The people risking their lives to cross the Channel in small boats are not aliens, invaders, migrants or some other lesser category of human to be dismissed. They are us.
I’m posting this in honour of Rasoul Iran-Nejad, Shiva Mohammad Panahi, Anita and Armin, who died out there. Kids and their parents. I didn’t know them, but earlier this year I had the privilege of meeting and listening to a number of young teenagers who have made the same crossing. One of them, Akoy, comes from the same town as the family that died.This is his story.
Babs has gone. A light’s gone out. So much will be said and written about Barbara Windsor, I just want to tell you about a moment when I met her and she made me laugh so loud I’m laughing still. It was in a dressing room for EastEnders. I’d been interviewing June Brown about her magnificent solo episode in which she talked to her husband Jim via a tape machine, all alone. June was being grumpy. Then this happened:
As you grow, Sarah you will be challenged by the world. You will make mistakes and feel like a failure. You will feel sad and lonely. Have faith, my darling. Never give up. Trust in the Lord, but trust in yourself. You are enough. You have all that you need inside you. Remember that, above all.
Jasmine’s letter to her daughter Sarah in The Light Keeper, Chapter Forty Nine
Life is strange here at the moment, down on the edge of things. We’ve been used to it being so quiet, but as the lockdown has begun to ease there have suddenly been a lot more people around. I get it, you can drive anywhere now and why wouldn’t you make a break for the seaside, to let your shoulders drop? Those of us who don’t want to be among the crowds have to keep out of the way at weekends, when cars are parked all along the verges like some kind of mad silent festival. We go walking in the early morning or the late evening. That’s okay though, it’s our privilege. Everyone is welcome here, the Downs belong to all and who doesn’t need a bit of space at the moment? The world is in flames. Well, it feels like that, doesn’t it?
They let the angel go with a push, both afraid that it will fall to the ground, but it doesn’t. Not today. There is warmth enough. The featherlight creature catches the gentle wind and is lifted above them for a moment, sliding this way and that like a giant, cloud-white gull with tissue-thin wings that ripple as it flies. The sky breathes and blows under those wings and now it soars away from them, towards the sea.
The Light Keeper, Chapter Fifty Two
This is the view from the balcony of the Belle Tout lighthouse, right on the edge of the cliffs, where the scene described takes place. Gabe and Sarah lift the huge model made from feathers, wire and silk by his late lover, the artist Rí. They let it go over the side, fearing for a moment that it will drop to the ground, then watching it catch the wind and fly. It’s gorgeous up there.
I’m so restless right now, aren’t you? Very uneasy at lockdown easing, but longing to get moving just the same.
The Greenbelt festival asked me to write about this and I thought of a teenager I met a while ago, just before all this happened. She lives along the coast from me and her life is like some kind of ancient story that starts: “Once upon a time there was a girl who lived in a troubled land …”
There was fighting and death came to their village and the girl – whose name was Zara – and her mother and her younger sister had to escape.
They walked a long way and begged a ride a longer way and paid for a sea crossing that nearly killed them and they found themselves in a camp with other people who had lost their homes, their livelihoods, their friends and relatives but not their will to survive.
It was a dangerous place to be a girl, just coming into womanhood, so her mother gave what little money she had left to Zara and told her to strike out for a better place, where she could be safe and find others from her distant family, maybe; and make a life and perhaps one day soon, send for her sister and her mother and rescue them from the camp. Make them safe too.
Zara set off again, by road and sea and on foot, travelling hundreds of miles across a whole continent. She faced down dangers, escaped men who tried to trap her, evaded the authorities. Honestly, if we would only perceive people like Zara as being us, rather than alien, we would add their stories to the tales we tell of daring and survival.
When Zara came to the last great barrier in a quest that had gone on for months, she looked out across the water and wondered how to cross.
She tried to jump on the back of a lorry that was setting off for the other side on a ferry. She fell off. She tried again and was caught by police with dogs. They were rough.
Zara could see the white cliffs on the other side, as close as home still was in her head. “I can do this,” she said to herself, not being fully aware that she was looking at one of the busiest and most dangerous stretches of water in the world.
But it felt very different that night as the rain lashed into her face and the wind howled and the waves crashed and she was faced with a little rubber boat that someone had just blown up, there on the beach. Too many people were trying to get on.
“I can’t do this!” she said. “I’ll drown.” But the man she had paid just shrugged and said he would not give her money back and it was all the money she had in the world and she was shaking with fear but there was no other way so Zara got on the boat.
The wind dropped. They made it to the other side. Others have not. Lives have been lost in that crossing, maybe more than we know because it all happens in secret. It’s happening even now.
“We were very wet and very cold,” she told me. The police were very kind. She wasn’t expecting that, after all her other experiences.
She found warmth and help and shelter. Zara lives by the sea now, learning English, hoping to be useful. She’s studying hard and has a dream. To fly. She wants to be a pilot. And get this: somebody she met was so convinced that they found a way for her to have a couple of lessons. She’s a natural, apparently.
Zara has come such a long way. She’s come to a country where some people shout about sending people like her home. But others see her spirit. They know that everything has changed in this strange time of suffering. The first have become last, or some of them anyway. The mighty, fighting for breath on ventilators, are nursed by people who have come from afar like Zara, the very migrants they said were too many.
It’s hard to tell a story about travel when we’re all confined to where we are. It’s hard to think of flying when the sky is a deeper blue for the lack of jet trails and the air is cleaner for the lack of cars. So let’s take flight as a metaphor, for movement. For freedom. For getting past this. For taking the best of this moment, learning from it, adapting, surviving and working out how to be, now. That’s what I’m having to do and you probably are too.
We’re told we’re not alone, that God flies with us, alongside us, within us; and when we’re weary and have to rest, she shelters us with her wings. May that be true, whatever we believe. May each of us find that kind of strength and rest. I pray that for you.
As for Zara, after all she’s been through, after such an epic journey, she actually believes she can and will fly. And when I hear her say it, so do I.
People have been kind enough to ask for a weekly story, thought or reflection, so that’s what I’m doing. Follow the blog to keep getting it, because there will also be a chance over the next few weeks to win books and other prizes including a night at the lighthouse.
Please like, share or respond, I’d love to hear from you. And that’s it for now. Love and strength to you and yours.
But we can’t all do that. So the next best thing I can offer is this new episode of a podcast I do with my friend Emily, in which we wander along the coast, listen to the waves and the birds and uncover the stories, legends and mysteries of the place.
Country Living has just been very nice about us, saying it is essential listening. BBC Radio 4’s Podcast Hour says Edge of England is lovely, with a Detectorists feel and listening to it is like getting a hug. We all need one of those right now, don’t we? If only.
Anyway, in the new lockdown special episode we mess about a bit and make each other laugh, but also talk about some interesting stuff including a detailed look at The Light Keeper, the characters and how the story relates to real life, and how it was written. I thought you might be interested, so here’s the link, click on this to listen.