‘If something went wrong we’d say “10% off crabs and lobster!” Then I’d call the boss up and say stick an extra fiver on the shellfish.’
– a guide to good business management, aboard the ferry to Sark.
My sister and I awake in a cramped one-person tent, that through parsimony and a preference for adventure, we’ve elected to sleep in as we explore the Channel Islands. We’re camped on the north-western edge of Jersey, a pleasant yet surprisingly small island off the coast of France. For some centuries it is has been the possession of the British Crown, and much of its French or Jerriais identity has disappeared over the last fifty years, as English and Scottish migrants have arrived to work in its burgeoning finance sector. The country is a tax haven, though do not expect to see gated mansions or humongous yachts, and those who benefit most from Jersey’s arrangements are also offshore.
Much of the wealth is locked into financial products and its beneficiaries are far more often the traditional aristocracy than ‘self-made’ business personalities . In the UK today, the five richest families possess more wealth than the poorest 20%, or 12.6 million of the population. Numerous surveys and reports indicate that social inequality is increasing, that wages for most are decreasing, and that debt, from an individual to even a national basis, is becoming the temporary basis of maintaining living standards. This is unstable! Capitalism faces its next major crisis, and this time there’ll be no bailouts! I can’t see reasons for short-term optimism. The British are drifting towards further inequality, further poverty, and a further disappearance of the welfare safety net, back towards the insecure conditions known during the early 20th century, and before. Fortunately, the UK is drifting at a slower pace than some of its European neighbours. Nothing smacks of ‘crisis’, only continuity.
But there’s an actual motive for our blues this morning. In the news, the Scottish electorate has decided by a small majority to remain part of the United Kingdom. We’re both gutted. My sister’s not politically engaged nor a ‘Lefty’ in the way I am, but she recognised that this was a special opportunity for the country. 85% of eligible voters participated, choosing independence by 55%, a larger margin than previously expected. After a jolt in support in the final week, it seems that the Yes campaign was defeated by a cross-party bombardment of fear and misinformation about economic collapse, and pledges for maximum devolution (just don’t call it ‘devo max’). Writing this a month later, these pledges have been effectively disregarded, as the SNP claimed they would be. What’s sad is how easily so many fell for the carrot. Days later, reports revealed that Scottish oil was not about to disappear. Would Scotland have been really worse off for losing RBS or J.K. Rowling?
We take heart from something though. In Glasgow, the population overwhelmingly voted for independence, and my love for that intelligent and unapologetically progressive beacon of light remains. The young also voted overwhelmingly for independence, and a clear generational divide appeared (though also, notably, one of gender, with males being far more supportive of independence). Hope, as ever, remains with the young, which is to say, those whose minds are receptive and open to the new, something which is not specific to any age-group. At times, independence was confused with support for Alec Salmond. With Nichola Sturgeon as the new leader of the SNP, the stagnation of the Labour Party, the UK parliament’s likely failure to constitutionally enact ‘devo max’, and the right-wing shift of English politics to an ‘English votes for English laws’, it is likely that the SNP will receive an even greater majority in the next Scottish election, and may well be in position to press for another referendum in the coming years. The result may not be so close.
This is to attach a lot of belief in electoral politics. Change usually ends, not begins, at the ballot box. Elections are swayed by emotions, given collective shape by newspaper headlines: rejecting AV was to express dislike and distrust of the Liberal Democrats; voting for a Tory in 2010 or Labour in 1997 was to deem Cameron or Blair more ‘trustworthy’ and likeable than their ‘rival’. A significant degree of support for Yes stemmed from little else than the emotion of pride, to be fair, something which made some politically-engaged Scots uncomfortable. But this is the way. If the grassroots momentum of the Yes campaign only ends with more votes for the SNP at the next election then I’d be disappointed. But hope rests with the young.
I am part of a generation that is, I think, more educated, more intellectually independent, and far more experienced and receptive of other cultures than any other in recent history. Unsanctioned wars, expenses, plain-faced lies and regular scandals have shattered the credibility of the political establishment and the efficacy of the vote. But growing public debt and the further transfer of public infrastructure into the unaccountable hands of hedge funds and investment bankers will steadily diminish my generation’s power to use conventional democratic means, like the ballot, or the protest march, to transform its conditions. To quote Tom Paine, a body ‘holding itself accountable to nobody, ought not to be trusted by any body’. But no body has hoovered up this discontent and amplified it through the emotions of anger, revenge, and hope. Will it?
That waits to be seen. ‘The circumstances of the world are continually changing, and the opinions of man change also; and as government is for the living, and not for the dead, it is the living only that has any right in it’, says Tom Paine again. So who feels alive enough for it, who feels young enough for it? Because change won’t politely knock on the door tonight and ask only for your signature. Nor should one assume that change is even necessarily coming over.
We’re sat out on a picnic table, sharing granola from a tupperware bowl and talking about our plans. Next to us, two well-to-do society ladies talk about the delicate states of their intestines and various herbal supplements by the natural therapies centre. Cabin fever has brought glamping couples to each other’s throats. Lucy’s legs are too strained to cycle, and she’s awoken in some pain. She sorts out a lift back to St. Helier, and I decide to cycle round the rest of the island.
Such a hot and sunny day! Jersey gets more sunlight than anywhere else on the British islands, and today is scorchingly hot, making an island-wide roast dinner of the tomatoes and new potatoes out in the fields. I cycle through St. Ouen and then through St. Mary, and St. John, very small villages with delightful stretches of fertile fields between them. Most roads are lined with trees, and occasionally I pass stalls selling farmers’ produce. I pick up a bag of apples and tomatoes, each for 50pence, about a third their average shop price. Jersey’s system of speed-reduced ‘green lanes’ ensures that cycling is a pleasant and safe breeze, but even the island’s main arteries are little more than country back-roads.
Potatoes burst out from beneath the brown soils this morning, and there’s a strangely murky, marine smell around. I point this out to someone later, and am told that farmers here use seaweed as a natural fertiliser. Seagulls pursue tractors collecting the jersey royals. The landscape is pretty wonderful here, truth told. Like the Scillies, it is largely flat, and nowhere has it been overdeveloped with super-dairies or gargantuan barns. The climate feels ordinarily several degrees warmer than the mainland, and this and the safe roads make it a joy to ride across. I ride through Trinity, noticing the distinct steeples of the parish churches here, each sturdy and with a wide stone steeple, unlike anything around it, yet not browbeating the rural surroundings into submission.
Durrell Park is probably Jersey’s largest visitor attraction, a wildlife park and a small species preservation centre. For just shy of two grand, one can take up a week-long endangered species recovery course. I wander around, curious about the ethics of zoo conservation. The concept was pioneered in part by Gerald Durrell, who travelled the world collecting species for various zoos, before settling down to begin his own zoo on Jersey. Curiously, Durrell seemed to view keeping endangered animals in captivity as a lesser evil, something that shouldn’t be necessary in an ideal world but was unfortunately essential whilst their habitats were (and are still) destroyed. I find the rationale sound. Durrell believed that the animals kept in captivity here should remain the property of their native government, be it Brazil or Madagascar, an enlightened view if one applies it to collections like those of the British Museum. Durrell Park continues his work, both through the zoo and through its courses, and also in a number of international species-preservation programmes.
I continue cycling eastward, riding through St. Martin until I reach the coastline at Gorey, a pretty seaside town with a prominent castle, Mont Orgueil. I follow the road down by the harbour, back towards Grouville, finding the eastern side of Jersey more built-up and less dramatically spectacular as the shipwrecks and dunes of St. Ouen’s Bay in the west. After the quaint village life of Grouville, Longville’s more familiar with its ranging industrial estates, a tunnel giving way to St. Helier again, large, modern, an impressive and interesting looking town. But how on earth is this not France? From the civic parks and squares to the cut of the market, St. Helier seems to have been lifted from Normandy or Brittany, straight from the pages of a Victor Hugo novel. There’s some pleasure in drifting among the squares and monuments, the busy shopping thoroughfares and the supercilious chambre des etats. Jersey merits another day, but so does everywhere, right…? I find my sister in the Liberation bus station, and together we jump aboard our ferry, typically just in the nick of time.
St. Peter Port, Guernsey, is our destination, but it’s only a stopping point for now whilst we wait for our next departing ferry. Guernsey’s a small isle, but its daunting fortifications loom in the distance. Close up, the port is a medium-sized but quaint harbour town, built up over its sea-front but retaining the characteristics of a 19th century port. I use what little time we have to pick up supplies and to find a bike mechanic who may be able to fix the bike’s numerous ailments, but the one mechanic in town is off the island til next week. Worse, no bicycles can be brought on our next ferry. I find a deserted and off-bounds part of the harbour to lock up the bike and most of my luggage, carrying just a pannier as we take the small passenger ferry over to the utterly bizarre isle of Sark.
Guernsey, more properly the Bailiwick of Guernsey, is another semi-autonomous possession of the British Crown without being a part of the UK. It comprises the ‘parishes’ of its island, like Jersey, but it also comprises the smaller neighbouring islands of Alderney, Sark, Herm and others. Sark is however itself semi-autonomous in turn, and some of its laws around taxation, welfare and education are pretty extraordinary, as we discover.
Already the mood on the passenger ferry is friendly and close-knit, and most people on the boat seem to know each other. One other thing stands out: many are extraordinarily rich. One girl talks about a long holiday in the Caribbean, ‘as good as you’d imagine it, as good as the photos’, the new standard of reality now. An older lad puts his arm over the adjacent chair, and tells her boastfully of his uni friend whose family sold their stake in a supermarket chain in order to buy a mansion on Granada, where they now holiday each year.
I’m sat on a bench at the back of the boat, the late-afternoon surf spraying against me and a motley collection of distracted-looking older men, each gazing into their own corner of the ocean. I am sat opposite the chief finance officer of an international company, he tells me, obliquely. A conversation about our surroundings reveals more about him, and about the island. He tells me that there is no income tax on Sark whatsoever, only a negligible property tax. He reveals his small teeth as he proudly describes his yachts, his properties in Turkey, Italy and elsewhere (they’re never houses, as that would suggest living in it), and his frequent visits to those places. We pass a lonely looking fortress situated on its own little island as the boat approaches Sark. ‘That’s the Barclays, on Brecqhou’, he tells me. The Barclays Brothers possess huge wealth through their business activities, and through the work of lawyers, accountants and finance officers like this man, have managed to avoid paying much tax whatsoever. They bought Brecqhou in 1993, built their mock-castle on it, and have since heavily interfered into the affairs of Sark, buying up land and businesses, and heavily pressing for reform of its feudal political arrangements. The result has been what might be politely called a ‘marmite’ effect…
I ask this part-time yachtsman about it. ‘They’ve done a lot of good for the islands. It was very feudal. Women couldn’t inherit property. They changed that.’ He tells me that Sark has recently become a democracy of sorts, and that whilst some locals were against the Barclay’s, others are for. ‘There’s division, but they’ve brought a lot of jobs.’ We’ll later come across others who bitterly disagree.
There are other experiences of Sark’s odd laws that we hear on the boat. From one man talking with a local couple, we hear that ‘there’s no employment law here’, or any kind of recognisable welfare system. Those in financial difficulty must be supported by the generosity of other islanders, as when many of the islanders lost their jobs in 2008, after the Barclays’ brothers pulled investment out of their island businesses following a local election result not to their liking. After 500 years of being a feudal fiefdom, the island had its first democratic election that year. The brothers’ interests were represented by many candidates who were not to the electorate’s liking, and in anger, the brothers attacked the islanders themselves. Most eventually got their jobs back, but it exacerbated divisions between the Sarkees and the Barclays.
‘It was like something out of…’, he says, voice tailing off. I move around the boat, talking, listening. Andy has a dyed black beard and wears a high-vis waistcoat over Guernsey 01 t-shirt. He’s been returning to Sark for forty years but struggles to explain why except ‘something different, quiet’.
We pass a number of small rocky islets until the boat approaches the tiny Creu harbour. As we disembark, a person dressed in a grey teddy bear costume greets us all and people have their photo taken alongside it. A sign above a tunnel welcomes us to Sark. Our fellow passengers dawdle up to a tractor, nicknamed the ‘Toast Rack’, which pulls us up the hill in exchange for a small fee. I’m amazed that no-one walks up the hill. Even the idea of it is scoffed at, we hear later.
Sark is pretty odd, all things considered. Tractors are the only automated form of vehicle allowed. No cars are allowed, nor are there any street lamps. The tractor drops us at the top of a hill at a small settlement called ‘the Village’, though little more than a scattering of businesses along a lane. There’s a prominent bank at the top, a restaurant, a pub, and a couple of shops selling souvenirs most would prefer to forget about. People ride around on bicycles. Signs point hither and thither, but most paths are poorly-signed and are more like country foottrails, compounding the feeling of difficulty in leaving. There are only around 600 people on this tiny island, three miles wide, one mile long, and everyone seems to know each other. And in the middle is this intense divide over the Barclays. It feels very weird.
It’s getting dark. We have no form of lighting – I’ve left my bike lights back in Guernsey with everything else – so we follow what turns out to be a fairly inaccurate tourist map in search of a campsite. After about a mile or two drifting down hedgerowed country lanes besides empty fields and half-built houses, we find a field with another tent in it. We make a guess on it, then follow our route back.
At the top of the hill and marking entrance to the Village is the Bel-air pub. The drinks are ridiculously cheap: £1.05 for a shot, £1.65 for a pint of beer (as it later transpires, the bar is owned by the Barclays, and the prices directly subsidised. What better way of buying support?) Sat on the bar is a publication befitting this weird island.
‘THE BRITISH CROWN DEPENDENCY OF SARK: A LAWLESS ISLAND WHERE MEMBERS OF THE TOTALITARIAN ONE RULING PARTY REGIME CAN COMMIT CRIMES WITH IMPUNITY AND WITH THEIR UNELECTED LEADERS’ APPROVAL, JUST LIKE FASCIST GERMANY IN THE 1930s.’
All upper-case, all extremely offensive to the experiences of those who died under such regimes, and extremely offensive to the intelligence of anyone who knows anything at all about totalitarian regimes. This is the Sark Newsletter, which inside features a pretty hilarious if exhausting series of tirades against various islanders. The editor is extremely paranoid, but the rants reveal something of the divisions on the island, albeit in the distorted form that this seemingly unpleasant and stupid publication takes. In a story one would expect to read regarding the Northern Irish Troubles, the editor claims to have been targeted by a series of explosive devices outside his place of work, on the very quaint ‘Avenue’ which runs through The Village. The feeling is so strange: everyone seems so friendly and amicable on the island. The mood in the Bel-air is superb: beer and conversation are freely flowing, and it’s one islander’s birthday party tonight, and the pub is full with celebrators. And then there’s this bitter division, of which we hear more of. And it stems from, what?
We’re getting hungry. There are no supermarkets or chip shops here, alas. There’s only about three restaurants on the island, and most are pretty expensive. I fancy pizza, which one place offers in Dixcart Bay, which should only be fifteen minutes away from the Village. Off we head, leaving the Village in the fading dusk light, until… the path enters a very thick and old forest, where after about half a mile it disappears. It is now pitch-black, and we are actually completely lost in this strange forest, filled with the whitterings of small mammals and the whoots of owls. I’ve lost track of our path, and my sister is starting to really panic. I am a little too. What if we can’t get out of this pitch-black woods? Where on earth does it begin, or end?
I lie to her (sorry Lucy!) and tell her that I know exactly where we’re going, and make an arbitrary decision to head in a particular direction which, by luck, brings us back onto the path which originally led into the woods. My sister is furious with me for even leading us into the forest in the first place, but relieved to be out. Luckily there’s one place still serving food in the Village, and we arrive just before it closes. They serve up a fantastic concoction of stuffed peppers, roast potatoes and rice – the chef makes it up, unused to vegetarians – and we laugh with relief after our ordeal in the woods.
There’s a real party happening down at the Bel-air now. A disco is in full-swing, and just as we’re balancing our drinks over the shoulders of gyrating locals as we find a seating spot outside, a pub-rock band called Jomali take the stage. They may not exactly look the part, these three blokes clearly getting on, but I’ve not seen a band rock the place like they do in years. They belt through Back in the USSR, Smoke on the Water, and Brown Sugar, as this packed-out pub shouts, dances and throws fists into the air. Everyone’s here, from teenagers probably too young to be served the fruit ciders they furtively sip to packs of middle-aged men and woman wacking back shots, slapping fists onto the bar and demanding more, more! ‘Is it always like this in Sark’, I ask one man. ‘Ah, you are a Sark virgin?’ he replies, in a French accent. ‘We are good, we like to party, this is us!’
It’s hard not to enjoy yourself with this live, loud music, the extremely cheap drinks and the fun atmosphere. ‘Independence!’ a man shouts to much laughter as the band run through ‘500 miles’ by the Proclaimers. That’s the first and last mention of politics. As I knock back yet another bourbon and coke which I probably should’ve called my last, I survey the isolation, joy, confusion, drunkenness and sheer exuberant joy all around me for P.J.’s birthday, whoever P.J. is. Many of the dancers are now without socks and shoes. The crowd is quite diverse, combining ethnicities, ages and backgrounds, everyone united for a moment by happiness and the Hawaiian leis most are wearing. In the centre, a group of young lads carry a particular kind of blank and glazed expression whose source I suspect. Their baseball caps are reversed, and they clutch spent cans of Carling as if they were their last connection with consciousness. ‘Ride, Sally ride!’ the band sing, ‘all I wanna do is ride around Sark!’ adds the portly front-man. It just couldn’t get any weirder. Generally, I think I like the place.
There’s a huge thunderstorm somewhere in the Channel in the distance. We struggle to trace our way back to the campsite, and link arms as the lightening flashes with the frequency and intensity of the surging tides against this bizarre little rock on the sea. The lightening helps us navigate, tracing where one path begins and another ends. ‘This is the weirdest day I’ve ever had. This is probably the craziest travel experience I’ve ever had,’ my sister repeats, as we shamble along the pitch-black footpath, eventually finding our tent in the field. And I cannot disagree.