A friend of a friend comes by to pick up some fags I’ve obtained for him – Gauloises filters. Global markets being what they are, you can buy cocaine (DOC Colombia) and heroin (DOC Afghanistan) on the street corners of almost any British city, but when it comes to child-murdering nicotine, certain varieties are tightly contrôlés, in particular those whose denominated origin is that faraway land of which we know so little: France. I picked up a carton for him at La Cave au Tabac by the Gare du Nord in Paris, because his normal supply line was being disrupted by “hordes” of migrants and asylum-seekers trying to board lorries and trains bound for the Channel Tunnel.
The one time I took a trip to Booze Alley, the strip of hypermarkets outside Calais where Brits stock up on cheap(er) plonk and snout, I made a side-excursion to the bidonville that had sprung up beyond the razor-wire-topped fences surrounding the Tunnel infrastructure. This would have been at least a decade ago and the migrants were only (!) in the hundreds, yet the situation was already accorded a national disgrace – the problem being to identify which nation’s face should have been empurpled by embarrassment. Now the benighted are in their thousands, yet Hollande, Cameron et al continue to kick the political football back and forth across the Channel with an ease envied by all those who – from committed smokers and long-distance hauliers to the shanty-dwellers themselves – are suffering from new restriction on their movements.
The late Paul Fussell was that rare thing: a literary critic who’d also been a professional soldier. In his marvellous book The Great War and Modern Memory, he advances the theory that the first few months of the First World War represented an ironic reversal of unprecedented sharpness – more like an ironic handbrake-turn, in fact. In August 1914 the troops marched off to victory, gaily caparisoned, flutes a-tootling, drums a-thrumming, and within months they were bogged down in the hell-hole of the trenches. For Fussell, this was the wellspring from which the blackly absurdist bile of Beckett in due course bubbled, but I wonder: isn’t the current impasse de Calais of a similar ironic cast? In August, when London and Paris feel crumpled and vacuous, so much of the population having been squeezed out of them, one becomes conscious of the great migratory flows of the lesser-spotted bourgeoisie. They all head off gaily caparisoned, iPhones a-tootling, stomachs a-rumbling for French grub; meanwhile, the Syrians and the Sudanese, the Libyans and the Baluchis are trapped in the hell-hole of a shanty town that can be seen clearly through the tinted windows of your southbound SUV.
What can we do to help the poor migrants? The answer is: we’re doing all we can by taking our holidays as near to their immiserated homelands as we dare, in the hope that some of our safe and prudent sterling will seep sideways into their economies. We’re doing all we can by descending on retail opportunities in our hordes, because, savvy types that we are, we know things will only get better once they are bought in larger quantities. There’s a JG Ballard story in which all the northern European holidaymakers basking on Mediterranean beaches are simultaneously informed that their services are no longer required at home, but nor can they return. Happily, if fantastically, the exiled hedonists form themselves into a new nation, whose territory is enormously elongated but only a few sunlounger-lengths deep.
Perhaps the solution to the migrant crisis is of a similar order. Rather than attempting to discourage others from following them by treating those already here like shit, the government should strip our most egregious vacationers of their citizenship, starting with Labour MPs hanging out in honey-coloured Tuscan villas. The many central London properties left vacant can be easily adapted to act as hostels for the incomers; one well-appointed study could be easily partitioned to house, say, 40 or 50 Eritreans. I know this seems harsh, but you have to consider the facts: at this point in the political calendar, apart from working tirelessly to have themselves elected as leader or deputy leader, most Labour MPs are woefully economically unproductive, and many of them are ageing. Some, such as Chukka Umunna, wouldn’t even make the effort to campaign. By contrast, the Calais migrants have a proven record of initiative, daring and hard work. They are youthful, determined and – contra right-wing slurs – passionately committed to the free market.
I don’t mean to suggest it’s Labour MPs alone who should be swapped for migrants; I’ll happily declare Tories, Scots Nats and entire marauding phalanxes of Pilates instructors stateless as well. As for those hauliers parked up on the M20, they can stay put – there’s far too much heavy-goods traffic on British roads; forcing them to settle in their thousands actually on the motorway will kill thousands of birds with a little bit of gravel. As for my mate’s mate, we didn’t develop this sophisticated transport infrastructure just so he could buy cheap fags; so I suggest we do away with it altogether. He can buy his Gauloises filters from the hauliers, who undoubtedly have whole container-loads of them – certainly sufficient, given the epidemiology of lung cancer, arterial sclerosis and respiratory disease, to last him the residuum of his life.