I RODE shotgun for Tony the Christian Copper on a mission across the Rio Tweed and deep into the Borders Badlands last week.
Our assignment: to collect a caravan from Heather, the animal doctor nicknamed ‘MacVet’, leader of a dedicated band of charitable volunteers from all walks of life who first find then fund the purchase of beaten-up old caravans from north of the border.
The Christian Copper and I were go-betweens, the first link in a chain that collects, repairs and delivers caravans intended as emergency accommodation for Middle Eastern refugees corralled in concentration camp conditions outside Calais.
‘Christian Copper’? That’s my proud nickname for old friend Tony Britten and, no, those terms are not mutually contradictory. Tony is a retired Essex police inspector, committed Christian and a long-time worker for the Christian Police Association, an organisation for whose existence we should all be truly grateful.
He would cringe with embarrassment to hear himself feted as a decent, honest, all-round good guy and he would insist, correctly that there are plenty more Christians who are more than mere churchgoers. Not content with chairing a charity which buys and rents out affordable accommodation to the homeless here in the UK, Tony joined the organisation Jungle Canopy years ago to help provide caravan comfort for families living in squalid, tented conditions in the crowded French refugee field they call ‘the jungle’.
He never stops. Jungle Canopy members keep in touch day and night so even on his visit to us with his (equally committed) wife Linda not an hour went by without Tony checking his constantly-pinging iPad for messages or receiving and making calls to and from his mobile.
That’s how I found myself in the passenger seat of his enormous 4×4 crossing the Tweed and heading for a rendezvous at a recycling pull-in just south of Greenlaw in Berwickshire where MacVet and her mother had arranged to meet us for the handover.
Heather and Sheila (I took them for sisters) had towed the rather down-at-heel mobile home for more than two hours from Dundee before unhitching their contribution to compassion in the car park and clamping it to the tow bar of Tony’s pickup.
I would like to say I helped but as Tony and the two women grunted and swore and hefted the caravan from one vehicle to the other I had plunged into the bushes and was gathering bounty of a different kind into my battered trilby. Only thirty or so miles north of Godzone, my beloved northernmost tip of England, the elderflowers were still in full (if fading) bloom in Scottish hedgerows well into mid-July, a late picking opportunity not to be missed for a cordial maker like me.
“They’re for my second batch of elderflower cordial,” I shouted, an apologetic explanation of my abandonment of machismo and The Greater Good in favour of the more feminine act of blagging blooms. “I love the stuff, great with gin and ice,” I bellowed in an attempt to revive my macho image. It didn’t work.
“Have you tried this recipe for elderflower fritters?” asked MacVet, bounding towards me. “Give me your mobile phone,” she commanded, waving it across a writing pad and producing a digital photocopy of said recipe. What a two-for-one deal: a caravan for Calais and a roadside recipe for me!
Transactions completed, we embraced and waved each other off in opposite directions: MacVet and her mum back to Dundee, where they head up the fundraising efforts and nationwide hunt for caravans for Calais, and Tony back to my home on the ‘twee’ side of the Rio Tweed, thence to begin his trek home to Essex where an assortment of volunteers from scout groups, schools, church volunteers and Women’s Institutes help repair and refurbish the mobile homes – including fitting each caravan with a ‘frontier stove’ for cooking and heating – before they make the final trip to the Jungle camp in Calais.
As the Christian Copper and I rode into the deepening sunset I could not help but reflect on what the wider community – and, yes, even those who would call themselves Christians – would make of my companion and his colleagues: good guys or ‘baddies’?
There are plenty who would applaud such deeds as acts of humanity, decency and compassion directed towards men, women and children fleeing a dreadful fate. But there are probably many more who decry such behaviour as misguided acts of folly, encouraging millions to put themselves, their life savings and their unknowing infants into the hands of unscrupulous traffickers and risk death in unseaworthy ships.
“We are a small nation which will be overwhelmed by our own foolish generosity,” some say. “Young, single Syrians and Iraqis [and there are many to be seen at the head of the pressing horde] should stay in their own countries and fight the evil that forces their families to flee.”
But what if Britain and America had taken so belligerent an attitude to Jews who fled the Nazis or towards Ugandan Asians ejected from their birth homes by Idi Amin’s anti-Asian pogrom?
Can we honestly bar our doors to the frantic pounding of families fleeing certain death?