by Michael Bloor
(first published in The Grey Sparrow Journal, 31st January 2023)
Arthur Frankland was sick. In all his thirty-five years in the Home Office civil service, he’d never before been off work for more than a couple of days at a time. Now, he was suffering from psoriasis, chronic insomnia, acute anxiety, and high blood pressure. The doctor also offered a course of anti-depressants, but Arthur had shrunk from that.
He’d never had a strong sense of vocation. After graduating, his history tutor had suggested that he undertake a Ph.D. in Nineteenth Century Russian History. But after a year, he realized that he’d no wish to become an academic. Following the lead of a couple of friends, he applied to join the civil service.
Though he lacked a vocation, he was a conscientious worker and his abilities and achievements led to promotions to difficult and demanding posts. For example, Arthur had played a key role in the UK’s fast-track visa system for foreign nationals who brought with them funds of £2 million or more to invest in the UK. With hindsight, that system had the drawback of having attracted large numbers of Russian oligarchs to the country. Arthur’s spirits had not been lifted by a magazine article he’d read, stating that tourists could now sign up for London kleptocracy tours.
More recently, Arthur had been working on the processing of migrants’ asylum applications. The process was both long-winded and massively under-resourced, resulting in a backlog stretching out longer than regret. Like the rest of the British public, Arthur watched the TV horrors of the small boat crossings and the small boat drownings. Politicians thundered about queue-jumping and criminal gangs. But Arthur knew that processing delays inevitably led to queue-jumping, and that queue-jumping inevitably led to criminal involvement.
He continued to discharge his responsibilities as best he could. He phoned for a doctor’s appointment when he heard about Home Office plans to fly failed asylum-seekers to a small country in Central Africa. An unkind colleague remarked, inaccurately and unfairly, that Arthur had probably “taken a sickie” to avoid being asked to work on the Central African Scheme.
Casting around for distractions in his flat, Arthur started to re-read some of the materials he’d assembled for his abandoned Russian history PhD. Among them was a copy of the memoirs of the Russian anarchist revolutionary, Prince Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921). After escaping imprisonment in the Fortress of St. Peter and St. Paul in 1876, Kropotkin fled to Scandinavia and onto the UK (he wrote his memoirs in suburban Bromley). Arriving at last at the harbor in Christiania (now Oslo), he saw the steamer that would carry him to safety: “… then I saw floating above the stern the Union Jack–the flag under which so many refugees, Russian, Italian, French, Hungarian, and of all nations, have found asylum. I greeted that flag from the depth of my heart.”
When he read that, Arthur Frankland phoned for another doctor’s appointment.