Sarah stands on the brink, arms open wide as if to let the wind carry her away. She’s come to the high cliffs to be alone, to face the truth about her life, to work out what to do. Her lover is searching, desperate to find her before it is too late. But Sarah doesn’t want to be found. Not yet. Not by him. And someone else is also seeking answers up here 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 is all too aware that sometimes love takes you to the edge . . .
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.
Akoy is dressed in skinny jeans and a roll-neck sweater, with a shaved neck but a big fat quiff. He’s only 16, but his eyes say otherwise. Last summer, he made the long, perilous journey from his home town in Iran to the shores of northern France. There, he paid a smuggler £3,000 for a place on a small boat leaving for England, with money wired by his big brother, but he was deceived. “The man told me lots of lies. He said: ‘I send you by big boat, like the ferries they have in Dover. You have food, drink, everything you need on board.’”
Instead, Akoy found himself standing on a wet, windy beach in the dark with a group of others, looking in horror at a tiny craft. “We were all really scared when we saw this boat. Three metres.” He identifies it on Google as the kind of inflatable meant for six or eight people. “There were 22 of us. The boat was in a big cardboard box. We had to unpack it and pump it up by hand. It took three hours. The man brought a small motor for the back and gave it diesel.” A boy was chosen as the driver because he had worked as a fisherman back home in Afghanistan. “The man pointed to a red light on the other side and said, ‘Don’t worry. Just aim for that.’”
Akoy panicked. “I said, ‘Why did you lie to me? I’m not going.’ The man said, ‘You must go. I won’t give your money back.’” It was a terrible moment. That was all the money his family had. So he got on the boat, reluctantly, but it turned over in the surf and threw them out, three times. They were soaked. It was 2am.
Out in the Channel, they realised they were in real trouble. “We were all saying the prayer we say as Muslims when we are going to die. The Afghan people texted their families to say goodbye. I would have texted my brother, but I didn’t have my phone.”
The boy driving had thrown some bags into the water during the journey, presumably to keep the boat afloat. There was huge relief when a large Border Force boat spotted them at dawn and sent a rescue launch. The people on board were all young men like Akoy, although the others were from Afghanistan. As they were given lifejackets and taken off the dinghy, Akoy braced himself for trouble. “In France, the police hit you. They come to the camp, put spray in your eyes and beat you up. The English police were not like that. They were so good. I was so cold. They helped me with a blanket, clothes and food. I didn’t think it would be like this.”
The young men were taken to a reception centre in Dover harbour, where specialist immigration officers interviewed Akoy and asked why he was there. His answer is the same now as it was then:
“I come from a dangerous place. I am looking for a quiet place.”
The story Akoy tells is like an old folk tale. His mother died when he was five. His stepmother rejected him. His father got sick and he had to go to work at 13. He dreamed of escape and saved to do so, supported by his brother.
Akoy made it to Turkey then tried to cross to Italy by sea, but the boat was stopped and sent back twice. Unwilling to give up, he paid to be locked with three other boys in the back of a sealed container lorry going to France, only to realise at the last moment how dangerous it was. “I was scared to get in. I thought we were going to suffocate and die. The man hit me three times to make me get on.”
Akoy’s eyes become red and glisten as he remembers the fear. He was 15 then. It was only last summer. “We were inside the lorry for four-and-a-half days. The driver, who was Turkish, would open the door and give bread and some drink then close it quickly.” (Kent Refugee Action Network says Akoy’s story rings true. We have changed his name.)
“We had no toilet for four days,” Akoy continues. “Sometimes there was no oxygen. It was horrible. We were banging on the walls and the door, calling out to the driver, ‘Please help us.’ Three or four times, we called for him. He was not coming.”
They were finally let out in Lille, France. Confused and distressed, Akoy had no idea what to do. “I saw Kurdish people at the train station and one boy said he was going to Dunkirk, where there was a place for Kurds. I needed to see people who spoke my language.” Smugglers in Dunkirk openly offered places on boats. His brother sent the money through Western Union.
On arrival in the UK, Akoy was lucky enough to be found a place with a foster family until he turns 18. “I like my foster mother very much. She is like my mum. I cook for her. I am learning English food. It’s hard. I miss my family.”
Akoy is still waiting for his asylum claim to be processed by the Home Office, having been told there is a backlog. If he is granted refugee status, he will have five years’ leave to remain in Britain, with the ability to work and apply for travel documents. He is determined to make a success of life here, if allowed. He is busy studying. “I need to finish school and college then university. I would be a good chef. I can’t go back, it is too dangerous.” He sighs. “I am glad to talk about this. I want to get all the bad memories out of my head.”
Listening to him, it strikes me that if people like Akoy were perceived as being “us”, we would tell their lives as adventure stories. Mostly, of course, they are not.
Thinking again of the family that died, listening to their relative speak on the news, I am struck again by the truth. If we faced the same, desperate situations that they face – and if we could somehow summon the strength, courage and determination they have – we might risk everything to escape, in the hope of a better life for ourselves and our children. They are not aliens. They are us.
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?
Lately I have been thinking that It always has felt like that, for someone, somewhere. Only accidents of birth and privilege have kept many of us from famine, flooding, plague and war until now. Maybe we should have listened more when our neighbours said they were suffering. Maybe being better neighbours is what could save us. But that’s as far as I’m going with that thought, because one thing I have definitely learned over the last week of protests is that sometimes it is better to listen and learn. The Black Lives Matter network is here and I also admire the work of Sojourners in the States. Greenbelt is publishing some great resources. Blessed are those who resist.
While all this is going on, people do take refuge in or inspiration from stories. There’s a blog tour going on this week to celebrate the paperback publication of The Light Keeper, which means a different book blogger or reviewer features the story every day. I thought you might like the one where I answer questions from Els, who lives in Belgium. You’ll find out why I made Desmond Tutu shout at me, which was a very low point, let me tell you. On the upside, finding myself at a tiny church service with him in the West Bank town of Nablus in 1999 and taking communion from one of the heroes of the anti-apartheid movement and the new South Africa was incredibly moving. I will remember that always, and the message he brought that day, which was that if change could come to his country it could come anywhere. These are famous words of his.
‘Good is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate; light is stronger than darkness; life is stronger than death. Victory is ours, through him who loves us.’
You don’t need to share his faith to hope that he is right about the ultimate victory of love. We can choose to believe it and act as if it is true. So many brave people are doing that in these terrible times. I have used his words as a kind of prayer many times In the face of things that frighten or confuse me, and do so again now. Good is stronger than evil. Love is stronger than hate. May it be so. Love and strength to you and yours and all who need it right now.
Support your local book seller. Much Ado Books in Alfriston, near the lighthouse, is one of the finest and I hear Cate and Nash hope to reopen on June 15. Back other independent sellers through Hive, which has the paperback.
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.
The lights were about to go on. The nights had been blind in London for six years, but for searchlights and flames. Londoners were used to stumbling about in the blackout, listening for enemy planes, anti-aircraft guns, falling bombs. But that was all over now.
Piccadilly Circus was packed with people celebrating: so many bodies, swaying and cheering, swigging from bottles and kissing strangers, climbing the boards where Eros had been, or just standing in the gloom wondering what it all really meant: Victory in Europe Day, 8 May 1945. There were soldiers, sailors and airmen, Yanks and Poles and Commonwealth troops, Waafs and Wrens and Land Girls, and men and women out of uniform, drawn to the centre of the city. There were haunted faces in the crowd, people who wished they were dead like their friends, and boys who did not want to go home, but they did their best not to show it. The West End was full and the lights were about to go on… now.
Globes and bulbs flickered and flashed around the Circus, bus headlights splashed gold, and searchlights threw V-for-victory signs in the sky. Arrows and eyes and signs glowed from shops, theatres and bars; and the end of a huge electric Craven A burned red again on its billboard for the first time since the last day of peace. Gasps and some tears greeted this explosion of light and colour, this victory salute that yelled Guinness is Good For You! Keep Looks, Figure and Sparkle! Diamonds!
Away from the centre of the city, over the river, south past the taverns and warehouses, down through the back streets and bombsites that ran along by the docks, among the war-weary tenements where the most bombs had fallen, there were bonfires burning.
People in Camberwell had neither money nor electricity to burn, but they had wood from doors and broken window frames and shattered furniture gathered up in a pyramid, as the focus of their street party. The grocer had dug out some old bunting, somebody had found sparklers, and rockets that fizzed harmlessly. It was all a bright wonder to a boy of four, who should have been in bed hours ago but who stood in the street, barely noticed, watching the beery faces, waiting to ask his mum the only question he cared about that day: “Will Daddy be home soon?”
The answer was no. The boy was my father, Arthur. The woman was my grandmother, Violet. And the man who was being asked after was my grandfather, Bert. They are not famous people, you will not have heard of them before, but they lived through extraordinary times, like so many others. It is easy to forget that when we only think of war as a distant exercise in a desert. Today, when we look at the VE celebrations 75 years on and try to work out what it all means to us now, is a good time to remember them.
Bert and Vi got married in Camberwell Town Hall in 1939. There was no music in the register office, and no drinking afterwards because they had both taken the pledge. Vi was 23, Bert 21. He kissed his new bride, swung his kitbag on to his back and walked off to catch the bus to war, that same afternoon.
God only knows how either or them survived, mentally or physically. There were many that did not. On Camberwell Green, where my father played, a bomb made a direct hit on a public shelter. Inside were nine members of the same family, the Wrights, who had been celebrating the eldest boy’s wedding in the pub across the road when the air-raid sirens went off. They were all killed, instantly.
There were stories like that all over London, Belfast, Glasgow, Coventry and other cities where the bombs fell. There were many whose husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters had been killed at home or abroad. On VE Day in 1945 there were British people all over the world, longing to be home: from the Sea of Galilee, where a young Tony Benn was stationed, to the guardhouse in Germany where my grandfather, Bert, was on duty when he heard the news, on the radio. The relief he felt did not last too long. The army was sending some of his colleagues to fight the Japanese, and he was terrified of that idea.
After six years as a soldier, being left behind at Dunkirk and fighting hand-to-hand in the dark forests of Germany, he was not about to volunteer. His head was still reeling from the street-to-street combat. He had seen houses torched with women and children in them, and been ordered to spray buildings with gunfire before looking for survivors. He didn’t want to go east, that was for sure, but neither did he particularly want to go home. He barely knew his wife, but he knew she lived in a place that was swarming with spivs, where every other house was a wreck, the rats ran free, and work was hard to find. He was the ninth of 13, and had been a rag dealer before the war. He knew the army had given him a uniform, food, an education and a sense of order. He didn’t know how he would cope with nobody to tell him what to do.
There were very many men and women like him. They struggled to cope with peace time, but could never tell their families why. Some had been traumatised by their experiences, and woke up screaming German in the night, or refused to allow anyone to touch their belongings. Others felt the guilt of the survivor, like Enoch Powell, who once broke down and wept on live radio as he talked about his former colleagues. He wished it had been him who had died instead of them. Then there were those like Bert who felt a secret guilt that they had actually preferred life in the Army.
The divorce rate rose by nearly 400 per cent in the 10 years after 1939. Some lives had changed too much to be picked up as before. When couples did stay together, some did so in silence. The priest Peter Owen Jones wrote about meeting veterans in their old age: “To have done things that on a normal day you would have been hanged for, to sit on sofas in painted rooms holding teacups having bayoneted other young men to death must have created an awful inner loneliness. Their wives, their children, all say the same thing: he never talked about it.”
Children who had slept in the same bed as their mothers, providing mutual comfort under bombardment, were exiled into cold boxrooms once Daddy came home: and he was often a huge, frightening man they had no memory of. One woman was 47 before she could tell her elderly parents that she felt in the way when she was with them, lonely and desolate when she left them. “The repercussions of the war can last for 40 or 50 years,” she said.
They did for my family. Bert was in Germany longer than expected, and when he did return to England he looked at the conditions in which his wife was living, in some mental distress, and decided he could not handle them. So he went to live with her sister, and cycled past his family on the way to work every day. It was two years before his faith took him back to the family home. By then it was too late: the sense of abandonment felt by my father would last decades. Then I came along, asking awkward questions with the urgency of someone who wanted to know his family history in order to keep his sanity. When Bert and Arthur read my book about them they understood each other’s stories for the first time, and the silence was broken. Grandchildren love enough to ask questions but don’t know enough to prejudge the answers. To me, Bert was an ordinary private marched from dangerous place to dangerous place over six years then told, “Thanks, son. Here’s 56 days’ pay and a bad suit, now hop it.”
The first soldiers, sailors and RAF personnel began to be released from service on 18 June 1945. Four million people had worn uniform during the war, and when victory was declared the Minister for Labour and National Service, Ernest Bevin, said he hoped to have 750,000 of them back in their old clothes by the end of the year. There would be no mass unemployment, he promised, driven by the memory of an encounter with soldiers at Portsmouth Harbour during the final push for victory. “Ernie!” one of them had shouted. “When we have done this job for you, are we going back on the dole?”
It was a fair question. More than three million men had been demobbed during the first five months after armistice in 1918, and it was chaos. Two million were still unemployed by 1922. The sons of those men, like Bert, had been born into poverty. They learned about politics during discussions over army mess tins. They voted for the radical government of 1945, inspired by the likes of J B Priestley who urged returnees to throw off the old shackles of class and expectation and fight for a better world. Talk about pressure.
A guide to civilian life warned that rations would be short. Lunch, it said, only half-joking, would be “bone soup, fried bread rissoles coated with breadcrumbs, and bread-and-butter pudding.” The advice was, “Always praise to the skies anything your wife gives you”, but when she was not looking, throw the pudding out the window. “If, on the third day, she serves the same thing up again, deal with her in the same way as the pudding.”
Bert did go home. He and Vi had five children in all: my father and my aunt and uncles. They stayed together as a couple all their lives, despite poverty, illness and depression that caused Vi and those around her many problems. They made a home full of love, where everyone was welcome. There was a lot of laughter. Fifteen years ago I interviewed my father and grandfather for a book that became My Father Was A Hero. I tell him it’s an ironic title, but I’m joking. It’s about the way we fill the silences in our family histories. Writing it, I realised Vi’s ability to survive was heroic. I wrote this:
“She was a good woman,” said my grandfather as we talked in the room where she died. Vi was a kind and witty person, who loved her husband and kept her vows. They were quite a pair: the rag and bone boy who could barely read or write when they met and the shop manager’s daughter who had secret troubles of her own. Nobody thought they should get married but them. Nobody thought it would last but it did, for the rest of her life. She coped with the blackout, the bombs, the rockets, fires, food shortages, con men and looters and death after death after death among the people she knew, young and old. She brought up the oldest boys on her own during wartime, accepted her husband back on his terms, comforted him after his nightmares, raised two more boys and a girl, endured severe depression that had dogged her life yet finished it with an enormous circle of friends and the devotion of a family who knew her faults but thought her worthy of love. Her ability to survive was heroic. Bert said she had enabled him to do the same.
Vi became ill in her Sixties and we watched her shrink away. Her quick tongue never slowed, though. She would answer the phone by saying: “I’m still here!”
She slept downstairs in her last week. I have often thought of their last night together: of Vi exhausted in her makeshift bed, guessing what was to come, and Bert holding his wife, weak as she was and almost not there, perhaps stroking her hair. A word or two, then the eloquent silence of two bodies breathing, one strong and regular, the other fading, and the tired eyes closing to sleep. After the rushed wedding and the fearful uncertainty of war and its aftermath, she had spent every day of her last thirty years with her soldier, leaning on him and being leaned on. She could see he was exhausted too that evening, so sent him upstairs to lie down on a proper bed. When he came back down, she was cold.
“Shall I tell you what her last words were to me were? She said: ‘I’m sorry.’ I said: ‘It’s me that should be sorry, not you. You’ve got nothing to be sorry for.'”
They had loved each other against the odds, those two, and were together until the end. Hard as it was to be, if anyone had offered them that future on VE Day, 1945, as Vi danced in London and Bert stood on duty in Germany, I think they would have taken it.
This is an adapted version of a piece first published in The Independent on Sunday to mark the 60th anniversary of VE Day in 2005, when ‘My Father Was a Hero’ was published by Penguin.When the book came out, me and Dad took Grandad back to his old haunts. Here he is at Brockwell Park Lido, where he spent so many days. He’s gone now too. They are both much missed.