Long live homo cambiens

Trucks at Dover Eastern Docks

A hard-headed rationalist will tell you that co-incidences are bound to happen because random events will inevitable generate some fortuitous pairings. They may also tell you that random events do no distribute themselves easily which means co-incidences are not evenly spaced in the calendar. Still, it is uncanny that in this of all weeks, there has been a co-incidence of coincidences.

First, the woman whose house we are letting the ground floor of stuck her head around the corner to say “I think there’s someone upstairs who knows you.” Indeed she did: it was the woman who had run the youth club in Folkestone I went to as a teenager. I saw a photo of her son – pre-school when I first knew him – with a child of his own.

Perhaps even more oddly, there weren’t many leaflets on the counter of Le Bar à Vins in Calais, but one was for The Black Horse inn at Monks Horton. I had to ask why they were there, for the very next day we were due to go there to catch up with the owners, who had just taken over management: a family we had known since childhood.

It turns out that Isobel and Luc, owners of Le Bar à Vins, had got to know the family simply because they had supplied their various restaurants with wine over the years. And had taken up their invitation to come and eat when they were in England. This they had done a number of times, creating more than just a professional friendship.

Hearing this, the coincidence became a little less random. Given the family of restaurateurs is Italian, I am likely to know them through the informal network of Italian immigrants that my father is a member of, and through the catholic primary school the children went to. As discerning restaurateurs in Folkestone, they are likely to buy wine from one of the better outlets over the short stretch of water in a wine-producing nation. A somewhat discerning individual on a day trip to France, such as myself, is going to want to find out what the better wine merchants are and go there rather than the pile-’em-high, sell-’em-cheap warehouse. And so I am likely to end up at the same wine merchant as the Italian restaurateurs I know.

If you don’t like this kind of analytic reduction of mystery, there is perhaps a more important moral to this story: trade brings people together, and it always has done. There are many ways of marking the human difference, and one which surely does matter is that we are a species that exchanges goods. Some have even argued that it is because we are homo cambiens that we have made as much progress as we have. Trade meant people could specialise in what they were good at, which meant that instead of being a species where we could all do the basics just well enough, we could collectively do lots more things excellently. Trade also led to the movements of peoples. Tourism is a late arrival on the scene: for centuries it was business that drew people across long distances.

Of course trade can be exploitative. But generally speaking, sustainable trade requires trust and the rule of law. When specific forms of trade become illegal, you get smuggling instead, and with it criminality and suspicion. Good trade needs and builds good human relations.

As the closest point between France and England, the White Cliffs Country has been a centre of trade for centuries. The lorries loading and unloading from the ferries are the latest incarnation of a long tradition. From the outside, it can just look like stuff moving soullessly, a cog in the capitalist machine. And trade can indeed become no more than that, with customer scanning their own goods at self-service checkouts or ordering goods online. The dangers of this can perhaps be seen in what happens when city traders deal with nothing more than numbers on a screen, with no connection to the people or things behind them. Homo cambiens – exchanging man, tis not the same as homo economicus: a single-minded maximiser of financial gain, and we should not allow him to become so.

Perhaps we need to remind ourselves of the human dimension of trade, not just to appreciate it, but to make sure we don’t lose it in an increasingly impersonal world. And the White Cliffs, with evidence of commercial movement all around you, is a pretty good place to do it.


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