'This was my fourth day here, and I still couldn't believe the pain in my back and my knees every time I bent down to strawberry level. When I stood and straightened up, my bones creaked and groaned like an old woman's.' -- Ukrainian strawberry-picker Irina
Two Caravans is the second novel by Marina Lewycka.
Her first novel, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, featured a voluptuous money digger from Ukraine.
Like her first novel, Two Caravans also features Ukrainians, but also Poles, Chinese and a black guy from Malawi. This little group are a gang of strawberry pickers, cheap immigrant labour, on a strawberry farm in Kent. Added to the mix is an East European gangster who controls the illegal immigrants. Then there is the dog!
Kent used to be called The Garden of England, maybe still is.
Kent used to have many apple orchards. These have long ago been grubbed up thanks to the economics of globalisation.
Our tale begins with a small group of migrant workers from Eastern Europe, living in two caravans, working in a Strawberry field in Kent.
'There is a field a broad south-sloping field sitting alongside a long hill that curves away into a secret leafy valley. It is sheltered by dense hedges of hawthorn and hazel threaded through with wild roses and evening-scented honeysuckle. In the mornings, a light breeze carries up over the Downs, just enough to kiss the air with the fresh salty tang of the English Channel. In fact so delightful is the air that, sitting up here, you might think you were in paradise. And in the field are two caravans, a men's caravan and a woman's caravan.'
Thus so begins our tale.
They are all looking for something. Irina, a cultured-type from Ukraine is hoping to improve her English. Emmanuel, a Black guy from Malawi, is looking for his sister. They all have reasons for being in England, apart that is from earning some hard currency.
I started reading Two Caravans during Wimbledon fortnight, which somehow seemed appropriate as it ties in with the English strawberry season.
I'll never look at a strawberry the same again.
A satire. At times very witty and highly amusing.
Two Caravans is at times very, very funny, but there is also a dark side, a very dark side, a dark side that hits you all the harder after a light-hearted moment.
One of these dark moments is when Tomasz finds himself in the chicken rearing shed, a heaving, writhing carpet of 40,000 chickens, the floor deep in their excrement, an overwhelming smell of ammonia, chickens that can barely stand on their spindly legs (often they can't and the legs get broken), specially bred to rapidly put on weight, fattened and ready for the slaughter house. The conditions are so bad that it makes you want to vomit.
And what does this soul-destroying work do to the workers, does it rob them of their humanity?
Cheap food comes at a price, a very high price. A price that is paid for in animal welfare and appalling conditions in which migrant workers live and work.
When people look back at Victorian society, they often ask how did people tolerate what was happening right under their nose. We could equally ask, why do we tolerate what is happening under our nose, pretend these conditions are not happening, or if we do know, sweep it under the carpet, out of sight out of mind.
A resolution was put before the Tesco AGM to improve the conditions under which poultry is reared. It was overwhelmingly defeated on the recommendation of the board. Greed and Tesco profit margins won over animal welfare.
Maybe those at the Tesco AGM should be forced to read Two Caravans. Better still, forced to spend the day in a poultry rearing unit, then on to the meat processing plant (another dark moment in Two Caravans).
When Tomasz is in the poultry rearing shed they are under pressure, a two for the price of one offer to be met for a supermarket order.
When supermarkets make these offers, it is the farmers who have to provide the extra one free! If not, they lose the contract. When the price of a chicken is less than a pack of toilet rolls, something has to give. What gives is the conditions under which animals are reared, the conditions under which crops are grown, the conditions under which migrant labour has to work. [see Pecking Orders]
Two for the price of one, buy one get one free offers lead to food waste and rising food bills. An estimated 4.1 million tonnes of food goes to waste in the UK every year.
Business likes illegals. No worries on minimum wage, health and safety. All helps to push down costs.
The death of the Chinese cockle-pickers in Morecambe Bay, was just an extreme example of conditions for cheap migrant labour.
People wring their hands, a few crocodile tears are shed, then it is back to business as usual.
Not that all migrants are exploited or are victims. They in turn form a criminal underclass that is prepared to exploit, rob, cheat, are only too quick to pull a knife or use a gun. Lax UK immigration lets in a criminal underclass, often bogus asylum seekers, who prey on more legitimate immigrants.
Two Caravans is also a social commentary on the state of society. A young Ukrainian girl, given the choice, thinks sex for money is better than sex with no money. Street kids with blank, dead-pool, zombie eyes. Why does London have a surfeit of goods for those with money, whereas in the Ukraine, in Africa, people go without?
In his writings Charles Dickens exposed the dark underside of Victorian society. He forced social change.
We can only hope that with Two Caravans Marina Lewycka has the same impact.
Vastly superior to her first novel.
Nikolai Mayevskyj, the silly old fool from A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, now in his nineties, senile, parked out of harm's way by his two daughters in a nursing home, makes a guest appearance in Two Caravans.
A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka [see BCID 6024918]
Brick Lane by Monica Ali [see BCID 5953928]
Not on the Label by Felicity Lawrence [see BCID 5457973]
Tescopoly by Andrew Simms
No Logo by Naomi Klein
Gone West: Ukrainians at Work in the UK by Nick Clark