Notes From the Margins…

Calais: the dystopian frontier

  • July 31, 2015
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In these nervous, gloomy times our cultural appetite for dystopia often seems insatiable.     Again and again in book, tv series and film we like to imagine places in the near or distant future where our worst fears are realized, and the destructive or oppressive tendencies that we perhaps sense in the present are taken to their logical extreme to produce a fantasy dystopia a bad place or perhaps the worst of places. Pom

Nowadays we don”t have to look far for inspiration. No need for Mad Max, Big Brother or the Hunger Games.     All we have to do is cross the Channel to the venerable port of Calais, the place where Mary Tudor once left a piece of her heart when it fell to the French in 1558.

There we can find a city that has become a perfect mirror of our dysfunctional world, a place where men and women fuelled by the promise of sanctuary or the hope of a different life collide with the UK”s pitiless and implacable borders, and intersect with the dreams of the citizens of one of the richest countries on earth, heading for their holidays or returning from them.

Two days ago my family were part of that latter exodus.   The last time I was in Calais was three years ago, when I went there with my daughter on a journalistic assignment to look at the conditions that migrants were facing in the city. At that time there were about four hundred migrants in and around the city. Now, as the British public knows well, there may be five thousand, most of whom are living in a new “Jungle” that has already begun to acquire the characteristics of a semi-permanent shantytown.

On Wednesday my family and I returned to Calais again, passing through Eurotunnel on our way to France and Spain by car. We had a booking, and a good thing too, given the chaos spreading through Kent, that became clearer the nearer we got to Folkestone.     Most of the time we tried to avoid the M20, but as we got closer to the coast we thought we”d try our luck because the motorway looked clearer than we expected.

A bad decision.. Approaching Charing we saw a roadside sign calling on Cameron to do something about “them Frenchies” a message with a curiously faint flavour of the Napoleonic wars.     But the rows of banked trucks on the hard shoulders were very 21st century, before we were diverted onto the A20.     More trucks parked in laybays for no obvious purpose. Just outside Ashford we ground to a halt and took about forty minutes to go three hundred yards.

Sensing disaster we pulled off the road and began to improvise, driving helter skelter through the narrow byways of the Garden of England, threading our way forward until hallelujah! We reached the entrance to Eurotunnel.     We didn”t miss our booking, but we had to wait two hours because of the knockon.     All this, Eurotunnel assured us, was due to “migrant activity” the previous night.

We felt moderately stressed but relieved to have got that far so quickly.     All around us were cars filled with children, dogs, bicycles, holiday luggage, the bric a brac of the summer exodus, the two weeks when we abandon our homes to rent another or get back to nature in a tent or caravan.

On the other side of the channel were men, women, and children with nothing at all, trying to get to our side of the water in order to continue their lives or find a liferaft steady enough to hold them in this violent, crazy planet where war engulfs whole countries, some of them with our participation or the participation of our allies.

The journeys they made were infinitely harder and tougher. They had crossed deserts and oceans, maybe a hundred or more in a boat. Some will have seen their friends and loved ones die in front of their eyes.     Others will have fled the destruction of their cities, homes and neighborhoods.

The tabloids call them invaders. Our disgusting Prime Minister calls them a “swarm.” That smirking cheekie chappie Nigel Farage, who also passed through Calais recently, has called for the army to protect “holidaymakers” whose lives may be at risk.     Nine migrants have died in the last two months trying to get into the Calais port or Eurotunnel. During the “migrant activity” of the previous night, one pregnant woman lost her child while trying to jump onto a truck.   Dozens have been injured trying to climb trucks or board one of the moving trains that we finally drove our car onto.

No one talks of protecting them.     No sympathy for them from Farage, or from Cameron, who expressed his empathy with “holidaymakers” and described their situation as “deeply concerning.” Let me say that Cameron doesn”t speak for me or my family. We don”t want his concern. We don’t want COBRA.     We want him to let the migrants in.

We want justice and we want humanity. Both qualities are conspicuous by their absence in the unfolding humanitarian disaster in Calais. And the result is an astonishing situation in which migrants can’t enter Kent and ‘holidaymakers’ and truck drivers can only leave it with difficulty.

Why is this happening? Because of public “concerns” about immigration. Because we are worried about our national identity. Because we don”t want to lend a hand to the brown and black-skinned human beings who we prefer to describe as “swarms” and “invaders” the better to justify their exclusion and our indifference to them.

The result is a genuinely dystopian scenario the stuff of fiction, where the people of the inner zone let”s call them the Holidaymakers, glimpse those who are not permitted to enter the zone, let”s call them the Outsiders or the Unwanted. OK, let”s just call them the migrants. Because this is the name we have given to the shattered men and women we see from the road at Coquelles, blown by the storms of war and poverty to our deadly borders, looking for ways to cross the rows of fences, the razor wire and the strip of water that defines our island home.

We glimpse them briefly amongst the trees and fields, harrassed by French cops on our behalf, before we drive on to our hotels, cottages and campsites. From a distance we look kind of like refugees with our packed cars stuffed with bags and suitcases.

But we aren”t. They are, and it shames us all that we can’t – or won’t recognize this, and bring this nightmare to an end.


  1. Daniel Margrain

    1st Aug 2015 - 3:34 am

    Hi Matt, A very illuminating first hand account – well written. I wrote about this subject in my latest blog piece, Calais: Let Them In, in which I quoted you. I think you might find it interesting – hope so. Take care.

    • Matt

      5th Aug 2015 - 4:09 pm

      Thanks Daniel. Same to you.

  2. Richard Carter

    1st Aug 2015 - 6:49 am

    Just to add to your concerns, yesterday the Daily Mail descended to its most disgusting level yet with the huge headline “THE ‘SWARM’ ON OUR STREETS” ( They had at least the decency to put single quotes round SWARM, but otherwise the headline is vastly more inflammatory than the foul comment that Cameron made originally, though how they can in honesty claim that the ‘swarm’ in Calais is now on OUR STREETS is beyond me. A sad, sick day for UK tabloids.

    • Matt

      5th Aug 2015 - 4:08 pm

      One of so many, unfortunately.

  3. Nigel Baldwin

    5th Aug 2015 - 9:17 am

    Pardon me, Matt, but Calais wasn’t ‘ceded’ to the French in 1558. Calais fell that year after an assault from the landward side led by the Duke of Guise. Pathetically, the Kings of England (and the UK) still continued to keep up the claim to the French throne until 1803, at which time that throne was well and truly defunct. But of course, futile gestures in the face of “faites accomplis” are a peculiarly English thing…

    • Matt

      5th Aug 2015 - 4:07 pm

      Thanks Nigel. Corrected!

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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