One of the many radio programmes I remember from my childhood began with the announcement ‘Once again we stop the mighty roar of London’s traffic to bring you the stories of people who are IN TOWN TONIGHT.’ I used that memory in my recently completed novel. I imagined a young woman hearing those words in the stifling surroundings of an English provincial town in the freezing early months of 1947 and making up her mind to escape to the capital. London in 1947
I imagined, too, how a quarter of a century later she would be able to empathise with another young woman caught in the trap of pregnancy in the same provincial town; how she would help her to escape and find a new life in 1970s London.
Scars of war
The London of the twenty-first century, with its glass and steel towers, would be unrecognisable to my character arriving in a city still pock-marked by the scars of second world war bombing raids. Its lure, however, is as great, if not greater. Its attractions, broadcast 70 years ago, by radio, the length and breadth of the UK, now transmitted via television and the internet to the furthest reaches of the planet.
The world’s population has increased almost five-fold since the end of world war two, despite the numerous wars, revolutions, genocides, famines and natural disasters that have destroyed millions of lives throughout those years. Who among us could fail to empathise with those wishing to escape the ravages of civil wars and famines, of over-crowded slums and poverty?
My character had only too endure a three-hour train journey to reach her destination of her dreams. The migrants encamped in their thousands in Calais have journeyed for many days, on foot or in the backs of assorted vehicles, to reach the north coast of Africa before embarking on some un-seaworthy vessel to cross the Mediterranean before undertaking another long trek over land to reach the French port.
Another memory that comes to me, this time from 1970, is of crossing the Irish Sea in an over-crowded ferry. All flights into Dublin were cancelled because of fog. The regular ferry had been temporarily taken out of service. Hollyhead was inaccessible because of the activities of Welsh Nationalists. The only available route was via Heysham on an ancient mail boat.
Some passengers were issued with bed-rolls and invited to sleep in the cargo hold. I remember the stevedores loading the mail downed tools for two hours whilst the stewards marshaled the passengers to keep them clear of the hatches. I spent the night roaming the decks, stumbling over the feet of people sprawled in the corridors and on stairways, listening to the cries of children as Irish families returned home from holidays with relatives in England.
Perhaps that experience makes it a little easier for me than for someone reading this to understand what it might be like to be crammed with dozens of others into the stinking hold of a no-longer sea-worthy fishing vessel. Listening to the stories of members of what David Cameron referred to as ‘a swarm’, it is impossible not to feel empathy. But it is equally impossible to imagine a practical solution to a problem that is the result of the combination of inexorably rising world population and those continuing wars, famines and disasters.
Cameron appears to be pinning his hopes on something I campaigned for 30 years ago and which successive British governments refused to do until recently, namely meeting the UN’s target for foreign aid which has been 0.7% of GDP since 1970. Britain is one of only a handful of nations to do so. Other British politicians are happy to condemn his language whilst offering little in the way of a practical solution.
For 25 years the Berlin wall and the heavily guarded frontier between the old Soviet Union and the rest of Europe was maintained by the Soviet government to keep its people in. Another 25 years have passed and a former Soviet republic, now part of Europe, is erecting a barrier to keep foreigners out.
The concerns of ordinary Europeans – housing crises, austerity, cuts in welfare – pale into insignificance when viewed against the terrors and travails that are the daily experience of a multitude of African and Middle-Eastern citizens. To the extent that the conditions of their existence are influenced by the decisions our politicians and business leaders take on our behalf, we are responsible for what becomes of them. Exactly what we can do about it is a question for which I do not have the answer. Who does, I wonder?
It seems to me that it is a tide that is bound to swamp us. The conditions the migrants are fleeing from will not be improved any time soon by so inadequate an aid effort. We are no more able to prevent the inevitable than was Cnut a thousand years ago.