For someone who hates flying as much as I do, I seem to travel a lot. Countries as far apart as Mexico, Chad, and Japan have seen me emerge from the plane blinking in gratitude to the sky gods for my safe arrival, and ready to explore. But when I return to Guernsey I feel I am coming home. I turn inward to reboot and take a long hard look at myself and what I’ve been up to since my last visit.
Guernsey obsesses me. I want to back people into corners and tell them everything I know about it. Being exiled from the island hurt me into writing poetry when I was in my teens. I’ve written about it ever since, including in A Guernsey Double (2010) with Richard Fleming, and more published work since then.
Last week my wife and I took my mid-20s stepchildren and their partners there for the first time. But I soon realised what I chose to show them wasn’t just the island, it was a covert way of showing them myself. I began to wonder uncomfortably if I was actually seeing Guernsey at all, instead of something scripted by my imagination and my memory. Frankly it was all getting a bit ‘me-me-me’. It made me think how my writing about the island has been received with a suspicion – above and beyond the fact it was poetry – in some quarters. For example when A Guernsey Double was published, Richard and I were welcomed more than once onto BBC Guernsey, while Guernsey Press completely ignored its publication. I can completely understand this however. It’s a bit like how I was tempted to blah-blah about the island, and show people around ‘my’ island. I fully understand that local people must be heartily sick of folks imposing a narrative on their home.
I couldn’t help note the irony that I was tripped into this realisation by an exhibition by London based photographer Jason Wilde, whose exhibition Guerns, was running at the museum in Candie Gardens. Jason’s photos captured candid images of local people in their own homes. There was some piercing work in the exhibition, as you can see from the lovely spotty piece above. I loved the absence of sentimentality, nostalgia and how it didn’t over-egg its subject matter. The exhibition has an admirable clarity and truth about it.
This exhibition jabbed a sensitive spot on the island. Guernsey is a small place that was once dependent on tourism and its tomato industry. Guernsey Toms were familiar to shoppers in the sixties and seventies. But when the UK joined what was then called the Common Market, Guernsey Toms were undercut by cheaper Dutch tomatoes. The industry rapidly sank, and for a while this was replaced with flower growing but that withered too. The island that once glittered with greenhouses as you flew into it, is less sparkly now.*
Since that time the financial industry has been Guernsey’s mainstay. To keep it going it has imported lots of well paid folks from the UK and beyond, which is in danger of creating a two-tier society. The gorgeous parish I grew up in, St Martin’s, nearby houses were full of my relatives, who were ordinary local people. But the houses have now been gentrified. Now you just have to look at the cars parked in the gravelled front gardens to see how things have changed.
As Jason Monaghan, Director of Guernsey Museums said talking about the Guerns exhibition, “The contemporary photographic archive that is being built throughout this series is invaluable and is something for both current and future generations to enjoy”. I whole heartedly agree, and would add that Jason Wilde has photographed local people at what may feel like a vulnerable and uncertain time in their history.
I have recently finished a long poem about the island, imagining it as a kind of Atlantis sunk in time. It is the culmination of a long sequence of introspective poems that goes back to my teens, but this last one feels like the end of a chapter.
I am already planning my next visit. But next time I am going to go different places, and will speak to different people. There are new stories I’d like to hear told, and Jason Wilde’s exhibition has forcibly reminded me of this.
So it’s a big well done from me to Guernsey Arts and Guernsey Museums. Brilliant stuff.
* I took the snap below last week, there are several ruins of the tomato industry still to be seen.