Plus ca change

As our 125th anniversary celebrations draw to a close, Rob Batiste shares his thoughts on how the island has changed since the Guernsey Press was established back in 1897.

South coast cliffs. (30937281)
South coast cliffs. (30937281)

PUT very simply – much has changed our way in the past 125 years.

For better or worse, though?

Is the Guernsey of 2022 a better place than the island of 1897 or, for that matter, the 1920s, 1960s, or 1980s?

In forming an answer, it is, of course, a case of what you consider important.

Is it wealth and material benefits?

Is is health and wellbeing?

Is it a loss of innocence and true identity?

Is it a loss of relative quiet and religion?

Is it a loss of the ‘Guernseyman’ as he/she had become in late Victorian times when the Guernsey Press came into being?

Are we any closer to, or have we ever been, on the road to Utopia?

I have pondered all of the above from the basis of having studied what the late Victor Coysh wrote in the ’50s when analysing how his island had changed over the previous 60 years.

He gave his appraisal in 1957, which just so happens to be the year I was born.

As well as being a long-serving and respected Press journalist, Vic Coysh was a passionate islander, as I like to think I am.

And from his mid-20th century update on the progress of Guernsey through his eyes, there was clearly very significant change in the period 1897 to 1957.

But, and this is another question to be answered, have we seen even greater change in the 65 years since?

Arguably, very arguably, yes.

But back to Coysh’s time and the steady metamorphosis of Guernsey in that first half of the 20th century.

He knew this of our 1957 island…

1. There was no longer the abject poverty and squalor which was predominant around St Peter Port in 1897.

2. The ragged and bare-footed urchins had gone from the Town streets.

3. There was no longer the rampant drunkenness.

All good.

On the down side, much of the picturesque Guernsey had disappeared and ‘much of the utilitarian has replaced it’.

The green fields had become one big glasshouse site and, even in 1957, Coysh was complaining about the ‘ubiquitous bungalow’ and traffic and television aerials were the new order of the day.

On top of that, the local patois was dying fast.

Yet, as Coysh rightly pointed out, in the face of an onslaught of UK visitors, Guernsey could not have its cake and eat it.

Nor, he argued, could the island put the clock back. We (Guernsey) were not ornaments and we had to ‘move along the road of progress with the rest of the world and if, on the way, we shed some of the good looks, this is unavoidable’.

Tourism, coupled with tomato growing, had made 1950s Guernsey very prosperous and if scenically the island had been spoilt by the multitude of glasshouses, there was ample compensation in the very decent standard of living the vast majority of the island enjoyed.

And, he made the point, if a large population has meant more housing and more traffic, ‘who shall blame people for wishing to live here’.

Evolution was everywhere but, at the same time, it was a shame that the car had destroyed the previous early 20th century distinction between town and country.

By the time the Press hit 60, gone were the days when country folk paid but two visits to St Peter Port a year – on Queen Victoria’s birthday and Christmas Eve.

Gone were the fortnight holidays at Pleinmont. Quiet now had to be sought, like pastoral beauty.

Gone were the windmills, the fields of corn, flocks of sheep, slow-moving horse-drawn vehicles and many of the country practices.

Coysh wrote that his 60 years on the planet had been the most significant in island history. They had marked our emergence from a comparatively obscure, insular state to a place in the contemporary world. But, importantly, in the process Guernsey still retained its individuality.

Fast forward over the next six and a half decades, and how much has this island moved on and/or gone backwards?

It is a moot point and the answer may depend on who you are and your status.

To my mind Coysh’s ‘we cannot have our cake and eat it too’ comment still applies.

Through no financial windfall, I live a much more affluent life than my parents did and their parents of the pre-Occupation period.

I see far too much traffic, but no real poverty and squalor.

St Peter Port, our jewel in the crown, is looking better than it ever has done. It has been modernised without losing charm, which St Helier long ago did.

As the liner trade underlines to us, Guernsey remains a very attractive stopping-off point.

But we also live in a world where people, by some ungiven right, expect more.

Many will never be satisfied.

We demand so much more from an education system that was hardly busted but has now been fiddled with so much it is in a right mess – and an expensive one, too.

We demand more from our health service and yet we have never been healthier.

We want bigger cars and better bus services.

Want, want, want…

The demands of modern life are, you could argue, over-exaggerated, even if it is ever more difficult to get off the spinning carousel.

If we could solve the cost of housing crisis and alleviate the traffic, we would be sitting very pretty indeed.

Thankfully, through all these periodical changes, Guernsey’s beauty remains very largely undimmed.

Just look around you.

We are so lucky.

The combined charm of the parish churches, dozens of old manors and farmhouses, those fortifications and the sheer glory of our beaches and cliffs.

All this leads to me to strongly dispute the argument that Guernsey is not what it was.

The Guernsey Press has changed, the strength of the ‘local’ has been diluted, but like the granite beneath us, the island is Guernsey still.

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