A.i.R. | Tents by Siân Norris

“Tents” is the latest instalment of Siân Norris’ residency, bringing together essays, interviews, fiction, poetry and visual art to look at the refugee crisis.

No one was surprised when an article appeared in the local paper condemning the appearance of the tents on the river bank.

It was in keeping with its general editorial stance of spluttering outrage.

Neither was anyone surprised by the responses.

There were those who agreed the tents needed clearing away. Untidy, were the words used. Unhealthy. Not a good look, and this was said with grave nods, for the city.

Some people argued back. Surely, they said, the tents were a symptom of the problem. Surely, they urged, we should be looking for solutions to the crisis. These phrases were repeated with wringing hands and with eyes trying to express concern and compassion. Those emotions that have their limits. Leave the tents be, they said. Where else would they go? Their eyes slid away from the unspoken answer; their feet shuffled with discomfort.

And then there were those who saw the tents as representing the very solution being demanded. One overexcited business man, sweating with enthusiasm in an ill-fitting suit, was heard to repeat the term ‘entrepeneural spirit’ to a BBC camera and suggested the tent dwellers be praised for their innovative response to the crisis.

The council representative promised that a team were looking into it, rubbing her French manicured thumb against her index finger.

No one was surprised at the newspaper’s angry stance. Nevertheless, they were shocked when more and more tents started to appear on the river bank.

These tents, it was clear, were erected by a different kind of dweller. The kind who used the phrases ‘getting back to nature’ without irony. Who saw the tents as a chance to ‘live sustainably’ in a way that ‘rejected materialism’.

It wasn’t long before a Tumblr appeared, the avatar a young man in a Public Enemy T-shirt and thick-rimmed glasses. His posts, typed out in local cafes providing free Wi-Fi, extolled the virtues of tent living.

His follower count flicked upwards.

More tents appeared. Soon, a Facebook group.

The original tent dwellers were bemused by this development. They kept their feelings to themselves. The newcomers brought with them better food and beer – food and beer they were willing to share. Who were they, then, to complain?

Someone wrote a letter to the local newspaper, worried about wading birds.

The otter poked his head above the water, and hurried his family downstream.

The council called a meeting of its leaders to discuss the spawning tents. A younger councillor suggested tourism potential. One tent, he explained, had already appeared on Air BnB.

(The minutes of the meeting recorded how the concept of Air BnB needed to be defined for the less IT-savvy members of the team.)

Another considered whether the tents could form a community for artists. Blue sky thinking for now, of course, but who knew what potential the situation would offer in the coming weeks and months.

French Manicure was instructed to devise a marketing plan that could incorporate these two ‘outside the box ideas.’ Her heels tapped nervously down the corridor to her office.

Someone wrote a letter to the local newspaper, worried about youth cults.

***

They say when trouble comes head to the high ground. But when the water started to run out it hit the high ground first.

The green of the wide downs turned yellow and from yellow into brittle pale soil. The squatting water towers squatted empty.

They walked down the hill, carrying bell tents with hammocks and four-bedroom structures made out of micro-fibre materials.

One family pulled up the decking from their expansive back garden, planning to build a pier on the riverbank where they could live.

We want our own community, the father explained, his hand running through his thinning hair.

 

(Illustration by Johnny Davies)