There is something about the sea that makes it a useful metaphor for change—a combination of its constant movement, its exhilarating ozone, its swift mutability, its vastness and mystery. Depending on what shore one stands on, the sea is a road or rampart, highway to freedom or gateway for invaders, origin of life or cause of death—or all of these things at once.
Nineteenth-Dynasty Egyptians fearing another descent by the Sea Peoples, or Lindisfarne monks glimpsing at longships, understandably had less agreeable ideas of Ocean than Portugal’s Henry the Navigator, England’s Walter Raleigh, or all those other swaggering Europeans from the Age of Discovery. But always, to look out to sea is to invite introspection, consider possibilities.
One numinous day in 1972, a forty-something French novelist named Jean Raspail looked out over the Mediterranean from Vallauris, west of Antibes. He was privately-educated and widely-travelled, the winner of the Académie Française’s Jean Walter Prize for empathetic writings about the unlucky native peoples of South America, a traditionalist Catholic acutely aware of his country’s position in the world. He had seen pulsating poverty around the globe, knew the realities of overpopulation and ethnic conflict, and now he had a revelatory vision of his prosperous Provence suddenly so engulfed. “And what if they came?” he asked himself. “And what if they came?”
He records that The Camp of the Saints almost wrote itself, with him starting to write each morning without quite knowing where the story would have taken him by evening. There was certainly no shortage of source-material, now that Situationists and Soixante-huitards were the mainstream, and all of European civilization—under ideological attack. “The Wretched of the Earth” had been co-opted as auxiliaries by Marxists and as potential consumers by capitalists; the colonies were being abandoned; Catholicism was in freefall; and traditions had become trammels. Judging from permitted public discourse, everyone—from bishops, politicians and academics to actresses—was united in embracing an idea of “France” as outmoded and morally reprehensible. France needed to atone, according to this new narrative, for empire and exploitations, to reinvent herself for a post-national age, effectively commit suicide in order to save her soul.
To Raspail, such ideas were risible, as they probably seemed to the majority of the French—but he also knew that they needed to be taken seriously. He saw that darkly comic notions could have revolutionary consequences. So he stitched real-life quotations from contemporary public intellectuals and celebrities into an epic imagining of a million-strong convoy of India’s poorest and most misshapen, setting out inchoately from the mouth of the Hooghly in rust-bucket ships, and across the Indian Ocean towards the Cape of Good Hope, and so around to Europe—a Promised Land of plenty, trailing the stench of latrines. This reverse colonization by the Tier Monde’s least enterprising was the perfect antithesis of the elitist European navigators, the old continent recoiling back in on itself in tiredness and toxic doubt. Old Europe, expansive Europe, Christian Europe, the Camp of the Saints (Revelations, 20:9)—and for that matter easygoing Europe, too—was suddenly a shrinking island in a world of angry water.
In lambent language, Raspail visualizes the multitudinous currents that ebb and flow through his fictive France as “The Last Chance Armada” creeps through preternaturally calm waters en route to disembarkation and destiny. He tells all too believably of moral grandstanding—the mood-mélange of calculation, foolishness, hysteria, and myopia—the excited solidarity that surges through France’s marginal minorities—the ever-shriller rhodomontade about international obligations, human rights and anti-racism - the cowed silence or wry acceptance of the minority of realists. A river of hypocritical canards flows South from studios even as their utterers decamp in the opposite direction—leaving in their rubbish-strewn wake fellow French too poor or old to move, and a tiny number of patriots too attached to their homeland to consider forsaking it even in extremis.
These last-standers hold out on a hilltop, as all of France and Europe fall to what Raspail brilliantly termed “stampeding lambs”—immigrants, who are simultaneously individually inoffensive and cumulatively catastrophic. For a brief spell, the diehards assert their identity as their ancestors had always been prepared to do, patrolling their tiny borders, using hunting rifles to pick off interlopers, revelling in simply being French and in France (although one is an Indian volunteer). This is even though—or because—they guess it is only a matter of days before their own annihilation, which is inevitably ordered by Paris.
The Camp was highly original—Raspail’s realization that immigration was the defining issue of his (and our) age, his clear-eyed examination of intellectual trends then still far from their logical denouements, his uncompromising commitment to la France profonde, and to Christianity—all rendered in strong and sonorous prose. His narrative, howsoever exaggerated for effect, was a distillation and condensation of observable reality. He laid bare the weaponization of words—gentle words like "tolerance," "compassion," "non-discrimination"—and the harsh facts underlying ‘liberal’ contemporaneousness. “I see the UN has decided to abolish the concept of race”, one Camp resistant remarks sardonically. “That means us!”
Acclaimed authors were not expected to have such retrograde attitudes, and mainstream publishers (Laffont in France, Scribner’s in America) were not supposed to publish anything that emanated from the Right Bank. So there was a savage backlash from littérateurs (although Raspail also had intellectual allies), who saw the book as a betrayal by one of their own. Some must also have recognized themselves, or elements of themselves, in the book’s more contemptible characters. Reviewers dutifully assailed it in hyperbolical terms; one typical American article called it “a fascist fantasy...a disgusting book”. The reviewers thus morally purged, and the book (from their point of view) sluiced hygienically down the pissoir, it fell into abeyance, read chiefly by those on the furthest Right fringes of French life.
Yet it never went out of print in France, and every few years showed itself dangerously above the surface, usually in response to some news story paralleling his plot. It has now entered a new half-life, still sometimes ritualistically condemned, but increasingly accepted as a part (albeit a slightly embarrassing part) of the literary landscape. The novel undoubtedly helped create the intellectual space, which has made it possible for Alain Finkielkraut, Michel Onfray, Michel Houellebecq, Renaud Camus, and Éric Zemmour to examine some of the countless dilemmas of immigration, often on prime-time media slots—‘a cathode-ray apocalypse’, according to one terrified old-timer.
Some early denunciators have sportingly admitted that they had been wrong to condemn The Camp—but it has dogged Raspail’s career nonetheless, and undoubtedly prevented him from being elected to the Académie Française in 2000. Yet even if he was forbidden to join the ranks of “les immortels” (as Academicians are nicknamed), ironically his book is likely to live for longer than most of those produced by present Academy members (except, maybe, Finkielkraut). As the author observed in a September 2015 interview,
“What’s happening today isn’t important, it’s anecdotal, because we are only at the beginning...Politicians have no solution to this problem. It’s like the national debt—we pass it on to our grandchildren.”
When Sea Changes was published in 2012, several commentators pointed out similarities to The Camp—a comparison more flattering to me than Raspail—and similarities could indeed be found, although also major differences. The Camp, which I read when I was nineteen, had unquestionably been an influence on me, helping crystallize pre-existing intuitions. It had proved to my youthful satisfaction something I had always felt (despite always being told I must not)—that immigration really mattered, more than almost any other political question. The book suggested not just that it was reasonable to take an interest, but that it was irresponsible not to do so. Raspail linked ancientness to modernity and aesthetics to demographics, and there was a fey romance in his worldview, so at odds with the boring mainstream (within which every choice seemed to come down to either Leftish vapidity or Rightish philistinism).
The Camp, although so redolent of Gitanes and High Mass at Nȏtre Dame, was in some strange way about me. It suggested that I was part of a cultural continuum that transcended national boundaries, which somehow encompassed Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, Germanic, and Latin; Classicism, Christianity, and humanism; conservatism as well as liberalism. I was in Raspail’s redoubt, even though I was not French, nor Catholic, indeed whether or not I believed in Christianity. When Raspail’s character Professor Calgues peers out from his seventeenth-century house towards the ominous beachhead, he was someone, whose motivations I could comprehend, and on whose side I instinctively aligned.
Ever afterwards, when I heard of some new landmark in loss—more restrictions on free speech in Belgium, liberalization of German citizenship laws, immigrant rapists in Malmo, riots in Bradford, a mosque opening in Granada (the first one since the Reconquista)—they seemed to be of more than local significance. I watched passive-aggressive phalanxes overwhelm one old bastion after another, and wondered when somebody with power would take notice, do something. But like the fifth-century Romans, who were cheering so enthusiastically at the Colosseum that they did not hear Alaric’s attack, twentieth-century Europeans seemed dangerously distracted from their dispossession. I was clearly a bit of a prig, yet I still think I had a point.
Then 9/11 sparked mass interest in immigration for the first time since Enoch Powell. Overnight there were newspaper columns, radio and TV programmes, think-tank reports...and then those dead were fading into memory, and immigration was continuing just as before. Even new bombs in London, Madrid and elsewhere did not slow the flow (cliché notwithstanding, it was never a “tide”, because tides go out again). Politicians, who projected Western power often violently abroad, were fostering weakness at home—even as public concern against mass migration, always considerable, continued to grow. The protesting-too-much, Stakhanovite rhetoric about diversity somehow equalling strength was heard much less often, but the underlying disease (literally dis-ease) remained untreated. If anything, the temperature kept rising, the boils—suppurating.
By now, I had exchanged Deptford for Lincolnshire, and a 1990s flat for an 1840s house across a field from a 1380 church, near a beach on which Viking rings have been found. It was only natural that I should imagine this ghosted frontier as besieged, not now by Danish pirates, but by soft-power cannon-fodder, human shields for an internationalist army. Hesitantly, with frequent halts, and feeling rather inadequate to the task, I started to makes notes for Sea Changes.
It mattered that the unwanted incomers should be comprehensible, sympathetic people doing exactly as I would have done. (I am, after all, an immigrant too.) Ibraham Nassouf had every reason to flee Basra, and every reason to think he would find a home in Britain. Who could not feel sorry for a man doubly betrayed, first, by his own culture, and then, by the West? But it mattered even more that the unwilling recipients should also be comprehensible and sympathetic, because this was the perspective usually absent from media discussions about immigration. The name of Dan Gowt given to my decent, out-of-his-depth farmer had several connotations—Daniel in the lions’ den, the old-fashioned disability of gout, and the old landscape, in which he had long-ago lodged so securely (gowt being an Anglo-Saxon term for a "drain" or "dyke").
I wanted also to dissect the contemporary leftist mentality, which loves to see itself as ‘radical’, yet which is so reminiscent of previous religious outbreaks. So I named my chiliastic, self-regarding journalist John Leyden, in a nod to the especially obnoxious Anabaptist preacher John of Leyden. It just remained to give the too-British-to-be-quite-British name of Albert Norman to my never-quite-serious conservative journalist to have all the principal protagonists, after which, like Raspail, I let the action partly write itself.
Less happens in Sea Changes than in The Camp. The scale is smaller, the tone—more intimate. It is undoubtedly a more ‘English’ book in its slightly untidy, unsystematic approach to even this hugest of events—at times, more like reportage than a novel. Sea Changes is also more plangent—few of The Camp’s calumniators remarked on its essential calmness, Raspail’s belief that the time of the Europeans was over, and this was irresistible, part of a great cosmic cycle, in which sometimes one and sometimes another group rotates to the top. The ending of Sea Changes is much less dramatic, in fact, inconclusive—there could theoretically be a Sea Changes II.
Maybe there will need to be, because despite Raspail’s efforts, the Europe of 2015 is in an even sorrier psychological state than it was in 1972. To take one small but piquant example, Raspail suggests that French radio broadcasts Eine Kleine Nachtmusik as an instinctive response to the Last Chance Armada’s landfall, instead of the previously prevailing pop and trivia. This now sounds wildly romantic—today, the pop and trivia would continue unabated. (That cheering from the Colosseum...)
In retrospect, 1970s can seem like a decade of realism. They were certainly freer years intellectually. Would The Camp find a mainstream publisher now, in any Western country? Maybe, but most publishers, howsoever nominally committed to freedom of expression, when given an obviously controversial and not obviously commercial text, would probably prefer some other publisher to exercise that right. At the least, the text would probably be redacted to reflect today’s neuroses. France, like every European country, has a manically active and, at times, aggressive Left always looking for things to hate, to give them a raison d’être in a universe emptied of meaning—and they are usually acceded to by publishers, universities, institutions, and governments, because it is easier that way. Certainly, I found it impossible to place Sea Changes with any major firm, or even an agent, despite its more-in-sorrow-than-anger decidedly un-apocalyptic tone. Although it sounds immodest, I do not think Sea Changes is any worse than many of the books published by big firms (and I had no problem finding an agent for other books)—so I am compelled to conclude that the problem was the subject-matter.
That subject-matter is every day being added to, as real events catch up with Raspail’s plot-line (once called so unlikely). Europeans of all classes stare in compassion, but also dismay, at the oncoming pulses from Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, and all points East and South, encouraged by a worldly-unwise Roman Cathartic Pontiff and an angst-ridden German Chancellor so desperate to erase her people’s past that she is willing to convulse their present and sell their future. (And these are the conservatives.) The ultra-Left, of course, welcomes the turmoil, full certain that Jerusalem will be built here as soon as Europe falls. Mainstream opinion squats guiltily in the middle, morally obese, dining chiefly on sweets, wallowing in a diabetic kind of delusion. “Britain opens its arms to refugees”, gushed a Times headline—below a photo of a child staring through a rain-streaked Hungarian train window—the editors never seemingly considering that the effect is more like an opening of veins.
Few of our many self-appointed gatekeepers (who are also our gaolers) ever seem to ask themselves, “What happens next?” Of course, genuine refugees ought always to be assisted—as they would (presumably) help us if our situations were reversed. Few Europeans would object to costed and conditional schemes to assist those really in need, with refugees returned as soon as it is safe for them. Many Europeans would also accept that some of their governments bear much responsibility for the catastrophes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria. But we also know that many of the new arrivals are economic opportunists, who know their human rights (and maybe even Islamist infiltrators), that those, who come, will stay, and their families will join them—and that behind this vanguard, whole new hosts shuffle on from all horizons.
How many will there be? Where will they live? How will we pay for them? What mental baggage do they bring? How will they adjust to us—or will we be told yet again to adjust to them? How will their being here affect the idea we have of ourselves, and our communal identities? Will there even be an “us” several decades hence? A Jesuit priest, who had spent most of his life in Africa and Asia, noted he had been “called home” to Italy to oversee arrivals—but if this continues, how much longer will he have a “home”? Will our children and grandchildren be better or worse off living in a continent even more divided than now, and more likely to be majority Muslim? Fifty years hence, what will be the state of the fought-for freedoms of the Left, or Christianity, stable states, and free economies of the Right—innovations and inheritances alike engulfed in a sea of perpetual Otherness?
It is possible to find inadvertently comic touches even in the midst of compulsory métissage, as we watch the tergiversations of politicians straddling contradictory demands, unwilling either to “embrace” or to be “left behind”: the Finnish Prime Minister, who so crassly offered to put up refugees in one of his houses; Sinn Féin’s wolfishly-grinning Gerry Adams toting a sign saying “Refugees welcome”; the English bishop, who demanded 30,000 more refugees, yet declined to offer any house-room in his mansion; that the Royal Naval flagship picking up Mediterranean migrants was H.M.S. Bulwark (rather than, say, Sponge); the German open-borders activist, who understandably felt “very sad” after being stabbed by clients.
To the sardonically-inclined, the present spectacle is, at times, reminiscent of religious ecstasies—mass swoonings, passionate and ostentatious self-flagellations (too passionate, too ostentatious to be true), votive offerings, and even icons, in the shape of little, drowned, doll-like Aylan Kurdi, lying so rigidly to attention at the margin of the Aegean. There is vast emotion out there in the hinterland—but how deep does it go? How many truly feel for people they do not know? Already, there are panicky pull-backs by mainstream—politicians suddenly seeing what they have allowed, upswings for non-mainstream parties representing old Europe, surging demonstrations, hostels burned...and these are just the immediate effects.
Then there are the absorbing psychological puzzles, like Chancellor Merkel—rectory-reared like so many of the worst (and best), privately haunted by the idea of Europe dying, yet pursuing policies guaranteed to expedite this, somehow believing that economic prudence, strong institutions, and family life can be achieved without social solidarity. The outwardly stolid operator would seem to be a little girl inside, aghast at the nature of the world, seeking inner absolution by changing everyone and everything else. Her ignoble example filters all the way down to the likes of the Hessian provincial politician, who told a restive audience of his own people that if they did not like the idea of 400 immigrants being deposited in their little town, they should be the ones to leave.
Unsatisfied with this, Merkel is offering Turkish EU membership as a bribe for helping halt the Syrian tsunami—all too ably assisted by foreign equivalents like David Cameron and the European Commission’s suitably-named Jean-Claude Juncker. To offer European membership to a developing nation with a burgeoning population, dominated by an historically antithetical faith, unstable and corrupt, riven by terrorism and bordering Syria, Iraq, and Iran is a stroke of geopolitical genius that might be disbelieved if suggested by a satirical novelist, just as Raspail’s forecasts were ridiculed by so many of his contemporaries.
Human beings notoriously tend towards short-term thinking, but we can sometimes make serious attempts to avert looming catastrophes, as seen in relation to climate change. Why can we not similarly exert ourselves to protect unique national cultures, irreplaceable efflorescences of the human spirit? Must our continent of cathedrals and charters be overcome, drowned as surely and sadly as the Kurdish boy? Must all that is excellent and European be agglomerated down in the name of a spurious equality?
Or maybe there is still a way to break free from merciless logic through some blend of activisms that can remind us of who and what we were, and could be again. Maybe we can turn our alleged end into a brave beginning. History is fluid, we have resources, and there is scope for practical idealism. We, who have inherited this most enviable of civilizations, need to believe that and look for a future—because the alternative is unspeakable.