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The Tarpaulin – A Biography
(BBC Radio 4, 28 November, 8pm)
Dina Gusejnova
Producer: Sara Parker (@sparksproducer)

On Monday, 28 November, BBC Radio 4 will broadcast a programme which I wrote and recorded with producer Sara Parker for JuniperTV, an independent radio and TV production company directed by Samir Shah. The 28-minute programme is called Tarpaulin – a biography and it explores the themes of citizenship, statelessness and belonging through a history of the fabric. 1

Tarpaulin – or tarp – is a piece of canvas, which is covered in oil, wax, tar or a synthetic material to make it water repellent. It has therefore always been widely used by anyone connected to the sea. There are also lots of other uses for it in a range of normal life situations. You probably have one at home, but you haven’t noticed it. The other day, when you were stowing away your barbecue or your bicycle for the winter. Perhaps you have a Burberry coat or a water-repellent hat. You’ve certainly seen it on the street: large sheets, in blue, white, or green, protecting from the rain things we value, as well as things we’d like to throw away.

The career of the English word ‘tarpaulin’, from practical object to the metaphor of the common sailor or Jack Tar, attracted the interest of someone who would become famous much later as the author of a book called The Civilising ProcessAt the time of the Second World War, as I found out at the National Archives, British tarpaulins, produced in India and Palestine, were used as supplies for the Soviet army. The story of tarpaulin is closely linked to histories of war and forced displacement, as its use for temporary shelters used by refugees today demonstrates.

In exile from Nazi Germany, the sociologist Norbert Elias became fascinated by the reported resilience of the Jack Tars, self-made men sleeping on deck under a sheet of tarpaulin who could be promoted to be captains of the British navy. As someone who was learning English, Elias noticed that tarpaulin was one of the words featuring in the so-called Seaman’s Grammars and naval dictionaries, which had proliferated since the seventeenth century.

The result of his research was a dry article called ‘Studies in the Genesis of the Naval Profession’, published in the first issue of the British Journal of Sociology in 1950. In his view, which echoed those of writers such as Samuel Pepys, Daniel Defoe and Thomas Macaulay, the tarpaulins had made the British empire great. I decided to follow Elias’s history by restoring the place of this fabric in the lives of others. At the time of writing, Elias was a stateless person; he would only be naturalised in 1952. 2 His mother had perished at Auschwitz. Elias himself was among thousands of Germans – most of them of Jewish origin – who had been interned on the Isle of Man as ‘enemy aliens’ in 1940.

Thanks to a fortuitous acquaintance with the rock singer Mitch Mitchell of the Wild Angels, whom I had met some time before that in a Cambridge pub, the producer Sara Parker and I were able to join him on one of his regular trips to Calais.

We found ourselves there as guests of a young Eritrean family who had cooked a delicious meal in the middle of the place we know as the Jungle. It was particularly difficult to speak to the refugees, who needed to protect their identity and who remain to a large extent without a voice. Could I invite Afghan law students Jami and Davi to apply for one of the refugee scholarships advertised at Sheffield and other British universities, if there was no legal way for them to cross the Channel?

On our return to London, 1960s Rock was blasting through the sound system of Mitch’s car, and he explained that the refugees in Calais made him think of his own great-grandmother, who had escaped the pogroms in Eastern Europe to settle in London´s East End. 3

Insofar as the radio programme is a work of histoire engagée, it asks: why have so many other Europeans – why have so many British people around us – become so heartless that they feel neither solidarity with the bombed-out populations of the Middle East and Afghanistan, nor understanding for the political disenchantments of their own fellow citizens living beyond the limits of London?

In this programme, listeners will hear a variety of dialects and accents which they might struggle to follow – whether they are foreign or merely regional. This difficulty is intentional, and requires an emotional and intellectual commitment. The radio is uniquely suited to imagine an absence of things which neither the listeners nor the speakers can see: the right to citizenship, for example, the attachment to home, however makeshift it might be, or the disengagement from one’s own state. Like tarpaulin, ideas like ‘citizenship’ might change their form over time, from flax and cotton to canvas and plastic mesh, but they never lose their essential human substance.

Radio, as Sara has taught me, can convey ideas through counterpoint as well as melody. If you listen carefully, you will catch the tango Flor de lino, Linen flower, woven into the background to the fairy tale called The Flax by Hans Christian Andersen. Sara imposed the sounds of a sewing machine onto this dialogue, turning the production of tarpaulin itself into a kind of waltz of globalisation. She also generously allowed me to use materials from one of the legendary Radio Ballads which her father, Charles Parker, had produced in the 1960s with folk singer Ewan MacColl. If this is not too presumptuous, I’d like to think of this tarpaulin programme as a kind of ballad without a singer.

By contrast to the radio form, writing a silent text is like playing piano with one hand. Being a kind of migrant myself, albeit a privileged one, I envy those native speakers who are able to inhabit their own language like a second skin. This tarpaulin ballad is my attempt to learn an English word. A fine word, carefully placed, can touch you before you understand what it means. I hope that recognising its presence in your life will connect you to that of others. The people living under tarpaulin might seem to belong nowhere, but, I would argue, they are in fact today’s true citizens of the world.

Dina Gusejnova is a Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Sheffield. Her research interests include twentieth-century intellectual and cultural history, and the history of Europe in global contexts. Her recent book, European Elites and Ideas of Empire, 1917–1957, is available fully open access at Cambridge University Press. The Tarpaulin – A Biography has made it into the Guardian’s This Week’s Best Radio list.

Image: Tarpaulin in use in the Calais Jungle, courtesy of Confederal Group of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left via Flickr [Creative Commons Licence].


  1. Based on a script which I began researching in 2014, it features contributions by Alex Ntung, Mitch Mitchell, Simon Layton, Jeremy Hicks, Yvonne Cresswell, amongst original voices from the now dismantled refugee camp in Calais, from tarpaulin makers based in a small factory in Bury, near Manchester, and others.
  2. In fact, spectacularly, as I learned recently at Kew, his naturalisation certificate gets the spelling of his name wrong: it was spelt “Alias”, as if his new citizenship were in fact a mere alias.
  3. Mitch has also spoken about this in interviews.
Tags : Calais junglecitizenshiphistory of migrationmigration crisisrefugee crisistarpaulin
Dina Gusejnova

The author Dina Gusejnova

1 Comment

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed the programme this morning and have listened to it twice. Is there any more information about the permaculture community near Tunbridge Wells which was featured in the broadcast?

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