With yet another refugee crisis prominent in the news, I was reflecting on just how little the world's attitude to displaced persons has changed over the years. My Grandfather and Great Grandparents were themselves refugees a little more than a hundred years ago and it was with this in mind that I decided back in 1992 to find out first hand a little more about just what makes someone uproot themselves, and often their family too, in order to travel to foreign lands and an unknown future.
I managed to get a place on a United Nations Association project working at a refugee centre in a small town called Middelburg in the south of the Netherlands. This small European country has for a long time been a haven for those escaping trauma and persecution in their homeland and generally the Netherlands has proved to be a safe and tolerant place for displaced persons. However, as I was to discover, everything was not rosy in this particular compound, interestingly referred to in Europe as an asylum seekers centre, which, without the 'refugee' tag, perhaps sounds less threatening to western ears. It's true that in a reception centre like the one in Middelburg at least the refugees can enjoy a safe room and board. Indeed, in a strange twist, it was we volunteers in this case who were encamped outdoors in a field under canvas... and under guard.
This was a time of turmoil in the world – so what's new...? There were perhaps two hundred asylum seekers at the centre and more arriving every day. War had been raging in the Gulf and also in the Balkans as Yugoslavia disintegrated into furious battle. Refugees fleeing both conflicts arrived at our centre looking bewildered and tired. And it was clear to see in their eyes that they had witnessed unspeakable horrors.
Clutching a few belongings, some carrying babies or with a scared child in tow, they would stand together side by side with their former enemy. Bosnians alongside Serbs, Iraqis alongside Kurds, all registering at the reception desk at the centre.
These people, it struck me, were not at war with each other, these people were the casualties of wars puppeteered by dictators.
As the days went by we began to hear their stories. We were ostensibly there to try to get the refugees involved in some kind of social activities which frankly was never going to be the outcome of this project. It became ever more clear that these people just wanted someone to listen to their story and, through us, to tell the world about their plight.
And the stories were shocking. And most of all very very sad. They were the stories of lives and families torn apart, uprooted and destroyed.
We did our best to organise some activities that may at least temporarily distract the refugees from their traumas and this was a bizarre and slightly surreal task that might involve trying to encourage Kurdish freedom fighters to join in a session of Bingo... or attempting to cajole some Serbian villagers into playing a game of soccer. One of the Kurds took me aside and said to me “that is why we call this place Disneyland”, and indeed we were all inhabiting a strangely detached, fictionalized version of real life.
Don't get me wrong, the centre was doing excellent work within the limitations set for it by legislation. There were restrictions on the number of asylum seekers who could be granted resident status, there were financial restraints (the food provided was strictly rationed) and the processing time for applications was long.
What struck me, talking with and getting to know these refugees, was that each was a real person just like you and I with their own dreams, aspirations, hopes and fears. Most had left family in their home country, all were missing someone. Many were heart broken and on the verge of giving up. Some did. Suicide attempts were not uncommon here and I also witnessed madness, those who had just quite literally lost their minds. And who could blame them.
Yet amongst all the turmoil there remained over and above all else hope. Hope for a better life, hope for recovery. Hope for reconciliation.
The human spirit is never stronger than in a place like this where a glimpse of a better life lies just beyond the fence..
Slowly I got to know the stories of some of the most inspiring people I have ever met. Iraqi soldiers would open up to me, we'd drink whisky together and talk deep into the night. Kosovans would tell me that they loved to dance, that they miss the simple pleasures in their lives. Kurds would speak of their love for family and home. Strong grown men, trained as soldiers, would break down and weep.
Twenty five years later the world has not moved on. Lessons have not been learnt and probably never will be.
As the world finds itself in the midst of yet another refugee crisis, what hope have we that compassion and understanding will ever prevail?
A first home is always going to be a special place, however humble.... and mine was indeed humble, built as it was by someone's own loving hands in the early 1920s near the sea at the small town of Moreton in England.
The structure, which had stood up to the elements through eight decades by the time I'd bought it in the mid 90s was primarily asbestos sheets (gasp) nailed on to a sturdy wood frame. In spite of its unconventional construction, it was pretty much love at first sight and I put in an offer after consolidating every penny I had. Leaving myself with no more than a pocketful of loose change I bought the little bungalow and settled in.
The first winter was freezing and the summer in my asbestos cocoon was stifling. The mould thrived in the damp environment and the woodworm moved in. Add to that the fact that I had barely any money and was surviving on a diet of tinned sardines and toast, in many ways it was the home from hell and ripe for condemnation but for me it was home, my first home - and special for that reason.
If the house itself was cold and damp for most of the year then the garden was a delight, large, wild and bursting with life. In this environmental heaven were butterflies, birds and every type of flora and fauna one could imagine.
I painted the house in the colours of the seaside, bright blue and white. And now this little quirky homestead needed a name.
After thinking a while, mostly outside of the box, I wrote to someone I had connected with through my love of her music and who I thought might appreciate this special place. The famous singer, actress and generally much loved American star Della Reese responded very quickly and enthusiastically giving her blessing for me to name my home in her honour. And so the nameless little house proudly became 'Della Croft'.
Alas one day I did have to move on and 'Della Croft' was sold.
Soon after that I heard that my little home had been demolished to make way for a shiny, new house. The wildlife haven of the garden was levelled and redeveloped.
Progress.....But 'Della Croft' will live on in old photographs and memories consigned to dusty boxes in the attic....
Sometimes we'll pass by in a hurry when we really
should stop for a while....
I saw him one day on a bench in a street
throwing bits of stale bread to a bird at his feet.
A glint in his eyes and a cap on his head
he would smile at the bird as it pecked at the bread.
So I sat for a while and we talked of his life
of the days long ago, of his work, of his wife;
They had raised seven children though two girls had died
And he told of the tears that his late wife had cried.
But life had moved on as it does at a pace
And the heartaches and joys all wrote lines on his face
Now he sits on a bench in a street every day
And throws bread to the birds as time whittles away.
© 2016 Jason Endfield
Many years ago I stayed for a while in a tiny village called Whicham at the foot of Black Combe, a hill in the south west of Cumbria.
Majestic as it is, Black Combe cannot actually claim to be a mountain falling just short of that status by a few feet I think. Nevertheless it stands in splendid isolation and one morning I decided to climb it.
It is considered to be an easy trek, but for one such as I, unaccustomed to such energetic jaunts, it was indeed a challenge.
I recall clearly an elderly man running past me on his way up to the summit.... and then running past me again on his way down - while I was still scrambling up the path to the top.
This is a poem inspired by the wonderful view and isolation.... when I finally did reach my goal.
A walk atop the mountain
taught me things that really matter
no more that idle chatter
which gently falls away.
I see from here a fountain,
is the natural world designed?
now I feel my mind resigned,
I have little left to say.
And in my mind I've travelled,
With peaceful thoughts I ponder
at the earth and all its wonder
time stops, the world stands still,
with mysteries unravelled
the truth becomes much clearer
my happiness draws nearer
and my spirit drinks its fill.
© 2016 Jason Endfield
Back home in Liverpool I couldn't stop thinking about the peace and quiet of St Bees. By the mid 80s I had already been back a few times staying with Mrs Atkinson at her seaview B&B and gazing at the maritime landscape from my breakfast table in the bay window of her front room before exploring, walking for miles and gathering thoughts in quiet places.
I had started my own little chandlers shop in a Liverpool suburb and would listen to the radio from behind the counter. It was an ancient wooden cased valve set and was powerful enough to pick up Radio Cumbria most of the time, so I was able to gather snippets of news about St Bees every now and then. I became a regular listener to Julie First and Kevin Fernihough.
Indeed, as an aside, it was through Julie First that I became aware of some music that has stayed with me through the years, Gallagher and Lyle's version of 'Desiderata' being a good example and one that also encompasses the spirit of St Bees "...in the noisy confusion of life be at peace with your soul, for with all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams it is still a beautiful world...."
But I digress a little. In the shop I was helped each day by my wonderful grandmother. She was an inspiration to me and was a huge figure in my life. She probably knew me better than anybody else did but I was surprised one day when she asked if she could come up to St Bees with me. My Grandfather had passed away a year or two earlier and she may well have been seeking some quiet contemplation herself. I rarely spoke of St Bees with anybody outside my circle of trust as it was so very special for me and I feared the magic spell might be fragile and broken if shared with those less attuned to such things but my Grandma was so tuned in that we would speak of 'my village by the sea' often. Nevertheless it was a special request and one that I was happy to accept. So one bank holiday weekend we set off, the two of us, to share what would be the first of many visits together to my little bit of heaven by the sea. The train journey itself to St Bees should be mentioned because as many of you will know it is spectacular indeed. Hugging the coast for much of the route it provides a stunning vista of the coast and sea with incomparable marine views.
The photos here include one of my Grandma at Fleswick Bay, a serene, cathedral-like place backed by tall sandstone cliffs and the sound of water eternally ebbing and flowing. I have often noticed that here even the seagulls are reverential, standing silently looking out to sea from atop the rocks that are scattered on the pebble shore. They always seem to be deep in contemplation and they most probably are. Surreal things can happen at Fleswick Bay and they usually do. If magic is real then here it can be found. Take the time, in more recent years, when my partner and I arrived at the bay to find actor Tom Conti sitting on a rock. But that's another story...
Following that first visit together, my Grandma travelled with me to St Bees on several occasions and we shared happy, thoughtful times there throughout the mid 1980s. Then when she became older and more frail she couldn't travel as much. And I stopped going, unwilling to face the fact that she may never see the swirling sea and the green fields and smell the summer scent of gorse on top of St Bees head again.
I could no longer be there alone.
She never did go back although I did - much later with somebody else. Unexpectedly and happily - and we collected some pebbles which we were able to take home and give to my Grandma as a memento of those long ago happy days. Shortly after that she passed away. But in St Bees, if I go there today which on occasion I do, I can find my Grandma again. In footprints in the sand and the wide open spaces of this special part of the world. This special part of my life.
"recollections of escaping as a teenager ...", my love affair with St Bees......
it began in 1983 when, as an angst filled teenager needing to run away from the big city and the stresses of coming to terms with life, I had allowed fate to draw me to St Bees. I had randomly placed a pin in a map one day and there it was, my unknown destination beckoned. After a long journey which began early that day at Liverpool Lime Street station, I emerged from the little train at St Bees and watched it disappear into the distance towards Whitehaven.
Suddenly there was silence and an overwhelming feeling of calm. At the station I was greeted by several small Orange Tip butterflies which seemed like a good omen. Nobody else had left the train and there was nobody to be seen. It was summer but the afternoon air was cool and fresh.
Clutching a bag with a change of clothes, I set off towards the sea. And what a sight as I reached the shore. The silence was broken only by the rhythmic sound of waves on shingle and I knew then and there that I'd found my spiritual home. Chance alone had brought me to this place and I was thankful indeed.
Aside from the butterflies and a few scattered sheep in the fields, I hadn't seen a single soul since I'd been here.
This was more than thirty years ago and there was little development at the seafront apart from the yellowing Seacote hotel which had seen better days back then. Time slipped by as I gazed at the sea and I realized I had nowhere to stay for the night. Queenie Atkinson came to the rescue. She and her husband had retired here from Blackpool and now ran a humble guesthouse as close to the shore as you could want and for the princely sum of £7 for the night including breakfast. Queenie was warm and welcoming and I was to get to know her well over the next few years but for now I just spent a few days wandering the cliffs and shore seeking inner peace, which was very easy to find in this atmospheric and ancient place. It was on the cliffs just below Hannah Moor on the gorse clad slopes of St Bees head that I began to write it all down, in poetry and songs, the story of my still young life. St Bees helped to distil my thoughts and emotions and was a place where it was possible to gain perspective again far away from the stresses of the big city and life with a capital 'L'.
For St Bees was then, for me at least, otherworldly, a place somehow detached from the troubles of the real world.
My room at Queenie's guesthouse was a comfortable retreat and my breakfast table was in the bay window from where I watched the clouds sweeping across the horizon casting shadows on the beach when the tide was out or on other days the angry endless waves crashing on the shore speaking to me of distant lands across the sea.
These photos were taken on that first visit. I had to return home soon after this but St Bees drew me back again before very long and the affair continued......
Tweet Me! Tweet to @JasonEndfield
SEARCH ALL MY BLOG POSTS HERE