Community Table Typing

CALAIS – MAY 31, 2019

There are reported to be around 500 people in Calais at the moment though it’s difficult to know exact numbers. The police

presence continues to be high and the daily preoccupation of avoiding police violence and destruction of property carries on. Many already exhausted people are fasting in these conditions, while Ramadan ends in a few days time.

This week we spent one day in Calais in the day centre, having travelled the previous week to Le Channel, a dynamic arts centre on the edge of Calais, to take part in a multi-disciplinary conference on the theme of violence, refuge and art. Reflecting there with others on the value of our ‘Community Table’ in the day centre, this week we decided to bring two manual typewriters with us to allow for a different sort of communication.

We were also responding to the writing of a moving poem posted on line by our well respected friend and refugee volunteer who was marking the tragic death last week of a young Eritrean on the main Calais road. We wondered whether the typewriter might invite other verse.

There were a number of visitors to the day centre in addition to a gentle stream of young men, and a few women. These included a group of nuns from regions across France, a medical team offering first aid, and several volunteers from the other organisations. Slowly the Community Table found its rhythm and we were joined in particular by Sudanese young men who seemed fascinated by the typewriter machines.

One young man said he comes from a very small rural village and had never seen such a machine before. Working with one of the nuns and ourselves he managed to type some key autobiographical notes, typing over and over the name of his region, and at the same time trying to explain his local language. Later he typed out a fictional tale in which he managed to kill two frightening animals that had confronted him in the woods.

The presence and use of the typewriters seemed to helpfully allow communication to be slowed down across languages. It encouraged playful imaginative interaction with serious intent that felt like work, and allowed some intense conversations to take place. Their 1970s style held a presence at the table and fitted with the other pre-used materials that we bring.

Memories were connected with but the pace of finding the correct keys seemed to help slow things down and allow for some distance. The carbon paper, the idiosyncrasies of each machine, the mechanical keys and in particular the sound of the tapping seemed to resonate, a cultural nostalgia gently stirred.

A few men and a woman built with the bricks in amongst the typing, the sound of the keys offering a reassuring presence. A brick beacon which doubled up as a brick oven was left on the table in amongst the pieces of text and alongside the foundations of a new building.

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