The View from Dover

MY INTEREST in this essay lies in a non-place. The non-place in question occupies an iconic location, looking out over the English Channel from Dover’s Western Heights. Secretly it provides one of the best views in Britain, situated as it is just outside.

Depending how you come across it, the site has different names. Signs nearby refer visitors to “The Citadel,” being the name of the location’s original Napoleonic fort. Built, or at least begun, in the first decade of the 19th century, the Citadel was part of a network of fortifications constructed along the cliffs of Dover to resist the anticipated invasion from France. Much of the exterior of the fort is still intact, notably the heavily reinforced ditches that these days form the militarized backdrop to a network of “Citadel walks.” Visible from the Channel and from the west, the site remains curiously hidden from the town itself, folded into the hillside by the way the topography rises.

A citadel, according to the dictionary, is a fortress that protects or dominates a city; between which verbs, it might be noticed, there is a world of difference. Citadel derives either from the Old French word citadelle, or from the Italian cittadella, so recalling the bastide towns built by the English in the region known as Aquitaine, or the minor city-states ultimately subjugated by Florence. Both citadelle and cittadella derive from the Latin word civitas, meaning city, coming in turn from civis, the Latin for citizen. The language tells us much. Whether constructed to protect or dominate, the function of a citadel is to help demarcate or determine citizenship, to establish by a display of authority who is and is not entitled to belong. Situated at a physical limit, carving out a space in which the question of citizenship has historically been posed, the Citadel on Dover’s Western Heights is an eloquent building.

With the declaration of peace that ended the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, work on the Citadel stopped, not to be resumed until 1859, when, under the direction of a Royal Commission, defenses across the South of England were systematically enhanced. During this second phase of building works (1859–’64), triggered by the rise of Napoleon III, the function of the site was brought more sharply into view. The fort’s guns pointed inland, its purpose, in the event of invasion, being to launch an attack on an enemy from the rear. Except in the worst-case scenario, when, should the neighboring Drop Redoubt Fort and the fort at Dover Castle fall, the Citadel was to become the stronghold of last resort. Defensive ditches a hundred meters wide were held in place by walls containing gun positions. Once the drawbridge was up, the site would be in lock-down. Nobody was — or at least would have been — going anywhere.

The invasion never came. The site remained the property of the Army until after World War II, during which it housed a unit whose purpose was to destroy the port of Dover in case of imminent attack. In the mid-1950s, it became a borstal, an event marked by a sign on a derelict building on Citadel Road: “Dover Borstal Officers’ Recreation Club / Opened by Lady Fox / 30th November 1956.” The Western Heights Preservation Society website records its subsequent changes: “As time passed, the Citadel retained this purpose, being renamed as a Youth Offenders Institute and then seeing use as an Immigration Removal Centre, which it still does today. This means that the structure of the Citadel is well looked after, and indeed it has enjoyed much needed repair.” The effect: “to keep it in excellent condition.”

We might pause. An Immigration Removal Center is a place (all these terms will be revisited) where people who have sought refuge in the United Kingdom, and whose rights of appeal have been exhausted (as I say, all the terms will be revisited) pending deportation, are indefinitely detained. Some of the people detained will have committed a crime, for which they will already have served the required prison sentence. Most commonly such crimes will be asylum-related, for instance attempting to leave the country by false papers; a somewhat contradictory misdemeanor, on the face of it, since the country has made it plain that it doesn’t want such people to stay. Other detainees will have reached a legal limit, such as those who first arrived in the United Kingdom as unaccompanied minors, typically from countries affected by war such as Afghanistan or Iraq, and whose entitlement to stay expires when they turn 21.

Shortly after his 21st birthday, having lived here since he was 15 (having left Afghanistan when his father was executed by the Taliban), a man named Gulab was detained without warning, waking one night to find his room in South London occupied by more than 20 border police. As Teresa Hayter writes in Open Borders, “people may be picked up in the street, on the underground or at work, or their houses may be raided in the early hours.” Following which, pending deportation, they are indefinitely detained. Durations vary. Turnaround times can be as little as two to three weeks. In the past decade, periods of detention (often followed by further periods of re-detention) have typically been between six months and two years. Official statistics, and therefore average times, either do not exist or are not disclosed. Evidence is therefore patchy and anecdotal. As was widely reported at the time, at the end of 2012, Nick Hardwick, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, discovered a Somali man in Lincoln Prison who had been held in immigration detention for nine years. At the Dover Immigration Removal Centre, the longest period of detention is over four years.

The Dover Immigration Removal Centre, the DIRC, is the non-place in question. Whereas the idea of place carries the implication of attachment, the DIRC is defined by not being attached. The people housed there have been deemed not to belong, nor to have any claim to belonging, in the United Kingdom — though, in practice, that determination is frequently reversed. That they are detained any length of time demonstrates that their belonging elsewhere, in their country of origin for instance, is also, at a legal level, significantly in doubt. “Pending deportation” means, as often as not, that official travel documents cannot be secured, that legally speaking the person detained cannot return or be returned — they are in a removal center but unremovable. Judged by the relation its occupants have to the State, the immigration removal center on Dover’s Western Heights is neither one place nor another, but is perched, liked all such centers, just outside.

Such dislocation is confirmed by law. Under British law it is not permissible to detain a person indefinitely. In normal circumstances, the maximum period a person can be detained without charge is 24 hours, rising to 96 hours (four days) “if a serious crime is suspected, such as rape, murder, or other crimes which could cause severe harm to an individual or the security of the state.” The only exception to these limits relates to persons suspected of terrorism, who, under special powers granted by the 2006 Terrorism Act, could be detained for up to 28 days. This length of time was fiercely contested at the point of its introduction, and the temporary powers granting it were allowed to lapse in 2011, the period of detention reverting to its pre-2006 limit of 14 days. These are the limits, to underline the point, beyond which a person has to be charged or released, with the duration of any subsequent detention, or imprisonment, being strictly fixed. As the Conservative Home Office Minister Damian Green observed when announcing the government’s decision not to renew the 2006 limit: “the power to detain terrorist suspects for up to 28 days before they were charged or released was meant to be an exceptional power,” one that the Labour government, by repeatedly renewing it, had allowed to become the norm.

Green, it is safe to say, is not a person known (nor would he choose to be known) for his liberal instincts. It is a matter of some significance, therefore, that, acting with the approval of Home Secretary Theresa May, Green chose not to maintain the powers that, absent-mindedly or strategically, the Labour government had routinely renewed, but instead to return the maximum period of detention to its pre-2006 level. The significance lies in the sense of a limit, a limit that relates to the question of sovereignty and that ties the question of sovereignty to the issue of time. The question cuts both ways. Sovereign law establishes its ethical character by the degree to which it encroaches on, and also protects, the sovereign actions of the individual citizen. Currently one key measure of that relationship in the UK is the period of 14 days, being the point beyond which the interests of the individual cannot be overridden by the interests of the state. Unless, that is, the individual is held in immigration detention. This begs the question: how is the removal center housed on Dover’s Western Heights legal? Or rather, since in conventional terms it plainly isn’t legal: what relation does such a site have to the law? The answer is that it stands just outside: subject to the law’s authority but not governed by its defining protections: a place, or more properly a non-place, where different rules of sovereignty and temporality apply.

Given the anomalous character of the site, some coordinates are necessary if we are to establish any kind of clear view. At any one time the Dover Immigration Removal Centre contains upwards of 300 men. All of them are held without any charge and all are detained indefinitely. Their apprehension, as in Gulab’s case, will have been without warning. Many don’t know precisely where they are, or what it is that has triggered their detention. This degree of uncertainty coupled with the fact that nobody can tell them when, or how, they will leave is a cause, invariably, of acute anxiety. They can be visited by family and friends, although this is frequently difficult not least because it is common for detainees to be moved from one Center to another, again without notice. Not to mention the fact that many people detained don’t have family who might visit, since they still live in the country the detainees were compelled to leave.

Communication is difficult in other ways. Correspondence with the UK Border Agency (as was), or the Home Office, is, at best, sporadic and opaque, with many letters carrying basic errors of interpretation and fact. Communication with legal representatives is hardly less fraught, and has been made substantially more difficult with cuts to the legal aid budget, one effect of which is that bail, previously a possible route to eventual release, is increasingly foreclosed as an option. The 300 men held in this circumstance are part of a total detention population of, at any one time (as the barrister Frances Webber reports), over 3,000, a figure that ramifies all too easily into the migrant community at large. Further figures are impossible to obtain — as is clarity in individual cases — but it is safe to say that tens of thousands of people (people who were not, as it turned out, imminently to be removed) have been at some point indefinitely detained, many of them facing the very real prospect, each time they sign in at a Home Office reporting center, of re-detention. Anomalous as it is when contrasted with the strictly enforced limits imposed by UK law, indefinite detention without charge is nonetheless a routine practice, a brutally arbitrary reality for tens of thousands of people who live here.

That here-ness is what’s at issue. Half-disclosed by nearby signs and semi-concealed by the immediate topography, the removal center in Dover’s Citadel happens to be 17 miles from my current address, which is itself just a few hundred yards from the perimeter of Canterbury Prison, a “hub,” until its recent closure, for foreign nationals. Whether one has, or can take, an interest in such nearby sites is one of the questions this essay means to address, where “having” or “taking” an “interest” are among the many terms to be revisited. Just for the moment, though, what’s at issue is the question of here-ness, the difficulty of coordinating nearby sites. Seventeen miles isn’t much, and the cliffs at Dover are a most familiar habitat, folded deep into the fabric of the national discourse. Even so, the Citadel as presently operated is difficult to map, standing as it does at a radical remove from the laws that govern the surrounding territory. In the philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s terms, what it constitutes is a “state of exception,” an environment in which the law is in force but within which persons are exempt from the law’s protection.

“State of exception” is not Agamben’s own term. It was coined, as he carefully acknowledges, by the German legal theorist Carl Schmitt, who formulated it, during the time of the Weimar Republic, as the central concept in his theory of sovereign dictatorship. Schmitt wrote that strong political leaders establish their authority by identifying extreme circumstances that allow the law to be be suspended, proceeding to act on that judgement, and arrogating legal power to himself. Setting aside the implied psychology of leadership, Agamben’s purpose in reviving Schmitt’s term was to find a way of addressing the legal reality of the US offshore detention center at Guantánamo Bay. Taking as its starting point the “military order” issued by the president of the United States on November 13, 2001, an order that “authorized the ‘indefinite detention’ and trial by ‘military commissions’ […] of non-citizens suspected of involvement in terrorist activities,” the object of Agamben’s inquiry was to question the assumed relation between such states of legal suspension and the political norm. In liberal democracies, as he patiently argued, the former increasingly defines the latter. It is in those circumstances where the law is suspended — where people are subject to its force but denied access to its protection — that the character of the modern state comes most clearly into view.

There are differences, of course, between the US detention center at the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base on the southeast tip of Cuba, and the immigration removal center located in the Citadel on Dover’s Western Heights; differences of degree, to do with the length of detention and the nature of the detention regime, differences it would be quite wrong to underestimate. But differences it would also be wrong to overstate. As they have indefinitely incarcerated persons outside frameworks of legal protection, the two situations are fundamentally comparable. If anything, in fact, the differences enforce the point. The legal-political justification for Guantánamo, threadbare as it is, is framed in terms of a security threat, while the distance between the site and the US mainland amounts to a symbolic recognition of its unacceptability to the stated norms of a democratic regime. Those detained at Dover are not presented as any kind of threat; just as persons the State would prefer no longer to have around. The site is not remote, but looks down over one of Britain’s busiest ferry ports, folded unproblematically into the national idiom.

In his excellent book Camps: A Guide to 21st-Century Space, Charlie Hailey argues that defining the camp in all its forms “is a central problem of our contemporary moment”: “How and why [they] are made, where they are located, and how long they endure” reveals a great deal about “a context being radically transformed by globalization, mobility and political flux.” Camps, “because of their rapid development and temporal nature […] register these forces at their earliest stages and provide an important gauge of local and global situations.” Whether a removal center should properly be called a camp is a question one might consider. Either way — however the terminological point is settled — the basic logic applies. Where such a site stands, how it is disclosed, how it alters its environment, tells us much about where we have come to.


The land surrounding the DIRC, the site’s immediate vicinity (from the Latin word vicinus, meaning neighbor) is owned, for the purpose of conservation, by English Heritage. Governed by the policy “Protecting, conserving and providing access to the historic environment in England,” English Heritage has responsibility for “conserving England’s historic environment for the benefit of present and future generations, and for helping people access and enjoy these ‘heritage assets.’” For a building or environment to acquire this status it has to be designated historically valuable, a process informed by carefully established principles and criteria. The landscape incorporating Dover’s Western Heights passes the test on two grounds: national historic importance (cultural, economic, and military) and because as a natural environment it constitutes a habitat of special significance.

Two routes up to the site, starting from either end of Military Road, give access to a couple of semi-constructed car parks: the first, from Military Road South, watches over Dover beach and the English Channel, the second, dug into the hillside, looks back along the Alkham Valley. There is no visitor center for the Dover Western Heights Experience, only a series of signs giving basic orientation, marking out a number of walks designed to register the scale of the fortifications. The signs in the lower car park set the tone, acknowledging the function of the location by addressing the reader in French as well as English:

Les Western Heights sont un lieu surprenant et intérressant. Une des fortresses la plus grands d’un pays y a été creusée dans la coline; elle est entourée de prairies creveuses remplies de fleurs sauvages de toutes les couleurs, de papillons et d’oiseaux, tous en attente d’être decouverte.

The Western Heights is a surprising and interesting place. Carved into the hillside is one of the largest and strongest fortresses in the country. It is surrounded by chalk meadows full of colourful wild flowers, butterflies and birds, all waiting to be discovered.

Neutrally phrased, as if formulated to be translated, the text tempers the interest it proposes to provoke. As the English voice continues:

The Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty is a nationally important landscape, legally protected to maintain its special character, for now and future generations. The AONB covers about a quarter of Kent and includes the North Downs from Surrey to the White Cliffs, areas of the Gravesend Ridge and Romney Marsh. The Kent Downs AONB Unit works in partnership with the other organisations to support local people in conserving and enhancing this special landscape.

The basic orientation is not wrong. The hillside climbs and falls away steeply: up (though it’s not possible to see them yet) to the fortifications, down and across to the valley floor, where streets of mostly Victorian housing fan out, much of it back-to-back. The train line from London is clearly visible to the north; as to the east is the magnitude of Dover Castle. It’s a good place to come, protected as it is by a network of agencies: an area, as they say, of outstanding natural beauty.

There are no doubt ley lines, old routes and ways that have inscribed the topography with meaning, tracks across the landscape that have given it shape and social force. Quietly paranoid as it is, however, the official language of the place communicates what the legal theorist Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos calls an atmosphere of law. Developing the idea of what he productively calls “lawscape,” Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos presents the urban environment (he is a professor of legal theory in London) as “an infinite plane where the city is interlaced with the law.” “In the lawscape,” he writes, “every surface, smell, colour, taste is regulated by some form of law, be this intellectual property law, environmental law, health and safety regulations, and so on.” Taking his students on walks through the lawscape, Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos’s objective is to demonstrate what he calls the law’s “hysteric ubiquity,” the consequence of which is that the law and the environment become indistinguishable from one another, resulting ultimately in “the law’s very imperceptibility.” Until, that is, it comes into view.

Appropriate as it is for the city, one might expect that the concept of the lawscape would work less well in more rural environments, less densely populated as such spaces are by competing interests. Whether because of its fundamental connection to the question of the civic, however, or because it remains a site of profound contestation, the ground surrounding the Citadel is heavy with law. Numerous protections are in place (protections for and from the nation) that as they operate invoke a series of overlapping agencies and remits. The “Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty” (AONB) exceeds the territory designated for conservation by English Heritage, while the AONB Unit works with partner agencies, all of whom exist to maintain the special character of the place; which is a little like the genius of the place, perhaps, though more heavily mediated by obligation. To walk the hillside between the Citadel and Alkham Valley is to experience all the checks and balances of intensive legislation. It is one of the reasons the location has to be written about, as opposed, say, to filmed or photographed. What has to be understood is how the site in question is framed by the written act, not least because what really defines it (as will become apparent) is the point, precisely, where writing ends. It is why, as Charlie Hailey observes, such sites have to be documented: because they constitute a radical transition from an environment deeply structured by juridical discourse to a circumstance in which records are almost impossible to obtain.

In fact, part of the site was filmed. The barracks of the Drop Redoubt Fort were used in Peter Watkins’s 1965 film The War Game, where the environment served as the setting for a post-nuclear attack. What comes to mind, though, as the first and longer of the designated Citadel walks starts out, is Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, because of the way, on the slopes below the fort, militarized structures stand ruined and overgrown. Like a portal to the zone, a wrought-iron gate prevents access to the remains of a bridge over a ditch, with the track on the other side leading to the mouth of a tunnel. The signs are emphatic. “Areas designated for military purposes contain sheer unfenced drops.” In fact the drops are plainly a lure for local teenagers. An arrow on the wall opposite the gate points to what one anonymous writer calls the Bridge of Faith, the single remaining girder acting as a tightrope for anybody who can scale the fence.

The real surprise of this “surprising and interesting place” (“surprenant et intérressant”) is that you can in fact walk it, that for all the protections and prohibitions the visitor is nonetheless free to move around. Once past the fenced-off bridge, with its tangle of metalwork and overgrowth, the path rises through a scruffy copse then opens out so that quite quickly you are on the hillside itself, with the slope running steeply to the valley bottom, and where, as more signs state, you are quite likely to encounter Konik ponies. The value of the Konik ponies, or Polish primitive horses (the word konik, being the diminutive of kon, the Polish word for horse), is that they graze the chalk grasslands, allowing rare plants to flourish, such as the orchid, which even to the untrained eye is everywhere and immediately in evidence. Not such a common occurrence, this combination of semi-feral horses and rare plants makes for an attractive option for ramblers groups and local school parties, not least because they occupy points of exceptional vantage. Climbing at a gentle angle across the hill, the path reaches a farther fence then follows the contour outward. As you turn, Dover Castle comes commandingly back into view. It is at this point that the arrangement of fortifications is most clear, because what the fence behind protects against are the drops — one would estimate 200 feet — into the original 19th-century ditches. The word “ditch” in its present usage is hardly adequate, but nor does the implied scale of “moat” catch it. If they were natural, they would be gorges, notwithstanding geometry.

A word about the fences, the materials of which vary. The fence that guides the walk itself, serving to prevent a person sliding down the slope, is wooden and rustic, in keeping with the conservationist temper of the space. This is what you see, or lean on, as you look across the valley, or back from the headland toward Dover Castle. Behind you, from that vantage, is a second fence, of the sort that often encloses school playing fields; concrete pillars joined by panels of loosely knitted wire mesh. You don’t notice it too much because the view up the hill takes the eye above it. The function of this fence is to prevent the visitor walking too close to the ditch. There is no farther fence at the ditch itself, just large loops of continuous barbed wired, running at the top of both brick-built sides and serving apparently to prevent entrance or egress. How that could occur is not apparent, nor is it therefore entirely apparent why, additionally, the ditches should be surveyed by cameras. It’s hard to imagine anybody keeping an eye on the footage, though one day when I was there the sequence of non-events was momentarily broken by the appearance of a fox. I tried to get a photograph, but it didn’t come out, partly because the distance was too great, partly because the angle of the sun meant that the iPhone reflected. A few hundred yards farther up the hill is the perimeter fence itself, angled inward at the top and laced with more barbed wire loops. It couldn’t be breached, nor can one imagine a risk assessment that would suggest otherwise, generating the impression that the attention to the ditches is largely symbolic.

How these views form part of a visit is unclear. The signs giving directions to the walk refer only to the Citadel. The English Heritage website shows a photograph of the ditches but also a disclaimer noting that it was taken in 2004. The view is toward the castle, and so from an angle that doesn’t encompass the top of the hill, and the age of the photograph is such that there is no barbed wire in evidence. The present function of the site is absent from the narrative. It is neither named nor disclosed by any of the available imagery. To take a term from the philosopher Alain Badiou, it is rendered indiscernible; as much as a re-dedicated fortress, in an iconic location, surrounded by barbed wire fencing, can be. It is there, though, as the person walking the site cannot help but become aware, even though the awareness may only be an appreciation that something of consequence has not been said. As the path runs parallel with the northwest side of the site’s distorted pentagon, so from a few hundred yards modern buildings come into view; the first, like a 1970s science block, only with higher windows, framed by what look like watch towers in different materials, platforms for a series of cameras pointing back. Nothing is quite clear, except that the maps have not been entirely transparent. As the path climbs the hill, the distance between site and visitor alters, so that as you reach the top you find yourself suddenly at the perimeter, surrounded in summer by blackberries and thistles. Close enough, should anyone on the other side be out, to catch their attention. On a sunny day, valley behind you, the barbs glint.


It is a not uncommon feature of the contemporary environment that former military sites are turned to the purposes of border control. Such adapted spaces constitute, as Charlie Hailey writes, an “increasingly visible extraterritorial environment.” Whether the Citadel was, or has become, a camp in these terms remains to be determined, though in the precarious balance it presents between the temporary and the permanent it meets one of Hailey’s criteria. As the website of the Removal Centre points out, though precisely to whom and for whose benefit it is not quite clear, “Detention Services now operate a policy which restricts the amount of baggage detainees can have in the centre.” The implication perhaps is that the future detainee might like to pack accordingly, travel light in case of airline restrictions or for ease of movement at the destination airport.

What can and can’t be taken in is a matter of considerable significance to detention services. The site’s entrance is via Citadel Road, to the right of which is a 1970s cul-de-sac; to the left, between abandoned buildings, the outlook is the coast. The heavily fortified gate at the end of the approach belongs to the original structure. Visitors report to a squat, plainly temporary, corrugated building. They will be of one of four kinds: family, friend, legal representative, or member of an accredited NGO (either Kent Refugee Help, or Samphire, formerly the Dover Detainees Visitor Group). Terms of access by the NGOs is in a state of ongoing negotiation, subject to changes in managerial regime. Once having reported, visitors leave belongings in a small locker. This need not include loose change, but does include keys, wallets, and phones, as well as pen and paper.

This last exclusion has practical consequences, at the level of the relay of information. The DIRC, an all male-institution, is home primarily to young men who arrived as unaccompanied minors. They don’t typically have family in the UK and their friends are subject to the same restrictions on movement as they are. At the point of detention they won’t usually have a legal representative. Periodically, subject to institutional policy, they might have access to email, though this is unusual and at the time of writing they don’t. Mobiles can’t easily be kept topped up, so frequently the period immediately following detention is marked by silence. That they are there could, in theory, go barely noticed but for the intervention of an NGO, for whom access to writing would be extremely useful: for names, addresses, numbers, histories of recent events. In reality the relay of information is slowed rather than stopped, making the restriction a significant but nonetheless surmountable inconvenience, a ban whose underlying function is not practical but symbolic.

Quite how the mind of the UK asylum system works — where one can and can’t attribute meaning — is difficult to fathom. Even so, the fact that the removal center is rendered outside writing in this way is a systemic effect, replicated across the apparatus by a series of exclusions the total consequence of which is a recurring limit on inscription. A notable instance is the hearing, held under the auspices of the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal System, the bail hearing and the deportation hearing being the common types. One surprising and interesting feature of the bail hearing is that invariably the appellant is not in attendance, but is instead linked by video to a setting he can only partially perceive. The effect of this is both to distance the individual from the tribunal’s protagonists — asylum judge, home office presenting officer, barrister — but also to make it impossible for the applicant to read the situation, such that it is often not possible for him to register when he is being addressed. The inevitable result is a series of breaks in transmission — pauses, silences — the effect of which is significantly to undermine the appellant’s claim on attention, the human presence that is the basis of his appeal. A further surprise of the asylum hearing, whether on the subject of bail or deportation, is that the tribunal does not constitute a court of record. Though there will subsequently be a determination, a document of differing length and accuracy, the proceedings of the hearing itself are not written down. This is a matter of consequence, partly because it would be publicly instructive to have a record of the kind of questions the appellant is asked, the kind of basic cultural misunderstanding (deliberate or otherwise) that a Home Office Presenting Officer will exercise in the interests of generating doubt. The absence of a record is consequential because it radically reduces any possibility of successful appeal, since there is no documentation of what the appellant actually said, or of the errors of fact and interpretation that invariably drive such an occasion. The determination will give a version of events but is issued strictly from the judge’s perspective. There is no transcript against which to check, no capture of the appellant’s actual utterance.

One way to think about this, hardly erroneous, is that the voice of the detainee or ex-detainee is struck from the record, that his or her story goes untold. This is true and requires ongoing work and facilitation. Only the storytellers themselves can tell the stories. The question here, however, has to do not with voice but with writing, with what is and is not permitted to be written down. The systematic exclusion from writing renders the whole environment of asylum incommensurate, absent of trace. It is as if the language, like the landscape, must be “preserved,” as if it must go untouched by the presence of certain people who are here or have been here. And so the sites and the settings that constitute the asylum environment go unwritten, stand outside inscription; the language held at one remove from the extra-judicial practices in its midst.

Temporary as such non-places are, and mutable as policies around border control have become, it is possible that an account of the present function of Dover’s Citadel will soon become a historical document. This does not alter the fact that the unwritten sites of UK border control must be documented. There are no longer very many coal mines in Britain, but it remains instructive to read George Orwell’s account of The Road to Wigan Pier. The argument here is that we need to understand the view from Dover; that to address the darkness of the contemporary moment we need to regard the culture from the vantage of one of its unwritten locations, the site of exception that presently occupies Dover’s Western Heights.


David Herd’s collections of poetry include All Just (Carcanet) and Outwith (Bookthug).