A visionary in search of form

The following interview with a leading contemporary architect was submitted for publication in the in-flight magazines for carriers based in The Netherlands, China and The United Arab Emirates. Although it was rejected by all three I feel its contents give such insights into the mind of one of the new breed of globally interconnected supercitizens that it would be a tragedy if they were not made available in some form. ‘Form’, ironically enough, provides the subject at the heart of discussion…
* * *
Dries Van Hoogens Huyghens has a different concept of time from most of us. But then he also has different concepts of space, and cheese.
The latest wunderkind of Dutch architecture, responsible for such global icons as Dubai’s Edam Towers, and the so-called ‘Goudadrome’ – the as yet unbuilt rhythmic gymnastics venue for the Tokyo Olympics, has just ushered me to the edge of the terrace of his Shanghai apartment. Dressed with characteristic elegance in a synthetic yak’s wool suit (“designed by a friend”), he touches me lightly on the back, and for a second, I fear he may be about to pitch me over the edge to my death in the traffic below. But he merely smiles in an enigmatic way that I will soon come to realise is characteristic of his character.
“Time has always represented a fluid concept for me,” he says. “In fact I despise it in anything other than its liquid form, and even then I will not tolerate it in brown bottles.”
As an opening question I had asked him how long he would be able to make our interview. The answer, I later realise, is typical of his hatred for clear cut beginnings and endings. As fluid as his own concept of time, or the contents of a carton of Um Bongo, he continues, extracting from his pocket an object which he places between us on the edge of the balcony. Close inspection reveals it to be a lump of Emmental, heavily coated in dust and dirt.
“I carry this with me always,” he tells me. There is a silence – broken only by a monorail train whizzing five metres from our heads and two jumbo jets passing just above us hidden by thick smog.
“Why?” I ask, forced to admit that I lack enough insight to see into his visionary mindset.
He answers patiently: “When I look at this cheese I see form. It is a question of the holes. The holes represent absence, and it is only in absence that we see form truly manifest itself.”
“Like a lift shaft?” I suggest.
“No,” he says.
Seamlessly, we move onto the subject of beginnings. How did Dries Van Hoogens Huyghens become one of the global superstars of the new era in architecture, albeit one who remains completely unknown to anyone outside the profession?
Alongside other luminaries such as Sylvia Henning-Kuipers and Nils Broomhuizens he developed his talents at Rotterdam’s legendary Joongkidsarkitectskool in the early noughties under the guidance of one of the gurus of the Dutch ‘REform’ movement, Gert Hoor. Van Hoogens Huyghens explains that when he first heard Hoor outlining his concept of ‘formless form’ it was “a seminal moment”.
“It gave a concrete structure to some ideas that had been floating in my head – until then in the shape of a tightly intermeshed crystal latticework.”
I put it to him that as a child he may have witnessed the destruction of a quantity of market garden trellises, possibly by high winds, prompting if not agreement then at least the revelation that childhood is a painful memory for the man known as ‘the Mozart of Concrete’. It was, he informs me, a period characterised by his parents’ obsessive quest to turn him into the first World Darts Champion too young to be legally married to a woman named Sharon. Forced to practice after school every day for five hours, these were trying times for a sensitive nine year old with a tendency to hit the surrounding wall more often than the board.
“I think that was when I first developed an aversion to any form of segmentation,” he muses. “Even as a child I was always in search of blank space, always thinking outside the realm of numbers. You could say I was drawn inexorably to the poetry of absence.”
It is this poetry of absence which has led Van Hoogens Huyghens’ work to be described in more conservative architectural quarters as ‘fundamentally dangerous’. Of course much of the fuel for this debate comes from the infamous Abu Dhabi ‘Baby Bel’ collapse of 2013, which to this day limits his potential for the international flying possibilities he so adores.
Does he have any regrets about the design of an oval-shaped luxury apartment complex suspended directly above a motorway by a remote-controlled retractable wax strip? The question leads to the only point in our interview at which his treatment of me is anything less than cordial, as he reiterates his view that “to any sane client it should have been obvious the design was a joke.”
Unfortunately, the litigants in the resulting lawsuits did not see it that way, nor it seems, will they accept Van Hoogens Huyghens’ contention that: “Anyone who knows my work knows I would never base a real design on a cheese as vulgar and gimmicky as Babybel.”

The manuscript

The Guido manuscript had caused a great furore when it was discovered a few years earlier, and proved to be one of those rare instances of medieval literary scholarship capturing the public imagination. Naturally this attention was most exaggerated in Italy, where the discovery was made, and where Dante Alighieri has long been revered as the father, not only of Italian literature, but of the language itself. However, the fame of the Divine Comedy, coupled with the sensational nature of the Guido’s contents (in summary, it was one of the earliest known commentaries on Inferno, carbon dated to the 1320s, only a few years after the completion of the original work) meant the story was picked up by CNN, the BBC, Al Jazeera, and several other top of the food chain broadcasters. From these it filtered down into the more parasitical news agendas of countless other outlets around the world, and this in turn spawned a profusion of weekend supplement features, hastily cobbled together by academics who saw, or were forced to see, an opportunity to snare a wider audience for their upcoming books – however tenuously connected.
Grogan’s own publisher had insisted that he write one of these, even pitching it for him to the arts editor of a national newspaper whom she happened to know. Thus he discovered how, in a small media pond, the first ‘expert’ to poke his head above the surface is briefly celebrated like an ornamental carp. His first, and to date only, radio appearance followed, and he began to provoke envy among certain academic colleagues. They need not have worried, for like some sudden rash of algal bloom that clogs a body of water, the story just as quickly vanished with the shifting current. All that remained of it were swathes of articles, sucked down into the unfathomable undertows of the internet.
And there Grogan thought they would remain, until that blue-skied June afternoon, when Louis Dowd telephoned him in his office, on the thirteenth floor of the nineteen sixties monolith we guardians of arts and humanities called home. At first Grogan struggled to apportion any sense to Dowd’s words. The sibilant voice of the art and book collector was telling him he had a mutual acquaintance, Guido, staying with him in London.
“Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten. You banged on enough about Guido when he first came out,” Dowd chastised him. Just as Grogan deciphered what he must have meant, he discounted its implication as too staggering to believe. He said something to that effect, at which Dowd gave one of his laughs, like the hiss of air evacuating a slashed tyre.
“Let’s say that I have a piece of Guido,” he went on. “And before we get to the how, I’d like you to come, if you wish, to have a look. To pay homage…”
Of course, Grogan said he would.
The origins of a career studying Dante are hard to pin down. At what point, and why, does an individual turn, not just away from the infinite compendium of postmodern, popular culture, but as far away from it as is possible to turn? In Grogan’s case, and perhaps that of others who began their scholarly journeys in the nineteen eighties or nineties, it was a reaction against the times. All promise of an alternate social vision had evaporated. Pop culture flaunted hedonism as its last hurrah. Literature had become a realm of fabular play. In this climate, for those with a predisposition, a first encounter with a fourteenth century vision of divine justice was like methane spirits dousing a fire. Suddenly, there were flames, not just one more puff of smoke in an already clouded sky. Most astonishing of all, this fire did not require what would seem to be the essential oxygen to ignite it. You did not, it seemed, have to believe in God to feel the very mixture of pity and contempt for the souls of the damned that Dante intended.
In later years this prompted Grogan to ask: ‘If not God, what drew us?’ To his mind there were two answers. The first, disturbing enough, is that we liked the idea of punishment. We were comforted, even as we felt powerless as individuals, by the notion that one day our rulers and enemies would suffer the same hideous castigations as Dante had inflicted on the denizens of Hell. Secondly, and equally disconcerting, we were drawn to the Comedy because, although it takes linguistic skill, patient detective work, and occasional hypothetical leaps, ultimately we could comprehend it. It is a single work, by a single hand, with an order and logic of its own. This is important, when understanding the machinery of technology and commerce that drives the world we inhabit is a project on which we have long since given up hope.
He arrived at Kings Cross the morning after speaking to Louis on the telephone. The tedious need to provide a sick note to explain why he was abandoning his lectures at short notice had been circumvented by happy coincidence. The second annual conference of the European Dante Society was due to take place in Dijon, France over the following three days. Set up two years previously, the EDS had arisen after a bitter falling out with the New York based institution under whose auspices world-wide Dante scholarship had been led since the end of the nineteenth century. Grogan himself had originally been involved with the EDS as part of the editorial board for its triennial journal. However, after a year of witnessing the bitter power struggle which had quickly developed at its heart, he resigned in disgust. The university, or rather one of those obscure, high-salaried individuals paid to represent its best interests, let it be known to him that they were less than pleased by his decision. ‘There is a certain leverage to be gained, in perception if nothing else, by an institution having a member of its staff on the board of a prestigious journal.’ Or some such bullshit: in any case, the news that he had decided to drag himself to the annual meeting after all, ‘to give it a second chance’, was greeted with enthusiasm by the same simulacrum of a human being who had earlier reprimanded him. Not that he had lied, since he always intended to travel on to Dijon by train before flying back from Paris.
A curious thing happened as he wheeled his case across the Kings Cross concourse. He was vaguely looking up at a giant screen across which the tracer fire of breaking news flashed, when suddenly he felt sure that among the mass of bodies shuffling towards the escalators a face was staring at him. It was the most fleeting of impressions, and when he scanned the forest of figures none stood out. Of those directed his way, almost all were gazing up at a departure board behind and above his head. They seemed to be ordinary people, each with their own desires, fears and miseries, each intent on their own private journeys. As the escalator sucked him down into the bowels of the tube (the parallels with entry to Inferno too obvious here to mention) he laid aside the sense of being watched. Perhaps subconsciously he was adopting the mindset of a city rumoured never to be far from another terrorist attack. Holding onto a metal rail, pressed into a stranger’s back as the train howled through the void, he considered the possibility that the studious looking Asian in the seat opposite was a zealot convinced that obliterating a carriageful of strangers would bring him some form of eternal reward. His paranoia suitably aligned with racial profiling, he emerged again blinking into the sunlight at Embankment.
As the crowds thinned out, Dowd materialised, shimmering against the light. He was looking not at Grogan but out over the Thames, arms braced against the guardrail like a cruise ship passenger. Grogan trundled over and joined him, adopting the same position and following his gaze upriver, into the sun, beyond the Jubilee Bridges to the vast revolving Eye.
“The Wheel of Fortune.” Dowd remarked. He still had not acknowledged Grogan with the merest turn of his head. Dowd looked like an aged Picasso: bald, lean and leathery in white and navy striped polo neck, bell-bottomed navy slacks and sandals. Grogan thought for someone who liked to dress according to his mood, it hardly matched the melancholy of the remark, but presumed he was feeding the scholar in him to expound.
“The great question of the middle ages,” he obliged. “Did man control his own fate, or was he hostage to whatever turn the wheel took?”
“It doesn’t apply anymore then, you think?” Dowd suddenly swivelled his head and fixed Grogan with his icy blue stare. Not for the first time Grogan felt compelled to consider his learned views more carefully for Dowd than he ever did for his fellow academics.
“I tend to side with Machiavelli,” he said finally… “Fortune favours those whose temperament matches the times they live in.”
Dowd gave his best impression of a fast puncture.
“So that’s you fucked then,” He grinned wolfishly.
“You’ve done pretty well up to now…”
“For an Irish poof from Hackney you mean?”
“For anyone I’d say.”
“Fuck off Grogan. If I didn’t know better I’d think you were chatting me up. Now come on. We’re going for a walk.”
The conversation exhibited Dowd’s pathological need for control. Any impediments to his plans were reacted to as personal affronts, solving them a Nietzchean test of his will to power. The unwelcome presence of Grogan’s wheeled suitcase proved a case in point. A quick call to his personal chauffeur, and five minutes later a black Bentley pulled up alongside them. A young man with the appearance of a swimwear model leapt out and, heedless of the honking traffic snarled behind him, greeted Grogan with a firm handshake. ‘Marcello’ – as Dowd introduced him – then lifted his case and placed it carefully in the boot of the car before tipping his cap at them and purring away. All this just so the pair could begin their crossing of the Jubilee Bridges unencumbered, fingers locked behind their backs in the classic gallery stroller gait.
Dowd had told Grogan that he saw in him the pure spirit of scholarship. He was surrounded by people who regarded him, whether well or badly, in light of his possessions: his wealth, his connections, and the not small degree of fame he possessed. He wasn’t averse to such treatment – it fed his ego, but, equally he needed someone to whom none of this meant anything. The fact that Grogan had become that someone was a matter of pure fortune. They had both been present at a flat party in Grogan’s city hosted by an opera director, a cerebral man whose gatherings were wholly unused to the sort of behaviour exhibited by Dowd that night. With the fireworks of the festival’s conclusion booming in the sky outside, Dowd cavorted on the table, warbling out Edith Piaf songs one after the other. This carried on until a gin, and a step, too far, followed by a collapse which ended up destroying that most clichéd of destructible items, a valuable vase. As Dowd recuperated on the sofa, Grogan learned that he was in mourning, his partner of thirty years having died in a yachting accident a month previously.

He pretended not to have known this when, a week later, he received a telephone call from Louis Dowd to his office. The collector appeared to want to explain his actions, and as he listened Grogan wondered if every single person who had been there that night was receiving the same expiatory call. He was surprised that Dowd had managed to remember speaking to him at all, never mind track him down. They had only conversed for ten minutes before Dowd’s drinking began to radically alter his behaviour. Dowd, on learning that Grogan was an academic specialising in Dante, had asked him if he thought Inferno would have been written had the poet not seen Giotto’s last judgement fresco in the Scrovegni chapel. Grogan had risen to the provocation and they had argued, good-naturedly, about the primacy of the visual arts over the written word.
Dowd made no reference to this in his follow-up telephone call, but apologised for what he described as his egocentric behaviour born out of despair. Grogan was embarrassed and, perhaps sensing as much, Dowd ended the conversation. A further week on, a parcel was delivered by special courier to Grogan’s office. Inside it, wrapped in several layers of crepe paper, was a first edition of Gustave Dore’s engravings of Purgatorio and Paradiso, with a note saying ‘regards, Louis’. Thus was their connection established, with an act of giving and a corresponding sense of obligation. This was soon exploited, as Grogan effectively became Dowd’s unpaid go-between to the Edinburgh art collecting establishment. For Louis Dowd, as you may by now have realised, was an attention seeking, devious, manipulative devil who would not let moral scruples get in the way of his own megalomaniac ambitions for a second.


“You know why that shithead thought you were me?” Grogan sighed finally.
I shook my head.
“Because of your ‘r’s. He can’t pronounce them. Says ’w’ instead. I once mocked him for it – before I knew who he was. I was talking. He interrupted. I lashed out. Not done apparently. But he remembered me for it.” He was up out of his chair while he told me this, pacing around the office. When he finished he was leaning on the back of it, eyeballing me.
I thought for a second, then recalled how I’d answered the phone.
“So if I’d just said ‘hello’…”
“Exactly. We wouldn’t be having this conversation.” He gave a lupine grin. “What I don’t follow is why you’re so curious. Are you worried I’ll go down the path of turpitude? In which case, believe me, you’re wasting your time.”
He pinched thumb, fore and middle finger and waggled his wrist before his face in that histrionic Italian gesture of protest, at the same time rising to his full height. He was a tall man, over six feet, and in a couple of strides he was round the armchair looming over me. I was enveloped in his fusty odour, which would always for me be the scent of the true academic life. He pushed his nose in close, so near that I could see the hairs growing in its nostrils. His hazel eyes glittered, round and unblinking as a bird of prey’s. His lips moved in a sibilant whisper:
“I suggest you stay out of this.”
I pushed my neck into the chairback to give myself some wiggle room. “Brian,” I said, – “I’m a colleague. But beyond that I hope I’m your friend. Would it not be unnatural for me not to ask when I hear you take a call like that?”
I continued to hold his gaze until eventually he swore at me, always the sign that he had relented. It was decided we would talk further over wine in his flat that evening. I returned to my office and worked on my paper until the Dark Tower had disgorged all but the most obsessive of its guardians.

Walking home across the meadows, that squashed pentagon of tree-fringed grass granted to the city by a landowner in the nineteenth century, I felt more relaxed than I had for a long time. The path teemed with students and I was carried among them, so I could almost feel part of their carefree company. Ahead of me, dappled by leaf-filtered sunlight, a young couple strolled arm in arm. At my left three girls were discussing their lecturers – which were hot, which not. I smiled inwardly. It was said that Grogan took great pride in being lusted after by his students. I had even heard he’d enjoyed liaisons with more than one, and this, it was thought, would eventually lead to his downfall. My evenings then were almost always spent with no more than a bottle of wine and a book for company. In this I think I was not untypical. We arts lecturers, for the most part, are sustained by books and yet also constrained by them. Behind our shelves we’re shielded from the world of the senses. Until we long to be thrown into misguided adventures, exposed to risk and even ridicule outside the safety of bound pages.


From the 15th of June to the 15th of August 1300 was the sum total of Dante Alighieri’s time in public office. But these two months were enough to scar him, and perhaps leave him tarnished forever in the eyes of those who previously held him in high regard. Such can happen when writers involve themselves in the murk of politics, and there are examples from our own time to which we could refer. But in Dante’s day, or more precisely in his city, it was only to be expected. Florence was a self-governing state, and in a pond so cramped, made even tighter by the enclosure of protective walls, the taking of sides was unavoidable. For decades two factions, the Guelphes and Ghibellines, each with its own imperial backer, had waged a bitter and bloody struggle for control. From birth you owed allegiance to one side. For Dante it was the Guelphs. The Alighieris were a once-noble line, who had fallen, by the mid 13the century, on hard times. His parents died before he reached adolescence, and the lad found himself promised in marriage, at twelve, to the nine year old Gemma Donati. This was an advisable match for Dante. The Donatis were leading Guelphes, and crucially, wealthy enough to make their mark in this city of growing ostentation, where the newly monied merchant class showed off their riches by building towers higher than those of their neighbours and rivals.

These were good times to be a Guelphe. Since 1266 that faction had dominated, throwing the leading Ghibbelines into exile and confiscating their property. It was not, however, a tyranny. There was a desire at least for the image of independent governance. A podesta’ was brought in from outside to administer justice, and in 1293 the Priorate was established, a kind of civic administration formed from elected members of the seven different guilds. To be an intellectual of a certain standing meant joining one of these, and Dante duly became a member of the Doctors and Druggists. Was he a medic or an apothecary? Certainly not. But he had received an education in the liberal arts, read Avicenna, and could easily have bluffed his way through an exam if required.

For there was a mischievous spirit to the young Dante, attested to by the verses he wrote to his friend, Gemma’s cousin, the mercurial Forese Donati. While Forese poked fun at Dante’s less than grand origins, the future author of the Comedy queried whether his playboy in-law was really a Donati at all. So much for the boisterousness of youth – Forese died in 1296. Dante, by his early thirties a father of four, felt the weight of political office calling him. In 1300 he was called up to the Priorate for the first time, to serve a two month term. Not long enough, one would have thought, to make serious enemies, and yet it was Dante’s misfortune, or the great fortune of Art, that these months were to coincide with a profound crisis at the heart of civic life.

I pressed my ear as close as it would go to the crack in the doorway of Brian Grogan’s office. Not the tell-tale tap of the keyboard, not the flap of pacing in sandals, not the plonkety plink of lute strumming. Not even the sound of a lone man, torn by conscience, chuntering in an undertone. Barely pausing for thought – I was still in prey to this species of madness – I clasped the handle and pushed the door, not expecting it to open. But open it did, suddenly and without warning to Grogan, who leapt up from a strange and contorted position he had adopted on the armchair. He began abusing me in the usual terms, even jabbing his finger into my chest. I was not to be dissuaded. I held my ground and told him to quench his passions and inform me what he had been doing. He asked, sneeringly, if I really wanted to know. I said that I did. At this he laughed and asked me if I knew who Michael Scott was. The name sounded familiar, and I racked my brains but could not place it. In fact this was a good thing, giving Grogan the chance to show off his superior knowledge.
“Michael Scott is the only Scot who appears in the Comedy,” he informed me, taking up a normal position in his favoured chair, grudgingly allowing me to do likewise in the one opposite. “He is seen by Dante in the fourth of the Malebolgie, which even you should know are the evil concentric pouches making up the eighth circle of Inferno. The fourth is reserved for those who fraudulently pretend to usurp the authority of God. Scott, so the story goes, was a magician at the court of Frederic the Second. A philosopher of sorts, a very decent translator, but like anyone with a bit of balls he got up to various monkey business. For one thing he claimed to bring people back from the dead. And for his sins, he got to spend eternity at the bottom of a hole with his head stuck between his bumcheeks. Dante gives us a particularly nice line about his tears running down into his own crack.”
Grogan, closing his eyes as he always did in these moments, a habit I always thought was affected to impress the undergrads, began reciting the Italian. I listened, slightly in awe at his ability to remember, which was so much better than my own and undoubtedly contributed to the greater success of his lectures. After he had finished the terzetto, I commented that there still seemed to be a gap between what he had told me, and why he himself was trying to recreate the position in which the unfortunate Scott found himself. He snorted and said ‘there was no point getting into this with me’, at which point I steeled myself and told him exactly what I had heard on the other end of the phone line only a half hour earlier.

A Prologue

Brian Grogan, from the waist up, was silhouetted against the blue sky at the window of his office on the thirteenth floor of the nineteen sixties monolith named in honour of an eighteenth century philosopher that we called home. His thumbs were hitched at his backside and he was gazing down at sunbathing undergrads on the grass when the phone rang. Not a mobile; the real kind, which all of us lecturers had, with our own personal extension number. Grogan’s was six-six, and it was a running departmental joke that his digit should be tripled in tandem with his salary being halved.
“Get that will you,” he said to me without turning.
I sighed, loudly enough to make sure he knew he couldn’t treat me as his lapdog, and picked up the receiver. It was one of those plasticky, squared-off efforts with a squeezy spiral cord which I looped round my neck to get to my good speaking side.
“Hello,” and I added, in a spirit of playfulness: “You’re thwough to Emewitus Pwofessor Bwian Gwogan’s office.” My ‘r’s were affected by the Bell’s Palsy, an infection which the doctor told me was brought on by stress and had temporarily locked the muscles on the right side of my face, causing me to wear a plastic eye-patch.
There was a pause, and then a voice – male with a rich timbre – it gave me an image of someone wearing a cravat and holding a cigar – came on the other end.
“You must be bored out of your tits, Gwogan.”
Grogan himself, by this point, had twisted his neck round and was scowling at me down the slope of his Dante-esque beak. He opened his mouth to abuse me but the voice was back again and I put my finger to my lips. Remarkably – he must have thought I was doing him a favour, dealing with some needy student who had been brave or reckless enough to phone him in his office – Grogan shooshed. When I heard what came next, I knew I had already heard too much, and it would be impossible to make a smooth transition.
“I’d better pass you on to Bwian, “ I mumbled, and not waiting to hear the answer, I pushed the receiver across to the other side of the desk.
Grogan screwed up his face and mouthed abuse at me.
“You should take this one,” I said, rising from the armchair. I saw him pick up the receiver, still glaring at me as I backed towards the door. Then he was listening, and his expression changed in a way which excluded me altogether. I closed the door, and hurried back down the corridor to the sanctuary of my own office on the corner of ‘The Dark Tower’ – as we Enlightenment sceptics who hid away in our dens even on bright June days liked to call it.

I was working on a paper to which I tried my best to return: ‘Eugenio Montale and the Poetics of Longing’ (since published in Vol CLXII of the Journal of Modern European Poetry) but concentration proved hard to come by. As impossible to ignore as a mosquito in a dark hotel room, I was being divebombed by a sensation. Time and again I flailed out at it, but it returned – I couldn’t splat it, of course I couldn’t. The smell of my blood made it lust in a way that was purely physiological. Eventually I turned away from the screen and located a pen. In my notepad, at the top of a fresh page, I scrawled:
“Boredom is a crime and crime is it’s cure”.
For a long I stared at what I had written, and then I added underneath:
“My presence at the beginning of a narrative?”
Suddenly it occurred to me that were anyone to see them, these would appear to be the ravings of a madman. Not without some degree of frenzy, I tore the page out from the pad (a strangely prescient action, given what was to follow) and tossed it in the direction of the waste paper basket in the far corner of the room. I could have expected as much, but the fact that it bounced off the rim and out again, I took as a sign. I went and retrieved the page, unscrumpled it, and resmoothed it down on my desk. That, I suppose, was the moment. Not that I knew there would be a story, only that I would make sure I found out if there was. Maybe Grogan would flatly refuse whatever offer was coming; maybe I had misread the situation entirely and it was merely a statement of fact, or a joke. In fact, as it turned out, a story there most certainly was. It’s a strange and fanciful one, peopled by characters who are – or were – for the most part morally dubious to say the least. Of Grogan himself certain revelations are made, and part of me is afraid of what he would say, wherever he is now, were he to read this and I to meet him. But in my defence, even I will not emerge unblemished from the telling. What must be recounted will be, and it shall be done in these pages herein to follow…

A Tiny Boat Battles an Anti-immigration Storm

(first published on http://www.narrative.ly in January 2015)

Georges Alexandre, known as just Alex, lowers his kayak from the sailing boat into the Mediterranean just offshore at Mahdia, Tunisia, on the morning of September 10, 2011. He has slept the previous night in the boat, and now is joined by three other kayakers from the club at Sousse, just up the coast. The Tunisians have come to escort him on the first part of his voyage. Opposite them is a ruined archway dating back to the Punic Wars between Carthage and the Roman Empire. Usually a tourist spot, visitor numbers have taken a dive since the revolution in January toppled the dictator, Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali.

After paddling into harbor the four kayakers are stopped by a National Guard boat. Following months of chaos, a security state is now back in business. Alexandre, a past master at dealing with zealous officialdom, politely gives them his name. Finally the four can set out into the open sea. The men from Sousse go as far as a buoy bobbing several miles out. Then they say their goodbyes, wish him well, inshallah, and turn back. Now it is only Alexandre and the escort boat. They are headed for Lampedusa, a cigar-shaped sliver of white rock seventy miles to the northeast. Part of Italy, but much nearer Africa, the island is now fixed in the European mind with TV news images of rickety fishing boats, their decks sardine-packed with desperate humanity, escorted into harbor by Italian coastguards. Africans landing for the first time in Europe: men, women and children coming from Tunisia or Libya, Mali or Ghana, Sudan or Eritrea, Ethiopia or Somalia – or just about anywhere.

A packed boat of African migrants arrives in Lampedusa, Italy, in 2011. (Photo by Eva Barton)
A packed boat of African migrants arrives in Lampedusa, Italy, in 2011. (Photo by Eva Barton)

But not all of them make it, even after paying the traffickers around $1,000 to cross. Since 2011, figures from the UN High Commission on Refugees show this stretch of the Med has become the most lethal body of water in the world. New records were set in 2014, both of attempted crossings (207,000) and deaths (3,419 known). The African exodus has been accompanied by an explosion from the Middle East, notably Syrians fleeing the chaos of civil war. Only last week, as if to mark their intentions at the start of 2015, traffickers in Turkey loaded 1,156 refugees onto two freighters which they then abandoned in open sea after setting the autopilot to steer towards Italy. A successful rescue mission averted a major tragedy, this time at least.

More than a year earlier, as dawn began to break on October 3, 2013, a boat carrying over 500 men, women and children, mostly Eritreans, was a mile south of Lampedusa. A day earlier it had set off from the Libyan coast, crossing 120 miles of sea. Its overworked engines chose that moment to sputter and die. The so-called captain, a Tunisian with little real seafaring experience, lit a rag to attract the attention of nearby fishing boats. Inadvertently, he started a fire on deck. Everyone rushed to one side, causing the boat to list up and capsize. Those on deck were thrown into the sea. Some of them would survive long enough to be rescued. The ones in the hold never had a chance. Afterwards, Italian salvage divers who descended a plumb line 130 feet into the wreck spoke of bodies glued together, having to be pried off the hull. Eventually, images would emerge of three hundred and sixty coffins lined up in neat rows in a vast warehouse, among them, dozens that were child-sized.

The Med is supposed to be Europe’s jewel. In the aftermath of the tragedy, national leaders queued up to offer condolences and vows to stop turning into a vast marine cemetery. But hardly anyone in the media asked what that would mean. When Ukraine started going into meltdown, the issue was forgotten. While the latest narrowly averted disaster refocused attention briefly, in a matter of days the mainstream media had moved on again. Who wants to talk about concrete action to prevent the next tragedy? Certainly not the main political players. In a Europe where xenophobic, anti-immigration movements increasingly take votes away from mainstream parties, what national leader would risk sticking their head above the parapet?

* * *

June 30, 2014: Gray, a small town on the river Saone in eastern France. Early evening. The French team has just beaten Nigeria in the World Cup. Cars buzz about, honking horns, young and old unite, waving tricolores in celebration of victory. From the grass bank, I watch as an improbable figure paddles into view, stroke after methodical stroke, round the river bend. The kayak is yellow. Under the sunhat, I recognize the weather-beaten face.

We have met once before, on Lampedusa in May 2011. Alexandre had been there since the previous November, originally arriving to kayak round the island as ‘an act of solidarity’ with migrants. Then, in January, the revolutions kicked off: Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria. Pacts Italy had signed with the dictators Gaddafi and Ben Ali – paying them to seal the coasts against clandestine migration – were suddenly useless. Lampedusa was swamped. By late March, 7,000 Tunisians outnumbered the 5,000 islanders. Predictably, chaos reigned. Italy claimed it didn’t have enough mainland facilities to move them: Europe had to help. Images of Lampedusa, the refugee camp in the Med, went round the world.

By the time I arrived, refugees were still coming but the crisis was under control. The Italian government had got what it wanted: a deal with the new Tunisian authorities to police the coast again; and more money from the EU to pay for rescues at sea and reception centers on land. For the international media, Europe’s immigration crisis had gone away. Outside Italy, Lampedusa wasn’t news any more. That remained the situation for the next two years, until October 4, 2013, when tragedy on a scale large enough to make front pages struck.

Alexandre en route, equipped with a head-mounted video camera. (Photo courtesy Georges Alexandre)
Alexandre en route, equipped with a head-mounted video camera. (Photo courtesy Georges Alexandre)

In truth, I had been as guilty as the mainstream media. Overtaken by events in my own life, the migrants’ plight had drifted from my mind. Not so Alexandre’s. During his six months on Lampedusa he had concluded, as many other migration rights advocates have, that what Europe needs to guarantee a humane, just and logical treatment of migrants, is a concerted strategy. The current patchwork system, held together by the so-called ‘Dublin rule,’ whereby a migrant must apply for asylum in the first E.U. country they reach, is the root of the problem. First agreed to by the member states at a summit in the Irish capital in 1990, the rule has created a situation in which the richer Northern European countries use it to wash their hands of the crisis on the shores of the Med. Meanwhile, as first arrival point for the poorest migrants, Southern states like Italy, Spain and Greece receive extra E.U. funds but do little to give refugees a path into society. Stays in detention centers stretch from months into years of hopeless limbo. Stories abound of asylum seekers in these countries trying to burn off their fingerprints before the authorities can digitally store them, in order to avoid being ‘Dublined’ after a long and risky journey to the UK, Germany, Holland, Belgium or Scandinavia.

Working with the Italian-based human rights network Everyone, Alexandre developed a petition demanding the creation of a new E.U. body that would create a unified approach to ensuring safety at sea, dealing with asylum claims, and creating safe migration routes. Of these areas, currently only the first already involves cooperation between member states. But Alexandre, along with many other campaigners, sees it as hypocritical to separate the safety of so-called irregular migrants at sea from their subsequent reception on land. Instead of disappearing into the systems of each member state, under his proposal all new arrivals would be dealt with by a single entity. This entity would be subject to proper scrutiny with respect for the Geneva Convention on Refugees. “It won’t mean open borders,” says Alexandre. “But migrants will be treated as human beings. They won’t be left to rot in detention centers because they’re profitable commodities for multinational security firms or mafias, or sent back to countries where all the evidence suggests they cannot live safely.”

Related Story

The Secret Lives of America’s Migrant Farmers

To publicize the project, he would kayak from the coast of Tunisia to the seat of the European Parliament in Brussels, 2,300 miles. Three years after setting out — following numerous logistical delays and with his life savings exhausted — he was now finally within sight of the goal. The route had taken him from North Africa back to Lampedusa, then east to Malta, round the Sicilian coast and up the Italian boot, into France and the river Rhone at Marseille. There had been long hiatuses along the way: first in Malta, where he struggled to find a boat skipper willing to escort him across to Sicily. Then in winter 2012, when he spent months in Sabaudia, a small town south of Rome, recuperating from a shoulder injury. Finally, stormy weather and vicious currents nearly destroyed his kayak on the Rhone and he had to stop over during the winter of 2013-14 in Montelimar, in the south of France. Here, in May 2014, he picked up the voyage for its final leg.

* * *

Within twenty minutes of landing at Gray, Alexandre has pitched his tent on the riverbank not far from the small town center. ‘Don’t worry,’ he says to a passing middle-aged couple giving him curious glances. “I’m not some crazy guy. I’m just kayaking from Tunisia to Brussels.”

“De la Tunisie? Vraiment?”

And so Alexandre tells them about it, using a technique he has outlined to me before. “I don’t say, ‘I’m kayaking to help immigrants,’ because most people aren’t interested in helping immigrants. I say: ‘I’m kayaking for a properly managed immigration system.’ I ask if they know how much money Europe wastes every year on a system that doesn’t work, that is completely broken. And I remind them that’s their taxes — then they start to listen.”

As it turns out this couple doesn’t need persuading. Especially not the woman, who exchanges outrage with Alexandre at the vast sums of public money paid out to private companies to run reception and detention centers for asylum seekers with the goal of profit. The man looks surprised to hear his partner go on to advocate full-scale revolution, 1789-style. Unexpectedly, the “madman in the kayak” as Alexandre tends to be viewed, becomes Mr. Cautious, arguing it is better to work with existing institutions. He even defends the xenophobic voters the woman despises.

“The problem is misinformation,” he says. “If I just read the popular press, I’d be anti-immigration too.”

“You’re right, you’re right,” she laments.

“I want to engage everyone in dialogue. Even the National Front”—the French political party known for its anti-immigrant views.

“No! No! Dialogue to a certain point but not them. There are some people you can’t dialogue with.”

On this they agree to disagree. But the couple both say they will go online to sign Alexandre’s petition. Not a bad start to the evening’s campaign, but hints of the wider problem.

Front Nationale won twenty-five percent of the votes — the highest percentage of any party — in France’s recent European Parliament election. Its success is part of a pattern. In Greece there is the neo-fascist Golden Dawn; in Italy, the separatist racists of the Lega Nord. In the UK, open xenophobia hasn’t quite found a way into the political mainstream; what has is a party, UKIP, which limits its official goal to quitting the EU altogether. It’s far from alone in this. Across the continent, less EU cooperation, not more, is the popular narrative. In more ways than one, Alexandre is paddling against the current.

* * *

And yet, on this evening, it seems the world is with him. He has changed out of his wetsuit into cargo pants and a shirt, and arranged the kayak in front of the tent to his satisfaction. We walk into town in search of something to eat but nothing leaps out — Gray seems deserving of its name. Undeterred, Alexandre calls out to three figures walking ahead of us in the otherwise empty street. “Les gars! Where can we get some food round here?”

The names of people who have donated to Alexandre's cause adorn his kayak. (Photo by Tony Garner)
The names of people who have donated to Alexandre’s cause adorn his kayak.

The men turn out to be French-Algerians. They invite us to follow them through an archway leading off into a courtyard. The place is buzzing: there is an improvised bar, a barbecue, and a big screen rigged up for the Algeria-Germany World Cup match. Alexandre explains his project to the barman, a long-faced Algerian with a nose as sharp as a knife and bulging, intense eyes. This man, Ben, quickly champions the cause: “Everyone listen,” he shouts. “This here is a great guy. Listen to what he’s doing.”

“After the match,” Alexandre protests. But I see that he is pleased, this sort of reaction makes what he is doing feel worthwhile. “This is lucky,” he confides as we watch Algeria go down in extra time. “It’s not usually like this.” He is talking about the reception he’s received, and the level of interest in the petition, which is still not even up to 1,000 signatures.

That is the drawback of campaigning “on the water,” rather than in front of a laptop perfecting the use of an e-petition platform. Drumming up support is made even harder by the fact that Alexandre often camps away from towns. He drags the kayak up onto the beach or bank and pitches it in a secluded spot. No company, just a simple meal and the journal he writes in every evening. He also keeps a video diary, uploading clips to his Facebook page when he can get a connection. Absorbed by electronic and other practical tasks such as buying food, he says he rarely sleeps before midnight. This night in Gray it is the same, albeit for more sociable reasons. We part ways in the silent town, me to sleep in the hostel, he to his tent.

* * *

Alexandre was born in France in 1968, the year students took to the streets. He was brought up as one of three children in the Parisian suburb of Clichy, his parents immigrants from Portugal. He spoke Portuguese at home and French at school. At the time he graduated, military service was still compulsory. Alexandre refused to do it; would not even take the option of desk duties in a military capacity. “I didn’t want to wear the uniform,” he says.

The law was changed a year later, but at that time the penalty for making such a stand was prison. So Alexandre was sent to Amiens, a hundred miles north of Paris. “I was eighteen and thrown in with robbers and rapists,” he says. “I learnt more there in nine months than I did all through school.”

When he got out he wanted to work for the town council in Clichy But they wouldn’t take anyone with a criminal record, so he had to apply to a special court to ask for the conviction to be removed from his record “I remember going into the tribunal and there were ten judges waiting. They asked me to present my case and I started telling stories about all the mad things I’d seen inside. Eventually I had them all laughing. The chief judge said I deserved a chance.”

But the job with the council didn’t last. Now twenty four, he found himself unemployed. “I didn’t want to sit around waiting for something. I’d heard about a work program in Canada. You could get a visa to go and work there for six months. I applied and the next thing I knew I was out picking apples on a farm near Montreal.”

It was the move that defined the first act of Alexandre’s adult life. A few years later, he married and became a Canadian citizen.

* * *

On September 12, 2014, ten weeks after my trip to Gray, Brussels witnesses a man dragging a bright yellow kayak through its city center streets. Exactly three years after setting out from Tunisia, Alexandre is nearing the goal. From the canal along which he crossed the Belgian lowlands, at one point narrowly missing catastrophe at the hands of a dozing lock gate attendant, he now only has to traverse several miles overland to reach the European Parliament. It must feel strange, all this concrete and steel, glass and traffic, after so long on quiet waterways. But he has a job to do, interviews to give to the few TV channels that are at last showing interest. He has to stay composed, focused. Finally, the Parliament looms before him like a giant botanist’s hothouse in dark glass and steel. So this is it. The journey is over. He crosses the landscaped plaza, past the flags of the nation states, and enters the atrium to hand in his petition.

Alexandre as he sets out from Malta (photo by Tony Garner)
Alexandre as he sets out from Malta

What is this building he is placing such faith in to change things? In the UK, the tabloid image of the E.U.’s Brussels home is of a talking shop, a democratic façade for the real power in Europe, wielded by faceless, Kafkaesque bureaucrats. It’s true that the power of the Parliament, the only elected chamber of the E.U.’s three functioning branches, is severely limited. The E.U.’s legislative engine is the Commission, its members selected by each state, supported by a vast army of civil servants — or as the tabloids call them, “Brussels bureaucrats.” The Parliament can scrutinize laws the Commission wants to pass, suggest changes, and even recommend new ones, but cannot enact anything by itself. Many radicals have dismissed it as toothless, but not Alexandre.

Two weeks later he announces a press conference. He has assembled a coalition of support for the view that radical change is needed. Of the four European parliamentarians present at the event on October 1, the most high-profile is Cecilia Kyenge, Italy’s ex-minister for immigration. A Congolese woman who moved to Italy in 1983, Kyenge has endured racist abuse from elected members of Italy’s parliament that would shame football hooligans. If anyone has the motivation to take Alexandre’s fight to the Commission, it ought to be her. And as a member of the second largest political grouping, the center-left, she may also have the influence to lead change. Alongside Kyenge and Alexandre are members of three other significant groups in the parliament. Collectively they vow to work towards the main points of Alexandre’s petition: ending the current security-led approach to policing the E.U.’s borders, and creating a single E.U. body to guarantee human rights and encourage safe migration routes.

The press conference is a triumph for Alexandre: a demonstration of how one man’s extraordinary act can bring disparate politicians together behind a cause. Yet even if a majority in the Parliament do call for change, there is little they can do if the Commission has no desire for it.

For a while this seemed to be the case, but perhaps no longer. On September 29, the newly designated Commissioner for Migration and Home Affairs, Dimitris Avramopolous, declared his intention to reform the Dublin rule and press ahead with plans for an integrated asylum system. If he stalls on these promises, Alexandre’s allies in the parliament will surely bring him to task for it.

That would still leave one more obstacle to the reforms Alexandre has kayaked 2,300 miles to campaign for. Without European Council ratification, no proposal can become law. But the Council, comprised of the heads of the E.U.’s member states, is likely to be the biggest stumbling block. Already under attack from the domestic anti-E.U. parties for surrendering sovereignty to Brussels, the political cost of voting through a collaborative approach to migration and asylum could be high. Certainly in the UK, it seems far more likely that the leadership would put vote-winning over humanitarian, or even financially sensible concerns.

Alexandre holds up the catch of the day while at sea (Photo by Tony Garner)
Alexandre holds up the catch of the day while at sea

But the UK may not matter. Since the 2007 Lisbon Treaty, the requirement for Council ratification is by qualified majority rather than unanimity. Although growing, the influence of Britain’s anti-European, anti-immigrant sentiment may not be able to prevent the efforts of the likes of Alexandre, Kyenge and Avramopolous from taking effect.

This could even happen another way, if the UK opts to leave the E.U. after an in-out referendum promised by the Conservative government for 2017. Either way, it looks like it may be possible to end a system that pushes people to take lethal risks at the hands of traffickers, and mocks the very human rights Europe claims to stand for.

* * *

In any case, Alexandre will not stop until something gives. Since the October press conference he’s continued to base himself in Brussels, meeting numerous politicians and giving interviews where he can. The Christmas holiday period found him in Calais, the port where the tunnel under the English Channel emerges into France — a symbol of cooperation that has become a symbol of discontent. Migrants camp out in the woods near the motorway, hoping to grab onto the underside of a truck going into Britain. UK and French politicians argue about whose responsibility this is. The British solution is to pay for a high barbed wire fence to stop them reaching the road. Alexandre helps a group of volunteers who cook for the aspiring stowaways, talking to them, treating them as humans. Just after his visit, part of the new fence is blown down by strong winds. At times in the past three months he has confided doubts to me. Surviving on social security, sleeping in a van, he has wondered if he’s banging his head against a brick wall, but the fence falling down perks him up. ‘AHAHAHA!’ he writes on Facebook. ‘Nature truly is well-made. What a good omen for 2015!’

For a long time I wondered what exactly it was that spurred Alexandre to take up the cause of migrants with such passion. The first time I met him, all he told me about his past was that he had been an office clerk working for the regional government in Montreal. He had been, as he put it, “sensitized” to the plight of migrants while traveling from the US into Central and South America. His story intrigued me. Why this cause above all others — a French-Canadian campaigning on behalf of people migrating into Europe? Perhaps, I think now, having learned about Alexandre’s life, during all those years in Canada, through his marriage and its breakdown, hardship and financial gain, he remained essentially a European. As a French speaker in an Anglophone world, he was never part of mainstream North American culture. His identification with the outsider only grew. He wanted to return to Europe, but as a humanist he couldn’t see his claim as stronger than anyone else’s. As he said to me that day in Gray :“Just because you’re born with a certain passport you get to move and live where you want. And they’re supposed to stay where they are, with war and poverty and no hope. Does that seem fair to you?”

Lessons from Lampedusa

This article was published in the Sunday Herald last October following the the drownings of around 300 Eritrean migrants when their boat capsized 100 metres off the shore of Lampedusa.

Lampedusa is on our minds again.

For a while that symbolic island had faded, after the trauma of early 2011, in the wake of the Arab Spring, when the welcome centre failed to cope and thousands of Tunisians huddled on the rocky bluffs above the town. By late March that year they outnumbered the local population. Rome could have sent boats to take them to the mainland or Sicily. But for two months nothing happened. International media swarmed to the refugee camp on Europe’s doorstep. Silvio Berlusconi descended to announce the rescue operation. Afterwards, Lampedusa’s then-mayor, Bernardino De Rubeis, told me it was a deliberate strategy proposed to him by the ex-prime minister: “Deliberately, a tragic moment was created so that Europe would wake up to the problem. I am convinced of this and I take responsibility for it.”

As mayor, the bear-like, bearded De Rubeis was even then under investigation on bribery and corruption charges. In the intervening period his star has fallen. In May 2012, his term as local leader ended. In July, he was sentenced by a court in Sicily to five years and three months in prison.

The mayor has changed and Lampedusa – indeed the story of migration into Europe – has now found another tragic moment. No-one would argue this one was “created” like the 2011 crisis. But since more than 300 Eritreans drowned when their boat caught fire and sank within sight of shore in the early hours of October 2, the island of hope/horror has been back on Europe’s conscience. The call from Rome is exactly the same as it was two years ago: “This is a European problem. Italy can’t be left to cope on its own.”

So why are we back at this Groundhog Day moment? Was the 2011 strategy a failure? Did Italy not get help from Europe after it incubated a crisis?

The answer is: yes it did. Italy has been given extra funds in recognition of the fact that it shoulders more of the burden for migrants and refugees’ first arrival. Just six days after the October 3 tragedy, the EU sanctioned an emergency payment of €30 million.

Dare we ask whether this EU policy of throwing money at its southerly member states – not only Italy – is working? We must, says Georges Alexandre, a French-Canadian activist who has devoted the past three years of his life to an extraordinary voyage aimed at highlighting the plight of the migrants. I first met Alexandre on Lampedusa in May 2011. He had gone there in November 2010 to circumnavigate the island by kayak in what he termed “a gesture of solidarity”.

The 45-year-old former office worker then decided to embark from Tunisia on a 3500-kilometre Kayak for the Right to Life ending at the European Parliament in Brussels. More than two years on, he is still going. From Sfax in Tunisia he has kayaked via the migration hotspots of Lampedusa, Malta and the southern coast of Sicily, up the Italian boot to the Cote d’Azur. I spoke to him as he laid up in his tent at Marseille on Friday. His funds are running out, he is plagued by logistical problems, but in the next week he will take his five-metre boat up the mouth of the Rhone, hoping to reach Brussels via rivers and canals by Christmas.

He will arrive with a petition calling for the creation of an entirely new EU body, an organisation for the Management of Immigration and Asylum Claims. This would place in joint hands the responsibility both for ensuring safety of migrants at sea, and administering asylum claims. Of those two areas, currently only the first is being tackled jointly, in the form of a new satellite surveillance system, Eurosur. Alexandre echoes the view expressed by other campaigners: it is both unworkable and hypocritical to separate the safety of so-called irregular migrants at sea from their subsequent reception on land. A fully joined-up body is the only realistic solution, he claims, in order to prevent the lapses and alleged abuse of migrant rights which currently take place under systems operated by each member state.

He has gathered support. In Rome last September he obtained an unlikely ally in the form of Italian senator, Giacomo Santini, from Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party. His petition’s 600 signatures are hardly overwhelming, but Alexandre is convinced popular pressure will force Europe’s politicians to act: “It’s the people who are not prepared to let these tragedies continue,” he told me. “The politicians just look out for themselves. It’s the people who are going to force them to act.”

* Following an injury sustained when his kayak capsized, and a lack of winter equipment, Georges Alexandre had to halt his voyage in December. He will resume later this spring and aims to take the petition to Brussels by the summer.