Saturday, 5 May 2018

William Shaw on the Cost of Borders

Since Donald Trump, have you noticed how we’re all suddenly anxious as we queue up to pass through immigration the US? We’re looking at the guy behind the counter, the one with the Tom Selleck moustache and the lack of smiles, and thinking about the power he holds over us right now.

And if you’re a white European male like me you’re feeling pretty stupid about that, because you know that you’re the one who passes through borders easily.

As we enter another age of massive population shifts, borders harden.

Any prohibition brings crime. We know that. Ever since the Americans brought in the 18th Amendment in 1920, creating a sound business model for organised crime by banning the legal sale of alcoholic beverages, we’ve known that. Without the 18th Amendment we wouldn’t have had American hardboiled crime fiction of the 1920s, which thrived in a world full of guns and moonshine.

So these, again, are glory days for the crime writer. Organised crime and the misery it causes are back in the saddle. Salt Lane is by no means the only book that tackles migration – crime writers better than me have been picking into the dark morality of the subject for years because that’s what the genre does so well. But I hope that Salt Lane, which is the first in a new series set in Dungeness and Romney Marsh featuring DC Alex Cupidi, is a book about the real cost of those borders.
I’m not saying that everybody who voted to harden our borders is wrong. If you have borders, you have to make decisions about what sort of people we want to allow through them. But Salt Lane is, I hope, a story that makes us look at the consequences of the decisions we’ve made.

Because strengthening the legal restrictions around our borders doesn’t necessarily stop the flow of people coming illegally. It just turns the people that do into non-people. And non-people are on the one hand, easy to exploit, and on the other, desperate. And they exist in a miserable world.

Just one tiny sad example among thousands that are out there: When I was researching Salt Lane, a woman from a charity that supports legal migrant workers, who themselves can have a pretty raw deal, told me the story of a woman she’d been trying to help.

The woman was from a poor rural area of Poland, probably not that bright. She had come here to work on farms. Her life was tough. The wages were low. Because she wasn’t bright, didn’t speak English, she was young and did as she was told. An easy mark.

A fixer had set her up with a date. A young man, probably North African. She had fallen for him; they slept together, she became pregnant.

What she didn’t know was that effectively she had been sold to this man by the fixer. All the man was interested in was her having his baby; his name on the birth certificate. The moment the baby was born, he vanished, leaving the mother alone and terrified in a country where she didn’t even speak the language.

He had what he wanted. For a few thousand pounds he had paid for a woman to have sex with him, plus a piece of paper that would make it almost impossible for the Border Agency to be able to remove him to whichever country he wished to escape from.

It’s not the main story in Salt Lane, but you’ll find it tucked away there. Because these days there’s no shortage of material.

Salt Lane
by William Shaw
published 3rd May 2018  Hbk £16.99 Riverrun

No-one knew their names, the bodies found in the water. There are people here, in plain sight, that no-one ever notices at all.  DS Alexandra Cupidi has done it again. She should have learnt to keep her big mouth shut, after the scandal that sent her packing - resentful teenager in tow - from the London Met to the lonely Kent coastline. Even murder looks different in this landscape of fens, ditches and stark beaches, shadowed by the towers of Dungeness power station. Murder looks a lot less pretty. The man drowned in the slurry pit had been herded there like an animal. He was North African, like many of the fruit pickers that work the fields. The more Cupidi discovers, the more she wants to ask - but these people are suspicious of questions.  It will take an understanding of this strange place - its old ways and new crimes - to uncover the dark conspiracy behind the murder. Cupidi is not afraid to travel that road. But she should be. She should, by now, have learnt.
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