Just ten miles down the road from me at Le Vernet, Ariége, two hours by winding train to the Spanish frontier, the post pits of an internment camp are covered by subsidised wheat. I didn’t check it out until I heard they were constructing immigrant holding camps at Kelebia, on the south east Schengen border between Hungary and Serbia.
Le Vernet held anti-fascists escaping Franco’s victorious army and undesirable foreigners between 1939 and 1944. My contact with L’Amicale des Anciens Internés Politiques et Résistants was by way of a discrete conversation in Le Bleu Ciel bookshop in Pamiers with a soixante-huitard who asked me to translate into English new information boards for the visitor centre at the camp. L’Amicale was created in 1945 to look after the interests of the Spanish fighters lately active in the Resistance and to help them integrate into French society. During the cold war L’Amicale was seen as a cover for fifth column work on the part of the Comintern and was suppressed. Most members of L’Amicale are descended from Spanish Republican refugees. Just as the paleolithics holed up in the hills round here, hemmed in by the ice to the north so Spanish exiles made new lives in the region. Round here, Spanish is the usual second language.
I drove to Le Vernet the day they put the new boards up. At the railway station is a goods wagon, standing for all those which ran during the European deportations. It rests on bogus foundations so that visitors may step in easily. Pinned to the wall planking are over life-size graphite portraits by internee Carlos Duchatellier. His eye and hand brushed up the unlovely jackets and scarves of the deportees into something like a sort of luxury, was he in fashion before? Middle aged and comfortably dressed about fifteen of us squeezed our personal spaces up a little. It didn’t take much looking at our small signs of distress to feel how it could be with three times as many in there, all bound for who knows where and no breakfast.
Along the fence beside the railway track are facsimiles of the forms used to register arrivals. Greyish photos of tired men mostly in their late forties or fifties, the generation which came of age in time for the First World War, which carried flag and gun in turbulent Europe and got caught. Losers. At the bottom right corner of the form is a box: does he know how to mount a horse, ride and care for horses, swim, mount a bicycle, drive a car? There had been such a rush to get these undesirables bundled away that the collapsing French State had grabbed the nearest paperwork to hand – Post Office recruitment forms.
Our group leave the railway station and car share down Route Nationale 20 past the blue grain silos and the low rent terrace clothed in beige stucco which had been the guards barracks. Little to see of the camp as the scrappy wooden huts have been pillaged, but there is the water tower and two concrete gateposts. In 1970 the sons and daughters of the fighters kicked L’Amicale back into action and recovered their dead into a new cemetery.
Grit flies up from the wheels as the car swivels around the parking, there is a backdrop of industrial agriculture, a bland ripple of green shedding. I get out of the car. A winding shot-gravel path gives you time past the gingers, the purples, the browns, the hostas, the aloe veras clumped up on artificial mounds before you get to the concrete beds of sleeping men.
There are plastic flowers in celluloid tubes sticking up from the granite chipping heaps of the graves. I crunched the heads of vandalised solar lamps. I straightened scratchy fallen blooms, weather worn pinks and yellows and read the congested consonants, the throaty flourishes of the gilded names on the headstones Weschnevosky, Zamora Montoya, Tikhomirov, Pelc, Rotflug, Tchang Kouang Toung and… Dawson, Eric Dawson.
To be sure, those other names were simply Dawson in foreign tongues but I gaped. Eric Dawson. 11 July 1942 with a question mark for nationality. As I felt my way under the chippings towards Eric, the question mark became who were you? Days later I got a hit on the letters page of the journal of the International Brigade Memorial Trust.
I was moved by a recent visit to the memorial and cemetery of an internment camp in southern France… …Eric Dawson …I’m told that his name does not appear among those on the recently digitised MI5 list of suspected International Brigaders. Can any one shed any light on who he was?
I got my torch out and re-read Arthur Koestler’s account of his time at Le Vernet, The Scum of the Earth: the freezing huts, the staggering with buckets full of shit to the river, the pounding of stones, the hierarchy of misery but no mention of Eric. With my residents card I got a pass to the departmental archives at Foix. I went up three flights of tiled stairs into the cool of a big room with the file reference L’Amicale had given me. They brought me two sheets of paper: Eric’s enrolment into the camp and the note of his death.
Eric Dawson was born at Annemasse at Haute-Savoie 1904. He was unable to give the recording officer at Le Vernet the name of his father. His mother was an English woman, Clara Cecilia Dawson. His occupation is given as office boy. Under disabilities is written Catholic. He was married in 1925 to Héleine Mazalet at Davos, Switzerland. The photograph shows an unfortunate looking man with even closer set eyes than mine, fighting back a say cheese smile. The death note states that he died two years after he came into the camp of cachexie (starvation) and intestinal tuberculosis.
Where did Eric go wrong? Was he an International Brigader? I somehow think he wasn’t. He arrived at Le Vernet in May 1940 during the panic as the Germans cruised towards Paris. I imagine him scooped up as a dodgy character in one of the Paris bars where the riffraff consoled themselves. I sat for a moment with him before handing him back for re-insertion into L’Amicale’s ranks of earnest fighters. Going down the tiled stairs I imagined a list of undesirable foreigners on which was my name. Fair France. I could be expelled due to fishermen’s tangles. Airlifted with plastic sack of belongings to join all the other kicked out Brits in a re-purposed barracks in Northern Ireland singing God Save the King in line for breakfast, hoping you’ll be served the chelsea bun the right way up as befits a human.
The Scum of the Earth describes one of history’s brown motions squeezing a bunch of people into bare-bones living, primitive sanitation, physical cruelty and sub-existence rations just so, you’d think, a gifted science journalist could bear witness for as long as people can read. I put Eric back where I thought he belonged, listening to Arthur.
On Eric’s first day at Le Vernet Arthur might have explained to him how human hierarchies get constructed from zero, like a heap of grubs tossed into a jerry-built maze who have to make themselves comfortable in just three moves.
“We studied the higher apes…” Arthur quoted glibly, “…where food source is diverse and mobile the hierarchy is flat with lots of non-serious fighting, but where the food source is fixed and central the hierarchy is rigid which means a lot fewer fights but they end up fatal. In the rigid hierarchy of a closed society a small advantage deployed consistently for gain pushes you upwards; you search for the situation where your advantage will tell. Hierarchy is shaped action.”
Eric felt ill and stupid. He always got caught up with the wrong person. He didn’t understand a word, yet he was still listening. Arthur pushed his muzzle towards him and went on,
“You have natural advantages, acquired advantages or assumed advantages Eric. Some people cannot play their advantage because it is all mixed up with a defect, or drawback. You have to be clear about what your advantage is so that it shines out like a clean bone freed from, excuse me, shit.
There is a form of sorting by having a self-conscious idea of better conditions, more sleep, more space, more food, more security, always in relation to the enclosing power. Here we have two enclosing powers Eric: the gendarmes and the criminals. Between them they run the place, you can’t escape from them you have make do.
You have to go into the worst places inside yourself to be able to do what you have to do. Train yourself to be brutal by touching worms. You will get the jitters sure enough but just look at those who’ve lost their shoes and think they are better off without them. You will be tempted by that nothing state, the musselmen we call them.
You will rehearse your prison number as tho it could tell you something, you will live hungry for food, for books, for warmth, for sleep, for tobacco. Hungry in a word for parcels from the world left behind. Not everyone gets parcels. Those who have parcels become an elite.
You will wish your body was more compact and that your head sat tighter on your shoulders, you wish you were more like a bear than a giraffe. Victory goes to people without necks, you should become reptilian hard, bottom-most brain cogs grinding. Learn how to go about things, husband your resources, always trade up, ‘ware obligations, the small comfort of shoe laces might begin your corruption”
But Eric saw people and oddments, not situations, patterns, force lines. He saw the young Italian historian Leo Valliani who had spent eight of his twenty nine years in prison for anti-fascist activity and the middle-aged Belgian épicier peaceful in France until his neighbour accuses him of signaling with pigeons. Arrested. He saw the solemn, stupid White Russian giant elected block leader and the pimp from Paris in his gangster fashion teddy-bear coat. He saw the actor who protested his transfer to the old men’s barracks whose tears streaked the rejuvenating make up he’d gone to so much trouble to fabricate. Eric saw the Jewish doctor who declined quickly after a false accusation and became muttering, unkempt, apathetic and the homosexual foreign legionnaire, a Swiss, who gets control of the block thru a deal with the gendarmes and the irreducible German communist sweating ice through the Hitler Stalin pact. And then there was himself, the thirty seven year old office boy with an English mum.
And it could all happen again: at five o’clock the morning of September 7th 1950 there was a mass arrest of hundreds of communist Spanish Republican exiles and Eastern Europeans across France. The action was coded Boléro-Paprika. A text from L’Amicale:
… one day the cars stopped in the middle of a forest. They took off our handcuffs, got back into the cars and drove away. We didn’t know where we were, we had driven for days. We had been abandoned, without food, water, documentation or any explanation next to the East German border.
The Préfet of the French Zone in Germany reported up the chain:
“I beg to inform you that since last January we have passed into East Germany eight hundred and thirty six foreigners expelled from France, either by sentence, thru breaking of work contracts or of dubious past”
The French fantasy was that they were fifth columnists for Stalin. But Stalin did not want the West European peoples to rise up. He had directed them lie down and talk up peace. The reality was that the Communists among the exiles maintained a state of readiness to re-ignite the Spanish conflict and this was contrary to NATO interests.
… Boléro-Paprika was an action of mass expulsion. In French law expulsion is defined as the action of chasing someone by violence by or local decision. The individuals concerned are seen not as ut singuli but as anonymous parts of a pre-defined social body.
Aurélie found a piece of paper with the Police time-table written down:
3h00 : wake up and assemble urban personnel
4h00 : secretariat, inspectors and escorts take up position in districts
4h00 : name and address lists circulated
4h15 : teams brought together and instructed in their duties
4h30 : teams leave for their districts
4h30 : riot police reserve positioned
4h45 : urban police radio network on
5h00 : action
It couldn’t be clearer.
It used to be said that if all the world’s population agreed to stand on one leg they could fit onto the Isle of Wight. But that depends on being able to speak to your neighbour and stand his smell, depends on being recognized without derogation on racial or religious grounds. Think of the railway wagon.
The optimists amongst the indigenous people of a territory viewed as attractive and amongst the new arrivals have to practice an unnameable faith, answer the practical question, how deal with the other as an individual? Natural and mutual repugnance is the clay to be worked, mutual because most of the people in the camps come from societies honeycombed by rigid family and clan cells in which people-like-me would never find a place.
Europe evolved thru bloodshed to cope with otherness and federate and mutualize enough to create the état-providence which the people in the camps aspire to enjoy. They should learn that trick. In return, as the état-providence evaporates and we get nudged into twittering, tittering flocks of like-minders under dominant masters the European genius for social collaboration needs the stimulus of the otherness of arriving peoples – different shaped beakers.
Calais began to grow this culture before it got ripped up. Stuff practiced the last twenty years in ZADS could be applied to this harder case. Where better to find a bit of the other than in the camps in the frontier territories or the informal no-man’s wastes? Where better to imagine learning communities in which architects, body culture enthusiasts, pop up cafes, music makers, bicycle menders, nerds, team builders and shady businessmen could circulate exchanging cultural pollen with the transients? Within Schengen, frontiers could become territories of strangeness and discovery with the harder lines and habits blurring away on each side. Who knows what the mediaeval fairs of Champagne were like, perhaps a cultural version of the economic Enterprise Zones of yesteryear?
The river Roya flows out of France into Italy. M. Cédric Herron, in between minding his chickens and olive trees, guides people over the border. His network scouted out an abandoned holiday camp for the incoming Africans. The French constitutional court has just decided that fraternité of that kind is on a par with égalité and solidarité. The boy done good. The incomers inbuilt ability for bricolage (inventive making-do) and trade may be just what post-Brexit Europe needs. Upend the idea of hiding people away and the camps could be market places, not only for contraband and necessities but also for ideas and social practices. Radical libertarian educators instead of the demi thugs of G4S. And right in the middle, a big fat language school as the quickest way out.