What's going to happen? We don't know, exactly. We're just volunteer corpses. Will 200 people turn up? Probably not. Will the proper media turn up? Wait and see. Down we go to the Palace Pier (as we natives still call it), on a brilliant April morning: arriving on the dot, anticipating a bit of standing about, but no. Straight into action. We have to construct this scene. The boxes have to be ripped open, the body bags exhumed from their taped plastic shrouds, and laid out in rows. The sea is about as far away as it gets, in normal tides, and the beach by the Pier is very flat to below high water mark. Is the tide still going out? We're not sure. "Google it," says one Amnesty staffer to another. The tide is declared safe: we lay out the bags in a good strategic position, the Pier in shot. It takes a while. There's a breeze, these bags are recalcitrant. Zippers at the top, please. Weigh the edges down with stones (the beach has plenty). The rows furtherest from the pier will be filled with real human bodies. The rest will be stuffed with balloons. Here are the balloons, a bursting bag of them, pink and yellow, with the Amnesty logo. We blow up a whole lot of balloons (except those of us who have asthma). Some of the results are pretty d**ned weedy, in my opinion, but the willingness is all. Three decent-sized balloons to a bag, shake them down so they lie in a row. It's spookily realistic. Well done, whoever had that idea.
Then we lie down, and pull up the black plastic shrouds. Cover your faces, we're told. We lie still, row on row, and the photographers gather. The sun is bright and warm. Staffers patrol, unseen, asking if everyone is okay; offering water. I'm okay. I'm fine. I lie quietly, thinking of doctors of the darkside, the bit where the narrator says US torturers once used a confining dark box. They'd make a diapered, naked prisoner get in, and leave them there for hours. Until they realised that the dark box was a refuge. The body bag is a refuge. I don't need to think about what I really should be doing (a nagging preoccupation of mine); I'm sorted, for now. Then I start to wonder how long have I been in here? Can't check the time, corpses don't check their phones.
Peter, if my face is covered, how am I different from a balloon?
It's conceptual art, mutters the bag next door. A bag with a real body in it looks different. Don't worry. If the tide starts coming in we'll hear the front row fussing and jumping up.
My legs are getting stiff, I've got cramp in my foot, but I hear the shutters so I lie still. It's interesting listening to the construction of images, images of disaster and despair, but still media images, going on all around me.
Can you get out of shot! PLEASE! All I want is one clean shot of body bags without a camera man in my way! Is that too much to ask!
I was miles away, I heard about this on the radio. Came straight away.
I was in London. Is Reuters sending you work now? Or you doing this freelance?
I've got a really good bag here! The trick is to take them from uphill!
At last we were told we could get up, and thanked profusely, but then the BBC arrived (in the nick of time), so some of us and the staffers lay down again. The BBC wants to see faces (Ha! My point proved!): we peel back our shrouds. I'm told to take off my sunglasses. Don't look alive says a camera person. I close my eyes & have a horrible thought. Does someone close their eyes? Did someone close their eyes, on Lampedusa beach, on Rhodes and in Catania yesterday?
I avoid the news (sick of the election) but I saw Rhodes: the miserable bits of plywood scattered on the rocks, to which the refugees* from Libya and Syria had trusted their lives. I wanted to shout DON'T do it! How can you give your money to these callous, utter b*st*rds! You'll drown, you'll be holding up your baby, she'll die too, the cold water itself will kill her.
I hear a friend of mine in the row behind "giving an interview". He's very cogent, very down to earth. I admire him. What would I say, if I was asked? I know what I'd say, I've been thinking about this for a long time. We have to let them in. We just have to. There comes a point, in a time of global war, when you just stop saying its someone else's fault, and you do what you can. That's all.
Now it's really over. We can get up. The two homeless men next to another friend of mine took their bags away with them. Good idea! The staffers are clearing up, the volunteer corpses can go home. As Peter and I walked up the beach we passed two coastguards, who had arrived (we assumed) to make sure Amnesty International wasn't littering the beach with popped balloons, or chucking body bags into the sea. But maybe not. They were staring grimly at the still-intact media image. The real thing would be their business, I realise. Ouch.
What time is it? It's 11.00am. Amazingly, this is exactly on schedule. The sky is cloudless blue, the calm sea perfect ultramarine, the sun is high. We walk back into the real Brighton beach of plastic spades and sandcastle buckets. I'm thinking, back in 1999, writing my future fantasy Bold As Love, I had my rock star revolutionaries face an influx of 400,000 refugees, crossing the North Sea, in a single summer. I'm stunned, beginning to glimpse the reality of that situation; to think of what I did to them.
"We were lucky with the weather," says Peter.
"I wonder if we'll get onto an Argus placard," I say, hopefully. I love Argus placards. They're straight out of Grahame Greene. Maybe we even will. Drown in on Brighton Beach.
We discuss long term solutions, on our way home. Stabilise the region, well, obviously. Convince the able-bodied refugees, with the money, to stay at home with those who can't get out? Marshall Plan it? Hm, maybe. But who's going to try anything positive, when selling arms is so much more profitable? Good ideas, bad ideas. Try to fix the situation, that we had a hand (to say the least) in creating. Definitely, if you can think of a way. Meanwhile, we have to let them in.
*you can call them migrants if you like. And then you can wash your mouth.