A Journey to Calais

“Multi culturalism is genocide.” So reads the sign stuck on a lamp-post as you exit Dover Priory Station in the direction of the docks stomping in a pair of battered Doctor Martens like a Liverpool docker on his way to work. “Well, that’s not strictly semantically accurate” I think to myself: “maybe in the regions, but certainly not in London. And isn’t an aspiration towards mono-culturalism reputed to lead somewhere bad? I’m sure I had a lesson about that once.”

Dover and I have previous form. 39 years ago, I attended school camp hereabouts, in Kearsney, and gave myself appendicitis as a result of eating seven or eight bowls of Mr Howes’s ugly porridge. I’ve always looked back on it as a magical time in a magical town and have often expressed the desire to move there. Here, in the cold light of a February morning, I can see why my wife, historically, has steadfastly refused to entertain such a notion.

Born of south London working class stock over fifty years ago, I still associate seaside towns on the south coast with escape, with joy and with fat, glutinous whelks you could chew on for a half decade without them ever becoming digestible. My wife is from Birmingham and has no such associations. She sees these towns as they really are: decayed outposts destroyed by EasyJet at risk of falling into the Channel. To me, the arc of the motorway sweeping out over Dover Docks like a dragon’s wing is the impossibly glamorous avenue to dreams of enchanted places abroad that we will probably never visit; to my wife it’s a piece of concrete suspended over a dump.

It is early February 2016 and things are not going so well. Having burnt the last remaining piece of methane in the intestines of my micro celebrity, I have awoken, to some surprise, to find myself no longer in any demand. I am going bald and my diary is empty. My friend, Ian, has had an idea. Someone we know, Natalie Scott, who I’ve met once and really liked, has chucked in her job at an academy chain and has spent the last few months teaching in a refugee camp in Dunkirk. “Why don’t you go over and see if you can help out?” There is no earthly reason I can find to say no to this (and trust me, I’ve looked under the sofa). My wife is aware that things have not been going as well as they were and that it is humility I am most in need of. She thinks that Ian has, quite brilliantly, located the means with which to find or relocate it.

I had wondered on booking the DFDS ferry from Dover to Dunkirk why the website would not allow me to book a ticket without a vehicle on their website, and had indicated that I would be riding a bicycle planning on telling them it had been stolen when I arrived at the docks. This cuts little ice with the man at the ferry terminal, which has an easily understandable sign which might have been given some prominence on their website: “DFDS do not allow foot passengers.” I try to convince him I am on a bike – a special invisible one that folds up so small you can fit it in your palm, but he remains adamant. Parting with a further 60 quid, I divert to the P & O to Calais.

On the 2.00 boat from Dover to Calais I join with a loose assembly of other middle aged men with eyes like crumpled crisp packets and Eastern European families in shiny tracksuits. Welcome back, baby, to the poor side of town.

France is another country. You arrive at Calais expecting the docks to be somewhere near the station. They aren’t. You might also expect there to be a cab rank at the docks. There isn’t. You could imagine that a bus would be available to take you into town. Nope. There isn’t one for one hour and forty-five minutes. So, once again, assuming my sailor-on-shore walk, I march in the general direction of the gare. Calais is twinned with Dover (which makes a lot of sense really) and Riga (which doesn’t). It’s a nice enough town lacking in a few signs in the direction of the station.

When I finally get there, knackered from carrying a heavy bag a good few miles, the French train wankers have cancelled the only train to Dunkirk in the next hour-and-a-half. Travelling from Calais to somewhere else is clearly not easy.

And it was the journey that I wanted to write about. What a hassle it was and how much effort it takes to travel 100 miles, with money in your pocket, over one border, on your own. How much more difficult would be 2,000 miles walking, carrying kids, with no money, over border after border, to land in a refugee camp. My very brief visit to the Jungle and the Dunkirk equivalent (kindly facilitated by Natalie and the other guys at Edlumino) gave a lie to the press coverage of it as lawless den of iniquity. There, I saw humanity at a version of its best. People with nothing organizing together to construct a community in which there was a library, fledgling schools, a church, electric light and warmth for people who were living without it. They bulldozed the fucking thing.

Added Thu, 9 Feb 2017 08:13

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