For over forty years, since my late teens, I have been an avid family history researcher. I have a family tree dating back to the seventeenth century for one side of my family, and have thoroughly researched the origin of the family names of each of my grandparents. Only one of these is Anglo-Saxon English, the others are Scots, Scots/ Irish and French. I discovered that the French branch of the family were Huguenots, a Protestant sect escaping religious persecution in France, who arrived in England in the sixteenth or seventeenth century.
Having exhausted documentary evidence, I recently had my DNA analysed and was intrigued to discover that, genetically, I am under half Anglo-Saxon English, but largely Continental European, with a dash of Irish and Scandinavian. My married name is also French (Anglicisation of 'Gervaise', a 'spearman' or soldier), so presumably my children are even more genetically Continental European than I am: we are therefore in this sense a family of immigrants. Given Britain's long history as an asylum provider for those fleeing persecution, we are unlikely to be unusual within the white British population, and this has added to my irritation with the recent rise of British nationalism.
Events this week in Leeds, where I have lived for the past 30 years have of course turned this irritation into shock and sadness, and on Saturday morning I made a donation to Jo Cox's fund, which seemed the least I could do to express my horror at the tragic events that occurred only a few miles away from where I live and work. I also felt that the charities that had been sponsored by her friends to benefit from the fund raised were particularly worthy, including the White Helmets, a charity which funds volunteer rescue workers all over the world and Hope not Hate which works for a more inclusive society in Britain.
I was unaware that while I was cosily sitting at my PC fumbling with my credit card, one of my friends was engaged in a far more practical charitable venture, preparing to cross the channel with aid packages for refugees in Calais. I have known Paul for over a decade, since we were fellow teachers at a school here in Yorkshire, and admired his energy for practical activism in support of good causes. This included a Love Music, Hate Racism concert that he spurred me into organising with him, which turned into one of the most enjoyable and inspiring events for the children during that school year.
Browsing the news before I went to bed on Saturday, I saw that a large aid convoy had been turned back at Dover on the basis that it would 'generate violent episodes'. What it did not report was that terror legislation was invoked by French immigration officials at Dover in order to refuse entry to the some of the volunteers. I learned this from a text from Paul that arrived at midnight.
He reports: 'We had van load of basic aid, tins of beans, sanitary towels, sleeping bags, kids' clothes and toys donated to us by ordinary people, the most basic aid. We were also taking about €1000 donated by ordinary people at benefit gigs in Wakefield and Bradford. We wanted to deposit this in an aid warehouse in Calais. We had about 18 young people (in their 20s) with us. We were refused entry to France on the basis that we were 'a threat to public order and national security'. In other words, terror laws have been used against us. This was stamped into our passports and entered onto an electronic record. The advice we have had so far indicates that this is a very serious matter for us personally in terms of future international travel and individual criminal records. After the weekend, I will have to seek legal advice....
'When I left this morning I told my son (who is seven years old) where I was going and he made me wait until he had been through his toys and clothes, and he returned with a box of donations for the refugees in Calais. I had to tell him tonight that I was not allowed to deliver these. He cannot understand why, and I have no idea how to explain this to him, as I also find what has happened beyond comprehension'.
I can only echo this. What meanness of spirit lies beneath not only the refusal to allow aid to be given to people who have literally nothing, but to additionally criminalise the people who have tried to provide it? Miep Gies, one of the Dutch people who hid and sustained Anne Frank and her family commented 'we did our duty as human beings; helping people in need'. This was what my friend Paul was trying to do on Saturday, and what the people who received my ancestors in London once did, setting in train the events that led to my own birth in that same city, several hundred years later. Have we now forgotten this duty to the extent that we casually criminalise the helpers? If so, either in Europe or outside it, we are in very grave trouble indeed.