Understanding the Calais Critical Mass

Over the August Bank Holiday weekend, eighty cyclists rode seventy miles through Greater London and the Kent Downs to Calais. We cycled in a mass to the desolate camp ground and left our bicycles and tents for the migrants who live there.

It sounds simple when you write it down like that, but the trip had multiple and sometimes competing dimensions. My hope here is to explore these dimensions, from the superficial visceral to the more philosophical conceptual. I hope that this will help people, myself included, understand what the hell just happened.

The Ride

The first dimension was the logistics of the ride itself. Many people were not experienced long distance cyclists and none of us were riding flash new touring bikes. The road was punctuated with punctures, scattered with rain showers and undulating with hill climb, some unnecessarily arduous at the end of long lost detours (sorry about that).

But everyone who took part in the ride was gorgeous and courageous and threw themselves into the trip with optimism, laughter and steadfast determination that was quite hair-tingling to witness. All weekend, I didn’t hear a single moan, groan, quibble, niggle, whinge, whine, peeve or complaint that wasn’t soon laughed over as half a dozen other riders descended on the aggrieved to comfort or make right. Everybody made themselves indispensable.

That optimism, that coruscating energy that all eighty exhaled, pulled down all obstacles in our path and puzzle pieces fell into place precisely when they were called upon. The appearance of an eighty-seater roadside Chinese restaurant, kitchen ready to serve until midnight. The kindness of the proprietor who let us use his yard as an overnight bike storage unit. The large paddock opposite, with open gate and tree cover, for that blustery night’s camp site.

When you move in such numbers, with such force, not only does anything feel possible, but your very conception of the possible expands to encompass everything. Can we fix a double puncture in the dark? Yes. Can we climb another 17% hill on a single speed bike? Yes. Can we navigate through cat black woods in mud and hail? Yes. Can we find a restaurant, cycle parking and camping for eighty people? Of course.

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The Camp

After the group bonding transformation of the ride down to Dover, there was the raw experience of the migrant camp in Calais, overwhelming at the best of times, but this was, meteorologically-speaking, the worst of times.

That night suffered the worst of mauvais Calais: a ferocious thunderstorm. It lasted from dusk until the witching of dawn: cyclonic gales, hailstones, ripping thunder and flash dance lightning directly overhead. Many of our tents were ripped apart, sleeping bags soaked, turned to mops.

Far from drowning in disaster, we witnessed true solidarity, true friendship, true hospitality. The morning, dripping up from the night before, was filled with stories of how this and that party of Syrians or Afghans, those Kuwaitis or Sudanese, had invited tentless, sleepless cyclists into their shelters with companion offers of tea, supper and pyjamas.

There’s a fancy word that I’ve stolen from various theories of agricultural development and romantic attachment called “propinquity”. It basically means closeness, in both time and space. I’ve appropriated this term to capture the idea that the physical environment in which you find yourself at any particular time is the most important factor dictating the course of your life in that moment. Propinquity is hereness, nowness.

The most important person in our lives is always the person closest to us in physical space at that moment. The physical conditions and environment that we find ourselves in are always the most relevant to our lives at that moment. It’s no good having a nice warm house back in London if you’re stranded in a tempest in Calais. It’s no comfort having a hilarious friend who’d make you laugh about how wet you all are, if she’s not with you at that precise moment of drenchery.

No: you are entirely dependent, or rather interdependent with the people with whom you share this physical space.

Some people came with vague high-minded ideas that they would “help” the migrants. This is all very warm and fuzzy, but its misapprehensions were blown away by that gale. We were their guests; despite all the donations in the world, all we can ever truly bring each other is friendship.

Of course, in among all the handshakes, hugs, nuts, sweets, oranges and smiles, there was profound misery. Tents were washed away in mud slides, even vast UN-style refugee shelters stood in inches of water, only pallets on the ground raised the lucky ones from sleeping in streams.

A young man from Kuwait, a new arrival at the camp, came to me at four in the morning, trying to find a tent to sleep and shelter in. We walked around our clutch of canvas and found him one that was empty. But the door had been left unzipped and the tempest had made home there. He crouched down, dipped his hands into the swampish floor, stood up, covered his face with his palm and wept. I put a hand on his shoulder, another around his nape, and did all I could. He walked away over the dunes, backlit by lightning.

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There is a form of experience and learning called kinaesthesia. It happens when you actually do something, rather than read about it in a book or watch a programme about it on television. I believe that the only way you can truly begin to understand Calais is by taking part in such a kinaesthetic experience: by being there.

In many ways, the cycle ride was a ruse. The most efficient way to transport bicycles from London to Calais is to hire a van, pack it with fifty bikes and get someone to drive down. But then only the driver would have that understanding, that kinaesthetic experience of Calais. He could only attempt to spread his experience further through stories and maybe a blog post or a video. That’s not enough. I want everybody in Britain to travel to Calais and have a kinaesthetic experience; I want everybody to make friends and shake hands.

I always say that one trip to Calais, one cup of hot sugary tea with a Sudanese or Eritrean, is worth a full year of media stories, with their distortions, omissions, angles, exaggerations and outright lies. I think of Calais as an inoculation against the propaganda, a cool draught of reality against the slurping sugar and sour of the media and news machines. Some are hostile to migration, some are more sympathetic, but why filter through the eyes and words of others when you can immerse yourself in understanding by being there.

William James, the founder of modern psychology, said that we become what we do. I have become a writer by writing every day. You might have become a good husband by being kind to your wife every day. We weren’t born this way; we acted this way and became this way.

By cycling to Calais and staying in the camp with a family from Afghanistan, we become the person who cycled to Calais and stayed in the camp with a family from Afghanistan. That simple, but remarkable, act of solidarity becomes a part of us and makes us more empathic human beings in our future.

In some tiny way, the struggles of our own short two-day journey over land to Calais represented a scintilla of the struggles that migrants face, journeying not sixty miles, but thousands of unsettled, dangerous miles. We can never fully embody another person’s struggle, but we can stand closer with them through doing and becoming.

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The Bicycle Donation

Far and away the most minor dimension of the expedition was the handover of bikes to the people in the camp. We’d cycled them to Calais and we would be walking home.

For many in the media and for some on the ride, I’m afraid that this “charitable” aspect of the ride drew focus away from the more important dimensions outlined above: making the journey and simply being there at the camp, meeting and making friends, with people from very different backgrounds. Yes, it’s wonderful to be able to share the bicycle’s gift of freedom with someone who has none, but that gift can never outweigh our exchange of friendship.

Charity, as I have said before, can quickly become a hierarchical transaction between the supposed “haves” and the supposed “have nots”. I’m not saying that recipients of charity are not living without waterproof shoes or enough warm blankets, food or sanitation; they are. What I am saying is that we shouldn’t assume that, because these people “have not” something, they are somehow below us who “have”.

Ultimately, we are all human and we all live within the same range of emotions and experience, equally. We all love and laugh, we all get frustrated and angry. We all have good days and we all have bad days. We are all surviving together.

Going to Calais, therefore, should not be an act of charity. It should always be a shared act of solidarity between you and the people you meet there, moving equally in both directions. You are not giving anything away, no hand-outs, no donations, no charity: you are sharing yourself and putting yourself into a situation where you can invite other people to share alike. In this way, there is no distinction, no hierarchy, between “giver” and “recipient”: we will both have good days.

At times I have been angry, sad or vengeful over the injustices I’ve witnessed. Of course. But I have always come away from Calais immensely grateful to the people I met, for teaching me more about myself and the world we share.

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The Future

There is a fourth dimension to this trip: the future. What will I, what will you, what will we do with this experience?

First of all, we will share our stories with our friends, with our families. Do not underestimate the power of a conversation, of sharing your experiences and enthusiasm. That’s how ideas spread and ideas are far more durable than money, tents or warm socks.

Little by little, more people will hear of Calais and the conditions under which our government makes some people live. Little by little, more people will go to Calais and understand for themselves. Little by little, attitudes to migration across the country will evolve. Little by little, more and more people will understand that to support impermeable militarised borders is to stand on the wrong side of history. People will be free.

When you combine the kinaesthetic experience and the propinquity conditions of both cycling seventy miles and meeting migrants in Calais, you live powerful, even overwhelming experiences. I have looked to the skies and felt tears and a beating heart. We have all made unforgettable memories and precious friends. Keep them and use them to inspire yourselves and each other.

And let’s do it again sometime.

“LOVE. Always. It’s the most important thing in life. Everything else is just a story for your grandkids.”

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