by Phil Scraton:
It is often remarked that death knows no hierarchy: born naked, die naked. Yet how the living transform death’s meaning. Understandably when tragedy strikes we stand emotionally and physically alongside the bereaved as they mourn their loved ones. In the aftermath of multiple deaths the intensity is collective. The randomness of disasters, of who survives – who perishes, reminds us that it could have been me, my brother or sister, my mother or father, my son or daughter, my friend or neighbour. Towns, cities, villages become forever blighted by the deep sadness associated with their names.
Throughout the year, particularly in summer, the sands of Morecombe Bay, to the west of Lancashire’s coastline and the south of Cumbria’s beautiful Lake District, attract thousands of walkers. The most famous Morecambe Bay walk crosses the mouth of the River Kent, from Arnside to Kent’s Bank. Guides understand the complex movement of the tides and the channels they weave between and within the ever-shifting sand banks. What attracts walkers – the miles of flat sand against the backdrop of the northern mountains, the desolation and openness – is also its inherent, seemingly benign, danger.
Tides flood the banks twice every 24 hours. On the flats there is no way of seeing the often silent progression of water as it fills the channels and surrounds the banks, turning still water into torrential flows. To walk the sands it is essential to know and understand the tides. This is a place where remote calm switches to remote chaos in minutes, faster than running pace, impossible to swim
On Merseyside, an hour’s drive south, the men and women hot-bedded in overcrowded houses. The beds were never empty, their occupancy dictated by the tides on Morecambe Bay. They were migrant workers mainly from China’s Fujian Province trafficked to Britain in search of a better life that would support those back home. Most had worked in Norfolk’s farms before being shipped north to pick cockles in Morecambe Bay: no papers, no citizenship, no status. Wages were barely enough to cover rent, food and the occasional phone home – calls of reassurance given the sacrifices made to afford the cost of illicit travel to the promised land.
On 5 February 2004, the sea’s coldest month of the year, their backs aching and hands frozen some 40 men and women were caught in the tides. Desperate phone calls were made, their last, to relatives across the globe as they were overwhelmed by the inrushing tide. There were 15 survivors and 23 died. Victims of illegal exploitation, the product of their labour was sold to well-known supermarkets and restaurants, demonstrating that ‘fair trade’ is a local as well as international issue.
In the immediate aftermath a former student of mine, Julia Hodson then Assistant Chief Constable of Lancashire, commented that the gang masters were: “criminals of the worst possible kind, that are prepared to exploit those that are the most vulnerable in our communities”. Without doubt, but those who bought the cockles never questioned their origin and their customers were reassured that their money was being spent on ‘local produce’.
Standing on the summit of Grisedale Pike I look down from the mountain across the distant, wide sands of Morecombe Bay. It is low tide, the sea out towards the horizon, the sun glinting the small pools left behind. Walkers will be making the most of the clear, bracing day. I think back to the dreadful loss of life in a place so tranquil. I can’t free myself from the notion of death’s hierarchy.
Given the loss of life, the pain and suffering inflicted on so many families, why has the tragedy not reached the national consciousness? Why does Morecambe Bay not feature in the list of disasters annually memorialised? What compensation did poor relatives receive? How do you compensate? The cockle-pickers from the Fujian Province are as invisible now as they were then … not us, not our people, not our loss … outsiders, outlaws, forgotten.
In this spirit Kevin Littlewood wrote the song, On Morecambe Bay: “When I heard about the tragedy, it struck a personal chord. It was something that was drilled in to me from a very early age. My mother was always telling me that there was ‘the devil of a tide’ there … I wrote the song in solidarity with all those who live and work along this coast”. And Christy Moore, with Declan Sinnott, has recorded it on his new album.
Words: Phil Scraton
Phil lives in Belfast and is Professor of Criminology at Queen’s University Law School – committed to exploring the impact on identity and community of the politics and regulation of space: from prison cell to neighbourhood, from street pavement to mountain crag, from local playground to national park, from township/ reservation to gated real estate.