The Light Keeper

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 . . .

This is the blurb for my debut novel The Light Keeper, just published by Marylebone House. More details at www.thelightkeeper.org. Sign up now for exclusive preview chapters and the chance to win a night at the Belle Tout lighthouse.

Oh Babs. Thank you

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:

“The mood lifts, suddenly, when a familiar voice calls in through the open door: “Hello my darling!”

It’s only bloomin’ Barbara Windsor standing there, beaming. Not glaring like earlier, when she had her Peggy Mitchell wig on and a look that said “Get outa my pub!” No, this is the smiley Babs that Sid James fell for. “The Independent on Sunday? Posh! And there’s me doing quotes for bloody Heat magazine. Ha ha ha!”

Now it gets really surreal, as June/Dot and Barbara/Peggy squabble in high camp style about whether to go for coffee – “don’t you reply in that accusatory manner, Bar!” I half expect to see Kenneth Williams. This has been such a peculiar day. “I know I’m old but I’ve still got a lot of energy, haven’t I, Bar? I can put my knees up here,” and with that June Brown performs contortions, before leaping up and heading out of the door with her pal. On the way, Babs turns back to say something about the solo show. “Listen, seriously. She is the only actress I know that is worthy of that half an hour. Don’t you think she’s amazing?””

That’s what I wrote at the time. But I didn’t mention what she did, which was very deliberate, at the end. She must have guessed my age and realised I was one of those boys who first knew her through Carry On, Camping and the rest. A whole generation, hooked on double entendres, by her. Babs the entertainer kicked in. She had a little moan about how none of the posh papers wanted to “do” her – just as a set up – then her eyes flashed and she looked at me straight and said: “Well Mr Independent on Sunday, you can do me any time!”

For a moment I was Sid and she was Babs and it was wonderful. And having made someone smile yet again, with a fabulous laugh of her own she was gone.

They Are Us

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.”

Akoy comes from Sardasht, a majority Kurdish town in Iran near the border with Iraq, where Saddam Hussein once carried out chemical attacks. Lately, there have been violent clashes between the Kurds and Iranian security forces. Home Office figures show that two-thirds of Iranians who apply here are given asylum.

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.

Thank you to Bridget Chapman and Kent Refugee Action Network for the work they do and for enabling me to meet Akoy. Please support them here.

This piece is based on an extract from a longer read I wrote for the Guardian earlier this year, just before lockdown, which you can read here.

I also made a pair of programmes for Radio 4 looking at the relationship between Dover and Calais, featuring other remarkable stories from those who have crossed. Find those here.

Love Is Stronger Than Hate

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.

Getting Ready To Fly

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.

  • The Light Keeper comes out in paperback tomorrow, you can order from Amazon, Blackwell’s or Waterstones.
  • It’s also on Kindle for under three quid, which is almost criminal.
  • Outside the UK, get it with free delivery from Books Depository.
  • If you would prefer to support independent bookshops then take a look at the excellent Much Ado Books in Alfriston, near the lighthouse, where the owners Cate and Nash have been hugely supportive.
  • More about the story at www.thelightkeeper.org.
  • 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.

Wouldn’t it be lovely to sit and chat?

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.


You can also get it through Spotify, iTunes and all the usual podcast places.
Let me know what you think. The paperback is out next week. I’ll be in touch.

Thanks, love and strength,

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