Don's diary: Magnetic migration music

September 13, 2002

Have you noticed that there are fragments of audio tape flapping in the wind? They can be found all over the place. The fact that music can cross boundaries is well known, but this is physical... Tape can migrate.

Arrive in grey, cold Calais. The plan: to collect whatever tape I can find, respool it and upload it to a website of magnetic migration music.

Tourism office claims that UK press coverage of Sangatte is exaggerated and unfair and that I will find it a lovely place.

Heading towards the ferry port on my hired bike, I realise I have never hunted tape before, simply found it. Instead of tape, I find a catalogue of decoys.

After two and a half hours I am practically hallucinating. Turning the corner to go home, disheartened, the evening sun dazzles me and there is an unmistakable tape clod snagged on the kerb of the Rue Paul Bert - joy!

A steady stream of people comes and goes from Sangatte Red Cross Centre. I speak with Afghanis, Kurds and a Sudanese man. "Where do you come from? Where are you trying to go? How did you get here?" People on the whole want to talk, to explain why they left their countries and to describe how bad life is in the camp.

Spot fragments of tape on a fence opposite. The farmer, not enamoured of his asylum-seeking neighbours, has an above-average electrical charge coursing through his fence. It takes one shock, two twigs and the patience of a bomb-disposal unit to free it.

Find three tapes at the high-speed ferry terminal, one caught in a traffic sign in the passenger car park and the other two in the cargo lorry parking area.

Back to Sangatte camp with the idea of recording the footsteps of people walking in and out.

Speak with a Kurdish Iraqi university lecturer for a long time. He specialises in languages, unfortunately not any that I know. I ask in English, he answers in German and somehow we understand.

He speaks about the plight of the Kurdish Iraqis, the persecution and torture, his wife and two-year-old daughter, his journey, his hopes and the lice and dirt of Sangatte camp.

At Sangatte camp again, the lecturer says: " Können sie mir helfen ?" (Can you help me?) This is it, the personal detail of an individual's plight, not the generalised news story. How? What can I actually do? Change my profession? Lobby? Give money? Marry this person so he has papers? Swap places with him? I do not know what to say.

Leave the camp and aim for the tunnel opening, but end up cycling down a motorway towards a cargo terminal - scary. My reward is tape in the no-man's land between motorway lanes, shimmering like a mirage.

Decide to balance my recordings with interviews from people who are free to travel on the ferry. Most travellers are busy, harassed, but a few are more relaxed: a man over from England for the day to buy tobacco; a German couple on their way to the Farnborough Air Show; a French-sounding American who makes the wonderful comment "So few!" when I tell him of the 1,500 asylum seekers just 10km away.

I ask them the same questions. Where from? Where to and why? What is their route?

Last trip to Sangatte with the aim of speaking to women, who generally seem to stay inside the camp. By good fortune, when I arrive there is a group of Afghani women sitting beyond the gate in a field. They speak about the hardships of camp, and how they want to make a new life in Great Britain.

The father of one of the girls joins us, the only person to ask, "What is it really like in Britain for us?" Not an easy question to answer, not the paradise they hope it is that's for sure.

Zoe Irvine is associate lecturer in television and imaging at Duncan of Jordanstone School of Art, University of Dundee.

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