Castle Point: Farage, Carswell and co. descend on Essex’s Canvey Island

On Thursday Nigel Farage kicked off Ukip’s general election campaign in surreal surroundings.

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This piece originally appeared on our election site, May2015.

Nigel Farage is in town. A gaggle of reporters huddle outside a newsagent. TV crews await his arrival. Photographers shuffle restlessly. On an unassuming stretch of London Road, rumours swirl, from Grout’s the bakers to the local library.

Police and bald bouncers imply a politician on tour. “It’s all happening” on Canvey Island. Ukip have swept into town. Castle Point – the Tory constituency within which Canvey uncomfortably rests – is one of a handful of seats the party is set to win in May.

Farage is ‘opening’ a newsagent. It’s long been open but the owner (Asian, anti-immigrant) is a fan and they’ve found a yellow ribbon. No one told the library’s regulars next door.

“I thought you’d all been turned out the library when I saw the crowd. My goodness, what is happening!”

“Yes it’s Nigel Farage coming down.”

“Ooh is he?”

- Pause -

“A lot of the chaps have just got white shirts on – they must be frozen.”

- Pause -

“Right so we’d like to order that one, but if it looks like that’ll be hard to get hold of, that’ll be her second choice…”

- Pause -

“Oh we got the police too… [Yes…] and the photographers… [Yes it’s all happening…]”

“I saw it and I thought perhaps something’s happened, perhaps there’s been a bomb alert!”

“Did I miss him?” Asks a distraught Sue an hour later, walking with friend and dog along the estuary. They’re alone on the granite walkway, sheltered by a sea wall decorated with scenes from a historic Canvey Island. A handmade map – home printed photographs, clip-art arrows – detail its sites.

“Did I miss him?” Asks a distraught Sue an hour later.

The Island’s 17th century Dutch village is now just two cottages. But nearby Labworth Café was built by Ove Orup, the engineer behind the Sydney Opera House. It’s a lovely place says Sue’s friend, Violet. Bit pricey.

Fat little birds with orange legs bustle about on the concrete, unaware of the shipping liners muscling down the estuary. Polished benches line the walk, decorated with bulbous hearts, and dedicated – with love – to those who loved Canvey. Leave your Ukip popcorn there and you will find it an hour later, untouched.

Sue’s friend is less interested in the state visit, after all Nigel’s ‘so ugly’. But for Sue, it doesn’t matter what he looks like, “it’s the views Violet”. What one policy is sending Sue to the polls? Immigration.

Elsewhere on the waterfront, in a hair salon doubling as a cafe, Douglas Carswell is on hand. “People have entirely legitimate concerns about immigration.”

It smells, not unpleasantly, of hairspray.

Carswell understands. “It doesn’t matter which of the shysters we vote for. None of the MPs answer to us.”

“But might I suggest that immigration is also a by-word? A by-word for a loss of control?”

Sue is adamant. It’s not a matter of race or colour. All of her “kids are married to foreigners”. She doesn’t care if it’s Raj or John, just as long as they immerse themselves in the community, and that we are the priority. It is out of control, and the powers that be in far off Westminster are not representing us.

Carswell understands. “It doesn’t matter which of the shysters we vote for. None of the MPs answer to us, and that is what’s really fuelling disaffection.”

*

If Labour’s heartlands are in the north, and the Tories’ are in the south, Ukip claims the pub.

But did anyone ask the pub?

At one Canvey local, Farage’s pub popularity isn’t as apparent as it seems. A few months ago he turned up, asking if he could come in for a pint. He returned with cameras in tow and was soon posing behind the bar, uninvited.

He tried the same trick on Thursday. But the landlady – absent the first time – chastised him out.

Farage’s pub popularity isn’t as apparent as it seems.

“Could somebody please kindly drop a brick on his head?” Asks Andy, a middle aged DIY man with washy eyes. He’s skim reading the Metro. Like most longstanding Canvey residents, he’s middle-aged, working class and Cockney.

Why are there so many ex-East Enders on what another calls ‘Alcatraz’?

They look shifty, sip their pints and await accusations of racism and nativism. As they see it, they were shunted out of their ‘heartlands’ by an influx of immigrants.

Some of the patrons are more charitable towards Ukip, such as James, a bald and bulky trader dressed in some combination of polo neck, fleece and gilet. “Nigel Farage, I believe, is looking to keep some kind of barriers up, to keep some kind of unification for us, as English.”

Another drinker pipes up.

“It’s a shit world. Everyone’s getting fucking killed and beheaded and shit like that. It shouldn’t happen. Call me old-fashioned—”

“1 in 12 born here are Muslim,” James joins in. “Released today, Daily Mail: maybe not your cup of tea, but facts are facts: 1 in 12.”

“—facts don’t go anywhere, that’s the thing.”

What would Nigel do about that? The pair aren’t direct.

“I tell you what, that Nick Clegg… he’s a double ‘W’, he is. What – does – he – do? Nothing, leeches off Dave Cameron doesn’t he?”

“The Conservatives aren’t the worst. Tony Blair is the worst war criminal ever.”

“Everyone’s getting killed and beheaded. It shouldn’t happen. Call me old-fashioned—”

James ploughs on. “He opened the floodgates to hundreds of thousands of immigrants coming in – nothing wrong with that – but when you see what’s happening now, with sharia law looking to be implemented across the globe, and in our own backyards…”

“If you stick him in a dodgy old place in London mate, he would shit himself.”

“—who’s this?”

“Tony Blair. If he had to pay for a fucking sandwich he wouldn’t know—”

“That man is earning £20 million a year just on the back of the influence and people he’s met over the years.”

“—he’s left a load of shit in his wake and fucked off.”

Blair’s trial is interrupted.

“Hello Paul, we’re right in the middle of a debate here. “

“Oh is it good?”

“You’ll be on the front page of the Sun in the morning: racist.”

“I’m not racist.”

“When you speak your mind you’re racist, it’s wrong.”

The pair turn to Farage’s speech for support, made earlier that day in ‘Screen 4’ of Canvey’s riverfront cinema.

“It weren’t racist was it? No, exactly. He wants to calm it down a bit, so we’ve still got, you know, a bit of say. The first thing they do, they jump on the racist card.”

In surreal surroundings, and from behind billboards imploring the crowd to ‘Believe in Britain’, Farage didn’t evade nationalism in his first speech of the campaign.

“Australia. They’ve got a fantastic situation: if you don’t like, fuck off.”

To a room stuffed full of dismissive London journalists (at the back, standing) and local Kipper loyalists (at the front, sitting), he described Jamie Huntsman – the timber merchant turned Ukip candidate for Castle Point – as “unashamedly patriotic and proud to be British”.

Huntsman labelled himself “the grandchild of immigrants who calls England their home, [and] embraces its culture.” Neither of them, nor the patrons of Canvey’s pubs, thinks themselves anti-immigrant.

Back in the Canvey local, James and his drinking partner are clear. “The BNP went about it totally wrong, they’re fucking pathetic.” Immigration is fine. The system just needs to work.

“Australia. They’ve got a fantastic situation—”

“If you’re going to be a burden, if you’re a diabetic, they won’t take you.”

“—if you don’t like it, fuck off.”

*

Andy, James and the pub-goers of Canvey don’t have the preoccupations of ‘the political class’.

Listening to Farage’s plans “was like watching someone buying a round of drinks on someone else’s tab”, scoffed Michael White in the Guardian. How is it all going to be funded Nigel? Asked the BBC. But voters here aren’t interested in the fine-print of finances.

Their concerns are either small – who in Canvey council decided to switch off all street lamps after midnight? – or big issues that broadsheet journalists have long since stopped writing about.

Stories which once mattered – the Iraq War, MPs expenses, Lee Rigby murder – still rankle in Canvey. Islamic extremism can’t be solved in a pub, but conversation turns to Islamists every few minutes, not budget deficits.

“You know seriously, I know it’s a radical situation, but if someone’s going to chop your head off, you’d rather have them eradicated. Euthanasia… I know it’s a harsh situation, but you got to look at it one way: kill or be killed.”

It’s hard to imagine Ed Miliband or David Cameron engaging with such logic. Some pundits think they shouldn’t try. But if neither can reach Canvey’s pub conspirators, populist parties like Ukip will always appeal.

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