PsychoGeography #16: Storming the gates of Fortress Europe

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The Independent Online

James Fox and I are still in Calais; and for all I know now we will remain in Calais forever, entombed in its stony bosom, forever knocking on the solid shutters of its heart for admittance. The Hotel de Ville may look like a Gothic enema pump, but what care I? Calais is quite French enough. Why, here we sit in a typical little café, the tables melamine, the walls deal-panelled, the ceiling nicotine-painted. So many shades of brown - it's enough to make me studious.

I've despatched James - who has superior language skills - to lock antlers with the patron concerning the fate of the notorious asylum seekers. These euphemisms have allegedly been clogging the streets of Calais since the British Government forced the closure of the Sangatte detention centre, and I want to track them down. It was always an important part of the trip for me, that our quest for cheap fags elides with their quest for a decent life is psychogeography at its most poignant and hateful.

The patron joins us with a tourist map and begins to expatiate. James has no need to translate for the fellow speaks the lingua franca of bigotry: "All right," he wheedles through his moustache, "granted the Italians are dodgy, and who gives a shit about the Americans, but it's up to us and the Germans - because we're basically sound. We should work together to send these scum back to where they come from. You're working men like me, you understand that they want our jobs, our homes, our wives even!

"The flics have the right idea. They pick them up, drive them 200 kilometres inland and then dump them. But it's not far enough I tell you! They find their way back!"

"So where are they now?" We enquire like the decent working men we are. The patron turns his attention to the map and indicates the directions as if he were about to deploy a couple of nine-inch field guns to sort the problem out once and for all. We settle the tab and leave. "Au revoir," says the patron and I mutter, "Yeah, like jamais."

In the street we engage a taciturn cabbie who drives us across the Pont Georges and into the dock area. He gives us a more reasoned assessment of the situation: Yes, there are a few refugees, but mostly they've been dispersed among the other Channel ports. They're harassed by the police, they get nothing from the state, it's barely safe for them to be seen on the streets during the day. He pulls up under the searchlight beam of a brutal-looking lighthouse. There, in the porch of an ugly modernist church we can see huddle of asylum seekers, bodies like bedrolls, bedrolls like bodies.

It's them, the swarthy mob that are storming Fortress Europe, the southern horde that will topple our mighty Government and pillage our great economy. There are about 20 of them in as many shades of white and brown and black. As we move towards them they come out from the shadows to meet us. James ends up talking to a young Sudanese in pidgin French, while I talk equally basic English with Florian, who's from near Budapest. Florian makes no pretension to persecution. In Romania he can make $100 a month fitting kitchens. Life is hard - and he's heard that there's a lot more money to be made in Britain. I concur wearily, thinking quite how much my own fitted kitchen set me back; looking round the shivering refugees a shadowy kitchen self-erects among them as if to taunt me. Florian is fatalistic: if he can't get to Britain he'll have to go home. It is as the patron and the cabbie say, life for the refugees in Calais is dreadful, and yes, the police do pick them up and dump them far inland. Only the Church allows them this mean sanctuary. James's Sudanese is in a worse position. He fled the civil war up country and because of his tribal affiliation he would be killed if he went back. He's no euphemism - he's the real thing.

Half an hour later we're sipping coffees in the well-appointed café-cum-shop of the Terminal Poids Lourds by the entrance to the Eurotunnel. It's here that refugees are meant to try and smuggle themselves into lorries bound for Britain, but there's no sign of them, just industrious security men checking semi-trailers. In the café the Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé. We're offered a glass by the waitress, together with a little plate of saucisson sec. The French lorry drivers positively ooze well-unionised comfort; they are welcoming and emollient. Hell, I'm not surprised they're worried about having their jobs stolen by Sudanese asylum seekers - there's a couple of English journalists here who'd happily have them as well.