The ship was delayed due to a storm in the channel the previous day. A storm at sea, a storm in Putin’s head. Everything is in collision, roaring, squawking, screeching, screaming. A global domination by despots, dictators, false democracies, hysterical right wing newspapers, shock-mouth personas, foul intoxications of hate, lies and hypocrisies. Ordinary everyday working class people pay in measures of blood and the weight of their dead children.
There had been more swell on the sea that I’d expected and there was nasty and ill-mannered officialdom with police and Border Force in Dover. The port workers are of course alright. They all seem to know each other and catch up with the news around the port as and when they can.
On the English side of the Channel all the port workers wore big boots and heavy duty shoes. I noticed that the French woman who checked us into the passenger bus at Calais wore an elegant pair of blue leather shoes. But she too wore an enormous orange safety jacket.
I was hoping to encounter an anti-war demonstration in Calais. There were people handing out leaflets by the market. A group of eight or nine. Some were wearing masks so I assumed they were not conspi-racists, but as it turned out, of a similar type and genus. There were half a dozen teenagers and three or four older people. One of the teenagers tried to give me a leaflet. I looked down. The clever-idiot visage of Marine le Pen. Her glossy reproduced face smiling in the sunshine. I refused and resisted the urge to start an argument. Outnumbered and caught unawares. But I felt sullied as if someone had spat towards me.
I remember well Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League of the late 1970s and how the whole fascist push can be resisted, pushed back, and broken up. And in the process more people can be convinced of the need to break the grip of capital and money-power. Capital unleashes waves of violence through its very being. The likes of Putin, Trump, Orbán, Bolsonaro, the House of Saud, Le Pen and others feel this violent force and seek to surf its waves. They are all connected to each other by lying, the support of violence, hypocrisy, law breaking, dog-whistling, gerry-mandering and corruption. Despite their linguistic differences they all speak the same words. The lesser powers such as Johnson roll their trousers up and try to splash around in the small waves that gently wash against the shore away from all the storms. He hopes the world will marvel at his bravery as he stands in shallow waters. Should he join the storm or step onto the shore? Either way he too will always attack the weakest with the hardest blows.
I walked slowly around the market trying to work out what to buy. I stopped and bought two oranges and some green beans. And that was it. I couldn’t make my mind up at any of the butcher’s stalls and I had already found a great baker’s for bread and cakes. I might have bought some potatoes I wasn’t sure if it was ok to check how firm they were. Looking round I couldn’t see anyone else carrying out this test.
In the wine shop there was confusion of the French word for ‘case’ and ‘bottle’. Feeling rather pleased with the conversation with the proprietress I selected what I thought were two bottles. I became uneasy when she disappeared into the back of the shop. I instinctively felt she had climbed down some narrow steep steps into a cellar. She was gone for some time. Eventually she returned rather red in the face and with small but significant beads of sweat on her forehead. Carrying two cases of wine. I thought she might be – I hoped she might be – stocking up but deep down I knew that those two cases were meant for me. She rang up a large sum of money on the till before I finally conceded her French had got the better of mine and I had to explain I only wanted two bottles. ‘But’, she said in English, ‘I asked if you wanted two bottles or two cases’. A misunderstanding of one word. I didn’t do much better in the bakers where despite pronouncing Couque Belciqu as well as I could I realised that I’d bought a Belgian bun. Just for the record it should be said that it was delicious and after that I had one every day.
After lunch I knew that I really wanted to walk without a plan but felt I should go to the Musee de Beaux Artes (which I will do one day). I followed the sign and then got lost. I asked a man in the street if he knew where it was. He stopped in front of me with a neutral, but powerful, attitude of ‘what’s this about’. He was one of those people who had little neck but enormous shoulders, giant hands and thick fingers. All the characteristics of a port town dock worker. This was accentuated by the blue jersey and substantial boots. He studied me intently but without any adjective attached. He was simply having a look. Each word had to be repeated, ‘Musee’, ‘Beaux’ ‘Arts’. Finally he repeated it but he spoke the words quite differently. While my version had sounded like a timid mouse with a squeaky voice he thundered back the words in the sort of deep growl a large wild bear might make. No printed words could possibly convey this extraordinary sound. He pointed to the end of the street, through the park, a dramatic movement of the arm which would take me past the train station, another dramatic turn (he used his arm again) and I would be there. These instructions were followed to the letter but it wasn’t the art gallery but the war museum he’d directed me to. Still he was completely accurate on that.
On the way I stopped outside the town hall. There were two different events going on. To the right of the grand entrance a group of people on bicycles. A man in a dress with black and yellow striped tights, another man in sky blue pyjamas and an enormous pair of plastic glasses, a woman with a huge red wig. That sort of stuff. I asked a large man what this was all about. He had a small bowler hat on the top of his big round head, tied under his chin with string. Close up I realised that his Charlie Chaplin moustache had been painted on his upper lip. He explained it was part of a local carnival tradition. The other group was a smartly dressed wedding party which was assembling on the steps of the Town Hall. It was a nice juxtaposition. The cyclists waved and cheered as they made off.
Through the streets, looking up and down the side streets, trying to get a sense of what Calais is and what it’s history might have been. Into a shopping centre. There is a musical instrument shop inside it but few people. Shopping centres can be fascinating places and the concept in itself isn’t a bad one; somewhere which is protected from the weather and brings all the shops together. But they are weird spaces too and there is often considerable amounts of violence within them. The management companies who run these places spend a lot of time and money keeping these bad events out of the ‘news’. And sometimes one walks through a shopping centre and realises that no-one is smiling or looking cheerful. And that the voices of the people who work here are still and silent. That workers in each cell-like shopping space can go for days without the experience of natural light, subject to endless thumping music, intimidated and bullied to prevent them from organising, deliberately isolated and atomised to prevent collective action forming. The worse the social relations are the more money and effort is spent by the shopping centre management company on shouting loudly how wonderful it all must be.
That pulse which pushes us forward in a directionless manner is sending out signals of some force. It is pushing me along the Boulevard Gambetta and out of the town altogether. I once came to the bicycle shop here having picked up three punctures in quick succession on a long ago cycling trip. I fixed one in front of a van full of CRS cops who looked at me with apathy, suspicion and hostility. The best bit had been when the inner tube blew out as I cycled past them creating a shot gun like noise which they didn’t like at all. But the tube blew again and I needed a more specialist repair. I was directed to the bike shop by a helpful passer-by. It was closed for lunch and I spent an hour sitting on the steps of a building round the corner. It was a hot, dirty, dry, midday and everything was closed too. For some reason I wanted to know if the shop was still there. Was it down this road? The shape of the street seemed vaguely familiar. I was trying to remember not just the place but perhaps find some hint of who I might have been a decade or so before. The bicycle shop was still there, but a hand written notice in the window announced a medical emergency and it was not clear when it might re-open.
The pulse moved me along the Boulevard Gambetta and I realised I would walk all the way to the end and out of Calais itself. I stopped to ask a woman in a paper shop if she sold stamps. She was standing in the doorway of the shop smoking a cigarette and reading a magazine. She had a bright red in her face and black hair blowing across her eyes. She shielded her face with her hand so she could look at me in the bright sunshine. We struggled together until she understand my badly pronounced ‘la timbre’. But no, she didn’t sell them.
The boulevard is a mix of nineteenth and twentieth century buildings. I should have taken more photographs but I was lost in a swirling mass of thoughts, day dreams, half formed ideas. I wanted to absorb the experience rather than continually stopping to record it. The first part of the boulevard is tree-lined but then becomes more run-down. There are moments that are fixed as images in my mind. A group of young men who came out of a corner cafe to smoke cigarettes, two women on the opposite side of the road, walking quickly and huddled together, the endless cars, the run-down looking shops, the way the housing had been demoralised by cars and lorries and air and noise pollutants. Bursts of shot-like sounds from a modified exhaust sending a small group of starlings into the air.
The cars are almost bumper to bumper. Everyone inside looks bored and discontented. There are no children playing in the streets and the window boxes are covered in the same oily tar which motorism deposits all around its routes and roads and tracks. No one stands outside their door talking to their neighbours. What would be the point, it would be difficult to hear the conversation. There are no plants, no wildlife, no butterflies or dragon flies, no clean air, no peace, no quiet, no washing hanging on lines and drying in the late winter warmth. There is no colour. That’s the bit I remember now. That further along the street there was no colour. How could there be if it was so dominated by cars?
The Boulevard Gambetta leads into Avenue Roger Alengro. A commemorative plaque on a the wall of a red brick house states that he was Deputie Socialiste Lillois, 1890 – 1936. From what I can glean from the internet, Alengro was a left-wing socialist. He joined the French army in 1914 despite his pacifist convictions. In 1915 he was captured and refusing to work in the German war machine he was badly treated. During the 1930s he became a member of the Popular Front government. In 1936, various fascist, anti-semitic and right-wing groups in France orchestrated a campaign claiming that he had deserted from the army rather than being captured. This led to his suicide. On 22 November 1936 his funeral in Lille was honoured by a million people.
Out of the town itself but this doesn’t feel like the countryside at all. The line of cars is relentless, still bumper to bumper, still with all the noise and pollution and anomie. The ambiance is changed by the Fort Nieulay. It has been the site of a fort since sometime in the 12th or 13th century. Following a visit by Louise XIV and Vauban in 1677 it was rebuilt in what may be described as the ‘Vauban style’. It was last used for military purposes in 1940. It seems strangely neglected, the tourist attraction to which the tourists failed to come. It is locked and appears to have been closed down some time ago. On one of the benches near the moat a large pile of clothes has been dumped. A man and a woman are searching through them. One holds up a pair of trousers to measure them with the eye. I keep walking for some reason slightly wary of the moats and walls and space around the fort. Perhaps it’s all that militarism.
Suddenly and without warning I discover the magnet for all the traffic. A roundabout and then a set of large steel boxes. Garden supplies, building supplies, a large store, pet supplies, video games, homewares, a sofa store, home furniture store. To even visit different shops requires driving. Capital must concentrate and centralise. This is the force which is sucking the value out of the older groups of shops in the city centre and in the areas where people actually live. The steel boxes are relatively cheap to construct and there is no style or architecture or ornamentation to pay for. No seductive curves or small features to catch the eye. It is easier to impose a monetary and social control in places such as these.
The whole edifice creates an atmosphere which people absorb unconsciously which is then expressed as a mix of feelings, identities, ideas and emotions. The need to buy essential things, the strange push to buy non-essential things, the confusion in the mind of the consumer as they arrive at the check-out unsure whether they are buying the right thing or something that they really want. The weird deflation immediately after the point of purchase when the distorted reality is momentarily clarified. It was the wrong purchase after all.
It is a node of concentrated capital and therefore concentrated consumerism. Commodities swept up into ever higher piles. Those commodities carry many messages as well as special features. Some of the messages and signals are easy to read at all times, others faint and indistinct, others impossible to discern from immediate appearance. And yet all commodities are made up of the physical characteristics of the raw materials, the social human labour needed for their production, the social relations which surround their production, the social relations which define their circulation, distribution and consumption. It can appear mystical because the general dynamic of capitalism constantly works to hide and disguise what’s really going on. Here on the outskirts of Calais a small fragment of a broken mirror to hold up to the Society of the Spectacle.
I walk towards the sea. The town of Calais is to the east and to the west, the blue smoke of wood fires and in the trees and tracks, ghostly images, people who have fled war and terror, half-hidden. Commodities are protected, counted, stored safely in warehouses and shopping centres, moved around the world in giant ships, aircraft, trains and lorries. There are security guards to protect them from harm, the atmosphere and temperatures are regulated and monitored to prevent deterioration. All the inputs that commodities need to ensure their pristine character are assured. Electricity, refrigeration, special packing and boxes, polystyrene foam and bubble wrap to prevent damages and scratches. Commodities are never just left in the streets, doorways or derelict buildings to fend for themselves. Commodities are constantly checked to make sure they’re ok.
And yet so many places where people are treated worse than flies.