DAY 170: The reckoning

May 28th, 2016 § 0 comments

13241325_10153793273274472_6345311678781689165_nYesterday, May 24th 2016, should certainly be remembered as a dreadful day in Calais. It’s possible that you heard nothing of it; for us, in our Calais-centred bubble, it was a day of trauma, with the camp riven by fights, tents and buildings burning 29f36edf-44bb-4e23-aa8f-72e4c9ac0911out of control. As the news came through, it was hard to avoid despair. We weren’t sure why, since we’d seen the disaster coming, and we knew, we still know that it couldn’t be, in any sense ‘the end’. Life had to go on. Still, 300 homes were destroyed, as was the New Ashram Kitchen; and many refugees were injured. More detailed assessments will have to wait. The human cost was appalling – people who had little enough already found themselves left with nothing. The first, most obvious thing to say is that the whole disaster would never have happened if it hadn’t been state policy to confine 5000 refugees in such a small area, to make their lives as hard as possible, piling on shortages of food and the resulting tensions, with no basic services and with the adoption of systematic neglect as a way of ‘managing’ the situation. The primary criminals, if we want to speak of crimes and responsibility, are the authorities of Calais and its department as they have been throughout. I refer you to today’s edition of the always reliable and hard-hitting ‘Passeurs d’hospitalités’, which highlights in particular: the scarcity of resources, and resulting competition; the state’s systematic denial of crisis; the increase in the proportion of Sudanese as against Afghans (who had been the principal group): ‘Whether it’s a question of meals, of showers, of places for women inside the Centre Jules Ferry or in the container camp: everything has been planned for a very much smaller number of people than the actual number present on the site. On top of that, the state’s arrangements make residents dependent, where a more intelligent action would encourage autonomy.’

In the last post I described the so-called ‘Big Clean-up’. This was a classic reaction on the part of volunteers to desperate neglect of hygiene by the authorities. While appealing for such actions, the volunteers’ organizations were constantly publicizing the shortages of basic foods, bedding, medicines – in short, of everything – in a situation where refugees were arriving all the time. As I mentioned, in our last visit as well as cleaning ditches, we were trying to help by bringing minimal supplies. When will we recognize that, for the past year, we have had a humanitarian crisis on our doorstep? And, of course, further; across the breadth of Europe, where the police have just closed the much larger camp at Idomeni. ‘About 400 riot police entered the camp at dawn on Tuesday to order the approximately 8,500 camp residents to leave. By sunset, around 2,000 had left voluntarily in 42 government buses for government-run camps, but thousands were still left in Idomeni overnight.

As the day drew to an end, Katy Athersuch, a spokesperson for Médecins Sans Frontières at the camp, said: “It’s still a non-violent situation, but it doesn’t mean it’s a normal situation. It’s not like people are being asked, they’re being told. There’s a very heavy police presence, with police telling people to leave – and then bulldozers coming to push over their tents.”’ (Guardian)

Ornithology This post is becoming so depressing that I think we should rapidly change the subject. Also on your doorstep, if you live in the Hebrides, (like my informant Judi Hodgkin) you may have noticed a corncrake (Crex crex) rootling corncrake_tcm9-17600around the bins – or heard its distinctive call. Given that it’s a migrant, you might probably suspect it of attempting to access our superior standard of benefits, which are probably quite tolerable in Scotland as opposed to Haringey (say). Which might explain the absence of corncrakes in Haringey. And speaking of migrants, have you noticed that the red kites, those Muslims of the bird world, which were imported to the Chilterns between  1989 and 1994 as picturesque and rare, have now become a pest and, like the Canada goose, the grey squirrel and the tree of heaven, threaten to become the dominant species. But weren’t they the dominant species before? Here we are again getting into a wrangle about ethics and migration which is exactly what I’d hoped to avoid. (Who were the original inhabitants of Palestine? And why did God see fit to encourage the Hebrews to go in for not just immigration but conquest? I know he’d promised the land to Abraham’s descendants, but did he have any idea how many descendants there were going to be?) Of course birds observe a ‘no borders’ policy, ignoring even the Israeli Separation masha-muralbWall; while goats need passports and travel documents. I think that the subject is escaping my powers of analysis, particularly when I reflect on the need to prevent the migration of some very small animals like viruses or even (in the case of BSE) prions. (Yes, I didn’t know what a prion was, but I’m not going to waste time telling you now.)

Anyway, to return to  Calais, the fire and the immediate disaster. You won’t be surprised to find that the response involves me and many of my ‘friends’ leaping into action. By about 8 p.m. the warehouse  was issuing the order that we should all hastily purchase tents, bedrolls, sleeping bags and what not. By 11, having exchanged about twenty facebook posts and despite  being rather slow on the uptake, I was on the Argos website, registering and doing all those timewasting tasks that Argos consider essential before they’ll deign to allow you to buy their substandard goods. We were wondering how, if we bought four tents in Brixton (say), we could find a volunteer to deliver them in Calais. Simultaneously, by one of those astonishing coincidences which rule our lives, James was trying to teach me the uses of WhatsApp, and found  that my friend Cleopatra (see previous post) was a contact. He typed ‘Hi’, she replied ‘Hi Luke’, and we were immediately deep in a virtual conversation about the appalling fire, the desperate situation,  the need for tents, and the possibility of purchasing and collecting them in Brixton. 13254626_1752649551624789_8807537700845360918_nWhence she was planning to leave for Calais the next day. It looks like brilliant organization; I’d call it Fate. All the same, we’re lucky to live in a part of the world where such things are possible. No Argos in Gaza, let alone Aleppo, will honour your credit card if all your worldly goods have been destroyed. And while we rage against the limits and the futility of our charitable efforts, what choice do we have but to buy the tents, take them over, and care? In that world without care which constantly threatens to engulf us and leave us absorbed in the doings of celebrities and the latest episode of ‘Game of Thrones’. Like Lear, having given all to my daughters and with an uncertain grasp on reality, I’m still able to observe the worse conditions of others around:

Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? Oh, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp.
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them
And show the heavens more just.

I can’t think of a better way of getting out of this cycle of despair than through music; in this case, the wonderful Anita O’Day, who was allegedly high on heroin throughout her showstopping performance at Newport. Here she gives a great performance of ‘The Peanut Vendor’, which my Cuban friends will know as ‘El Manisero’:

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