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Nightmare: #atozchallenge

Warning: this is a rant. Some readers may be offended.

I’m talking living nightmares here, not bad dreams. I watch, nightly, scenes of ravaged cities that, a few years ago were bustling, modern metropolises teeming with people going about their business and tourists photographing historic buildings. I watch, too, over-loaded boats ferrying people, men, women and frightened children, across the Mediterranean or Aegean seas. And my television also shows me lines of similar people trekking across country or, more often these days, camping in unbelievably squalid conditions beside hastily erected fences. Many of these dispossessed people are the former citizens of those wrecked and ruined cities.

I cannot begin to imagine what it must have been like to see one’s home become a war zone. By ‘home’ I do not just mean the house one occupies with one’s family, I mean the familiar neighbourhood where you conduct your business at the corner shop, attend religious ceremonies at the church, mosque or temple around that same corner, where every morning you take your children to the nearby school.

I do not know what is worst: to be confined indoors because of street fighting, snipers on rooftops hiding behind the parapets, or to be afraid to remain indoors for fear of being shelled or bombed. Maybe you’d hope the nightmare would end soon. That the fighting would stop. That basic services would be restored. That the empty shelves in the corner shop would be replenished. At what point would you come to realise that the nightmare was not going to end? That the only escape was to leave what remains of the place you used to call home and to seek something closer to normality elsewhere.

To get to that new place involves another nightmare, almost, but perhaps not quite, as bad as the one you are leaving. Trekking for days across a hot desert, finding someone to carry you across an ocean, albeit, if you are lucky, a small ocean. Selling your most treasured possessions in order to pay for that part of the journey. Seeing friends, neighbours, close relatives, drown, having already lost many to the bullets and bombs of the war. And then to discover that all that is on offer is a makeshift tent in a filthy encampment.


That, surely, is the worst nightmare anyone can imagine. And yet it is the daily experience of tens of millions. We, the fortunate ones, have become so inured to seeing these human tragedies unfold on our screens. We worry about what is to become of these victims of the insanity of war only to the extent that our own comfortable lives might be disrupted. That these migrants will place pressure on public services. Our own access to quality health, education and housing will be impaired if we allow ‘this flood’ to reach our own shores. We are even prepared to risk all that has been good about Europe since our own cities were destroyed by bombs as we lived through our own nightmare more than 70 years ago. We learned the lessons – or I thought we had.

We learned that it is better to try to rub along together, to accept, even celebrate, differences in culture and religion. To share our good fortune with those less fortunate than ourselves, within the boundaries of Europe and further afield.

The fact that others are still slaves to intolerance and prejudice to the extent they are prepared to kill each other, and to attempt to terrorise us, out of whatever twisted motives, is hard to understand. And I wonder when our politicians will learn that our attempts to interfere in these disputes are making things worse. I am grateful for having been born at a time and in a place that made me a member of the most fortunate generation this planet has known. And I’m ashamed that our grandchildren will be unable to share much of that good fortune because of the greed and ignorance of many of my contemporaries.


Desperate to Escape

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?

Long trek

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.

Welfare cuts

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.