What do you do if your parents have drowned in the North Sea?

Caroline Crampton was stuck on a train to Edinburgh, forced to deal with the worst.

The train was flashing through Peterborough when my phone beeped. I grabbed it eagerly – I was on my way to Edinburgh to join some friends for a weekend at the Festival, and they hadn't yet got round to telling me where I should go when my train arrived.

My hopes weren't too high for any helpful communication, though. The play that I had helped to write (an adaptation of Laurence Sterne's eighteenth century novel Tristram Shandy) opened the next evening, and in recent days my phone had almost melted with the frantic pace of discussion about how we were going to make it look like the star of the show had been accidentally circumcised by an unruly sash window without actually… You get the picture.

To my surprise, the text message was from my little sister, and didn't include any hopeful suggestions that "a bit of honey roast ham might do the trick". It read:

"I think Mum and Dad are lost at sea."                                                                         

In other families, that might sound like exasperated hyperbole, borne out of frustration at unpunctuality or otherworldliness. In ours, it means exactly what it says.

Our parents, you see, consider time spent on land to be merely an irritating interlude between sea voyages. As immigrants from South Africa, they first arrived in the UK on a boat they had built themselves. It took them three years to build the boat, and three months to sail it from Cape Town to Falmouth, and they didn't stay ashore more than they had to even after they had decided to settle here. One of my very earliest memories is of us sailing across the North Sea in the middle of the night. I'm trying and failing to count the stars because the boat is smashing through the waves and the constellations are in constant motion above me. I think I was four years old.

A quick call to my sister ascertained several things. No, our parents hadn't arrived to fetch her from a friend's house that morning as promised. No, she hadn't been able to get any answer from them on the satellite phone they carry when at sea. No, she hadn't had any communication at all from them since they set off north from Ramsgate five days ago. Yes, she was scared. Could I please come and get her?

I wanted to, desperately, but I couldn't. I was trapped in a train, being swept further away from her with every passing second. I was on the last train out of London to Scotland on a Friday night, due to arrive in Edinburgh at half past midnight; even if I got off at one of the four intermediary stops, there was no chance I would be able to make the connections to get to her that night. She staying by the sea in the small village of Bosham on the south coast, and it felt like I was being irrevocably yanked northwards, away from her, divided by the efficiency and speed of the East Coast Main Line.

The train plunged onwards into an area of patchy phone signal and we had to end the call. It was getting dark outside so the interior of the carriage looked especially brightly lit and cosy against the greying sky reflected between the windows. I stood up, instinctively scanning the seats for a responsible-looking adult I could ask for help. Blank, disinterested faces turned as people avoided my gaze.

What do you do if you think your parents have drowned in the North Sea? The question bounced around my brain. Can you call 999 and ask for a nautical rescue? I even started to dial before I realised that I had no answer to the first question an emergency responder would ask me - I didn't have any idea in which bit of the sea they were lost.

This wasn't a normal kind of voyage they were on, where you travel from one port to another. The purpose of this trip was to meet the qualification requirements for an ocean race they wanted to enter the next year. This meant clocking up five hundred nautical miles, non-stop and out of sight of land. With customary ruthless practicality, they had simply intended to sail north-north-east from Ramsgate for 250 miles and then turn round and come back again. Since they had left five days ago, they could now be anywhere in the North Sea. As well as being the sea, with all the usual dangers that entails, the southern part of this particular stretch of water is very shallow for offshore water – only 25 metres in places. For this reason, it takes very little in the way of weather for it to develop a choppy, unpredictable swell, which is why I couldn't make the stars stay still to count them that time. Oh, and it funnels into the English Channel at Dover, which is the busiest shipping lane in the world, with hundreds of enormous commercial ships whizzing about at all times of the day and night. I did some deep breaths. I got hiccups.

Usually, the train journey from London to Edinburgh is an experience that causes an abiding, powerful sense of calm in me. I love seeing the bridges and the rivers and the cities and the spires of England flash past, knowing that I'm travelling on the same route and in the same way as thousands, millions before me. This is the line that the Flying Scotsman and Mallard sprinted on, that Richard Hannay dodged the police on in The Thirty-Nine Steps, that Lexie and Archie argued on in the superb first series of Monarch of the Glen (don't judge my cultural references, please). Every time, I look forward to this journey almost more than I look forward to arriving at the end of the line. But this time, it was all wrong.

Another tearful phone call from my sister catapulted me into a heightened state of panic. Because my parents turned up in this country from Africa decades ago in a small boat, I don't have any relatives who live less than five thousand miles away who might be able to help. I briefly entertained a wild fantasy where I somehow gained access to my parents' bank account, wired my most capable cousin the money for the air fare and then sat back while she sorted everything out, but this otherwise foolproof plan was foiled by the lack of mobile phone signal. And a few other considerations. Whenever I could, I called the boat's satellite phone, but just got strange clicking sounds, which in my agitation I decided must be the noise it makes when at the bottom of the sea. My mind raced the train up the line, playing out all the possibilities. For the first time, I fretted about inheritance tax, and did feverish calculations on the back of my ticket about how much I now owed the government. I planned a funeral, and started practising a possible reading. I felt nervous about having to go to my sister's next parents' evening. Darkness fell outside. I stared at my bright, pale reflection in the window. It didn't have any useful ideas either.

Half-past midnight at Waverley station. Tristram Shandy's Uncle Toby met me at the station, and I had to explain why I had burst into tears as soon as I caught sight of his threadbare frock coat. We stayed up all night fiddling with the set, trying out innumerable foreskin options for the crucial sash window moment. I took charge of the plasticine moulding and ham chopping to stop myself from redialling the boat phone number every thirty seconds. At 4am, I called a non-emergency coastguard number the lighting technician had found on the internet. They said they would try and establish proper radio contact, and consider starting a preliminary search if they got no answer. The operator lingered over the fact that it had been nearly six days since we had heard from them. To me, it sounded like she was doing a special Bad News voice.

Eventually I slept, or tried to, on the kitchen floor in the cast's flat. I opened the fridge door every few minutes for some light by which to squint at the torn corner of script with the coastguard's phone number on it. Every time, I lost my nerve before I could press "call". Until someone confirmed that the boat had sunk, I could still keep it afloat.

***

They turn up at lunchtime the next day to collect my sister, cheerily apologising for being a day and a half late. The wind had veered into the south-west, so they had done an extra loop out towards Norway to make sure they had completed the qualifying distance. They are angry with us for thinking that their late arrival could have been for any other reason.

I haven't been back on that train line since. It will always be the place where my parents are lost at sea.

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

A boat. Photograph: Getty Images

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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Despite its Brexit victory, the hate-addicted right rages on – but the left is silent

The Brexit victors aren’t addicted to independence. They’re addicted to hatred.

The weirdest thing about Brexit is how angry the victors are. You would expect the losers to be sore – but open any British newspaper and it’s as if getting what they wanted has rendered the winners yet more snappish. At any time, you can guarantee that the medium least likely to offer principled opposition to any assault on democracy is the British press. Even so, it’s astonishing to open a copy of the Daily Telegraph and find that a byline has become a mere technicality, a breakwater for the eye. Page after page, countless squads of identical bald clones drone on – all chorus, no counterpoint – ranting about the evils of a Europe, which, in theory, they are supposed to have vanquished.

What is the point of having so many writers when they all write the same article? It turns out that it wasn’t Europe they wanted to leave. It was contemporary Britain. They’re not addicted to independence. They’re addicted to hatred.

In the United States, television and newspaper reporters have understood that their president is out to get them. So they are fighting back, challenging him on his lies in a way that the BBC does not dare. Women, African Americans and Latinos have all staged impressive demonstrations to disrupt the idea that the current state of affairs in the US is either necessary or, more important, normal. Republican senators aiming to take away their voters’ rights to health care have been facing impassioned town-hall meetings. There is exhilarating satire on television.

But over here, the 48 per cent of people who feared a loveless future of cringing isolation, austerity and social backwardness have been largely content to take defeat on the chin, as though cowed by the fact that so many of the poorest among us don’t agree.

In Britain, the silence is eerie. We know from experience that it takes time for artists and film-makers to respond to sudden changes of temperature.

Margaret Thatcher was first elected in 1979, but it wasn’t until 1982 that we were enlightened by Alan Bleasdale’s Boys from the Blackstuff; My Beautiful Laundrette didn’t ­arrive until 1985; and it was 1987 before Caryl Churchill gave us Serious Money – a full eight years after Thatcher’s election.

All three works may enjoy an enduring power and authority denied to the collected speeches of Norman Tebbit. They define the era. But they all came too late to do anything more than raise morale. The damage had been done. You may feel that the musical of Billy Elliot nailed Thatcher’s government definitively, but it began to offer its insights 15 years after her resignation.

Politics in the West is in a mess because no one can answer the question of why Western labour should continue to enjoy its relative privileges when labour in the rest of the world can offer to do our work so much more cheaply. The standard answers from left and right are equally unconvincing and polluted by residual imperialist attitudes to race. Conservatives swing wildly. On some days, they behave as if they can continue to enjoy the free movement of capital while planning to forbid the free movement of labour. On others, they pretend that they still believe in the same market that failed so spectacularly ten years ago.

Neither position is coherent, and the mix of the two is crazy. But the left has done little better to explain how social justice can be advanced in the face of an international buffeting that has no care for workers’ rights.

In 2015, Ed Miliband, the then leader of the Labour Party, went into the general election without having decided whether he was or wasn’t going to defend the Keynesian public spending that had saved Britain from the corruption of the banks. The present leader of the Conservative Party, always marching fearlessly behind a thick cladding of popular prejudice, is implementing a European divorce against which she campaigned only a year ago. Small wonder that people have so little hope of Westminster.

Historically, we have always been taught that change comes from below. When people suffer intolerably, they overturn the cause of their suffering. Yet they still need representatives who can articulate their needs. Revulsion has to bubble up soon, but so do policies.

In our daily lives, we all meet people who are thoughtful, kind-hearted, efficient and serious. We encounter such people in medicine, in education, in law enforcement and in social care, and it is their generosity and foresight that make life worth living. Yet Theresa May is content to hug close individuals who would be thrown out of any job but politics. Her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, was sacked by the Times for lying. Her Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, was accused of trying to interfere with a prison inspection report while he was justice secretary, and he banned sending books to prisoners.

Most inexplicable of all was the elevation of Liam Fox, her International Trade Secretary, who is in permanent disgrace because he has refused fully to admit wrongdoing for overclaiming expenses and using public money to pay a close friend who attended 57 per cent of his Ministry of Defence engagements without security clearance.

Why on earth are such people promoted by a vicar’s daughter who boasts of her moral values? It is in that disparity between who we are and how we are represented that the best hope of opposition lies.

Disbelief will shade into outrage, even if Labour continues to be led by a man blithely indifferent to the practicalities of getting ­anything done. Confronted with the ascen­dancy of scoundrels such as Fox, Grayling and Johnson, anyone, from any part of the UK, will agree with Karl Marx: shame is the only revolutionary emotion.

David Hare is a playwright

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition