A Sea Crossing


It’s important to go with the flow. Checking in 90 minutes before the ferry is due to sail. Turning up at the passenger terminal 20 minutes before then. Waiting patiently because the hand held computer-machine which is used to scan passports isn’t working. Talking to the P&O worker about the over-use of technology, of technology as management control, of technology being used to control workers, rather than technology supporting worker’s control. All these things are there, inside that small hand held device which won’t scan my passport. His colleague arrives and she can’t make it work either.

‘We’ll take you through, it will need to be sorted out at French border control’.

It’s all so complicated, chopping the world up into administrative units. I think part of the paranoia and fear of the right wing is that they instinctively sense that the means of production are working hard to burst the model of nation states, the status quo, the imaginary lines on maps. What will they do when all the slaves are free?

I sit on a minibus talking to the driver. He starts with a crude banter which is returned in kind with a different political angle. Once that’s over we get on rather well. His glasses are attached to thick cord and are resting on the top of his head. He will drive me, the sole foot passenger, onto the ferry.

The first stop is the French border control. I speak to the woman in French which feels such a lovely thing to do. She stamps my passport which generates an excitement disproportionate to the action itself. She seems so French, as if, not from another country but from another planet. Then we drive into a big metal shed for a security check. The man who takes the bags looks as if he has lived in Snargate Street for the past 200 years and has experienced everything it has ever had to offer many times over.

‘They keep changing the rules’, he tells me.

I’m sure if he was responsible for making the rules the whole process would be in his interests, my interests and everyone else who travels through and works in the port. Instead we have the rules of old Etonians, management consultants and that sad layer of middle management which just lacks the imagination to be even half human.

‘Can I just put my belt back on?’ I ask the woman who is going to check something. My passport again? I don’t remember.

‘That’s alright’, she says cheerfully, ‘I’m here till seven o’clock’. I’m hoping I’ll be in Boulogne by then but this is a journey. And one should never hurry on a journey.

There is a further stop at yet another office where someone sits and wastes their life away checking who is who and why they are who they are and making sure they are what they should be. I am given a ticket to board the ferry. I’m thinking longingly of the remains of a sourdough loaf and some cheese in the fridge. I could do with a sandwich right now. All this bureaucracy stimulates the appetite if not the mind.

Having been effectively processed, psychologically prodded and had my identity and bags checked I can now be taken further into the port. The ferry is going to be late so I am dropped off at something called ‘Moto’ which has a Burger King, Costa and WH Smiths. I could eat a burger, drink coffee and read a newspaper. But I do none of this. I stand at the back of the building watching the ships leave and enter the port and make vague calculations as to how bumpy the crossing will be based on the height and power of the waves. While I am standing up there the mini-bus driver appears, smoking a cigarette. He tells me a little of what it’s like to work in this complex environment of a port. But not for much longer. He’s retiring soon to devote himself to wood turning and making things and restoring cars. I meet him one more time when its time to board the ferry. He’s in the driving seat, I’m sitting in the back. The other guy is trying to work out how I’ll get on the ship. In between radio communications they are talking about people they work with, things that are going on in the port. The instruction comes over the airwaves, I can use the sky walk.

‘See you later fellow’, the driver says as I leave.

‘Take it easy’, I reply.

He’s got five more weeks of this and then he can become himself full-time.

Go with the flow, and always make it clear you are on the side of the workers. Not by making speeches as you travel through customs and borders but with patience, politeness and good humour where possible. And if you show a good side the workers might let you into some secrets of their working lives. They might include you in the hidden transcripts. Take full advantage of such opportunities because it is part of building up a knowledge of the class.

The slow pace provides opportunities to observe. The way a rope is thrown from the deck of ship and how that is used to guide a thick hawser. What the lorry drivers are eating in the canteen, and what their options are. All this stuff needs to be known. How cold the sailors are at night on deck of the thousands of ships that are always in motion. They briefly stop to load and unload, to victual, to replace worn out labour. Carrying ever increasing numbers of commodities on the conveyor belts of world trade. We need to sense the labour that creates such things; the wage rates, working conditions, sick pay and pensions (if any) and the organisation or otherwise, what political ideas exist among the international proletariat. How such a class can be organised.

We need to be aware of the aching limbs of badly treated labour in construction sites in the Middle East, building temples of doom, ego-busting towers to express what exactly? Not the soul and dreams of the people at ground level, not the aspirations and desires of the workers themselves, but to feed the insatiable appetites of tyrants and dictators and to feed the biggest tyrant of all; capital and its terrifying lust for living labour. We need to study all of that and more. And there are clues around us everywhere in daily life itself.

It was a long walk from the ferry terminal to the railway station. I made two initial mistakes. The first was to not ask the woman with a suitcase whether she was waiting for a taxi and if so, could we share the cost. The second was to think that the vehicle that looked half like a bus might not be a bus. I saw it later with ‘Gare de Calais’ on the front as it drove past me. My lack of attention was highlighted again when I ignored the street signs warning of a blocked road. I thought this could only be to do with motorism, but no, it applied to those on foot too. I had a long detour. I could see the tower of the town hall clearly. The railway station is close by. As I walked under the tower the bells began to chime six o’clock. It felt a rather special occasion.

As I left the station at Boulogne Tenterielles (?) I sighed, ‘Ah Boulogne’ as if I had the entire history of the people and the place in my pocket. The man behind me repeated it as I had said it and laughed. He was wearing a big coat and a white hat of indistinctive shape. It had a blue smudge of something of the brim, whether by accident or design was not clear. I excused myself and asked him half in French where the old town was.

‘I’ll show you’ and it was clear that I should follow him. We talked along the way; but only surface stuff. There was a strong sense that there was a lot more we could have talked about. I should have struck out with the big stuff. I’m sure he would have responded in kind. How else do we ever have the real conversations, the ones we really want to have? Someone needs to start them; might as well be you and me.

This was fortune indeed because my sense of direction would have the old town in a different place. It was tempting to ask him if he was sure, I mean, him being a local person and all that, and me only having been there thirty seconds. I was sure it was in the opposite direction based on nothing but an inner mischief. At a road junction he showed me the way, ‘just up there, then turn left and you will see it’. I was sure this was a trick, a joke, some sort of pre-arranged prank. I followed his instructions reluctantly but must confess that they were exactly right.

The jingoists and xenophobes make a toxic poison. They seem to prefer to dwell within this toxic poison even though it doesn’t make them happy. They seem so angry and so hateful no matter what is happening. They work so hard to cover up the fact that most people for much of the time get along quite well together; or as a minimum co-exist without botheration or annoyances. Some jingoists and xenophobes might be saved by some catastrophic event, war, an unexpected coming together or a surprising act of kindness. Some of these people’s unpleasantness can be dissolved with certain alchemies. But they spend too much time being too hateful and it is such a waste of time. Theirs and everybody else’s. They miss out all the time in random acts of kindness, tiny movements of solidarity, unexpected warmth and street generated joys and happinesses. If only they could learn to go with the flow, to let the world be the world, and drink the wine and praise the God of all.

I can see a man standing at the end of the street. I said I would be here at 7pm and it’s two minutes to the hour. I will be with him in two minutes. I have arrived exactly on time. He must be the person who is going to give me the keys and let me in. He is rotund with a cheerful red face. He has the air of someone who never gets cross and angry and prefers to spend his time in the enjoyment of fine wines, delicate cheese, freshly baked bread, a roast of lamb covered in herbs from the garden, cooked with potatoes a friend provided, a rich gravy which is a secret family recipe handed down by each generation – it precedes the Revolution of 1789. That sort of stuff. This approach to life prevents the sourness of those who live on vinegar and chlorinated chicken. He introduces himself as Marcel. He slowly opens the door and we walk up steep narrow stairs. The bannister is shaky, the paint is old and peeling. I prefer this to 10,000 new builds put together with their greedy price and value, scrimping on space and light and mean and cruel tenancy agreements.

We speak in French, words welling up from some hidden chamber of my mind, words reappearing for the first time in several decades since classes at school. I even explain the sea crossing although I think the added visual effect of my hand movements (to indicate the stormy sea) rather overdoes it. He looks quite alarmed. How could any ship survive such a storm? As he leaves, he turns and says, ‘Good Night’, in perfect English, as though he was ending a broadcast from London to the French Resistance in May 1944. You see, this is what the jingoists and xenophobes miss. And it was a poignant reminder that while some people in England hate everyone – including themselves – there are people in Europe – and elsewhere – who rather like the peculiarities of what presents itself as English. It might not be so true, but there was once an association with tolerance, good manners, open mindedness. And that’s an association I like and think we should re-invest in. Better than the coarseness, childish aggression and insolence which is promoted by the Tory Party and the right wing press. And manners, humour, politeness, tolerance; these too are class issues and always have been.

I walked around in the late evening with a mind like a blank sheet. Just there to soak up all the impressions. Not trying to make connections, not trying to fit any of this in to a pre-existing template. I wasn’t really thinking at all. Well, actually I was. I was thinking where could I get a bottle of wine and something to eat. France closes early. Nothing was found in the old town so further afield was gently explored. Follow the bright lights, there might be a supermarket. And there was, an Aldi. Wine for three euros a bottle. It will be fine (and it was).

It had been a long day. Over six hours to travel about forty miles. But this slow pace was immensely enjoyable. The slowness provided the sense of distance, the space of the sea, the landscape of northern France in the dusk as the train travelled towards Boulogne-sur-Mer. Everything saturated with that enigmatic characteristic known as atmosphere. A glimpse of the sea from the train, a giant container ship, sunset in the west, hills becoming grey and dark as the light faded away, a sudden burst of rose pink light and sparkling golden splashes on the water. And a long day doesn’t always need cooking at the end of it. I went to Papi Henri’s burger bar.

Or rather I tried to. Except I couldn’t work out how to open the door. Slide instead of push or pull. A man opened it for me. Could I eat here? But I don’t have the app or code, ‘that’s ok’, he said, and waved me in.

‘Do you want to sit at the bar?’ he asked.

That would do very well. This meant being tucked into a narrow corridor between the kitchen area and a wall. It had the sort of intimacy where a line is crossed from merely being a customer to becoming a fixture. Within two minutes I felt as if I was a part of the general goings-on, the sub-current of stuff that is only shared with regulars and initiates. One is ignored but that is perfect because that can often be a higher form of acceptance. It meant I could watch the workers in the kitchen without any sense of self-consciousness on either their part or mine. Propped in the corner against the bar with a cold glass of Juliper I was able to watch and write without anyone paying me any sort of attention. A gorgeous treat. I realised in that corner that I no longer just wished to be a writer, but might be taking tentative steps to becoming a writer. Whether I shall ever be a writer is another matter. But this was an excellent place to practice.

The scene in the kitchen was worthy of a Dutch artist of the Golden Age. Oh for a Rembrandt, Vermeer or Hals to paint this picture. Or how might David or Boilly – the great painters of the French Revolution – capture the light and shade and colour and the expressions in these workers faces, their attitudes, what their eyes reveal. It seemed at first as if there were a dozen people working such was the speed and movement. But as my eyes adjusted to the scene I realised it was two women and a young man; he might be called the kitchen boy. The two women might be in their twenties. Both wore the same uniform. A black blouse and a long black apron, black caps and black latex gloves. They had the appearance and attitude of a long line of French working women which reaches back to the medieval period and then into further obscurities of time. They watched intently as the white chips of potato were cooked in boiling hot fat into frites. They studied their own hands and the movement of knifes and kitchen implements as they shaped burgers and chopped onions and pickles. They never faltered as they added layers on cheese and sauces or a slice or two of bacon. There is a pause in the flow of customers. The two women momentarily stand at ease, not moving. The kitchen boy is leaning on the wall, systematically dipping his hand into a large steel bowl which has frites inside it. He eats them with a mechanical regularity. Despite their public presence it would be intrusive to take a photograph. And what sort of photograph would that be? How engrossed they are, how they become object and subject in their labour, how little that labour is ever shown, how that labour is an expression of their species being. What is the language to describe and represent such images as these?

The meal arrives. It is passed over the small bar (a distance of about six inches) by another young lad who seems to play the role of extra waiter, motorbike delivery driver and general labourer. Le Simple. Steak, onions, corniche, a secret sauce in a brioche bun. With medium fries. Perhaps it was the 25cl glass of beer talking but there are not enough superlatives in the English language – or any other language – to describe how great this was. The brioche bun! When did ships start calling at the Port of Heaven to bring this stuff back? Half way through one of the women workers leaned her head over from the cookers and frying pans and machine for making frites.

‘What’s it like?’ she asked, as an engineer might ask the first ship’s mate about the state of the engines of a giant container ship.

‘C’est bon’, I replied, but words cannot capture the intonation, the warmth, the grateful thanks in those brief words. She gave a brief solemn nod and returned to her state of dozens of different movements every minute.

I walked back through the dark streets of the old town. So quiet, so tranquil, buildings that pre-date the Revolution. Will they see another?

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