A Sea Crossing in Times of War

The air is heavy with war. In Ukraine the air is heavy with bombs, rockets, shells, machine gun fire. An account from someone who said her son vomited as he tried to eat some food. Vomited with fear. Pictures of people with their faces full of fear. The first reports of casualties. The British Prime Minister cannot be bothered to comb his hair. It’s as if someone from a badly produced play has found themselves alone on the stage and decides this is their big moment to make a speech. But no one is listening. This person has nothing to say.

There have been anti-war demonstrations in Russia. It is difficult to determine the numbers or in what locations. But many reports agree that nearly 2,000 people have been arrested. These are acts of great bravery. They point to the way in which humanity could be rescued. Putin narrows his eyes and pouts. The many problems in the world are concentrated in the fact that one person, a person such as this, can have so much power. In an equitable, democratic, humane world such a person would be shunned. Who would want this ill-mannered bragging authoritarian know-it-all in close proximity?

The contradictions within capitalism are multi-dimensional. The Conservative Party have been accepting bribes from oligarchs close to Putin for years. For £150,000 the wife of a former big-mouth close to Putin played tennis with David Cameron and Boris Johnson. For £135,000 she met Theresa May. With £150,000 I could retire from work, something I would dearly like to do. But there is no way on God’s earth I would accept a penny from such people. I would rather work until the end of time than do such a thing. What one dimensional people these are. How and why they have such power. But the real question is how that power can be broken. That’s what a revolution means.

There is a debate going on about who to support and what and why and how. I never properly follow such things. This imperialism is bigger than that imperialism, this sub-imperialism supports that sub-sub-imperialism, and so on. It may be crude but I would prefer starting points which begin with; what grievance do the train drivers in Russia have with train drivers in Ukraine? How many teachers in Ukraine want to have a conflict with teachers in Russia? How many medical and care workers in each country really hate each other so much to fire rockets into their houses and blow their children to pieces?

It may seem difficult to believe but I don’t doubt that there are members of the armed forces who, within their inner lives, are questioning all of this. And soldiers who have been trained for glory in parades and training exercises can start to think differently when their friends are killed for a few yards of waste ground or a shattered building. When they are desperate for ammunition, food and medical supplies but realise that there is a bloated rich class at home who are doing very well.

The soldier drinks from a puddle and eats some rotting food from a burned out house. Just like the one they once lived in. The soldier goes on leave and sees criminals and gangsters laughing and joking and making lots of money. The soldier cannot get out of their head the young person they killed. The lifeless body, their just-so teenage haircut now stained with blood. The death in the eyes that won’t close. There is no life left in the body. War needs a lot of hate for it to continue. Speeches of hate, newspapers full of hate, television full of hate, people full of hate. But all that hate becomes exhausting.

War puts everything else into perspective. England is becoming a corpse. It has an aura of a deathly green. The mocking arrogance of those at the top as they laugh with their fetid breath. Words no longer have their dictionary meanings. The most base, banal, hypocrites are in charge at all levels of bureaucracy and political power. The official opposition is cowardly and ineffective, their ideas no more than footnotes in the columns of the Daily Mail. The unofficial opposition is organisationally fragmented and theoretically unsure. But even these things can change.

I travelled across the channel to go to Europe. After a sleepless night when the world came hammering on the door of my psyche I longed for a different atmosphere, or perhaps just an escape for a day or two. These things are not weaknesses, they can be a sign of strength. It was spontaneous and a last minute decision. Just after I had booked the trip a message from a friend; could I ? was it too short notice? That would have been an good alternative but the wheel of travel had already turned a circumference or two.

Another contradiction is corporate entities and the people on the ground. P&O Ferries is a stinking capitalist concern. All contact with them is difficult. There are endless petty rules and decisions. The website doesn’t work properly, it’s impossible to talk to anyone on the phone. It’s hard work making a booking and it’s hard work being a foot passenger. This corporate indifference can pitch worker against worker. But at ground level it’s different again. The staff are kind and helpful and friendly. I arrive at the terminal and there is no one to ask and no one around. I talk to the driver of the bus who will take us to the ferry. He doesn’t actually work for P&O and makes a face (which tells more than a photograph ever could) about what he thinks they’re like.

‘Just some of the things I’ve seen’, he says. He tells me about the new Brexit lorry park at Ashford where he had to drive people to and explains one of those stories where, from the worker’s point of view, it could have been done much better. I reply with a story of some of the things I’ve seen in working times.

‘The people at the bottom, say the receptionists, they have to start everyday on time. And the managers know exactly how long they have for a cup of tea and a sandwich. And they have to be there until the very end of their shift. But you get some management consultant who’s being paid hundreds of pounds a day, they start when they want and go home when they want. I’ve seen people like this being paid thousands and thousands of pounds for doing what exactly? If I had about £50,000 I could retire. I know someone who made that in about four months. But doing what exactly I couldn’t tell you’.

‘And if you think’, the bus driver said, ‘I bet everyone knows stories like that. And you add them all up and it’s billions and billions of pounds’.

‘That’s a good way to put it’, and I realised I’d never thought of it like that and also that the driver was absolutely right. This is how the corruption works.

He told me he doesn’t have a television and prefers to listen to the radio and audio books. We talked about places, Rotterdam and Berlin and other cities in between. He had other things to do and I went to sit on a bench in the winter sun and he did some stuff and then sat on the steps at entrance of the bus smoking an e-cigarette. He was massively over weight in a way that will be bad for his health. He wore baggy track suit bottoms and a brown wool hat. Now I write this I can’t remember what sort of top he wore. Most of the time he was leaning out of the drivers window and I was standing on the tarmac.

The young woman who was sorting out the foot passengers was bright and cheerful. She had big thick soled shoes and a big thick orange jacket. It looked like it would work in storms but to discover that would require a question to the wearer. A lot of supposedly PPE isn’t actually much good. There is more corruption in the delivery of such contracts. There was a story in the papers of a couple who have become multi-millionaires through ‘Covid contracts’. There’s are several other examples. I asked her if there was wifi on the ferry (she called it a boat, I always think of ships) she replied there was but it had to be paid for. And then added, that even as an employee, she had to pay for it.

We stopped at UK Border Control and a police man got on the bus. He was a real police man in that he was bullying, rude and aggressive. He took my passport and started asking me questions in an aggressive way.

‘Where are you going?’
‘France’ I replied
‘Well the ferry is going to France’
I should have said, ‘well that’s lucky then isn’t it?’
‘Where about’s in France?’ more aggression
‘And then where?’
‘I’m not going anywhere after that’.

Everyone has different ways of dealing with the police. I got the impression that he was deliberately trying to wind me up, to give him some excuse to be awkward, to cause me a problem.

‘When are you coming back?’
‘Is it business or pleasure?’
What on earth has that got to do with him?

He handed back my passport and went to the other people on the bus.

The woman port worker who I’d been talking to looked at me. I’m not sure what her eyes were trying to say but there was something powerful and emotional in them about what had just happened.

‘Travelling used to be a pleasure’, I said, ‘It had romance and adventure. That increasingly doesn’t seem to be the case’. I felt old, something I rarely experience. This nasty police behaviour – and much worse than this – is what millions of people go through every day.

The police officer swaggered off the bus with the inane affected labour of ‘hope you all have a nice day’ and such. This is what right-wing means in practice. It feels at times that right-wing is everywhere. And that’s how the right wing wants us to feel. That they have a total grip on us, our minds, our souls, our actions, our responses. They need to be careful. Because if we can work out a unified collective response to this it will be much more powerful than anything they can create. This is why they seek to constantly spread division. But each of these encounters can work to sharpen the axe, and temper it in the fire. I don’t think the bullying, arrogant, bad mannered police officer would put up any resistance whatsoever to a sharp axe, tempered in the fire.

There was a rather lovely coda to this. After having our passports inspected by the police the bus drove off. But the driver ignored – for reasons unknown – the person waving at them. Too late the bus came to a stop. The young woman got off and then came back.
‘They wanted you to go into the customs and security check’ she said. This would have involved all our baggage being inspected.
‘Well I can’t go back now’, said the driver in the sort of voice that sparks large scale industrial class conflict. We drove off leaving the security industry behind us. I caught the eye of that woman again and we both burst out laughing.

I sat on the ferry just looking out of the window. It was delayed and I couldn’t care less. I had no idea of what the ‘time’ was or what time the ferry might leave the port. There was no one there in the lounge apart from me. I could hear voices of people who were asking if they could use the restaurant. An elderly seafarer was doing a lot of explaining. They were all friendly these voices. Some were English accents, others from Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Rumania, France, Germany. There was no hostility, no war, no hatred, no shooting and bombing children. The person in charge of the restaurant sorted them all out,

‘It’s fish and chips today’, I could hear him say, ‘or a nice stew, or perhaps a salad’.
The languages of Europe carried in the air. People consulting each other as to what to do.
‘Plenty of space, lots of room in here, could have a nice meal and a drink if you’ve not go to drive’.
Even from where I sat on the periphery of all this I could sense the warmth and friendliness. No need for war.

What I also noticed on the trip was no Putin type. No one trying to be above the rest, not trying to kill and maim. And I noticed no Johnson type. No one making big mouth statements which are full of lies. Because at ground level such things are not tolerated. Speak your mind but speak it democratically. Say what you will but make sure it equates with a truth we can all understand. When you use words make sure we share the meaning.

Because when they say freedom but mean slavery we will know this. When they say peace and drop bombs we will know this. When they say they care but kill people through their lies, hypocrisy and ignorance, we will know this.

Despite their constant snooping we know more about them than they will ever know about us.

They have the money power, the factory power, the land power, the gun power, the military power, the media power.

But they don’t have solidarity.

And they do no productive work.

They produce nothing.

And the day the producers organise and unite will be the day their powers end.

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