A to B: Flying home, wherever home may be

When Alex Andreou boarded a plane from Greece, he knew it would be nine years before he saw his home again.

“Good morning ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. Welcome to Easyjet flight 5156 from Mykonos to London Gatwick. My name is…” I zone out. Meaningless information I have heard five dozen times before, about the flight duration, the cabin crew and the weather back home.

The weather back home is what it is. Knowing about it after boarding is pretty pointless. It's not as if I could magically produce an umbrella, a cagoule and a pair of galoshes from the matchbox hand luggage, which their rules allow as a carry-on. What are the current rules, anyway? Smaller and lighter than the average adult Madagascar marmoset, after a light meal, I think. The inexorable journey towards a dystopian future in which, if you choose a budget airline, all you will be allowed is a G-string made out of your passport – everything else attracts a small charge.

The weather back home… Is London now officially “back home”? Or is Greece, still? I am suddenly steeped in the duality of existence that plagues all immigrants. “Every time we say goodbye, I die a little”, muses Ella in my mind's iPod. I have been dying a little, regularly, for twenty-three years now. Every time I leave each place I call home, the excitement of seeing family is marred by the anticipation of missing friends and vice-versa. I am never truly fully present in either place. Anywhere I go, I long for someone.

A woman who looks like Sue Pollard is showing me how to fasten a seatbelt. The illusion is helped by the bright uniform and the Nottingham accent. You pull the strap to tighten it, do you, Sue? Thanks. I flash back to that first flight to London Gatwick, in 1990. A continent of possibilities stretched before me. Granted, some of the possibilities were terrifying, but you don't think about those when you're nineteen. A neat little, multilingual, cocky bundle produced by the European Project. A proud European citizen, who travelled around and chose the UK to study and make a life for himself. 

Why did I choose the UK? London seemed to me so supremely civilised; so fabulously cosmopolitan. You could wear and do whatever you wanted and nobody batted an eyelid. Later, I discovered this also meant you could get mugged in the street and nobody batted an eyelid. As my English improved it allowed me to strip away veneers of civility and recognise they occasionally hid thoughts that were ugly, imperial, patronising, racist, snobbish; it allowed me to know the difference between politeness and politesse. But you take the rough with the smooth and, on the whole, I remain convinced that the UK is, at least to me, the best country in the world. Although, lately, I find myself adding “just about” to that statement.

I remember that first night in the tiny, squalid bedsit on the Seven Sisters road. I remember how astonishingly bold I felt. I was the imperialist now. I would conquer this city. But I also remember my instant shock at the price of food, accommodation and transport. The realisation that the money I had believed would last three months, would stretch to maybe four weeks. If I was really careful, which I wasn't. I remember the predictive ache of how much I would miss Greece - condemned, as I was, to stay away for nine cruel years, by a brutal army service that did not recognise objectors. What would I do without the sand, the rock, the fig and prickly pear, the way the sunlight turned the sea to blood at sunset, my mother's cooking?

I do the cooking for my mother these days. That gift was one of the first things Alzheimer's stole from her. All she has left now is the love she put into every meal, but none of the knowledge. The knowledge survives in me. Every grain of salt and cumin, every clove of garlic, every sliver of octopus, every silly superstition that will prevent a bèchamel from curdling; they live on like squatters of my soul. My mother's condition has complicated things considerably. It has added to every trip the feeling that I am abandoning her, vulnerable and confused.  

“Please stow away your emotional baggage in the overhead compartment”, says Sue. Soon, Easyjet will be charging for that, too.

The plane is rattling down the runway now; the fillings in my teeth are shaking loose, it feels like. As a “seasoned flyer”, I consider it my duty to play cool, in order to counterbalance the adrenaline of fellow, infrequent passengers freaking out. I put on an air of calm, maybe even yawn a little – that's how blasé I am about all this. Inside me, meanwhile, a little child is screaming: “PLEASE GOD MAKE IT FLY”. The adult in me (it is crowded in my head) silently responds: “stop dithering, you prat; you're an atheist”. This is what it means to be a seasoned flyer. You're still just as petrified, but you are vastly more experienced at covering it.

The little child, I should explain, is me on my first flight, at the age of six. Mykonos to Athens on a little 30-seater with massive propellers – was it a Cessna or a Saab? – terrified but also excited. Why are my ears hurting? Free orange juice? And a boiled sweet? Wow. Then, from Athens to Patra by car and on to the ferry to Ancona. A two-week family Christmas road trip through Italy and France beckoned. My first taste of travel. My first taste of Europe. My first realisation that a border is just a line – you cross it and nothing changes. No, everything changes. You are in another world, which is both exactly the same and entirely different.

And I find that “terrified but also excited” is still the mingle I experience, each time I leave home to go home. Only, each time for different reasons. Will I get that West End part I'm up for? Yes. It was a good audition. Will my father still be alive the next time I return? No. Pancreatic cancer is swift like a scythe. I won't even make the funeral. Will people think I gained weight or lost weight, during my absence? Probably both. Will this feeling of duality ever subside? Never. 

The only certainty which remains inside me, unshakeable like a granite monolith, is that I am a product of both countries now and I am a richer man for it. And, if I may eschew my British humility and embrace my Greek boldness for a moment, both my countries are richer for it, too.

Sue interrupts my daze. “Do you require a landing card, Sir?” I don't know. Do I? I recently read that a Home Office spokesman said: "We are focusing on cutting out the abuse of free movement between EU member states”. I wonder what that means. How can I abuse my legal right? I wonder where that leaves me. Whether in six months, or a year, or five, I will be asked to pack a life's worth of belongings and leave the country in which I have lived and worked and fallen in love and watched cricket and gone on marches and got drunk and cooked my mother's recipes and helped make what it is, for twenty-three years.

I wonder if those who delight in dehumanising immigrants realise how much more of a conscious choice it is for someone like me to love this country and see it as my home. And at what personal cost.

Sweet heaven, I think it is Sue Pollard!

This post is part of A to B, the New Statesman's week of posts on travel and transport.

A plane transects the moon. Photograph: Getty Images

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

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Miners against coal: the pit where former Welsh miners are protesting alongside climate change activists

The Merthyr Tydfil miners’ long history of struggle is spurring them on to a whole new form of action.

The retired miners and factory workers at the working men's club in the Welsh town of Merthyr Tydfil are no strangers to hard times. Our second son was born during the 1984 strike and we had nothing for 12 months, one member tells me. The town continues to struggle with unemployment – last year the rate for men was nearly double that of the UK as a whole – over three decades on from the miners’ strike. But these days the atmosphere at the club is more resigned than radical. A singer croons his way through “Only the Lonely”, while talk at the bar is of better times: days when work was plentiful, days when, “you went down the mine a boy and came up a man”.

When the deep pits closed in the 1980s, Merthyr became a dumping ground – quite literally. Not only is the nearby landfill one of Europe's biggest, the valley is now home to the largest opencast (open-pit) mining operation in the UK. Its towering spoil tips throw a Mordor-esque shadow over the community below, coating homes and lungs alike in dust. 

Even former miners lament the small number of poorly-regulated jobs the Ffos-Y-Fran pit currently provides. Opencast is lorry driving, not mining, is a sentiment I hear repeated across the town, from the club bar to chip shops to the office of the miners’ union itself.

Just as the town's fortunes rose with coal, so they have plummeted as the industry has declined. While the fuel still accounts for around 10 per cent of UK electricity generation on any given day, last year generation fell to its lowest level since the 1950s. The need to decarbonise also looks set to reduce demand further. The effects of last December's Paris climate agreement – and its aim to limit warming below 2C  are already being felt in Wales: the Aberthaw power station is a key destination for Welsh coal, but recently announced plans to reduce its output.

The club's secretary can only think of one member who still works in the mine. Others I encounter chase shifts at the local meat-packing factory, or have to travel for over an hour outside the town. Support for jobs unsurprisingly usually trumps support for climate change deals: “If it brings in work, we don’t have a problem with it,” is the general consensus inside the club. If someone tells you they're against the mine, they're probably from England, not Wales, says a resident of the nearby village of Fochriw. 

The people of Merthyr, however, are also no strangers to fighting perceived injustice. In the early nineteenth century, Merthyr's thriving ironworks made it the largest town in Wales. But when depression hit in 1831, low wages and sudden dismissals drove many to despair. By the start of June that year, thousands gathered to march against the iron masters and coal barons. And for the very first time, the red flag of revolution was raised on British soil.

185 years later, while club members sipped their drinks, others are writing Merthyr's history afresh. Up on the hills above the town  beyond the litter-strewn fields and the “Danger: No trespass” signs  around 300 campaigners from across the UK gathered to call for an end to coal.

Led by the climate activist group Reclaim the Power, many of the camp’s young attendees work for Westminster MPs and NGOs. A litter-pick was followed by the rapid erection of communal kitchens and sustainable loos. There were safe spaces, legal training, and warnings not to disturb the nearby nesting birds.

On Tuesday morning, the activists occupied and (temporarily) shut down operations at the mine – tying themselves to machinery and lying across access roads in an attempt to symbolise the red line that carbon emissions must not cross. Their action is the first in a fortnight of global anti-fossil fuel protests  from plans for train heists in Albany, to protesting in kayaks in Vancouver. And while global reach counts for little without local support, the climate campaigners at Ffos-Y-Fran are not alone.

Since 2007, members of the United Valleys Action Group (UVAG), a group of local residents and ex-miners, have also fought the mine's planned expansion into the nextdoor valley. On Tuesday, many joined with the activists to blockade the entrance to the mine's headquarters. One member, 56-year-old Phil Duggan, has worked in the pits from the age of 16. And while he is “no tree-hugger”, he is tired of accepting jobs at any cost.

I don't want my children to suffer the ill health I have,” he says. “To some extent we [ex-miners] have been able to claim compensation. But the way things are going now you're not going to be able to claim anything. The deregulation of employment is making people desperate  we're going back to an era that our fore-fathers unionised to put right.”

In a strange twist of fate, it’s these Merthyr miners history of struggle – their long fight to protect their livelihoods and communities  which now spurs them to action against new mines.


Phil Duggan entered the pits aged 16. Photos: India Bourke

Wayne Thomas at the National Union of Mineworkers says he recognises that, unless carbon capture technology can develop apace, the Paris agreement looks set to speed up  coal's decline. But he also believes that British coal has its place in responsibly managing the transition to renewables – a place that includes reducing foreign imports, cleaning up the dirty acts of private mining companies, and putting control back in the hands of local communities. If you're going to phase out an industry, you've got to put something in place to limit the damage.

For evidence, he need point no further than the co-operatively run mine at Tower colliery, where an independently-managed fund ensures that, when the time comes, the opencast site will be carefully regenerated. Sadly, the same cannot be said of the privately-owned operation at Ffos-Y-Fran for certain.

Last year, the Welsh Assembly voted in favour of a moratorium on opencast mining. The government has yet to act, but this may change depending on how the balance of power falls after Thursday's elections. Assembly candidates from both the Green party and Liberal Democrats voiced their support for the UVAG campaigners at a meeting in one of the villages effected by the new pit proposals.

Utlimately, the decline of some of Welsh coal's main customers  the steel works at Port Talbot and the power station at Aberthaw  is likely do more to undermine UK coal than the red lines campaigners draw. But, along the way, new alliances between climate idealists and unions could breathe new life into both movements. In the words of Merthyr Tydfil’s ancient motto: “Nid cadarn ond brodyrdde”  Only brotherhood is strong.


Chris and Alyson, founders of United Valleys Action Group.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.