to hate anyone they perceive to be lower on the food chain.
The truth is, we have barely taken any refugees. In one year, Britain took 166 refugees from Syria. Last year there were only 24,918 applications for asylum whilst the world battled its greatest refugee crisis since World War Two. Compare that with Turkey hosting 1.8 million, Germany promising to host 800,000 this year and Lebanon, with a population of 4.4 million, hosting 1.2 million refugees. Cameron’s promise to take 20,000 refugees by 2020 is pathetic and should be called so. Apparently, we hate ISIS so much that we’re willing to turn away some of the people running from them.
‘Some of you seem to think,’ said Owen, sneeringly, ‘that it was a great mistake on God’s part to make so many foreigners. You ought to hold a mass meeting about it: pass a resolution something like this: “This meeting of British Christians hereby indignantly protests against the action of the Supreme Being in having created so many foreigners, and calls upon him to forthwith rain down fire, brimstone and mighty rocks upon the heads of all those Philistines, so that they may be utterly exterminated from the face of the earth, which rightly belongs to the British people”.’
Do some hate so much because they have only so much love to give, or do they hate because they’re told to?