Ulrik Helweg-Larsen under oprydningen efter tsunamien i januar 2005

Min gamle kollega Ulrik Helweg-Larsen er død, 75 år gammel. Vi arbejdede sammen ved flere lejligheder, bl.a. med forberedelserne af udviklingsminister Helle Degns besøg i Hanoi 1994.

Men det, som jeg først og fremmest husker Ulrik for, er hans overmenneskelige indsats under nødhjælpsarbejdet på Phuket efter Tsunamien ramte i julen 2004. Ulrik ikke alene knoklede nat og dag. Han hankede også op i os andre, når vi var ved at segne.

Ulrik tog det uden at kny, da Udenrigsministeriets topledelse med brutal kynisme lod ham tage skraldet for ledelsens eget svigt hjemme på Asiatisk Plads.

Her er en minderune for Ulrik, hentet fra mine dagbogs-notater den 4. januar 2005:

“Ambassadøren og hans hustru er de sidste tilbage af det oprindelige hold, der nåede frem til Phuket for over en uge siden. Konsulen og ambassadesekretæren er for flere dage siden blevet afløst og sendt hjem for at hvile ud. Det er tydeligt for alle, at Ulriks egen kone, der har deltaget her som frivillig, er meget tæt på at bukke under af søvnmangel og stress. Ulrik selv får da også et klart vink af en af Rigshospitalets udsendte, der nøgternt slår fast, at der er grænser for, hvad selv ambassadører kan holde til.

Stemmen knækker, og det er med tårer i øjenkrogene, at Ulrik takker os for godt samarbejde.

Blandt pressefolkene breder sig en slags sympati for ambassadøren. “Der er noget kaptajn over ham, en af dem der bliver på broen,” siger en af dem anerkendende.

På falderebet overvinder han sig selv en sidste gang og stiller op til et interview med BT. “En uge i helvede,” hedder overskriften lidt senere på dagen.”

Kun et par dage senere var Ulrik tilbage på Phuket igen for selv at tage sig af udviklingsminister Bertel Haarder, der som den iøvrigt eneste danske politiker kom til Thailand for at forhandle en nødhjælpspakke på plads med de lokale thailandske myndigheder.

Den meget lange dag endte i ruinerne af et beach resort, hvor vi nogle dage forinden havde fundet de gennemblødte pas, tilhørende en forsvunden dansk familie.

Det var med modvilje, at Ulrik som det sidste stillede op til en fotografering, bestilt af UMs presseafdeling. Men jeg fik da lov at tage det.

Æret være Ulriks minde.


Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s novel is a magnificent gift to all of us, but maybe most of all a gift to her own people, celebrating their indomitable spirit.

It is a rare experience to see high expectations being surpassed by reality, but this is what happened during my page turning sit-down this weekend with Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s novel The Mountains Sing.    

For months, my copy has been on the road through COVID era travel restrictions from the US to Denmark, finally to be hand carried by a friend on a diplomatic flight to Hanoi. While waiting, my expectations were fueled by a continues stream of praises by readers around the world on twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

As I sat down in my sofa overlooking Hanoi’s Red River, I was soon catapulted by a time machine straight into the terror of that morning in 1972, when another wave of the infamous US bombings hit Hanoi.

As the sirens scream all over the city, a 12-year old girl, Hương is running for her life with her grandmother to find a vacant shelter – in one of the concrete enforced manholes that had been dug all over Hanoi. Shelter after shelter is already full.      

At the very last moment they find a vacant shelter in front of Hương’s school, only to be half drowned in cascades of sewage water, dust and stones.  

After the sirens had signaled it was safe, Grandma and I emerged, shivering thin leaves. We staggered out to the street. Several buildings had collapsed, their rubble spilling onto our path. We crawled out of piles of debris, coughing. Billowing smoke and twirling dust burned my eyes. 

I clutched Grandma’s hand, watching women kneeling and howling next to dead bodies, whose faces had been concealed by tattered straw mats. The legs of those bodies were jutting towards us. Legs that were mangled, covered with blood. One small leg had a pink shoe dangling. The dead girl could have been my age.

Hanoi’s Khâm Thiên street after the bombings.

Hương and Grandma Diệu Lan play the main roles in Quế Mai’s universe along with three generations of characters in the Trần family, who hails from the northern-central province of Nghệ An. The family is doing well as farmers in the fertile land, until disasters start looming in the horizon, one after another. 

Grandma’s tales

As Grandma Diệu Lan and Hương slowly puts some kind of basic existence together in Hanoi’s ruins, Grandma shares the family history with her granddaughter, always calling her Guava instead of her real name to escape the attention of evil spirits, just like her own father always called her Kitten to guard her during her childhood in Nghệ An.

At first, the tales of Grandma’s childhood are as beautiful and captivating as Vietnamese spring itself in the countryside, where the Trần family enjoys more prosperity and fortune than most.  Grandma’s life is shattered by a horrific act committed by Japanese soldiers who occupied Vietnam during World War II.  

She lost a family member and during the three-day funeral rites, the wailings sounds of her brother’s traditional string instrument, the đàn nhị hang in the air for hours and hours.

Công did not utter a single word during the entire funeral, but when he returned home, he stood in the front yard, the đàn nhị raised high above is head. His scream tore into the night as he shattered the instrument onto the brick floor. His wife, Trinh, and Mrs. Tú gathered the broken pieces, trying to put them back together, but he would never play again.

The next disaster is the great famine descending on Vietnam in 1944, with hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese succumbing to starvation. Nghệ An is among the hardest hit provinces in northern Vietnam. 

Grandma tells Guava, how a sound woke her up one night.

It was the faint cries of your mother. A five-year-old then, Ngọc was resting her head on my stomach. Next to her, your uncle Đạt, barely four, lay silent. Your uncle Minh called me. I slowly turned and gazed at him: A hollowed face, dark rings around sunken, yellowish eyes; he was a seven-year-old skeleton. 

Vietnam’s controversial land reform is only one of the disasters,
hitting the Trần family.

Less than a decade later, in 1955, the surviving Trần family members are victimized by the so called ‘Land Reform’, essentially a witch hunt targeting farmers, who have managed to recreate some wealth after the famine years.   

The cruelties of the land reform leave Dieu Lan with a silent contempt. She finds her own ways to survive, leaving her job as a teacher to become an illegal trader in the streets of Hanoi. Her decision leads to a bitter conflict with her youngest son Sáng.

Coping with the casualties

The casualties of war take a heavy toll on the Trần family. Some family members return from the war, injured or deeply traumatised, some don’t. One has a baby heavily deformed because of his exposure to Agent Orange, the dioxin contaminated chemicals, used by the US forces to defoliate the jungles in Vietnam. 

The Mountains Sing is named after the Sơn ca, the little bird known for its beautiful singing in the forests of northern Vietnam.  Guava’s/Hương’s dearest treasure is a wooden Sơn Ca, cut for her by her father in the war zone and brought back to Hanoi by a fellow soldier.  

Maybe the Sơn ca also is there to make us understand that Quế Mai’s novel is more a message of the triumph of the human spirit than misery. 

At the end, The Mountains Sing invites us to the annual prayer ceremony on the day of Grandma’s peaceful departure from Earth. Guava/Hương is burning a copy of her manuscript with Grandma’s tales, knowing that the smoke will transfer her words to Grandma in Heaven.

Wisps of smoke curls upward. And in the twirling ash, I see the Sơn ca moving. It is flapping its wings, craning its neck, calling my Grandma’s songs towards Heaven.

Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s novel is a magnificent gift to all of us, but maybe most of all a gift to her own people, celebrating their indomitable spirit. I hope to see the day, when the peoples of Nghệ An and elsewhere in this country will be able to read along with the world beyond Vietnam. 


I have received dozens of messages from around the world, after I was exposed on Facebook as a stone cold dog killer. 

Let me respond briefly: Bo Nam Dinh has always been a hyper sensitive dog with a panicky fear of strangers. This has recently developed into a much more disturbing pattern of aggression. 

A few weeks ago, BND attacked my cook Xuan right in front me. She has been shit scared of him ever since. 

Some days later, I got a frantic call that he had attacked my maid, Anh with vicious biting in her arm and in her leg. She went down with shock, and thats where she still is now.  There was no apparent reason, why BND would now suddenly attack people, whom he has known for years.

I called a Vet immediately and rushed home to be there. And yes, I killed Bo Nam Dinh. I was the one holding him to the floor, while the Vet shot him full of tranqulizer. As BND slowly became disoriented, i had him in my lap, he puked all over me with the saddest eyes, that I will not easily forget.

Did I love that dog? Very much. I was the founder of his personal facebook page. I invented his famously attributed quote: “If you are not invited for the dinner, you are on the menu,” based on his personal experience with his relatives being cooked for a wedding in Nam Dinh. 

Phuong Anh made a beautiful portrait of Bo Nam Dinh.

I have fed him an embarrasing number of his favorite Australian tenderloins. Bo Nam Dinh is immortalized in my forthcoming novel Revenge From Hanoi. Most recently, my artist friend Phuong Anh Dang painted a portrait of him as a birthday gift for me.  

I have seen a few things in my life, but I never imagined that I would one day write an eulogy to a dog with tears running down my face. For Christ’s sake. Bo Nam Dinh was just a dog.

Bon Nam Dinh is seen on the far right during a prayer
for his spirit at a Hanoi pagoda.


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The rooftop pool is covered with 24k gold plates.

Do you remember the ancient legend about King Midas, who asked the gods to give him the power to turn whatever he touched into gold? At first it was absolutely wonderful to make everything around King Midas into an enormous golden fortune. But the downside certainly dawned on the king, when he accidentally touched his beloved daughter and then his own food and drink. His golden blessing had become a lethal curse.

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I was thinking about the Midas legend this morning after a tour of Hanoi’s new Golden Lake Hotel. The friendly management told me that the entire hotel has been gold-plated with one metric ton of gold. Everything from the top floor pool to your coffee spoon is gold plated. Even your dim sum suckling pig and the Beijing duck has pieces of gold on it.

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When checking out the golden bath tub, I had another flash down memory lane: Through the window I looked down on one the now (in)famous dilapidated apartment buildings, which were built with Soviet aid, when I first came to Hanoi in the early 1980’ies. At the time, these apartments were seen as a symbol of progress and international solidarity, providing good housing for poor Hanoians.

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Alas, when I next visited one of these apartment buildings in 2005 with the Danish Minister for Development Cooperation Ulla Tørnæs, Denmark’s Ambassador, the late Peter Lysholt Hansen, and my friend Trine Glue Doan, they had turned into some of the worst slums, I have ever seen. At the time, there were a number of proposals to improve the living conditions for the unfortunate families living there.

As you can see here from the Golden Lake Hotel bathrooms, not much has happened. The Hoa Binh Group (note to non-vietnamese speakers: Hoa Binh means peace) is the investor behind the Golden Lake Hotel. It probably looked like a great idea, when the project was conceived. Gold is indeed an obsession all through Asia these days. Walking around in the virtually empty hotel, I am afraid that the bloody Corona virus at least momentarily has turned this dream into a modern Midas nightmare.

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De 196 ark lægger sig ovenpå hinanden med den blanke bagside i vejret. Om lidt vender jeg stakken og ser mit forsidefoto på tryk. Et foto, som jeg har haft stor fornøjelse af at bøvle med:

Her er Phuong, en antik vietnamesisk kvindebuste, der har fulgt mig i årevis. Nu har hun fået selskab af en Zippo-lighter, som jeg fået lavet i én kopi med det logo, som den infame amerikanske specialenhed Tiger Force bar på deres uniformer under Vietnamkrigen. Foran Phuong ligger en original Ka-Bar kniv, som har tilhørt en af soldaterne i Tiger Force. Jeg har photoshoppet kniven ind.

Både lighteren og kniven spiller hovedroller i mit nye univers. 

Jeg har fået skrevet den thriller! Den har endda en titel: ”Hævnen fra Hanoi”. Det som kunne have været COVID-isolationens sorte hul, blev i stedet et kreativt kaos, hvor mine sammenskrabede livserfaringer og min fantasi fik deres helt eget liv.

Før COVID-19 stod det skidt til med min thriller. I flere år har jeg haft en myrdet dansk ambassadør liggende i min skrivebordsskuffe. Med et gennemboret venstre øje og en terminal hjernelæsion uden udsigt til at komme videre til sin egen begravelse, endsige til en opklaring af hvem der står bag likvideringen af ham. På side 5 satte min skriveblokering en stopper for yderligere fremskridt. 

Så smuttede COVID-19 ind under døren og gjorde mig selskab i min hjemmekarantæne. Måske var det på min COVID-Aften nr. 2, at jeg ikke tændte for Netflix. I stedet hev jeg den døde ambassadør op af skuffen. De ledige, stille stunder i de følgende uger fik mig til tasterne. Jeg kom vidt omkring på rejsen med det persongalleri, der myldrede ind ad døren. Jeg har følt mig som en pilot i en ny Boeing Dreamliner, hvor computerprogrammer klarer det hele.

Jeg har siddet der i mit personlige cockpit, og skuet udover min egen hukommelse, som om den var en planet: Hiens 95-årige, etbenede bedstefars beretninger fra franskmændenes endeligt ved slaget i Dien Bien Phu. Min ungdoms første odyssé gennem det ødelagte Vietnam efter den sidste store krig. Mange års daglige iagttagelser af Udenrigstjenestens begavede, til tider noget aparte kolleger. Mit Tsunami-traume fra Phuket. Alt sammen tilsat et festspil af ideer til, hvordan det hele kunne bo i et fiktivt, morderisk univers. Jeg sad deroppe og så ned på det hele, mens tastaturet opførte sig som et selvspillende klaver.

Jeg har haft nogle fantastiske sparringspartnere under hele turen. I ved selv, hvem I er. Det ville være en grov underdrivelse at sige tak for jeres hjælp.

COVID-19 er jo klodens kollektive forbandelse. Men ret skal være ret: Den virus gav mig det skub, som jeg har savnet længe. Lad mig ikke holde nogen hen i unødig spænding: Min myrdede ambassadør blev bisat undervejs allerede i kapitel 7 ved en smuk, omend noget ensom højtidelighed i Gentofte kirke. Hans kolleger blev væk, men UMs medarbejderforening sendte da en krans…..


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Encounter with the Orangutangs in Borneo

THE MEN FROM THE FOREST – It can be somewhat frustrating to monkey around in Borneo’s humid, hot and dense rainforest to look for ‘The Men in The Forest’, as the Orangutangs are called in Borneo.
When humans are around, the Orangutangs tend to stay in their nests 8-10 meters above your heads, occasionally letting you see and arm or leg dangling up there.
Things get a lot easier, if you go to the famous Orangutang Rehabilitation Center in Sepilok, located at the edge of the forest outside Sadakan. Since 1964, the center has nursed orphaned Orangutangs and brought some other 700 ill Orangutangs back on their feet, often after potentially fatal bouts of pneumonia. 

Bor (22 of 42)BorUran (5 of 7)The idea of the center is to bring these marvelous primates back to their normal life in the forest, but as you can see from my shots the other day they do hang around in a very friendly manner, possibly because they can pick up free food twice a day from a platform a few hundred meters inside the forest.

It is certainly great fun to go there and see the Orangutangs in action in a semi-natural setting, and it might even inspire you to endure a few more hours in the ‘real forest’, looking for them in their truly natural environment. In the wild they can only be found in Malaysia and Indonesia. 

Orangutangs are considered very intelligent primates, displaying clear learning abilities and passing these off to their off-spring.  They typically construct three to four nests per day, sometimes supplying them with a roof in the rainy season.

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The Proboscis males are blessed with this magnificent nose, which serves as a megaphone for their calls to their harems of 5-7 females.


This week, I finally managed to realize a 15 year long dream to return to the weirdest creatures, I ever met.

This time, I brought the proper camera gear to capture them in their habitat: Borneo’s enigmatic Proboscis monkeys.

Take a look at the above pix of this marvelous male, waiting for his harem to show up for some good old love-making in a tree-top. His rather oversized nose serves as a megaphone, making sure that his wives can hear him more than a kilometer away. Then take a look at his wives, who seemed to be more interested in Mother Earth’s own snacks than him.

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Should a male  manage to call the females over, he can still not be certain of success.  The world’s no. 1 expert on Proboscis monkeys, Elizabeth L. Benneth observed:

“Even when he has secured his females from other males and one is presenting herself before him, a harem male faces problems. When mating starts, the young animals in the group become extremely upset and do everything they can to interfere.  They frequently pull hard on the male’s upper leg, screaming all the while, but a more succesful tactic is to lean over the amorous couple from the front and try to tweak the male’s nose.  Even if this does not stop mating immediately, it certainly curtails a male’s ardour.

He sometimes even has to stop what he is doing to chase away the youngsters before returning to his female. The ultimate frustration must be when he finds that, in the meantime, the female has lost interest and wandered away.”

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A female is too busy with her favorite snack to follow the amorous calls of her master.

The Proboscis can only be found alive in their own habitat. Due to a very complicated diet and their multi-belly set-up, they seldom, if ever survive in captivity.  There are an estimated 7.000 Proboscis left in Borneo and Sumatra. They are dependent on the riverine forest areas for their daylight intake of leaves, unripe fruit and insects.  Even though the total ban on hunting Proboscis monkeys might be effective, the ongoing destruction of the rainforest put them at serious risk. 

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The Proboscis are dependent on the riverine forest areas for their daylight intake of leaves, unripe fruit and insects.

As National Geographic notes:
“Unfortunately, Borneo’s most threatened landscapes are home to these highly specialized primates. The rampant clearing of the region’s rain forests for timber, settlement, and oil palm plantations has depleted huge tracts of their habitat. The fragmentation of the monkeys’ range means they are being forced to descend from the trees more frequently and often must travel perilously long distances to find food. Their land predators include jaguars and some native peoples who consider proboscis monkey a delicacy.

Here is how you manage to encounter the Proboscis monkeys: Catch a flight to Malaysia and then onwards with a local plane to Sadakan in northeast Borneo. Then 2.5 hours by speedboat up the Kinabatangan river. You transfer into a small boat, powered by a quiet electric motor and explore the myriad of smaller rivers, led by local spotter, who knows where the Proboscis creatures hang out. Let me tell you, it is worth the effort!

There are several lodges in the area. We had Borneo Eco Tours arrange our visit and had a really nice stay at their Sukau lodge.

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This morning 30 years ago I went with these three women to the cementary in Cluj. I was told that their sons had been buried a few days before after being killed in the City’s last showdown with Dictator Ceaucescu’s Securitate forces.

Their grief might have been the only thing I got right in my reports from the uprising against the dictator. Most embarrassing was how I and scores of other reporters covered the ‘massacre’ in Timisoara without any critical questions.

Later the reported massacre proved to be a fake
propaganda stunt. Bodies, some several weeks old, had been collected from morgues and hospitals and arranged in a mass grave to appear like victims of a summary execution a few days before.

You dont need to have a medical background to know the difference between new and old bodies, unless people are telling you a story that you want to hear. And so we reported this pile of humain remains as evidence of Ceaucescu’s cruel persecution of the pro-democracy activists from The National Salvation Front.

Nicolae and Elena Ceaucescu is being led away for their execution.

The ‘Timisoara massacre’ was subsequently used as part of the justification for the execution of Ceaucescu and his wife 25 December after a few hours of trial in a military court with questionable credentials.

Former president Ion Illescu is now on trial for crimes against humanity for his role in killings after the downfall of Ceaucescu.

Still today, many questions remain about what really happened in Romania. Some may soon be answered, now that Ceauceascu’s main adversary and successor as president Ion Iliescu has finally been put on trial for crimes against humanity, allegedly committed in the aftermath of Ceaucescu’s downfall.


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Today I am handing over my blog to the Vietnamese author Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai, who has graciously allowed me to share her poem in honor of those who paid the highest prize.



Birds’ song knocks on the White House;
Lincoln’s smile resounds;
sunset soaks Washington in deep red.
The black wall,
fifty-eight thousand, two hundred and sixty-seven names I don’t
who fired gunshots into my mind,
their boot tips still drenched with blood.
I want to bury them once more.
Agent Orange flares up its color,
And the burning Phan Thi Kim Phuc
runs out from the rows of names.

Black, silent,
the silent answer for thousands of questions.

A tiny rose lights up a sharp pain,

a letter dim with tears that someone wrote
for his dead father.
“Father, today is my daughter’s birthday. I wish you were here
To blow with her the birthday candles. There isn’t a day that
Goes by without me thinking about you. Why, father? Why did
You have to go to Vietnam? Why did you have to die?

The rose petals wilt. Letters carpet below the Black Wall. Their
Words flicker and bleed.

I hear from the gloomy earth
the sounds of American fathers
carrying their babies in their arms,
their eye sockets like bomb-craters,
their hearts bullet holes.
Agent Orange lives in their bodies. Their blood
flows and drags their crying babies from their arms.

Every name on the black wall sinks into my skin
to become each face of the fallen Americans;
Washington this afternoon,
red sunset of tears?


Quế Mai originally wrote the poem in Vietnamese and translated it into English with the poet and Vietnam veteran Bruce Weigl.  She is the widely acclaimed author of 11 books and numerous other publications.  Click here for more information on her forthcoming novel The Mountains Sing.

Click here for a full profile of Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai.

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Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai, author


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My son Andreas has lent his voice to a building structure, housing the secretive ‘3rd terminal’ at London’s Gatwick Airport. This is where illegal immigrants are detained for months to the deafening sound of jet engines, before they are deported back to where they came from.  “In fact the noise is so loud that the local plan says humans shouldn’t live here. And officially they don’t. They’re detained,” the Terminal says, calculating that a detainee on average is staying at the center for 59 days, receiving 45.843 jet roaring reminders of their imminent destiny. 

On my blog today, I invite you to meet the Talking Terminal as a video essay, in which Andreas has summed up his Master’s dissertation in Sociology at the University of London.

Please click here for  the video I AM ONLY PRESENT. The full text follows below.

Text, audio & video works by Andreas Løppenthin

If you come from London, you’ll go through the airport terminal. You get off the train and tap your contactless card on the ticket gates. That gets you out of the station and into the airport arrival hall. It will probably be busy. Passenger buggies zigzag in between travellers pullingsuitcases and children. If you follow the exit signs, you will be guided to the wrong bus stops.

You’ll be confused. Eventually you will see your bus out the window, and ask someone who looks sufficiently official how to reach it. They’ll point you down an empty corridor, through an emergency exit and down a dodgy stairway.

It gets you to the side of the highway, where the local busses stop. The bus driver sells you a ticket to go one stop, to the other side of the airport. You get off in a roundabout. The cars are swooshing by.

You run across the road when there is a gap in the traffic, and you spot me on the other side ofa meadow. You don’t want to disturb the cows, so you walk down the road instead. Past Monica’s Burger Bar, and into the industrial estate. You pass my neighbours Acro Aircraft Seating, RS Components, World Duty Free DistributionCentre, Gate Gourmet. They produce things, store them, process them.

So do I. We’re all in that business around here, storing, producing, processing. Food, chocolate, furniture, humans.

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I’m a building. Brook House Immigration Removal Centre is my name. I don’t normally have a voice, but I’ve borrowed one for now. I sit on Perimeter Road, which runs around Gatwick Airport. It’s restricted area. All though there is no gate, a big blue sign at the end of Old Brighton Road will tell you that only authorized persons are allowed to go further. Perimeter road is technically part of the airport.

G4S take care of me on a day-to-day basis, so they’re the authorities I’m used to. They take their orders form the Home Office who had me built, but they rarely come and see me. They sit in offices somewhere else and decide what happens.

It’s complicated. And being inside the airport boundary doesn’t make it easier to figure out. Perimeter Road lives up to its name: a border, a boundary, a strange not quite public not quite private space.

I look at the planes taking off and landing. 777 a day. 32 per hour. One every other minute. When I was built, the council were worried.

“The building would be 200 meters from the main runway and would therefore be subject to high levels of aircraft noise.”

That’s what they said. But of course they weren’t worried about me, but the humans I’m holding. They’re the ones with ears. In fact the noise is so loud that the local plan says humans shouldn’t live here. And officially they don’t. They’re detained.

Because of the “limited time occupation of the building by individual detainees”, the council decided that the noise was going to be okay. It’s strange to be reading your own planning applications. Maybe that’s what humans would feel like if they could hear their parents discussing whether or not they should have children.

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The plans didn’t specify what “limited time occupation meant”, but from what I’ve been told the humans weren’t supposed to stay more than 72 hours. But planning’s one thing, management another. They stay here for weeks, months, sometimes even years. In 2017, the humans that came here stayed an average of 59 days. That’s 45.843 aircraft movements. 45.843 reminders of their imminent removal. Or of the places they can’t go.

Normally the council doesn’t allow buildings for humans this close to the runway. But apparently I was put here so that the Home Office could more conveniently get the humans on planes and sendthem away. And that was one of the main conditions for approving me. But as far as I’ve been told, only half of the humans that come through me actually end up leaving the country.

Everyone is very secretive about it, but the ones that do get removed seem to leave from other airports than Gatwick. I’ve heard of a place called the Inflight Jet Centre. It’s a terminal for private jets at Stansted Airport. After hours, that’s what I’ve heard, it’s transformed into an eviction hub. Charted flights leave for Lagos, Tirana, Dhaka, Delhi, in the dark of the night.

I wonder if I would be the same building if I hadn’t been standing next to the runway all those years. If I’m doing the math right, almost three million planes passed me since I was opened. On the inside, I’m metallic. There’s always someone banging my doors, and a constant jangling of keys. Tables and chairs are fixed to my floors. I can hold 508 humans.  Some are asylum seekers, some are students, some are doctors, some areworkers, some have been to prison, some are parents. Some just got to the country; some have been here their whole life.

No one has seen a judge.

They share the rooms two or three together. Well, actually they’re more like cells. There’s a TV on the wall, and a toilet between the beds. Sometimes there’s a curtain around it. The windows are sealed shut. Doors are locked between 9 PM and 8 AM. Around noon, everyone is locked upagain so the guards can count them.

During the day, my humans can go outside in to small, enclosed courtyards. Here they can feel the air, but only look at the sky. I block the horizon with my walls and barbed wire fences. The humans are spread on five wings, over three floors. There was supposed to be open air between them. But because of the way humans feel in here, they’ve put out netting.

Sometimes when the humans are really frustrated, they go out onto the netting and refuse to come back. It’s the only place the guards can’t go. The netting takes away the option of suicide, but offers an isolated space of untouchability.

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A space of self-determined in-betweeness, a temporary escape from the detention centre rules and the manager’s exceptions; from the entrapment of waiting that saturates the environment that I create, I’ve been told that a human’s social status can be measured in how much they have to wait.

In here, that’s all you do. No one in here knows how long they’ll stay, not even the guards, not even the managers. It’s decided in offices far away from me. If time is a river, then I’m the brook that’s stopped flowing.

The past and the future is somewhere else. I am only present. I am a factory that produces removables. I am the embodiment of a political structure that moves the border from a boundary fence and inscribes it on the human body. A structure that allows some bodies to flow seamlessly through the world, while others are stuck in the goo of globalization.

I keep the removables hidden in plain sight. Concealed to mend the guilty consciousness of citizens, but right at the heart of business and pleasure, as a wart on the happy faces of cosmopolitanism.

Behind my walls, you’re stuck but being moved, you’ve left but you’re still here, you’re near but far. On the last day of June, a man fell from a plane approaching Heathrow Airport and landed in a garden of a 2.3 million GBP house in Clapham.

The plane was a Kenya Airways flight from Nairobi. When searching the plane, the police found a bag, food and water in the landing gear compartment. The man had packed and planned for the journey. He presumably froze to death during the nine-hour flight. If he had survived, it’s likely that the man would have ended up behind my walls.

From the underbelly of a plane to the wings of a building. I’m where you go if you move in the wrong way. I’m Gatwick’s third terminal, I’m the flip side of Generation Easy Jet. If you’re lucky enough not to be forced here, and G4S don’t respond to your research inquiries, it’s going to be hard for you to get any closer than the intersection between Old Brighton and Perimeter Road. You could get a flight to Gatwick and hope that you get a window seat. If thewind direction is on your side, then you might be able to spot me as the plane lands. Or you can go down Charlwood Road, and try to get a glimpse of my back.

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You’ll have a hard time distinguishing me from my neighbours. Same industrial appearance, same CCTV cameras. You can look at the trees and the bushes that almost hide the barbed wire. You might think the 5-meter fence is a bit extensive for a warehouse. Or you might not.

You will see what is probably my two southern most wings. You will see that someone decided that one wing should be green, and another orange.You walk out onto the meadow to avoid the cars rushing past. A big pile of dirt and something that looks like horse dung covers the western end where you enter. Maybe it’s raining now, perhaps the cows have left for cover. From here, you can get a better view of me.

You can see that my windows are barred. You can see that a net covers the yards between the buildings, as an extension of the fence and the walls that enclose them. You can see the planes taking off in the grey drizzle. It looks like they are emerging out of me.

In spite of the constant hum of the highway behind you, you can hear the planes getting ready for take-off and speeding up. And then suddenly, they burst out from behind my grey roof. If you’re filming, you can zoom in close and tell whether it’s a Norwegian, British Airways, or maybe an EasyJet flight. But you have to be quick, because they race for the sky, disappearinginto the clouds long before the roar of their engines fade.

i am only present


goldsmiths, university of london 2019