Derek Turner's Sea Changes

As far as anti-establishment contemporary fiction goes, Derek Turner’s Sea Changes is among the best one is likely to read in English today. In tone, it is clearly a satire; in sensibility, it is clearly traditionalist; but in sentiment, it has the added virtues of temperance and compassion, qualities that steer this novel clear of the vices that have afflicted others dealing with immigration and the tone and character of modern race relations—Jean Raspail’s The Camp of the Saints comes to mind—which have usually been vehicles for sublimated spleen. Perhaps the reason is that this novel was aimed at a mainstream audience, and not at fellow outsiders looking for a wink and a nod.

Sea Changes tells the story of Ibraham Nassouf, a young Iraqi. Desiring to escape the poverty and limited prospects of existence in his native Basra, he sets sights on emigrating to England, dreaming of the sort of life he had seen in Western media and magazines; his very grim and unpleasant journey, however, ends badly, for, having paid, along with dozens of others, a gang of human traffickers to take him to Britain, the latter decide to throw their human cargo into the sea and spray it with bullets after being challenged by a British coastal patrol. Ibraham is the only survivor, but he is washed on the beach along with forty or so of his fellow migrants, mostly African. The discovery, the suggestion that the migrants may have been murdered by local racists, and the throwaway remarks of a stolid farmer who finds himself in front of a television camera, being asked for comment by a reporter hyper-attuned to the racial angle, triggers a noisy media event, which dominates and is the raison d’être of the story.

Unusually, sympathy is with Ibraham, despite the fact that he funded his migration journey with money he earned working for a gangster in Basra. In a serio-comical fashion, at once caricaturesque and sophisticated, Turner skilfully conveys the squalor, uncertainties, precariety, mentality, and transient relationships involved in a journey of this nature. At each stage, Ibraham is reliant on a shady link in a long chain of sleazy, crooked, callous types who, while outwardly amiable, well-wishing, and occasionally hospitable, nevertheless make a living, or supplement their income, by fleecing the immigrants passing through. Ibraham is portrayed exactly as migrants are portrayed in Western media: a well-meaning, somewhat childlike, hard-working poor devil escaping war or poverty, and willing to go through hell for a better life in a rich Western country. Similar treatment is accorded to the Mediterranean countries of Europe forced to deal with the ever-rising tide of Third World migrants: the latter are seen by the authorities as pests, to be moved around and put out of sight in processing centres, where they languish in boredom and inactivity, but where they learn about rights they never imagined they had. It is a shadowy, confusing, and unforgiving world, constantly in flux, where every human is both predator and prey. What is worse, once Ibraham arrives at his destination, England, that paradise of the North Atlantic, it turns out his troubles have only just begun, for he becomes the ball in what is for him a confusing game of political football, in which he, the migrant of colour, is manipulated as a tool by the white English who, while appearing incredibly kind and helpful to him, are in fact completely self-absorbed and do not give a hoot about him. Eventually, he attains his dream—after some difficulty, he is allowed to remain in the United Kingdom—and he is even given permission to import his family. But life in London proves a tremendous disappointment, and we leave him living in bleak accommodation, jobless, with embarrassing flatmates, and in the throes of alienation, living in—but not part of—a culture he neither understands nor any longer wishes to understand. Looking back, life in Iraq, difficult as it was, at least offered community, friendships, and meaning. The process of migration proves destructive.

The closest to villain in the novel is John Leyden, a handsome Left-leaning journalist replete with fine phrases and crusading zeal, yet also egotistical, vain, shallow, arrogant, hypocritical, infantile, and spoilt rotten to the core. The reader does not end up hating him, however; rather, he comes across as a buffoon—a cog of the system he helps maintain. In the end, we are left to wonder about his motivations, for he is clearly not psychologically healthy or normal, despite his polished façade and professional success. His main antagonist is another journalist, Albert Norman, an old, grizzled, jaded, fat, wealthy, peppery, recalcitrant reactionary, whose politically incorrect column is both popular—indeed, it is the only thing levitating the circulation numbers in an otherwise modernising (=flagging) newspaper—and the last bastion of sense in a world gone mad. Along with Ibraham, Norman is Turner’s vehicle for some of his commentary on modern Britain, but, though almost heroic, he is ultimately an object of pity, for he is eventually defeated by the forces of ‘progress’ and even comes to realise his own futility. These two characters constitute the poles between which we find an array of depressingly familiar types: the thriving ethnic activist, the anti-racist thug, the Gerry Gables of this world, the ‘modernised’ offspring of rural parents, the cynical politicians, the semi-illiterate socialists, and, of course, the equally opportunistic, but far less skilled, anti-establishment politician. The latter, incidentally, a Nick Griffin analogue, has a seat in Parliament, until his party is banned in a swell of righteous fervour. Though stereotypes, all appear as three-dimensional characters, neither wholly good nor wholly evil, and indeed very human. All are, nevertheless, cogs in a machine.

Turner’s assessment of the situation is, therefore, that the problem is not the malfeasance of particular individuals, though some are more contemptible than others: everyone is implicated in some fashion, knowingly or unknowingly, actively or passively, whatever their individual reasons, however sensible their course of action may seem in the circumstances. The problem is systemic. And what sustains the system, in this case, is not the media, nor the politicians, nor any particular ethnic group, since they are all part of it: it is the idea that equality as the highest good—the highest expression of moral enlightenment. This is not explicitly stated in the novel; the latter is very focused on how British society today thinks about race and immigration. Yet, it is obvious, or it should be, that, in a type of society in which ethics possess singular importance, as is the case in Western societies, despite the corruption of modern times, what drives the tone and character of race relations today, and the debate on immigration, is the ethics of egalitarianism. That is what drives all the chatter, all the policies, all the decisions, all the actions and reactions despised by the type of reader who will read these lines. Without it, there would be no Sea Changes, nor a need for it. This is what, in my opinion, is most admirable about this novel, and why it is, to date, the most serious treatment of today’s cultural malaise, despite its satirical tone and occasional incursion into outright caricature. This is the only illustration I have seen in fiction of the way egalitarianism produces unfair, unjust, invidious, and unhappy outcomes. Something worth pondering.

There are, of course, some minor niggles, stemming from this being Turner’s first effort at fiction. I was distracted by the presence of superfluous adverbs, for example, a common mistake not made by more experienced writers of fiction, and not tolerated by professional editors at large mainstream publishers. And I am not a big fan of the front cover and general layout, which I think undersells the content. The book is, indeed, far better than it looks. Yet, this aside, Turner’s prose is elegant, effective, and rich with beautiful metaphor and well-crafted phrases. It is consistently good all the way through, and there is no sagging in the narrative, despite the predictable unfolding of events; it is, in fact, a page-turner, which sails along at a leisurely pace. Above all, Turner is to be commended for having successfully negotiated, with humour, sensitivity, and insight, a topic given to hysterics (on both sides), making the case against egalitarianism for readers of any political persuasion, radical and conformist alike.