Marginalisation, Prejudice and Idealised England in Julia Rampen’s The Bay
By Eleanor Bowskill, Zarah Yesufu, Nalisha Vansia and Hannah McWhinnie
Winner of the 2022 NorthBound Book Award, Julia Rampen’s The Bay is a poignant and perceptive recollection of the 2004 Morecambe Bay cockling disaster. The story follows Arthur, a retired widower who deeply understands the dangers of changing tides and shifting sands, and Suling, a seventeen-year-old Chinese migrant on the run from her debt collectors. Both nearly out of options, Arthur and Suling form an unlikely friendship, quickly learning that they can help each other through their grievances; confronting language barriers, prejudice, and loneliness.
Whilst written in the third person, dual narrators Suling and Arthur are distinct in their use of vocabulary, sentiments and prejudice. Rampen partly attributes this to The Bay initially being a short story, and attributes its current form to members of a writing group, who would ask to hear more from each character. Moreover, as a reporter, weaving in what others feel and say, comes naturally. For Rampen, the most exciting aspect was the realisation that reporters “only write what people say out loud to then get into [their] head” which informed her exploration of the characters.
Given her journalistic background, Rampen describes her writing style as closer to a correspondent. When writing, she was careful not to “sensationalise" true events without flattening the richness of the story she wanted to tell. Although she could not make direct contact with the survivors of the cockling disaster, she was led to the person who arranged their police protection, Hsiao-Hung Pai. Pai reassured Rampen that survivors consented to having their story retold but wanted to avoid reliving the traumatic memories themselves. Ultimately, Rampen hopes that more people who want to tell their own stories of survival are afforded the opportunities to do so because those voices are “so important” and “it takes so much to write that kind of story.”
Furthermore, Rampen acknowledges the “power imbalance” at play regarding language barriers. Though their friendship begins through actions, not words, Rampen ensures that Suling’s voice “didn’t come across fragmented or broken” when talking to Arthur, who does not, unlike her, have to face the challenge of learning a new language. Being Scottish herself, writing in dialect is a familiar device. However, Rampen says she read “that everyone, when they’re speaking to themselves in their first language, whether or not their dialect, accent or jargon is unusual to you, is standard for them.” For this reason, she resolved to write the novel in standard English, “because it’s almost translating what’s in someone's head” which allows for this multi-perspective narrative where two completely different individuals come together despite their language barrier.
Perhaps the most definitive commonality between Suling and Arthur is their experience of discrimination, albeit in different forms. In Arthur’s case, we find him in an undoubtedly privileged position. However, Rampen perceives his life as a kind of “art” to the extent that he was not born into wealth but worked hard for what he has. Rampen’s “sociological side” led her to analyse a generation that her grandparents were born into; a time where changing cultural attitudes alongside a growing economy meant that anyone could bring about their good fortune. Comparing the slew of job opportunities in the fifties and sixties to “a kind of tide,” she conceded that economic fortune was not guaranteed for everyone. Rampen intended to unpack Arthur’s reckoning with his freedoms being “sapped away” from him in retirement. Yet, Suling is marginalised in a different sense. She is Chinese in a white, northern town and her immigrant status leaves her “at the sharp end” of an institutional system that seeks to deport her.
The story Rampen tells of undocumented Chinese migrants is, by her admission, not one we hear much about. But the “exact same system” also marginalises individuals from places like Albania and Vietnam. She highlights that “whole flights of people” are identified and deported almost daily. These immigrants have “basically never had any interactions with mainstream British society” because they have been trafficked and kept undercover. After hearing frequent stories of young people who have been “sent to work in cannabis farms” only to be caught by police and treated as criminals, Rampen hoped to explore this harrowing cycle in greater detail.
Set in Morecambe Bay, the novel explores the idea of an idealised England. For Arthur, this lies in the past when the Bay was abuzz with business and holidayers, cementing Morecambe Bay as a desirable place to be before it became desolate and underfunded. Suling, on the other hand, held a romanticised idea of what her future life in England would be. Unlike Arthur, “for Suling the idealism falls away pretty quickly” when she’s faced with the harsh conditions of her new life. As Rampen demonstrates, in truth, “there isn’t an idealistic past or future.”
Whilst Rampen did not have “any conscious awareness of a specific grief” when writing The Bay, grief is experienced in many forms by different characters in the novel, depicting the significance of love and finding purpose in the people one surrounds oneself with. Whilst Arthur and Gertie were not inspired by “one specific couple,” Rampen recalled a “very old couple” from Germany who “had come to Canada straight after World War Two” who “were like a double act” and “really hard to imagine one without the other.” The memory of Arthur’s late wife Gertie is a recurring motif in the novel that reminds Arthur of his capability of kindness and reasoning despite the “massive hole” her passing has left in his life.