‘They’re always taking the piss’ – Englishness, in sum, from a Portuguese view, Bournemouth.
Those distant eruptions of lightning during the night flashed over into a night of restless dreaming, but their promise of storms has, for now, been unheeded by Sark. Topping-and-tailing with my sister, as a kind older brother I’ve allowed her the roomier half whilst I’ve slept at the foot where rain condenses and falls inside the tent. I feel the patter of some early morning drizzle drip against my head, waking me a while to pull a paw over my face and continue dozing. By the time we wake it’s dry again, though a thick mist floats over the surrounding fields with an alarmingly swift motion, rapidly obscuring nearby hedgerows, adding to the eeriness of this strange and most unusual of islands.
We surface and venture around the small, unoccupied campsite. Those two half-built houses still stand unoccupied and seemingly abandoned. A lady appears on a bicycle and disappears down a lane, then returns twenty minutes later and invites us into her house. It’s not as cordial as it sounds. We’re paying after all. The transition from bed to tent is severe enough without putting in the chaos of sleeping in dark forests alive with the whoops and whitters of a hundred different kinds of creature. It’s not for the faint of heart. In we head, to pay seventeen Guernsey notes for our stay, and in the process, discover a little more about Sark.
Jill’s been on the island for around thirty years, though her northern accent is still very prominent. ‘They still call me “English”, an “incomer!”, but my three kids are Sarkees.’ Her partner’s from the island, and his mother is ‘one of the old Sarkees’, possessing a manner, dialect and way of living that feels distinctively attached to the island. The island’s currently undergoing a process of major transformation, as we tentatively found out yesterday. The Barclays’ brothers have bought up most of the hotels and properties – ‘they’d offer anyone money, good money, to buy their place. And a lot of them took it. But there’s some that won’t sell, no matter what’, people like her partner and their friends. When the islanders rejected the pro-Barclays candidates in the island’s first-ever democratic elections back in 2008, they were punished with redundancy and dismissals. Hotels and businesses were forcibly closed for a time, then later reopened. From over five hundred years’ rule by an unelected Seigneur and a parliament of unelected landowners, another kind of dynasty sought to seize power.
Jill tells us that there’s been a lot of division recently on the island between two factions, roughly aligned around a pro, and anti, Barclays position. ‘I wish they’d just get together and bang their heads together’, she says. For such a small and friendly island, as we’ve seen and as Jill describes, the acrimonious dispute seems strange. It makes the island feel claustrophobic, tense, and indeed, there’s aspects of that here. As tractors and horse-drawn carriages pass down the streets, people talk to each other on an intimate level, and gossip in detail about the lives of their neighbours. It reminds me of a long conversation on the occupied table next to ours in the restaurant where we’d eaten last night. On the adjacent table, two couples, both related to each other in some way, gossiped in depressingly personal and extensive detail about another islander. At the time it had merely reminded me of the saying, ‘with friends like these…’, but as Jill discusses life on the island, I start to thread more strands together.
Jill tells us that until the mid-1970s, women were not allowed to open a bank account. Another law, only recently repealed, allowed for husbands to beat their wives with a cane so long as it was no thicker than their little finger. ‘But it was ok!’, she laughs. And ‘droit de seigneur’? These weren’t laws ever put to the test, she jokes.
What happens with education, or hospitals, or policing, on an island with no income tax and no obvious government? One can leave school at fourteen on the island. There’s a small primary school and secondary school, but GCSEs can only be completed through an online programme. Many young people will travel away to schools and colleges on Guernsey, or to boarding schools further afield. Education is expensive, as the Sark government doesn’t pay for it. This is also true of healthcare, and private health insurance is a must. House prices are very expensive here, but then without taxation, perhaps it balances out? She jokes about a local humbug over having to pay £250 wealth tax. ‘A week? A month?’ ‘No, a year!’
We pay up and head back down the lane, past those misty fields and towards the two banks that crown the crossroads by the village. Locals talk to each other as they pass, but also say hullo to us, two obvious strangers. Such friendliness, like at PJ’s 60th birthday party in the Belair last night, people dancing, laughing, of all ages, having fun together, and then all this acrimony. I start to wonder which business is owned by the Barclays and which is not. One food store is virtually opposite another. Is it open competition? Jill told us that some locals had refused to attend this local man’s birthday bash because the establishment is owned by the Barclays. Their preference is the Mermaid boozer, a local ‘local’ whose licence has been temporarily revoked for serving alcohol to two drunk young men, the kind of misdemeanour that sustains the drinking trade on the mainland but here too becomes a source of local contention… ‘They should’ve revoked the licences of all the pubs [with emphasis on the Barclays’ owned ones]’, we hear, as the men would’ve been served at those too. And what makes the Belair so cheap? Lo, as we find out now, the pints and spirits are also subsidised by the brothers. A canny attempt to curry local favour! ‘This place is crazy’, my sister rightly concludes.
We pass a number of small shops insisting on retailing chintzy ornaments, old fashioned toys and Sark tractor tee-shirts, their trade seemingly terminated in 1984 but still existing in a kind of decaying half-life. Or am I being harsh, and is it not that the old-fashioned is still, here, and with the islanders’ insistence, the norm? There’s nothing Cath Kidston about it, nothing twee here. It’s small in many different ways. We pop into the Food Stop, stopping for a moment to read local bill-posters advertising a bicycle race this afternoon that passes the island’s four boozers – I am sorry to miss it – and hear of a lawnmower race the following weekend. Inside, we spy some Sark ice cream and grab a pot. I chat to the young lady behind the counter. She’s from the island, and once again I’m baffled by the lack of accent here, a kind of generic English south-eastern accent without definitive features. But then again, she went to boarding school from the age of twelve. Sark has been shaped and reshaped by its incomers, as one can only really come in, and attempt to settle with some difficulty, until a generation later your children become of this local establishment, judging the newcomers…
Nothing new here, to be fair. I found the same across the small communities of the Hebrides, though didn’t comment extensively on it then. Clearly one needs a lot of personal wealth to establish oneself here, on an island with no social supports in place. It’s no surprise that in the conversations on the ferry there (and later back), I encountered mostly wealthy individuals working in business and finance. She tells us about Sark life in neither dulcet nor dolorous tones, though smiles nervously when I ask about its ‘feudal’ laws. She’s about to get married and then leave the island for ‘the UK’ – seems so strange to refer to it distantly when one can arrive here, this English enclave on a Norman rock, without need of one’s passport. Something seems to be tugging at her tail. Later she’ll head to Glasgow to begin university, and her partner, ‘not sure, maybe an apprenticeship’. Escape’s on the cards.
We pick at the deliciously sweet honeycomb ice-cream, swirls of burnt brown sugar caramelised in sticky dollops among the rich and creamy vanilla. The lanes are quiet as we drift north up towards the island’s church and island hall. A quarter of a million pounds was bequeathed in one local woman’s will to the construction of a new hall, but again we’ve been told its squander through its assembly besides a school and a pub. A pub next to a school?! In several parts of inner London this is normal. Perhaps only in paradise could so much grumbling and discontent fester.
Victor Hugo once described the Channel Islands as ‘fragments of France which fell into the sea and were gathered up by England’. Perhaps there’s a different kind of family dispute, and family behaviour, expressing itself on each of the islands. Is perhaps the island’s real ‘Englishness’ expressed in this pleasure in complaining – passively? Complaining to one’s neighbour, about the other neighbour, grievances never aired until the point of paranoiac manic eruption. The Sark newsletter compared its editor’s ‘persecution’ to that of Jews and political opponents of the Nazis during the 1930s, perhaps the most regrettable and plain stupid published remark I’ve read in some time (I do scan the headlines of the Daily Mail regularly). And all this in a corner of… paradise. Well, not everyone’s kind of paradise.
We pass by Sark’s small church, a sober and dignified affair surrounded by the headstones of a century or two of Sark’s forgotten souls. A war memorial counts a score or so of young men fallen in Flanders’ fields. There are perhaps only three or four different surnames on that monument. We wander further a little north down a deserted lane that leads to another fogged and empty crossroads. With its isolation, its wee lanes and lack of any infrastructure, but with that, its close-knit, family-like community (and like any family, rife with disputes whose origin is forgotten, purpose esoteric, resolution unthinkable), Sark cuts a bizarre impression. Perhaps more than even Portmeirion in mid-Wales, Sark would make an apt locale for a modern day restaging of The Prisoner.
There’s something quite dark about the place, my sister feels, and it’s hard to disagree, but exactly… what? It would need time to find out, though too much time here and perhaps we too would become at one, against one, with the island. Time’s catching up with us, and our ferry is about to leave. We hurry back through the Village, past a group of horse-drawn carriages awaiting the next load of curious visitor, then run down a long forest path to the harbour. It now feels like we must escape, and inexplicably (there’s plenty of time) we break into a jog as we pace down the muddy path, reaching the harbour in good time.
Phew! The ferry’s running late. Standing by the jetty are the members of Jomali, the band rocking out the Belair last night with their lively sixties-to-eighties rock-and-roll covers. Heavy mists shroud the island in a veil of secrecy, forbidding exit or entry. Nearby we spy dark crags snarling out of the water like the incisors of sleeping sea-dragons. I talk to the two front-men of the band as we wait for the boat to load. They’re from Guernsey, and play around the islands on a regular basis. They like Sark (‘I don’t want to leave!’, says the bassist), but for them it’s a kind of momentary escape from home. They’re two gruff, tough but friendly geezers, with an accent that sounds largely south-eastern, say of Sussex or Kent: clipped, short, abbreviating consonants where possible, but with elements of a south-western drawl, still a little roomy around its vowels, ees and aas.
At last, locals perceivably local. So what about Guernsey, the place our morning boat is headed? The most mysterious things are protected with a pleasant façade. St Peter Port deters scrutiny with its seabird steeples, pastel-palace terraces and Francophile old town dingdongalong drives. They tell me about the ‘Guernsey patois’, a local dialect of French once commonly spoken across the islands but, like many other local tongues, now the reserve of elders huddled in the rural village pub and skittish schoolkids flicking rulers and flinging paper airplanes across the local classroom. They tell me that very few people now speak French on the islands, with English settlers transforming the identity of the island. Being a larger, roomier and seemingly more laid-back place, there’s no mention of incomers or ways lost. Instead, they complain about the high costs of living there. But isn’t it a tax haven? ‘No, people think that, but we pay tax. A lot!’, says the bassist and lead-singer. ‘Aye, a third of our wages’, agrees the guitarist. The cost of houses has risen rapidly. I’m told about the prices of houses recently sold by relatives, very high by even London standards. ‘The young just can’t get a foot in’. Some leave the island, some inherit property. ‘The problem is that everything’s now built and sold on the open market. Nothings built for locals. They just can’t afford to stay.’ This affordable housing crisis is a blight across all the British islands.
We board the ferry and ride back to Guernsey, watching the waves flicker against the rocking vessel as it pursues a course through the morning fog. This boat is abub with friendly chatter among neighbours and friends. Behind us, a ninety year old lady talks to a retired South African gentleman related to the island’s doctor, a beloved man who ‘saved her life’. They talk about death and dying. ‘You just don’t know. No-one comes back from the other side to tell us’. We hear elsewhere that Sark was once even more popular with visitors. ‘We used to get a thousand trippers a day, but now everything’s so expensive’. Not everyone can afford the high ferry and air fares between and beyond these islands. ‘It’s an expensive rock!’, joked the bassist from Jomali.
Our little vessel reaches St. Peter Port by noon. My knee has become infected from that bad scrape with the Jersey roads, and movement has become painful. The previous evening I hid my bicycle and one of my panniers behind some crates on the far edge of the harbour. Fortunately both bike and bag are still there. I change into some fresh clothes, dress the wound, and together we wander into St. Peter Port. Like many old harbour towns, what you see is what you get. As one’s boat draws close, one can see a small but substantial stretch of settlement mostly constructed during the 19th and early 20th centuries. There’s an extensive pierhead and several marinas populated with hobby yachts, and behind that, a wide esplanade lined with two to three-storey townhouses, hotels and public establishments. Raise your eyes higher and one can pick out a series of pretty steeples, nothing like the superstitious consolations of the old English port like old east London, Whitby or Newlyn, but enough to cater for the tastes of tradition and the soul, from a Church of Scotland to Roman Catholicism. Guernsey’s pretty coves and beaches are renowned, but there’s little among show here in the workaday ways of the harbour, and so no amusements, confusements or kiss-me-quick charades. Just a little south of the harbour one can’t help seeing the imposing fortifications of Castle Cornet, flattened brickwork becoming one with the craggy rocks, protecting this little island against the moods of Napoleon.
We wander by a clocktower and besides a small monument to the liberation of the island from German occupation. Composed of fifty layers of granite representing the years since the war’s end, it is a little underwhelming in stature and aspiration, aware of its own historical significance but neither prissy or dramatic about it. Following the esplanade south towards the small town centre, we pass bistros and restaurants, and the occasional tourist shop selling local butters and jams. Unsatisfied with the answers I’ve been given by these islanders, I pop into the visitor information centre to inquire about the island’s taxation. It’s an odd request, especially when expressed with breezy delivery by a young man whose appearance suggests ineligibility for taxation on grounds of income or lack thereof. Fortunately Guernsey’s better equipped than most, and I’m handed a thick report of facts and figures about the States of Guernsey, incorporating the nearby islands of Herm and Alderney. That’ll do!
Outside this pretty old building there’s a photography festival stand. As we wander around the town we find large mobile displays of photography from across the world. One takes its inspiration from a statement by the film director Pier Paolo Pasolini, that human life is an ‘extended desert’ as opposed to an infinity within. Through a series of objects found washed up on the isle of Lampedusa, Massimiliano Gatti’s photography explores what was left behind by migrants on the often-abortive journeys from Africa to Europe.
‘I portrayed these objects floating in a white limbo that almost devours them, immersed in the undefined, because the fate of their possessors is indefinite: did they survive? Did they arrive at their destination? Did they go home? We only know what passed from Lampedusa, nothing else.’
Guernsey seems much removed from these struggles, but it’s not so hard to imagine bands of the desperate trying to sail from the huge camps at Calais towards the mainland, dreams of another life.
We get lunch in the Terrace café, charge our phones and make contact with our couchsurfing host in Bournemouth, then head uphill out of the town centre. For a town that makes much of its fluttering Union Jacks, the mark of a people eager yet unable to stamp an English print on this deeply French-looking place, the sight of a fluttering drapeau français is arresting, as is the babble of français outside the large and pretty townhouse of La Hautville, once-home of Victor Hugo. He lived here for fourteen years whilst in exile from France during the rule of Louis Napoleon, and wrote some of his major works here, like Les Misérables. Throughout his life, Hugo was a determined and prolific campaigner against the death penalty. Were the barbaric punishments, moral midgetry, or necessary inadequacies in human justice not sufficient reason enough, then Hugo’s novel ‘The last day of a condemned man’ makes a powerful case against such punishments.
There’s not much beyond, and restricted with time, we drift back towards the town church and the old market a little further ahead. There’s an array of local stalls selling historical knickknacks, chutneys and jams, pictures in frames and forgotten tat under the aspect of vintage. I talk to one friendly English lady running a stall selling old books and ornaments. ‘That’s just the way of the world’, she says, concluding a survey of how the island is today compared to its rich and varied history. She’s been here for thirty years. ‘I’ve seen it change a lot, and I liked it more how it was. Guernsey, that real Guernsey, the patois… You’ll hardly hear it. Time was it was spoken around here [at the market]’. ‘What happened?’ ‘Things have changed. It was all tomato growing here when I arrived. Now the younger ones don’t go into it. It’s banking instead, there’s more money, greater rewards… Something’s being lost.’
Hard not to agree, but can they be blamed for wanting a better and easier life?
She sells historical books about Guernsey, old Ladybird-lookalike kids’ editions. There are newspapers from the occupation being sold for £3, the news censored. Personal ads inside the paper reveal desperate locals offering to trade the family silver in exchange for food. Towards the end of the German occupation, food was scarce. The British policy was to ‘let ‘em starve’, but starving out the German soldiers meant depriving the islanders too. A Red Cross ship was eventually permitted entry during the cold winter of 1944.
At the next stall I pick up some local peach jam for Ricardo, our host in Bournemouth. The owner asks about the ridiculously overburdened machine that I pull with difficulty over the market’s hobbled cobbles. He laughs at my stories. His name is Ray, and he was born in Guernsey, and speaks with the same kind of fuzzy east-meets-west accent of the Jomali blokes. He likes life here, but quickly complains about how expensive it is. Property prices are becoming unaffordable, ‘and it’s virtually impossible to leave the island!’ Why so? The costs of travel are raised. Though there is no VAT charged on Guernsey, goods still sell at UK rates, companies adding their own ‘freight charge’ to compensate. Ray and his neighbouring stallholder are more concerned about their government though. ‘Is it a democracy here?’ I ask, deliberately naively. ‘Not quite…’ ‘I think it’s going backwards, it’s becoming a dictatorship’. How so? His neighbour complains about the election process. Representatives are elected by individual parishes. ‘There’s no island-wide elections. People get ignored, they just do what they want.’ Should there be some kind of right of recall? Their chagrin is more with who is elected, ‘gardeners, down-and-outs’, she says. I ask for some expansion. ‘People who are popular, but who don’t know what they’re doing. We need businessmen, people who will act in the wider interests of the island.’
But are businessmen to be trusted? Something Ray tells us about contradicts that. What problems face the island? ‘A black hole. There’s a huge government deficit, £35 million.’ Guernsey decided to stop taxing resident banks a few years ago after they threatened to leave the island in search of another tax haven. Such dirty tricks have been done elsewhere, like the City of London, or the Republic of Ireland. ‘They’re already rich, why do they allow it?’ There’s talk of increasing taxes here and there on petrol, or toying with some kind of VAT-lite like Jersey’s GST, ‘but it’s hit them so hard’. Taxation is the fuel of governments. Cut that, and one cuts not merely the incomes of governments, but their capacity to spend adequately on basic things like infrastructure. But neither stall-holder will commit to a view about increasing taxation. ‘Where will the money come from?’ is the common rejoinder to the kinds of idealist schemes I propose. Where does it already come from? And where ought it to come from?
Time’s running out for us on Guernsey, so we hurry back to the harbour to catch the ferry back to the mainland. It’s been an awesome few days on Jersey, Guernsey and Sark, which have definitely surprised me in their unusual nature. I’m not sure how willing I’d be to return, but Sark certainly is a one-off. Conversation on the ferry is a little galling, though again reflects the unusually wealthy backgrounds of many passengers, or their connections with the financial services on the islands. ‘Oh I hate and detest the common herd’, says one person on a table beside us, with only a little irony. Their conversation is on the topic of business class seats on their regular flights to the Far East for holidays. ‘This cup of tea, it’s just a bag and boiling hot water, and she threw the teabag at me’. Everyone on the ferry seems to be enjoying complaining about some aspect of the service, be it the slightly delayed departure, that the ferry company sent a text to passengers reminding them to check-in on time, or minutiae in the manners and mores of the weary service staff, all at least a generation or two younger than most of the passengers.
We begin to pass some headland, and I spy what I suspect to be the Swanage peninsula to our right (we’re sitting facing backwards), and the wooded prospect of Brownsea island in the distance, where Colonel Baden-Powell first set up the Scout movement. An older man opposite us confirms this to be the case, and over conversation he tells us his business on Guernsey as a project manager for a young millionaire. He’s overseeing the construction of a large ‘super-house’ on the island. The millionaire wants to escape his tax duties whilst continuing to work on nearby Bournemouth. We’re told that non-Guernsey residents must pay an extra 30% on properties, bringing the cost of this construction to around £5 million, but this doesn’t seem to be an issue. The guy with us seems a little distant and unattached to his paymaster but happy to do the work, and his main complaint is the slowness of getting things done on the island, be it securing a permit or finding a contractor. It doesn’t matter too much. Though the ferries to and from the islands can be expensive, he has the occasional pleasure of joining his boss in his private jet, a neat 38 minutes flight from Guernsey to Bournemouth. Quicker than the average commute, certainly.
We arrive in Poole. Whilst I’m riding off the ferry, one of my panniers flies off. A harbour worker helps me attach it back on whilst the traffic passes. It’s a strange non-place for conversation, but he warmly tells me about his desire to travel around his campervan. He really likes the town and the beaches, good for surfing, ‘but I’m working all the time, always working’, he says, his face etched with several nights’ worth of deprived sleep. The harbour itself is relatively small, and the area around it a little run-down, but as we approach Poole there’s more to the town. There’s a long old high-street with many a pub, though most are depopulated and the area deserted, strange for a Saturday night. Though the to-let shops are apparent, there’s not an obvious feeling of depression about the place. Outside one fruit machine arcade, a young assistant cleans the windows with languorous care. He tells us that he absolutely loves it here. He moved here from Somerset for work, and ‘I’d never want to go back’. He cites the nightlife, the beaches, and the proximity of Bournemouth, with its mixture of young workers and students.
Poole seems a relatively peaceful and easy-going small town, which like most is dominated by an ugly and boring mall, a clunky bus station which takes up far too much of the centre, and then block after block of bland suburban housing. I leave Lucy at the bus station in the company of disaffected teenagers whilst I cycle up the dark A35 towards Bournemouth which, as it turns out, isn’t as ‘right next to’ Poole as I’d stupidly reckoned. It’s a long and at times uphill climb through suburbia, first past a large Barclays building and other corporate headquarters associated with proximity to the Channel Islands I expect, and then the somnambulant semis, Tescos and takeaways, used car forecourts and carvery pubs, til I pass Bournemouth and reach Southbourne on Sea.
Tonight we’re staying with Ricardo through Couchsurfing (our host in Jersey had, frustratingly, bailed out at short notice). He’s a friendly and trusting Portuguese guy, and he offers to give us the keys to his place whilst he finishes his shift at a restaurant. We chat, then I ride back towards Bournemouth centre, along a very dark cliff park, and down to a large gathering at Boscombe Pier, where there’s an ‘LED and fire party’ on, with teenagers drinking and congregating on the beach. Further in, I pass lots of young people sitting and socialising in the town’s stately gardens, even at night, giving the place a surprisingly nice vibe, like a bohemian European city, occasionally interrupted by aggressive shouting and fights breaking out, like that in the main square when I arrive, which reminds me where I am again! I find my sister, and we head back to Ricardo’s, where we cook dinner for us all and chat.
Ricardo had trained as an engineer, but a mixture of boredom, opportunity and a love of cooking led him to start working as a chef, both in restaurants and in care homes. Most of those he works with are migrant workers like himself (only the waiting staff reverse this), which has given him another perspective on the society and culture around him, and where he (and others) see themselves fitting in with it. He’s learning Polish, as many of his friends and colleagues speak it, and can speak many languages, something most unusual among British-born young people. Yet with having English as a second language, apparent ‘accent’ or language limitations, not to mention overseas qualifications often as valid as UK ones but just not immediately recognised, often means being overlooked in job applications and eventually having to take work one is overqualified for. It doesn’t bother him too much, as his passion is travelling, particularly Morocco and India, and he loves the hustle, freedom and pleasure of those countries, and of course their cooking. He’d like to open a restaurant, but sees a number of obstacles ahead that, for now, he’s postponing facing.
One thing he tells us does stand out, a complaint about the English (or Englishness?).‘They’re always taking the piss’ he says, giving out a continual sarcasm that is difficult for others to grasp or keep up with. He sees something deliberately deceptive, even hypocritical about it, of never saying what one actually means, and the difficulty and frustration in working this out and keeping up with it. It’s interesting, as some of the hallmarks of a characteristically dry ‘British’ comedy rely on irony, understatement, sarcasm, and sardonic humour. What does that say about our society? It’s interesting that Ricardo raises all this – alongside our generally bad eating habits and casual arrogance, all complaints raised in a friendly and funny way – in a part of the country where the Conservative party and an expressed disdain for migrant ‘scroungers’ is particularly popular. Perhaps part of it stems from self-assertion against a range of hostile media narratives, but in another way it lifts the lid on some of the frustrations of the migrants who largely occupy and power so many local businesses and community services – an increasingly thankless task, it seems. We stay up talking about travels and adventures after eating well, and the night is friendly, warm and fun. We sleep well in his flat.