So I’m walking along a flower-flanked path near Pleinmont on a delightful section of Guernsey’s coastline drenched in autumn sun, on what was called Westberg by occupying Nazi forces. Weathered little concrete markers bearing swastikas peep from amongst grasses showing sites of former minefields, as if they’re a part of distant history.
Here on Guernsey, the bunkers, gun positions and monstrous observation towers of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall remain, too. They are a tourist attraction with interpretation boards, some mentioning the hard-to-estimate numbers of slave labourers who were worked to death here. Guernsey is a ‘Crown Dependency’. As with British Overseas Territories, these are scraps of land under Royal control and quietly, oddly outside democratic norms. The Dependencies and Territories include some of the world’s most infamous island tax havens, with picturesque harbours and millionaire compounds, police forces which can seem charmingly deferential to wealth. But just look at those harbours.
All the Channel Islands have been notable for low Covid infections, effective Trace and Trace and severe punishments threatened for infractions. To reach Guernsey, I had to register my vaccinations, download a tracing app that actually works, pre-purchase Lateral Flow Tests (LFTs) for my initial 10 days and pass through gloved and gowned bio-security at the ferry port. It’s almost as if being an island might offer the chance to avoid unnecessary exposure to death and illnesses caused by incoming infection.
Guernsey’s control of infections means island life is relatively normal. The shops are looking empty, staff shortages have left some businesses closed, but that is normal now. And here I am strolling with no mask. For a month I have lived the comfortable life which I couldn’t in the UK. I have hugged friends. The stress of constant, pervasive risk has lifted. I have stopped distrusting strangers.
But amongst the clifftop ghosts of war and ideological obsession, I find I am not just accompanied by walkers and joggers. An army is marching here again. Shots echo across from what seems to be a temporary firing range. In a nearby a lovely field, camouflaged troops have marked out a square with coloured tapes and are practising home clearances. Their commandant shows them how to scream “Room clear!” One at a time they prowl, through imagined doorways and scream as instructed. This was the British army using Guernsey for military exercises like those recently in Jersey.
Our army has withdrawn from Afghanistan, is really retired from all our centuries of foreign occupations. It has come home. In Britain, it delivers our dwindling groceries, drives petrol tankers, props up a failing state. But here it’s practising urban warfare. A searching gun barrel sweeps across me at torso height and away. Still, it’s all fine. I can be jolly as a party of soldiers amble by, relaxed. I can joke, ‘Your camouflage isn’t working. I can still see you.’ One of them grins. ‘Yes, we’ve got it wrong. Ha ha.’ They all wear bright little superfluous Union Flag patches. Simply wearing British Army uniform is no longer British enough.
Still, I won’t think about that. I’ll enjoy my walk. Only here my army, the UK army, is practising urban warfare only yards away.
The last time I saw that union flag, it was on the blocky grey bulk of a Border Force patrol boat at Guernsey’s capital, Saint Peter Port. As I entered Guernsey it was heading out, its strange black rubber bumpers being unsubtle about our Home Office’s intention to push refugee boats out to sea and never mind the drownings. Never mind Maritime Law, immunity from prosecution looms on all fronts. Formerly, any British boat would fly a different flag, the White, or Red Ensign. But we are a different country now. I could help thinking those black rubber fenders are too high to push small boats; they would simply be pushed under the waves.
In port, too, was ‘The Spirit of Guernsey’, an RNLI rescue boat. As a kayaker I’m very aware the RNLI is a charity that saves anyone in trouble at sea without checking passports. Lately it has been labelled a ‘taxi service’ for importing foreign miscreants. In response to such xenophobia, donations from the British public have massively increased. Many of us think it represents something we love about British Spirit.
If I believed UK mainstream newspapers, I would have been certain that I’d see fleets of boats packed with plague-bearing, rape-obsessed, foreign terrorists when crossed the Channel. In fact, all I saw during my crossing were massive cargo ships, heading inexorably westwards from Europe, on their way to round England’s south coast and pass onwards to Ireland. Welsh ports are being by-passed. Logic and foresight established these routes early while our leaders grappled with the concept of islands as territories surrounded by water. Ireland’s easy communication with the rest of the EU barely skipped a beat. Meanwhile, our supplies stay in Europe or rot in our fields due to lack of drivers. Contracts disappear. Prices rise. The mainstream media print diversionary headlines to distract us from the mess of it all.
The British government denies that removing test qualifications for lorry drivers and introducing unlimited working hours will simply be adding more deaths and chaos. They toy with slashing all labour and Human Rights regulation, because slavery might be best, while hoping trade war narratives will distract us.
But back to Guernsey. I pass another grim Stützpunkt (defence position) to happy gunfire and can’t help thinking that Nazism is maybe like herpes. You never quite shake the infection. No – more like Syphilis. Untreated, the end is madness. At home, Covid causes the casualty equivalent of a jumbo jet crash every week. Our de facto cull of the disabled and vulnerable continues, millions are destitute, while our regime cuts benefits further. Disease mitigation in state schools is no longer even a joke. Eton, the private alma mater of so many in government, is back to teaching online. EU citizens are harassed daily at home and on our borders, while our rulers ponder ‘reform’ to their benefits. Greater powers to deport, deny visas and impose medical procedures on asylum seekers are planned. Public money still haemorrhages into private hands while our PM is on another luxury holiday, underwritten by yet another millionaire. We are dying for lack of the world and our government offers us stale apples, each adorned with a flag, and a chance to weigh them in pounds and ounces, all because of ‘Sovereignty’.
This is the last full day of my holiday. I have to go home soon. Whatever home means. I spent most of my time here on Sark, an island of around 500 souls, defended by Guernsey’s disease prevention. It famously has no cars – also no metalled roads or street lights. This lack of infrastructure is charming and compensated for by community action. Still, seriously ill, or injured islanders may die before they reach a mainland hospital, despite buying private healthcare. The ‘Sercquaise’ (Sark residents) have resisted efforts to turn their island into playpark for the super-rich with helipads and golf carts. They continue to face consequences for resistance.
Brexit was always intended to make Britain a similar playground, with free-ports, minimal taxation, low regulation, scant infrastructure and fun for money-launderers. Ordinary Brits mostly don’t want this, but our media tell us we mostly do. Covid hampers mass resistance. Our fascist infection rages. And we die.
The week I returned home, our feverish political climate tragically claimed its second MP. Like Jo Cox, David Amess was stabbed to death at his MP surgery. In response, our PM bothered to make a public statement, ‘… all our hearts are full of shock and sadness …’. Tributes poured in. A single death was appropriately mourned, before being rapidly weaponised to muffle even the more courteous questioning of MPs on any issue.
Our thousands of other tragedies and deaths have still not been mourned. We get denial, distraction and inappropriate jokes.
I re-entered the UK with not a single check, walking into media-induced fury and enabled infection. As walked out into the night, I couldn’t shake my memories of Union flags and soldiers screaming “Room Clear!”. I couldn’t shake the idea that our spirit is meant to respond when it hears screams from the drowning. It seems we are caught between two kinds of screaming.