Return to Calais

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The first time I visited Calais was a bitterly cold February Saturday in 2017. The experiences I had have left a deep impression with me, and it took many weeks to process my thoughts about what I saw and what I heard.
I wrote at the time about visiting the Catholique Secours centre run mainly by nuns and the wonderful group of mainly Eritrean teenagers I met there. The calm atmosphere of the place was the most surprising, and of course the horrible normality of being with a group of teenagers who just want to laugh and joke with each other, who are always hungry, and who were unfailing polite. They wanted to send messages back to England, to the people who had raised funds and sent aid. They wanted to say thank you but mostly they wanted to say hi.
I remember their willingness to learn English and my feeble attempts to learn Eritrean. And the jokes: lots of jokes. Jokes about how they tried to sleep standing up in the woods against a tree, because that way they would be camouflaged and the police wouldn’t be able to see them and catch them. And me laughing at that too, as if that could possibly be something to laugh about.
And just like in every group of teenage boys in the UK, by the end of the afternoon there was a game of football and someone was whizzing up and down too fast on a bike. At the end of the afternoon I was embraced warmly by all the people I had chatted to and played games with for several hours. I wished them good luck, while deliberately avoiding thoughts of what they wished for their futures, and what in fact their futures might bring.
The abiding memory for me though was a huge notice on the wall above the place where food was served, which listed missing people. My eyes focused on one entry out of maybe a hundred. It said a woman’s name and her age and next to it the words read – Looking for my sister, pregnant, last seen at the Greek border.
What kind of effort does it take to be normal, and polite, and to make jokes when that’s the reality you are living in?
Not normal then. Not normal at all.
On returning to England, I thought of them often – how could I not? I teach and spend time with teenagers just like them – and yet so unlike them – every day.
I thought of them particularly this winter, which was so cold and biting. As my friend Norman commented a couple of months ago, the reality of life in Northern France and the hundreds of people living rough there (and indeed closer to home) has changed my feelings about the snow. I used to enjoy feeling cosy and wrapped up against the cold, and even playing in the snow.
Now I can’t get out of my mind the pain and misery that the refugees in Calais, Dunkirk and elsewhere have had to endure throughout this long, hard winter, in a situation where their tents are confiscated and their sleeping bags urinated on and pepper sprayed.
I returned this weekend for a longer stay – the wonderful people who organise Oxfordshire Refugee Solidarity have honed their organisation to a fine art. We are no longer trying to get there and back in one day; there is time for winding down, and for debriefing around a longer period of volunteering.
Our numbers have grown too; this weekend there were 30 ish of us on three minibuses. This means we have more room for the extensive aid that we manage to collect – and 30 of us can collect a lot of aid – and also that we can provide large numbers of volunteers to help in the different locations. We can also support each other – an important part of the process as it can be, to be frank, a very difficult experience to manage.
On Sunday I was involved in a large-scale coat distribution at an ‘illegal settlement’ (note inverted commas there) of around 300 refugees near the ferry terminal.
It was easier in that I felt more able to open conversations with the men there. I could not help but look for faces I met before. It was hard to know if I wanted to see them, for that would mean they were ‘safe’ (there are those inverted commas again) but also that they had endured 400 grinding days in this place since I was last here.
As before, I was struck by the inability of circumstances, however horrific, to crush the human spirit completely. That even in these bleak circumstances – where young men and boys have their tents destroyed by the local police on a weekly rota and were at risk of being teargassed while queuing for food – the instinct to make connections, to laugh and also to look as cool as possible is too strong to be ignored. Style is style, no matter where you are, and some of these young men were extremely stylish.
And again, at the end of the afternoon, there was a game of football and some boys whizzing up and down too fast on a bike.
I was also struck afresh by the sharp contrast between the youthful looks of so many – and some of the people there were incredibly young – and the trauma they have experienced. The stories that you hear are often difficult to process at the time, told as they are in a matter of fact way. It’s only later, often in the middle of the night, when a chance remark or description of a journey will pop into your head and you can only think, did I really hear that? The extraordinary becomes ordinary, but there is nothing ordinary about the strength and the resilience of the people who have got as far as Calais.
The most extraordinary experience of all happened on Monday.
After helping to prepare lunch for the volunteers in the warehouse, we travelled to take aid to a church house near the border with Belgium. It was an ordinary French town like hundreds of others.
There we met the most extraordinary ordinary woman, about 70 years old. She started feeding the African refugees in her town 10 years ago, because, in her words, ‘They were cold and hungry. What could I do?’ At one time, the place was home to a large settlement feeding around 180 men, women and children – although she was keen to emphasise that the refugees always cooked for themselves, and still do. But now repeated raids and crackdowns have reduced numbers to fewer than 20. The men can be there during the day but at night they must sleep where they can in the open air – and as in Calais they are frequently picked up by the police and their belongings confiscated and destroyed.
She told us, in her matter of fact way, that she has been threatened, and that her car was firebombed and her house set on fire because of the choices she made not to stand by. No one was arrested for this crime, because the police told her it must have been ‘the migrants, the blacks’. She was arrested, her house ransacked and put in jail for giving a lift to an eight month pregnant woman to the hospital 11 km away. The police thought that she should have let the woman walk along the road. What if she had been killed, she said. How would that driver feel?
The day centre she runs is repeatedly raided by armed police in riot gear and bullet proof uniform. These extraordinary tales of bravery, set against the reality of the calm and ordinarily-incredible woman and the delightful and gentle Sudanese refugees, who chatted happily with us and brought us strong coffee and sweet tea. She asked to meet with us when she comes to London – she has been invited to the baptism of a child born to people she helped who have now settled there.
What a film that would make, except it’s too far-fetched isn’t it? Too surreal, that such things should happen right on our doorstep.
Which is why I have to go to Calais again, because if you don’t
see it with your own eyes, if you don’t hear it for yourself – well, you will never believe it.
I believe it, but (I am ashamed to say) a small part of me wishes this was all some implausible story instead of the lived reality of life in Western Europe in 2018.
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Reasons to be cheerful parts 1, 2, 3

black mirrorYes, you’re right, it IS a long time since I wrote anything on this blog. And I can’t just blame the ridiculous workload of this ridiculous job either.

The trouble is, it’s supposed to be funny. Or at least mildly amusing in a wryly light-hearted way. And the truth is I have been finding it rather challenging to find a light-hearted way of writing about what life is like now, compared to when I started this blog.

Only a few years ago, and yet it seems like a faraway dream; a distant paradise where I could make carefree jokes about the dog-poo fairy and hair straighteners, when there wasn’t a tangerine toddler-Nazi in the White House and I didn’t spend my evenings on the internet, pricing up fall-out shelters. These are dark times, and the task of making jokes seems impossible when all I see around me is the angry pile-up of furious chickens coming home to roost.

But do you know what, I think I might have had enough of feeling gloomily livid, ambiguously pleasant though that combination can sometimes  be. I am after all, as was noted by my old head of sixth form on my school report, ‘relentlessly cheerful’ (which, on reflection, might not have been a compliment) – surely not even the imminent threat of impending global apocalypse can hold me down forever?

In the end, jokes are perhaps the only thing that will help us survive this somewhat sticky time in our history. That and our British sense of understatement.

So I have spent today thinking about what I can still feel cheerful about. Feel free to add any ideas of your own in the comments below….

Pronouncing the name of GUY VERHOFSTADT. Geeeee Fheerrr HERRRRF STARRRRTT. GHHHEEEEEE VER HEEERRRRFFFSTAT!!! What a splendid name for a splendid person. Definitely my second favourite Belgian (after Plastic Bernard).

Shouting BREXIT MEANS BREXIT!’ very loudly whenever I see Theresa M on the telly. (In the 80s I used to chuck things at the screen when Thatch appeared, so perhaps that’s progress in terms of my level of political debate.) The vacuous meaninglessness of BREXIT MEANS BREXIT never fails to raise a smile, and in 2018 laughing at your own jokes is sometimes the only pleasure available. Sometimes you can swap it for other meaningless but satisfying phrases like ASDA MEANS ASDA! Or PANCAKES MEANS PANCAKES! Try it – it’s fun.

(I also like to shout ‘THEY WILL PRISE THIS BURGUNDY PASSPORT FROM MY COLD DEAD HANDS!’ occasionally, which makes the children just a little bit scared).

Twitter-brethren – finding out through the fevered medium of Twitter that the most unlikely people are in fact your brothers-in-arms. Exhibit A, Gary Lineker with all the energy in the world it seems to torment Piers bleeding Morgan – an open goal if ever there was one, but still fun to witness. Ditto Neville Southall, Lily Allen, our Anthony from the Royle Family and – weirdest of all – Sam Allerdyce. Realising that I have something in common with a load of ex-footballers and minor Brit-celebs I’d probably struggle to recognise in the pub is a strangely cheering thought.

The fashion for amateur ukulele playing among the young folk seems at long last to have passed (I have even taken down the ‘NO UKES!!!!’ sign in the sixth form common room) along with the desire play Mumford and Sons songs.

The young folk have become, almost overnight, passionately interested in politics. Perhaps once they stopped trying to play those elusive two chords on the ukulele they had time to pick up a newspaper for once.* Not a moment too soon and they are finally pretty cross about, erm, everything. Some of them were under the impression that the older generation could be trusted to look after their interests and not actively destroy the planet before they got to enjoy it and – well – they have had a fairly rude awakening in the last couple of years. Could be interesting when they wake up one day and realise exactly HOW much of a massive disaster everything REALLY is and how we really can’t fix any of it. Who’s going to tell them? Not me, thanks.

BLACK MIRROR– It’s a great time for satire. In fact it’s hard to escape the idea that satire is just writing itself. Also, Netflix, Game of Thrones, Hamilton – maybe difficult times make for great art?

The state of UKIP.

And you can’t work out whether this blog is genuinely cheerful or bleakly ironic, well, that’s 2018 for you.

*This is obviously a joke. The young folk are as likely to pick up an actual newspaper as they are to vote Tory. And who can blame them? The newspapers know nothing, nothing at all.

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Do you watch Countryfile?

Do you though, really?

You can tell me, my lips are sealed.

If you are a secret Countryfileophile, now is the time to come out of the gilet-closet and stand up and be counted, because you are far from alone.



I read this weekend the startling news that Countryfile is the most watched TV programme in the COUNTRY – seriously, it is.. And in the towns and cities too. In fact everywhere in the whole of the land.

More than lavish Ruskie bloodbath War and Peace. Incredibly, even more than Call the 50’s-Stereotypes-on-Bicycles-My-Contractions-are-Very-Close-Together-Nyaarrrghhh.

And that has Miranda in it.

But then, in one of those 360 degree turns that characterise modern life, 24 hours later Countryfile was in the Naughty Corner and everyone was OUTRAGED. Let me give you a little sample:

‘I may never watch it again’ Countryfile viewers enraged as show ‘glorifies slaughter’

COUNTRYFILE viewers were left fuming during tonight’s “brutal” edition of the family landscape programme as Matt Baker talked butchering.’

LOL, as the young folk say. LOL again.

So the viewers of Countryfile, or at least the OUTRAGED ones, are ASTONISHED to find that meat comes from dead animals and sometimes a person has to SLAUGHTER them. This disgusting practice is called – whisper it now – BUTCHERING.

As so often these days, I feel like the satirists should just pack it all in as a bad job and go home. I know that it is a requirement of modern life – a duty even – that we are supposed to be OUTRAGED about everything all the time. But surely people weren’t really shocked to see the odd dead animal on a programme called Countryfile, or do these shocked viewers think that farmers just wait at the side of the field until the baa-lambs die of old age?

I think the most telling phrase in this shock-horror report is this one – ‘FAMILY LANDSCAPE PROGRAMME’. The country is marketed as a ‘landscape’ – a setting, a cosy place to get your Hunters a bit muddy and let Persephone and Horatio get all rosy-cheeked and tired out inthe fresh air for bedtime. God forbid if this imagined rural idyll is shattered by some people Doing Farming.

Every so often the local paper here in the Village will have a story about some townies moving to the countryside and complaining about mud on the road, cows being too moo-ey or the bells ringing on a Sunday morning. But this is a step further: townies complaining about the countryside without even leaving their sofas.

This is the weird thing about the countryside – everyone wants to live there, but no one wants to, you know, LIVE there. Only 18% of us live in the countryside, so why is every other shop called Go Outdoors? Because the countryside has become a hobby and a lifestyle, not a way of life.

Waxing lyrical about the richness of the agricultural soil, but not actually wanting to till it.

Admiring the lovely cows in the fields but not wanting to pay a decent price for the milk producers.

Pootling around the lovely isolated villages at the weekend but conveniently allowing the bus services that connect the old and the young and the poor with the towns and the work and effectively suck the life out of those lovely isolated villages.

Yes, Countryfile looks beautiful, but the country life in The Real Life isn’t a landscape.

You can trust me on this subject.

Maybe I should start offering my own little tours of the Real Countryfile. I can start by chucking manure at your car, lobbing a pheasant at your windscreen till it shatters then leaving you at a windswept bus stop for a service then was cancelled in 2011.

Let’s see what Matt Baker makes of that.

Picture credit

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Generally Unelectable



I don’t know about you but when I heard the other day that it was still 100 days to the General Election, I was filled with a delight impossible to name.

100 days left! How marvellous to think that we still have three whole months left of the bickering, name-calling and trumped-up pointless tribal warfare!

After all, it used to be such fun to have four lovely long weeks of campaigning, so of course four months is unspeakably delightful.

Of course the downside with such a long campaign ahead, is that even the most devoted voter can start to get a little weary – through sheer delight of course.

So I thought I would put together a little quiz to test whether you have been paying attention to all the exciting and extremely logical ‘news’ ‘stories’ that we have all enjoyed since the beginning of the campaign.

Good luck! And don’t forget to register to vote!

  1. Are you registered to vote?
    1. Yes of course I am. I’ve been registered to vote for years.
    2. No, because the Coalition government / Caesar Augustus has decided to take everyone off the register and then make them return to the place of their birth and lie in a manger or something. This is the best way to serve the interests of democracy. Apparently.
    3. I don’t care because I never vote because it never changes things. Apart from all the times it changes things.
  1. Is this man a racist?186442-nigel-farage-ukip-leader-holding-up-a-ukip-badge-at-the-launch-of-the-partys-manifesto-in-edinbur

A. I do not wish to answer that question on the grounds that I don’t much fancy being subjected to a lot of missplet insults from the Offical Book of UKIP insults – e.g. ‘Liebour-loving peedo lefty-sheeple!’

B. No no because making wild and nasty generalisations and judgements about people on the grounds of their nationality is NOT racism despite the very clear legal definition – it is COMMON SENSE! Everyone naturally conforms to their national stereotypes and anyone attempting to suggest that, for example, perhaps individuals might differ from crude stereotypes is just a confusing lie put about by Liebour-loving peedo lefty-sheeple!

C. Check my Youtube channel for a longer answer to this questions. Comments disabled.

  1. Does this man, a resident of Monte Carlo, with an estimated fortune of £7.5bn who moved Boots from Britain to Switzerland following his private equity-backed buyout in order to avoid paying tax in this country – does he have the best interests of the country at heart?










A. Yes of course. He is a BUSINESSMAN. And they all wear bowler hats and carry rolled up newspapers and ALWAYS have the best interests of the country at heart when they board the 8.24 from Croydon. Also, ALL businessmen are the same and he speaks for them ALL. OK? Also businesses are super at running things, like Tesco and HSBC and Woolworths and Rumbelows.

B. Well he has made a lot of money so that is a super thing right? And if we tried to protect workers’ rights or something, then businessmen like him would move their businesses out of the country and then we would lose tax revenues oh HOLD ON….

C. I would like to boycott Boots but I have got LOADS of points on my Advantage Card and they have a FABULOUS range of nail varnish.

  1. Will UKIP win the General Election?
    1. HA.
    2. UKIP ALL THE WAY! Anyone who says differently is just in a conspiracy with the pollsters, the political analysts, the bookies and The Establishment, who want to upset the cause of democracy by not letting the party with 14% of the vote become the outright winners.
    3. Parklife!

Mostly A’s – you are possibly working for the BBC. Thanks for taking care of our unbiased reporting! Good work.

Mostly B’s – Farage for PM! Most likely in coalition with the Greens.

Mostly C’s – you may well be Russell Brand. Have a quick check, why don’t you.

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Brand Loyalty


This is going to be, without doubt, the most controversial thing I have ever said on here (at least until I write about immigration later this week).


I quite like Russell Brand.

I know, this is risking the scorn of literally millions of right-thinking folk, but there it is.

I should immediately caveat this outrageous statement by adding that I also think he’s a bit of a nob. Of course he is. He says so himself, frequently.

But that doesn’t stop me liking him, even being extremely fond of him. I like (many) of the things he says, I enjoy listening to the way he says them. I like his outlook on things, and I think he’s sincere.

I first saw him performing about a decade ago at a fundraiser for the Campaign Against the Arms Trade. I had never seen him before, not being a big one for the telly; but I was impressed. He was articulate, self-deprecating and quite clearly passionately committed to change.

I don’t really intend this to be a full defence of Brand – that would take a long time. Buy me a pint and I am happy to do so – though it’s fair to say he’s not asking for a defence.

But I do think that Brand is perhaps the most misquoted and misrepresented man since Marx.

Reading the sometimes baffling reviews of his book this last week, I kept thinking of the line from the beginning of The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams:

‘Nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change’  – it seems we are all lining up  pretty gleefully, to crucify this man for saying some pretty obvious things.

Glaringly obvious and yet mostly unsaid or unacknowledged, at least in the mainstream media.

Brand says – this is an emergency.

The current political system is not fit for purpose and works in favour of no one but a tiny elite.

Democracy has not produced a system that represents ordinary people. Instead we have this neoliberal, capitalism-on-acid world of technicolour inequalities and catastrophic ecological meltdown.

The current system has made the world a dangerous, brutal place to live.

It’s time to change it and replace it with a system that allows for cooperation, collectivism, more immediate democracy, taking the corruption out of the political system and returning the balance of power to where it belongs and from where it originates – with the people.

That is all pretty clearly stated and set out, with some proposed, fairly specific solutions.

Yet the reviews, for the most part, don’t seem to engage with this central argument at all.

Well, leaving aside the (perhaps dubious) style – there’s a lot of substance in what he says.

Seriously, does anyone really think that the current democratic system serves the electorate?

I was brought up to revere the martyrs of Peterloo and Emily Davison, people who truly were willing to give everything for democracy and freedom. But today as I was dressing Sparkly Daughter in her Emmeline Pankhurst costume for Famous Person Day, this is what I thought:

Thanks Emmeline for having a feeding tube shoved down your throat, thanks and all that, but Russell’s right – voting doesn’t change too much, at least in the UK and the US. We’ve got the vote, but we still don’t have the power.

Brand says – the electoral market is rigged in favour of big business and particularly multi-national corporations; the media perpetuates a consensus that is breathtakingly narrow.

(The great UKIP earthquake has meant that you can now have corporatism, pinkish corporatism, or corporatism with candidates who say ‘Bongo Bongo Land’ and ‘Ting Tongs’.)

A climate where ‘austerity’ requires great sacrifices by the poor and powerless, but trillions can be found to bail out the largest banks to provide bonuses. There are countless examples of this in his book – and everywhere really, if you care to look.

This rigged system has led to gross, obscene inequalities – like the 85 oligarchs that Oxfam says hold more wealth than 3 ½ billion poorest people in the world.

Or the fact that the richest 1% of the UK population have as much as the poorest 55%.

Brand thinks this is a crime against humanity. I agree with him.

Of course Brand isn’t the only person saying this – Owen Jones, the George Formby of the Left, characterises this as ‘socialism for the rich, capitalism for the poor’. Banks get bailed out with trillions of our money, while ordinary people have their mortgages foreclosed, and end up relying on food banks

He’s right, too.

We are more used to seeing the privileged these days slagging off the poor, mocking them and deriding them as feckless and pointless.

Edwina Currie, screeching repeatedly on Channel 4 at an unemployed woman with mental health issues ‘Get a job, get a job, get a job.’ Churches and charities who attempt to set right the caricature of the feckless benefits-waster are shouted down and told to ‘get back to their knitting’. And we join in, gleefully, in programmes such as Benefits Street and Jeremy Kyle.

In a week when Griff Rhys Jones complained that Labour’s proposed mansion tax would make him leave the country – well it’s a welcome contrast isn’t it? Brand is pretty much the only mainstream celebrity willing and able to articulate the injustices and the inequalities in a way that gets him (and the issues) into the spotlight.

We have been sold the idea that making the most money possible is some sort of moral imperative – but it’s not. In this neo-liberal gaga-land, the only things that matter can be measured in GDP.

At least under feudalism the powerful had a duty, a responsibility to their tenants. Now they are evicted for all sorts of spurious reasons with what passes for ‘morality’ in these late stages of hypercapitalism – ‘there’s nothing we could do, we have to do what’s most profitable’:

There is nothing inevitable about this way of running things. And it could change, and it should – that’s what Brand says, and I agree with him.

The second key strand of his argument is that this broken system is not making anyone happy or even content. In fact, we’re pretty miserable most of the time.

He uses his own (often seedy) life as an extended metaphor for the emptiness of much of modern life. He talks with honesty about his own attempts to fill the emptiness at the core of himself with a variety of pointless and unsatisfying solutions – drugs, food, drink, promiscuous sex, clothes, fame.

So – how about a different way? How about we think about happiness and togetherness and community and start to value those instead? Again, I honestly don’t see this is a particularly radical idea.

His message isn’t profound – it’s so obvious as to be almost banal. This stuff didn’t make him happy; he suggest that it isn’t making anyone happy, not really.

I think he’s right about this too.

The solutions offered by the consumerist culture aren’t really solutions; they are barely even distractions. They can in fact get in the way of human beings achieving any kind of peace.

The solutions he DOES offer are solid – you might not like them, but they are sincere, real and curiously old-fashioned.

Brand suggests that if you are finding the incessant buzz of the never-satisfied consumer culture too much, you might try looking within yourself, meditating to achieve calm. You might try thinking about your relationship with God or your version of God. You might try, when anxiety strikes, thinking about connecting with your place in the universe and letting go of the weight the world has placed on you.

Brand doesn’t offer himself as a leader – if he did, he’d be starting a cult. What he is suggesting that we all start taking care of ourselves, locally and directly. This suggestion is treated with horror and disbelief – of course we can’t be trusted to take care of ourselves!

I think he’s right about this too.

But I detect in much of the criticism a degree of class based snobbery – in fact it’s pretty close to the surface. He is criticised for not being ‘serious’ enough – and for being a ‘working class hero’ or (on Radio 4) ‘a working class intellectual’ – which the commentator clearly considered to be a contradiction in terms and meant he was not fit to appear on a ‘serious’ programme. He has co-opted some pretty heavyweight names on his side – Chomsky, Piketty, Klein; this decision has been characterised as ‘half-reading’ these books.

He’s also derided as naïve or like a sixth former. When I was in the sixth form, the head of sixth form told me that my left wing beliefs – workers’ rights, freedom, equality – were a symptom of my naïve youth and I would grow out of them.

Well he was wrong about that.

On the contrary, the more I see of the world, the more I see the things that need changing. I think that those who claim that the inequities of the current political system are ‘just the way things are’ and can’t be changed – they are the naïve ones.

I guess many people could have written Brand’s book. It is certainly easy enough to criticise, but it is, I think, starting a useful conversation about what needs to change.

I like Brand, I guess in the end, because he preaches peace, love, tolerance and all the good stuff that all the good people from Jesus to Ghandi have preached. And most of all he preaches the hope that hings can change.

Because things always change. Monarchies, empires, economic systems – they all rise and fall. Even Thatcher went in the end – and it was the people who in the end sent her on her way.

I hope he’s right.

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