Dover shouldn't loom large in the political imaginary. A port town supposedly boasting the busiest stretch of international water in the world, it ranges a mile or two along the southeast coast of England to no startling effect.
But for its white cliffs, over which tourists dawdle on mild afternoons, scanning the massed freight below in a manner more often found among ravenous gulls. The white cliffs are a confusion of national myths. Local patriots littered the arriviste French with rocks from their gnarled tops. Others will be most familiar with those reputed "bluebirds over" that have become so indelible to our idea of the national home. Smugglers scaled them to the thrill of still other, less border-conscious locals.
Towns like Dover - with their dreary nostalgia and proximity to the great beyond - lure in the far right. Of course, it's the tales of migrants hidden under lorries that outrage them, tales, that is, of a more modern form of smuggling with an altogether more vulnerable cargo. Ironically, if it was tobacco that was causing the holdups along the M20 today, the fascists would no doubt be cheerier about it. They reserve a special vitriol for contraband of the human type, I suppose.
After all, what other passion could tempt middle-aged men in their hundreds to this seaside-town-without-a-seaside every other Saturday afternoon? Ok, the fetish of the far right for policing migrants may be peculiarly brutal, but it is only an extension of the state's own dogged pursuit of border enforcement. Spend any time in Dover or Folkestone and you'll see the official vans of Immigration Enforcement, the sundry doings of the Detention Centre rolling out in armour-plated waves across the county. They stage set-piece raids at dawn on households harbouring the unhappy "illegals", timed to tally with denunciatory speeches delivered from Whitehall podiums. The fash, in their portly cohort of red and white, are the nasty excess of this more bureaucratic racism. They are the proverbial, patriotic enthusiasts lobbing rocks from the cliff tops in many a local legend.
They come with flags and tats and - yes - rocks. Mostly rocks. Nervous voices around the town ask where they are gathering. Naturally, in pubs. Names are floated: "The Red Lion?" Too good to be true, I think.
Meanwhile, just off Dover's knackered high street in a local park replete with a slab of bandstand, a trickle of anti-fascists turns into a heavy flow. "The London boys," someone says jubilantly as black-clad, serious looking anarchists step off beige buses emblazoned with the legend "J.B.Henry of London." They are a most peculiar group of day trippers. To be fair, though, they aren't all boys.
Dozens of police wait patiently and politely for us to start following behind them. Some film us in that peculiar way all sides seem to do at protests. The police film us. The fash film us. We film them. How many thousands of hours of footage of black-clad anarchists milling around by duck ponds must be idling in police offices somewhere?
Then we're off, a motley crew: anarchists, trade unionists, hippies, kids and dogs. One teenager wears a white t shirt with the slogan "I'm not gay but my dad is." An afghan hound shivers in front of me. Puddles are splashed by unassuming footwear: boots and sandals. We walk, much to local consternation, through a car park and among chippies and furniture stores. Someone, take-way latte in hand, reports that the local biddies were blessing their tea spoons at the thought of the National Front coming to town. "Someone's got to do something about these immigrants," they say.
We are seemingly police-led to a pub, quite why I don't know. Apparently the far right are inside. Chants of "Refugees are welcome here" go up. No movement inside. Then there's a roar. The front of our lot rush down an alley into a police line. In the distance Combat 18 and National Front flags bob around like we're at a really misanthropic festival. Then the projectiles come flying: rocks, batteries, bottles. I'm promptly whacked and as I back away I realise, at our exposed rear, a breakaway group of far-right marchers has arrived.
There are no police between us and them and as they charge I realise it's going to be bloody. I catch the eyes of one skinhead in full flow. He's swinging a pole with wild abandon, all blunt rage. Rocks are everywhere. Someone is setting off flares. Suddenly I've never been so thankful for the company of anarchists: they break ranks and charge headlong into our assailants. People fall - really fall - like sacks of shopping. The police finally get between the two groups and something like calm is restored.
We are slowly surrounded by dozens of police. Vans keep arriving. The smoke clears. The more determined of our lot climb lamp posts with spirited aplomb. The police pen us into a kettle, well away from the jeering right. We are pacified for just a moment before the anarchists are off again, ploughing en masse through the police lines and onto an unsuspecting dual carriage way.
This time I escape the kettle, which forms anew, smack bang on the dual carriage way. Van after can arrives, encircling the left. People sit on balconies, mostly amused, some angry.
The police give themselves time to properly cage in the left before the far right resume their march. Most onlookers seem bewildered. However, anyone with dark skin or a foreign accent makes a run for it as the fascists approach. I see one curious German family turn and sprint back to their car when they see the fascists coming. Mother and kids at full pelt along the central reservation, stationary traffic looking on.
The fascists pass in boisterous formation and make their way to the docks. Meanwhile, the police line up with dogs in front of the left to drive them in the opposite direction.
We make our way back to the park. Life returns to a nervous normality. If not quite conquered, Dover is hardly immunised against the right. A few clearly approve. Some resent the interrupted traffic. Others think it's poor form, but after all, the immigrants are the illegal ones.
As we nurse our wounds I'm reminded of a different attitude besides that of borders and the right to punish and strip the humanity from those who transgress them. On the way to Dover that morning my new friend Mark tells me a story:
"Last week a young lad was getting laid into by these thugs, calling him all sorts. The most dreadful language you've ever heard. He was with his mum and sister, only about thirteen, and you could see the fear in his eyes. Because he had to be the man in that situation. He felt he needed to protect them. And there's these skinheads just laying into him. So I just said to him, you'll be all right mate, they're not going to hurt you. And, not blowing my own horn or anything, you just saw the strength in his eyes return. He said cheers or whatever and off they went."
It's no great saintliness or moral superiority that gets people onto the streets to protest against racism. It's just a sense of decency and a demand for civility grown urgent. To my mind we on the left stand to benefit from this simple insistence: we just want a bit of common decency.