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 web editor of the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.