Monday, 14 May 2007
On the waterfront
Whitstable last night for Oysters and swanky fish and chips. No sign of the many YBA artists who live here; perhaps they are all walking to Venice as well: for this summer’s Biennale.
Dover saw a little sun this morning, but mostly in the newsagents. The sky is gray as I walk along the sea front, and brings on nostalgic feelings as I’ve been here so often for over 40 years, but never before to walk to the ferry port. About half a mile out from the complex it becomes clear that foot-passengers are low in the food chain in the twenty-first century. In fact the social hierarchy when traveling to France is something like this:
First class Eurostar; then second
Privet jet; then Air France; then Easyjet
Car to the ferry
Coach to the ferry
At the SeaFrance ticket desk there are apologies about the absence of shops and internet. “We had it, but it broke,” said a woman, as if this didn’t matter. At immigration a pair of Brazilian girls in full Vogue make up and red-red nails say: “soo sorree” when the official asks them to remove their Versace sun-glasses. And finally the Berlioz, one the newer SeaFrance cross-channel shopping malls.
Inside the ship is rather chic: retro faux leather in limes and off-reds. Hoardes of kids; many nationalities. Two games arcades: this is not a SAGA holiday ship, but a SEGA one. I go out on deck and photograph the old signal station, where my grandfather worked for twenty-five years.
William Avery made the local television news when he retired. He won the MBE during the Second World War for his bravery at Dunkirk, when he took his small merchant boat back and forwards eight times during the evacuation. His tales were of a Europe that is long gone; of German battleships smuggling their way through the Channel; of the good man Bertram Ramsey, who masterminded Dunkirk. Later it was Soviet subs, as well as the vastly increased tourist traffic that caused him sleepless nights on duty. We argued about knots: I was never really a man of the sea, though I loved going to the signal station, which seemed very James Bond.
William Avery; Kathleen Hunt; Me
As we leave the harbour I think about a few of the millions who have made similar leavings: Emma Hamilton, Nelson’s lover, who fled England for Calais in 1814, left via the Tower of London because Dover would have been staked out by journalists – no, really. I’ll write about her tomorrow. Instead I remember my favourite scene in Tinker Tailor Solider Spy, John Le CarrÈ’s definitive novel of the Cold War. Towards the end of the book when the wise old master spy, George Smiley, is closing in on his mole, Bill Hayden (who in real life is Kim Philby), a trap is set.
Ricky Tarr, a “lamplighter” – which is nuts and bolts spy who does the dirty work – has come to Smiley with a tale of corruption at the top of The “Circus”, let’s call that MI6. In the novel he is sent to Paris via Liverpool and then Ireland to make the Russians know he’s about to sell his story, and thus cause the “mole” to panic.
“At the dockside, a sense of fellowship touched the small crowd as the ship’s lights bobbed quickly into the gloom. Somewhere a woman was crying, somewhere a drunk was celebrating his release.”
In the television adaptation by Arthur Hopcraft a new scene was created on the deck of a Cross Channel ferry here at Dover. Tarr is accompanied by his boss, Peter Guillam, and he tells the “lamplighter” not to make any mistakes. But it is the backdrop of the White Cliffs, gray in 1970s depression – not the comic-book gray of the BBC’s recent Life on Mars – that lifts the scene. The backdrop makes clear that what is at stake is a kind of post-war Englishness, not necessarily for the good, that will in real life be blown away in the 1980s by the Thatcherite revolution. The short scene is dripping with dirty grandeur, as Dover did and still does.
More pictures via Picassa as I learn French Windows keyboards soon
Today there is far less deck space for grand drama, but many more retail opportunities. I see John, an Australian copy-writer, having a cigarette. Later he and his wife tell me they are off to pay their respects to his grandfather who died at a small village on the Belgian boarder in 1916 fighting the Kaiser’s men; after that they go on to Auscwitz before Bloomsbury again to meet their daughter who has just graduated from Oxford in Medieval History. “Make sure there’s leather on your shoes,” John says, when I leave them. “Betwixt Europe,” I say, but John has got it memorized already. Les, from Ireland is headed for Vladivostok. He’s been to the most westerly railway station in Europe – in Ireland. Now he’s traveling to the most easterly, in Vlaidvostock. He has six months medication in his back-pack and is worried the customs might think he’s a drug dealer. He’d be an elderly one. I wish them all well: historians all, in search of their own vision of Europe.
Coryat had to check in with the Deputy Governor. We just need Tourist Information. Once I have a hotel they pounce. Would I do a survey about tourism? Madame Gigi is up from Cavaillon, near Avignon, to study techniques at successful French tourist operations: down there they are a little behind. She’s observing at Coquelles as well, the hyper-super market that brings thousands of day-trippers from England. Travel and shopping growing ever closer. She has a form and a mini-disk and after twelve minutes in Calais I am an authority for her survey. “Walking?” she says, dubiously.
More on Calais and the channel tomorrow.