“This isn’t about the politics. We’re either side of the same sea.” Making The Walk: Across The Water (Calais and Dover) for BBC Radio 4

I live on the coast. I can hear French radio on the car stereo. Ferries leave for France every day. The fishermen here are related, way back in time, to families from Normandy and Spain. We’re nearer to France here than we are to Westminster … yet my town voted for Brexit, by a large majority. The same goes for other towns all along the edge of England, for people living by the side of the Channel. I was fascinated by that and wanted to explore what was going on, in real life, way beyond the headlines and the B-word balls up. I do believe, in general, in the words of the late MP Jo Cox:

“We are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.”

I wondered if that was true here and now, in this fraught and divisive moment. And I was lucky, even blessed, that the perceptive Mohit Bakaya at Radio 4 was prepared to commission radio on this theme.

You can listen to The Walk: Across The Water (part one is Calais, part two is Dover) on BBC Radio 4 here. 

So I got together with my partner in radio, the producer Jonathan Mayo, and we devised a two-part documentary that would take us walking through Calais first then Dover, talking and listening to people who live, love, work and play beside and on the stretch of sea that the French call La Manche and that can seem like a bridge on a beautiful clear day, but is almost as often a barrier.

The model was the programme we had done for Radio 4 called The Walk: For Richer, For Poorer, walking through Kensington meeting the very rich and those who were struggling.

The Walk: Across The Water was floated, if you will forgive me, in the Autumn, just as the first reports began to come through of migrants trying to cross the Channel in small boats, having been told by people traffickers that they should try to get here before Brexit closed the doors for good. Men, women and children nearly died in the attempt, but they were rescued by the admirable servants of the Coastguard, the RNLI, the Border Force, the ferries or the fishing fleet. Even as we were researching the programmes, the Home Secretary Sajid David sent more boats to the Channel and declared the migration a national emergency.

I went across to Calais in early January for a research trip with my son Joshua, who has good French. We went to the top of the Calais lighthouse on a terrifyingly windy day, saw the White Cliffs of Dover and met Sebastien, the guide, who turned out to be a fan of Doctor Who and as a cosplay enthusiast who dressed up as David Tennant’s Doctor. On the way back I got terrible toothache as the result of an infection under a tooth on the lower left side of my mouth, which screamed to be taken out. I didn’t dare do that though, for fear that having it removed would make me sound like Daffy Duck right in the middle of making two radio programmes that were increasingly coming to mean a lot to me, personally. I waited until after they were made before having the tooth out, which meant suffering the pain for a couple of months. It’s gone now, which is a relief.

Anyway, I returned to Calais with Jonathan later in January and we met up with Sophie Tritz, a French journalist who turned out to be a brilliant fixer and great company. You can listen to the results here, but let me just say that the love story between Beatrice and her partner is extraordinary. So are the jaw-dropping, hardline things the Deputy Mayor of Calais says about migrants. Dover proved equally full of surprises. If you’d like to read more about either programme, I wrote a piece about Calais for the i newspaper and another about Dover here. The Walk: Across The Water was made by TBI Media on behalf of the BBC, with excellent sound work by Andy Partington. Thanks for your interest. I’ll post some photos of the trip below.

 

 

 

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Hearts and minds

A big day for organ donation today as the Bill to change the system gets its third and final reading in the Lords ahead of becoming law next year. Here’s a piece I wrote for the Guardian today, exploring what that means.

By coincidence, my book The Boy Who Gave His Heart Away was featured on A Good Read on BBC Radio 4 this afternoon. The Rev Kate Bottley was a fantastically eloquent and enthusiastic champion for the book. The comedian Ken Cheng also loved it. You can get the book here or else listen to the five-part documentary series, which was originally also on Radio 4.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Boy-Who-Gave-Heart-Away/dp/0008225745/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=

Will you be my friend?

I have a new story to tell. It’s about a young woman called Sarah who is caught up in the stress of trying for a baby, through fertility treatment. The cracks are showing in her relationship with her lover Jack. They’re in that terrible moment between having the last cycle of treatment you can afford and finding out whether it has worked. I remember it all too well.

Their nerves are shredded. Sarah needs to be alone, away from him, to face the moment of truth. So she runs, out of the city and down to the coast, to the high cliffs and beautiful down land around Beachy Head and the Seven Sisters.

When he finds her gone, Jack sets off in a hurry to find Sarah, convinced he must do so before it’s too late. But she doesn’t want to be found. Not by him. Not yet.

And there’s someone else seeking answers too, up on the cliffs where the seabirds soar. A man known only as the Keeper, living in an old lighthouse right on the cusp of a four hundred foot drop. He’s only too aware that love sometimes takes you to the edge.

This is the situation at the beginning of my debut novel The Light Keeper, which comes out in August. It’s about love, loss, longing, faith and hope. I hope you’ll want to read it. Matt Haig has. The author of Reasons To Stay Alive and Notes From A Nervous Planet loves The Light Keeper, as you can see below.

I’d love to send you the first three chapters as a taster. Will you give me your email address so that I can send them, please?

SIGN UP HERE!

There’s more to come. I have a brilliant publisher, Marylebone House, but getting a story out there and heard by people who might really love it is a challenge. Right now, the story and I need friends. People who will read it, tell their mates, spread the word. Could that be you?

If you sign up you’ll also get exclusive access to a load of good things, including videos, readings, podcasts, competitions and the chance to win a book, a walk and lunch with me in that stunning landscape or even a night at the lighthouse for two people.

You can also ask me anything, any time. If you have a book club, a group, a church or a bunch of mates I’ll happily come round and talk about The Light Keeper and the themes within it, which we’ll explore together over the coming months.

So how about it? Sign up here for the next chapter and the chance to win.

Ravilious

Beachy Head, 1939 is by the artist Eric Ravilious, who often visited Belle Tout and other areas of the South Downs. It was recently acquired for the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne which holds the best of his works. The view is from the approach to Belle Tout lighthouse or perhaps from the lantern room at the top. Here is the background as described in this excellent post by James Russell.

In 1939, as he prepared for his last major show as a civilian, Ravilious explored the region around Eastbourne (his childhood home, where his parents still lived) with renewed curiosity. His watercolours of Cuckmere Haven and the Wilmington Giant are what springs to mind whenever I hear the phrase ‘romantic modern’, since they take old provincial subjects – the kind of scenes an 18th century antiquary might have drawn – and make them new.

During this busy period the artist spent several days on Beachy Head, unknowingly rehearsing his wartime role as a painter of coastal defences. But he didn’t only work outside on the clifftop. Although known as a landscape painter, Ravilious produced a good proportion of his work indoors, and he had an eye for an interesting interior that few artists have rivalled. In his quiet, good-humoured way he easily persuaded the owners or occupiers of buildings to let him set up his easel, and so it was that he escaped the fierce breezes of Beachy Head for the calm of the Belle Tout lantern room.

‘Just now I am busy on the hills painting,’ he wrote to his friend Diana Tuely, ‘in the greatest comfort with my jacket off, and seated in a magnificent Chinese chair. That is to say I am perched in the top of the Belle Tout lighthouse (I wish you could see this) in the lantern drawing the immense expanse below with a gale blowing outside’.

The Parson’s Hole

Four hundred feet below the lighthouse, there used to be a hole dug into the chalk. More like a cave, with a carpet, table, chair and lamp. A man sat in it night after night, either saving sailors from the rocks or guiding smugglers safely home. Or both.

Continue reading “The Parson’s Hole”