The School Bus Project, Calais

One of the beautiful things about this bike ride is that we can connect places to places and people to people. In Whitstable we spoke to Shernaz, an active organiser of support going from that part of the world to Calais and beyond. She told us that, while in Calais, we must visit Kate McAllister, who works on an educational project there. So two days of cycling later, that’s exactly what we did.
Continue reading “The School Bus Project, Calais”

Calais: From Crisis to Community

Back in March 2015, the French authorities in Calais made a tactical blunder. They evicted the dozen or so migrant squats and camps dotted around the town, which had been home to 1-2,000 refugees and migrants from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Syria, among others. Instead, they created a “tolerated zone” a few kilometers away, where the migrants could sleep and suffer until they decided that surrendering was better than staying.

The tactical blunder was to underestimate the response of civil society to this new tolerated camp. Then again, in fairness to the French, there was nothing in the air back then to suggest that civil society at large would give anything other than a flying fuck about the couple of thousand migrants squatting on their doorstep. Continue reading “Calais: From Crisis to Community”

I’m a voyeur, a do-gooder, a megalomaniac!

“You’re a voyeur, a do-gooder, a megalomaniac.”

I’ve been called many things since I first started “getting involved” with Calais back in the summer of 2014. Rather than dismissing these accusations hurled as insults, I would rather examine them to discover from where they derive their power. Because power they have: I do feel, at times, a voyeur, a do-gooder and a megalomaniac.

I don’t think many people enjoy acknowleging these aspects of themselves, but I think it’s important to do so. Hopefully I’ll show you how listening to your feelings of voyeurism, do-gooding and megalomania can make you, not just a better activist, but a better person altogether.

“You’re a voyeur.”

This accusation is founded on the idea that the migrant camp in Calais represents a vision of the world so radically different to mine that I must be taking some kind of perverse pleasure in the encounter. My favourite term for this kind of activist tourism is, rather than solidarity, holidarity.

It’s true: my warm home in London couldn’t be more different to the waterlogged shanty tents of Calais. It’s also true that my life as a middle class white Englishman couldn’t be more different to the experience of a six year-old Syrian boy, alone in an unwelcoming foreign land with not much more than the shirt on his back.

The accusation of voyeurism hits the mark. The misery and squalor of Calais is horrifying. It does, sometimes, make me stare uncomprehendingly, and thank my lucky stars that I don’t have to live through this reality indefinitely.

But this is my reality. Calais is as much a part of my life as the streets of New Cross, and we are all part of a world crowded with camps as horrifying as Calais (and many much more so). Should we airbrush places like Calais from our pretty picture? I don’t think so. The only question that remains, then, is how we should act in such a world.

Here is where we get our first insight: the feeling of being a voyeur only hits me when I restrict myself to being an outside observer. This actually happens very rarely. When I’m in Calais, I usually spend most of my time talking to people, trying to teach English, sharing food, or playing cricket. The moment I take action, the feeling of voyeurism dissolves in a shared connection with real people who react and respond themselves.

It’s simple. We can’t deny that voyeurism is part of the spectrum of human feeling, but I see voyeurism as a timely reminder that we are not here on Earth merely to observe; we are here to connect.

“You’re a do-gooder.”

The sense of “do-gooding” is undoubtedy pejorative. Do-gooders are earnest, naive, impractical, patronising, relentlessly foisting their well-intentioned, but ill-conceived ideas of betterment on people who have asked for nothing.

I won’t repeat the unfavourable comparison I’ve made before between charity and solidarity, but I do feel that the difference is hierarchy and intention. (Please note that I’m not talking about all insitutional charities necessarily, but the fundamental concept.)

Charities are classically and intentionally hierarchical: a material need is identified and filled by an outside group. The power resides in the charity. Clothes, food, or bikes are handed out from those who have to those who have not. At its best, this is nothing more than resource re-distribution; at its worst, however, the recipient is turned into a beggar for aid.

The concept of solidarity is very different in structure and intention. Solidarity recognises the natural and fundamental equality of humanity. The intention is simply to stand side by side with your brothers and sisters, in the good times, as well as the bad. What is yours is theirs, and vice-versa. It is similar to a friendship bond, rather than an institutional or paterfamilias bond.

I have always left Calais feeling like I was an equal beneficiary from whatever exchange of humanity took place between me and the people I met there.

So when you are accused of being a do-gooder, it’s a signal that perhaps you have assumed more power than you should in an equal relationship. The solution is simple: check your privilege, and surrender any top-down control you have.

“You’re a megalomaniac!”

A megalomaniac is a pathological egotist, conceited, self-obsessed, with an exaggerated sense of their own importance. What has this to do with activism and Calais, you might wonder. Well, there are a couple of ways a megalomaniac might become involved.

A pre-existing megalomaniac might see in Calais and the migration crisis an opportunity for his own self-aggrandisement and fame. I’m not going to talk about those kinds of people; they have a lot more work to do than I can help with here.

What I will talk about, however, are the heady megalomaniacal feelings that an activist might get when they get media or popular attention, when they are part of something awesome, or when they start to feel possession over “their” action.

Since the middle of 2015, there has been a lot of attention on Calais, not just in the media, but on the street too. Back in 2014, no one was particularly interested in what I did in Calais. One mention of “migrants” and all I’d get was a dirty look. This autumn, however, those same dirty lookers were clamouring for tips on how to “get involved”.

My small part in the success of the Calais Critical Mass over the August Bank Holiday also meant that I ended up speaking to all sorts of national and international media, in print and on TV. A couple of things I’ve written about Calais on this site have gone viral, sending thousands of people to a blog that usually gets about 50 visits a day.

At times, it’s been hard to come down from the megalomaniacal high.

When I get this kind of attention and appreciation, my heart rate rises, I feel light-headed, and my voice goes all squeaky. It’s a pretty great feeling and it would be tempting, indeed understandable, to chase that megalomaniacal high. But I know that it is not a productive emotion to indulge.

I call these feelings “megalomania”, and not something more positive like “enthusiasm” or “ecstasy”, because they always result in me turning inwards, chasing the feeling, not the results that I would like to see in the world. The antidote to megalomania is modesty.

As we rode down to Calais in an eighty-strong mass last August, I kept telling myself (and anyone who’d listen) of the modesty of what we were trying to achieve. This was not a grandiose expedition, I kept telling myself. It would be a success if just one person made just one other person smile across the battlelines of our border.

Whenever I felt myself being carried along by incipient feelings of megalomania – “This is the beginning of the borderless revolution, and I made it happen!” – I would refocus on that one little smile, and give thanks that I was able to be a tiny part of a much greater positive force.

Megalomania is another useful signal, telling me that success is making me turn inwards. The solution is to appreciate our smallest imaginable achievement, and give thanks to all the others who make this possible. Megalomania is a call to acknowledge the higher purpose we share with the rest of the planet.

Yes, I am a voyeaur, a do-gooder, a megalomaniac (sometimes)

Occasionally feeling like a voyeur, a do-gooder, or a megalomaniac is an inescapable part of being an activist (by which I mean “human”). I’m only human; I’m bound to get swept away sometimes by feelings of horror and power, fame and pride.

I see these feelings, not as enemies or insults, but as signals, important reminders to reconnect with the real reasons for why I’m doing what I do.

  • When I feel like a voyeur, I must remember to stop being an outside observer, and to connect.
  • When I feel like a do-gooder, I must remember to check my privilege, and surrender my top-down control.
  • When I feel like a megalomaniac, I must give thanks to others, and acknowledge my small role in our shared higher purpose.

As activists, we must learn to take our own temperatures (or rely on a trusted friend). When you feel yourself getting too hot, dial the temperature down by refocussing on what exactly makes you feel good about what you do. What makes me feel good is the community, being able to make a personal connection with people from Sudan, Eritrea or Syria. That’s what’s important to me.

If you can’t find any good in that moment, then it’s time to take a step back altogether. Relax, go home, clear yourself out.