My grandfather used to tell me what his grandfather used to tell him about islanders, “There are only two types of local my boy; shopkeepers and pirates”.
Our family were the latter, starting with our great, great, great, and so on, grandfather who made a living as what was politely called a ‘privateer’. The French, whose ships he frequently looted, had other names for him.
And here I am now driving across the French built bridge to our ancestral island home that despite great, great, great, and so on’s best efforts, has become a province of his old enemy. Mind you, it’s easy to understand why. Great, great… no, I think I’ll call him ‘Pop’; Pop was right about the shopkeepers. He always said, so I was told, that the shopkeepers would take over and that they would balls it up. “When you live on an island all your life, you either yearn for the outside world, or you fear it. You bugger off on a ship to make your fortune in far off lands, or you stay at home and complain about those who do.” Pop likened the pirates to hunters and the shopkeepers to gatherers. Both had their place but it was the hunters who learned the most about the way the world worked, because they saw more of it.
By ‘shopkeepers’, Pop meant anybody who wasn’t a pirate or took to the seas on other, usually more legitimate, enterprises. Bankers and lawyers were the ‘shopkeepers’ he despised most. Unlike the simple folk who exchanged food or drink for your hard earned money, often at an exorbitant price, this lot took your money just for shuffling bits of paper around or talking to other bankers and lawyers in a special language they made up to justify their robbery. The irony of Pop’s position escaped him.
Here comes the toll. Shame about Port Bail really, it used to be quite a pretty town before the bridge. I pay the fifty Euros to a bored looking attendant in the booth and drive on towards Jersey. Fifty Euros, what a rip off! I suppose it could be worse, at least the French and Germans still had a sort of currency and had avoided the rampant inflation in the rest of what used to be called the Euro zone. How can you have rampant inflation and zero growth? No wonder they plummeted into the smelly stuff.
I glance at the fuel meter to confirm that my all-electric luxury saloon has enough juice to get me at least to Trinity. I can stop and charge if needs be, but I’ll probably make the longer, second leg to St Peter Port without needing to.
As we rise up over the sea, I can’t help but marvel at the beauty of this construction, now the second largest bridge in the world and if you counted both spans, easily the largest. When you drive up the ascent it feels like you’re flying, just an elegant spider’s web of steel cables and occasional magnificent towers set against the skyline. Below, a long way below is the deep blue sea. This is a trip I most enjoy travelling alone. Despite the odd passing vehicle, the solitude reminds me of my childhood, sailing on that sea below. Of course, that was in the days before the bridge. I can see the sand and rock cluster of Les Écréhous down there. Beautiful: at least, in the eye of the beholder. A slightly different opinion if you were down there looking up. This bridge would cease to be a magnificent construction and take on the more sinister role of a brutal, man-made assault on nature. The great footprints of the towers dominate the delicate ecosystem where only sea birds and yachtsman landed before. Through this lens you witness destruction of a very special, tranquil, corner of the world. And that’s before we even start the descent to Jersey and the bridge takes on the character of a car park floating in the sky. The traffic congestion is a harbinger of what is to come when you take the slip road to enter the island.
A long time ago the island realised that change was inevitable. The relationship with England became extremely strained during the tax haven years and when the first serious attempts at regulation were initiated throughout the western economies, the island began to question whether its economic strategy was sustainable. Attempts were made to diversify but only tourism and a niche agricultural industry seemed viable in the long term. The distance from their main market, the UK, inhibited both of these sectors. There were endless debates as screws on the finance sector were tightened and alienation from the UK increased. I can’t help wondering why it took so long; after all, there was clearly no benefit in being defended by the UK. World War Two ended that myth.
The cars in front are slowing now as we grind to a halt around a mile from the Trinity slip road to the island. It’s a warm day but the usual clouds now fill half the sky and everyone prepares for the all too frequent deluges that have blighted this corner of the world since the climate flipped eighty odd years ago. As usual, the politicians waited too long to act and now CO2 levels are through the roof. I can see the island ahead with the windows from rows of holiday homes glinting whenever a shaft of sunlight breaks through the cloud. Holiday homes, potatoes and good old Jersey cows! But then of course there’s the big one.
When the economy hit rock bottom, and it became clear that good old Britain still held a grudge about the loss of taxes from the haven years, the French saw their opportunity. At first tentative soundings were taken, then a charm offensive, and finally outright bribes persuaded the islanders to forfeit the illusion of sovereignty in return for the support needed to prevent total isolation and economic meltdown. Needless to say, this came at a price. The bridge isn’t just an elaborate, albeit impressive means of connecting the island to mainland France. It’s also the host to a number of tidal energy stations seated comfortably below the spans and spreading further out like underwater herringbones from the spine of the bridge for miles into the fastest flowing seas. The French expertise in tidal energy goes back hundreds of years and this huge barrage now powers half of Normandy, including the islands.
At last we’re moving again. I look around and spot the opportunity to change lanes. After all, I won’t be taking the Trinity slip road. Just a quick look over my shoulder to the back seat confirms it’s still sitting safely there, my special cargo.
A gentle bleeping sound breaks my concentration and I speak out loud to the voice activated cell phone. “Yes, I’m on my way!” Guessing it’s Florence, my partner, calling me.
“Have you got it?”
“Yes, and before you say anything, I’m still going through with it.”
“Where are you now?”
“Just passing the Trinity slip of the artificial island and heading for Guernsey. I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”
“You know I will.”
There’s a slight pause as we both think about what’s about to happen. I decide we’ve said enough. “I love you Flo.”
“Likewise, see you soon.”
Flo and I have been together for over ten years now. At thirty, she’ll now be able to have children without the population tax, and that’s a big deal for both of us. We want kids but can’t afford the huge tax designed to put people off increasing the population. But despite her motherly instincts, as an environmentalist, she supports the tax. There were just too many babies being born before. She also supported the French government’s decision to force all workers and employers to deduct ten percent from pay and place it in a State run pension scheme. Ever since the stock market collapses of the early second millennium, nobody could rely upon the lottery of private pension funds. The money was also put to good use; this bridge, or to be more precise, the tidal barrages under it, reduced our dependency upon fossil fuels and prevented the need for nuclear plant construction. The latter had been the popular choice until politicians worked out that they still hadn’t properly costed the construction, decommissioning and dealing with the spent fuel. And the public worked out that the whole industry was just a front to maintain the science necessary for a nuclear weapons’ program. At least, that’s what Flo says.
She also likes to point out that had it not been for the pensions tax, we would be paying the same horrendous energy bills as the English are now.
Flo’s a bit of a revolutionary, unlike me. I just keep my head down and get on with it. Well, I did before today.
We are rising up the second ascent now to around three hundred feet and there are no more cars, or vehicles of any kind to be seen.
At thirty-two, I’ve spent most of my working life in the satellite telecoms business as ‘space consolidator’. Sounds fancy but basically I’m a rubbish collector. I locate disused or under utilised satellites, my colleagues try to persuade the owners to move their operations onto our shiny new ones, then we decommission and destroy the old ones. It does involve the occasional trip on a shuttle or overnight stay on the space station but otherwise it’s totally boring.
You can see this bridge quite clearly from up there. I think that’s where the idea started to form.
As little as twenty years ago, Guernsey still had an economy.
We’d hung on like rats to a ship when the financial crisis took hold after the haven years. The big banks decided the reputational damage was no longer offset by the profits of staying offshore and that meant closing their splendid skyscraper offices in St Peter Port and laying off the local staff. Their exodus in turn led to the shrinking of the supporting businesses in the financial sector, and that made it less viable for the small banks, which in turn further reduced the demand for services from the support sector, and so on until all the accountants and lawyers who had lived comfortably for years, had no customers. Then the second recession hit. Consumer borrowing had once again soared, largely thanks to government encouragement, and the world woke up to the fact that forty percent of the workforce was regularly gambling in the vain hope of improving their plight. The creeping growth of egaming took everyone by surprise but, having positioned itself as the egaming centre of the world, Guernsey was particularly badly hit. What followed was the mother of all recessions as the double whammy of debt and outlawing of online gambling reduced the island’s economy to ashes. The tsunami was completed by the collapse of the euro zone, when the members finally realised that the only economies that entered the single currency at a rate remotely close to realistic were France and Germany. All the rest had been contorting their economies for years and draining the resources of their wealthier neighbours. The tipping point came when they were confronted with the stark choice of devaluing the euro, effectively downgrading the economies of the strongest two, or creating a two tier currency to protect the French and Germans from ‘going down with the ship’. So the ‘Demi’ was born, which, as the name suggests, provided a second currency at half the value of the euro. The whole exercise brought world markets to their knees and almost crippled Europe but eventually a sort of stability returned which allowed all the old euro zone nations to balance their books.
In the meantime, Guernsey saw the biggest exodus of people and businesses since the evacuation of 1940. Of course no industry means no jobs and no jobs means no income tax and no income tax means no money to pay public sector workers. The decline was painful. Nobody wanted to leave, least of all the real locals, but without infrastructure or healthcare there simply wasn’t an alternative. The population diminished from over eighty thousand in 2100, to just three thousand by the middle of the century. You can still see the scars today, empty buildings, graffiti, and abandoned cars.
OK, this is about it. No sign of anyone around, so I pull over and get out of the car. The moment you leave your protective shell, the atmosphere hits you. It’s not just the altitude, when you look over that railing, you really do feel like you’re on the edge of the world. The sea below swirls around the base of the towers yet the salty air still infuses your senses as the cool breeze wisps past your face. I breathe in deeply and close my eyes for a moment, then turn back to the car and my special cargo. There’s still nobody around and I care little about the security cameras high above on the towers, nobody will be monitoring them. It’s quite heavy but soon I’ve unloaded the suitcase and placed it behind a wide steel girder and I’m back on my way again.
The descent into St Peter Port is extraordinary. Those lavish years of unrestrained construction have left a man made archipelago of islets stretching from town to half way across the Little Russell. I remember the fuss when the plans were finally approved, the very idea that Herm would no longer be seen as you drove down St Julian’s Avenue! But approved they were because, back then, the banks needed more offices and the bankers needed more powerboats to play with, and the old marinas were completely full. Not anymore! As I drive down into the terminal, there’s not a soul in sight.
A few minutes later I’m speeding through the empty streets and lanes towards home. How different from the old days when there were so many cars that it was quicker to walk. How redundant, the large blue signs directing ‘all traffic’ out towards the parishes. Not that you could now discern what were once the separate village communities all those years ago. Now the whole island has become an amorphous concrete catacomb of the memories of those who once lived here. The only respite now from high-rise office buildings is the high rise accommodation that used to house the workers. To think the shopkeepers actually wanted this.
I’m close to Cobo now and I know that the others will be waiting at the Rockmount. Our group combined resources to purchase this last remaining public house two years ago. Since then, we’ve met regularly. Since then our plans have come together.
I drive into the car park and immediately see Flo waiting for me. There’s no need to lock the vehicle.
“Shall we walk to the sea wall before going in?” I ask her.
She kisses my cheek, nods, and we walk the short distance to the wall. I don’t need telling that they’re all in there, watching us, patiently. Gazing out of the pub window, frustrated at my diversion.
We look out to Grosse Rocque, where, so the story goes, one of my ageing forefathers once helped raise the Liberation Day flag. The pink granite washed by a blue sea still captivates me.
Flo turns to me. “It’s done then?”
“It’s done. Shall we tell the others?”
She takes my hand and we turn back towards the bar. This time the view appals me. Apart from this ramshackled pub, that has miraculously escaped the years of corporate development, the entire remaining coast is a wall of concrete and glass. Corporate offices have replaced even the old forest and iconic rock at the Guet. If I ever had any doubts, they evaporated there and then.
Inside the pub there is an air of nervous anticipation and silence descends as we walk into the small gathering. Somebody hands me a pint. “Is it done?” They are all desperate to know. I look around at the faces; Glyn the demolitions expert, Vinny the grower, Doc George; then there are the public utility, energy and environment specialists, Ruth, Mike, Daisy and of course, Flo. Everyone’s eyes are searching my expression for a clue. But their wait was soon over.
The explosion that rips through the bridge can be heard for miles around. Showers of fragmented concrete and steel are thrust into a sky that is blackened by the particles and dust. Below, the sea foams with falling debris and the screams of twisting steel wail like an impaled and mortally wounded creature from the depths below. When the dust settles, a chasm separates Guernsey from what is left of the bridge and from the outside world.
Nobody’s hurt in the explosion and nobody will particularly care about this severed connection. After all, Guernsey has become nothing but an end stop where few people ever bother to travel. Nobody cares, that is, apart from the group now celebrating in the Rockmount. The pirates, it seems, have finally reclaimed their island.
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PDF: The Bridge