Guernsey Press

Hayley North: ‘There’s a boat tomorrow’

We could benefit from being more welcoming to newcomers to our island, says Hayley North...

(Picture by Peter Frankland, 33093330)

I recently visited Art for Guernsey’s current exhibition – the Channel Islands’ Contemporary Art Show – which is an inspired and varied collection of pieces from artists connected to both Guernsey and Jersey.

One piece by Yulia Makeyeva, who lives and works in Jersey, really resonated with me.

Yulia’s piece deserves viewing to do it justice, I will not try to explain what the work looks like here, but it explores expertly and movingly how language can be both clear and simple and also have hidden meanings and connotations. The expression she explores is ‘There is a boat tomorrow’. This was apparently a well-known and well-used phrase in Jersey, less so in recent times, more so when islanders relied exclusively on boats to escape to the mainland.

Although the sentence itself is straightforward and self-explanatory, it was often used to intimidate and isolate those new to the island who might not be so happy with island life, strongly suggesting that they could always leave if they so wished. A way to quickly put someone in their place if they strayed too far out of line with how things were.

My understanding is that we here in Guernsey used a similar phrase and shared a similar sentiment, the suggestion being that if you didn’t like it here, you could always hop on the next boat back to England.

It might sound harmless enough. Yet it ignores the sacrifices made to start a new life on a tiny island where many newcomers know no one. This was certainly true of many immigrants in the last couple of centuries and still rings true today for almost everyone who lands here with an intention to make it home. It also ignores the good intentions that those of us who do make our way here later in life bring with our luggage. Few are motivated purely by money, despite what you might think. There are easier places to emigrate to.

It’s true that not all newcomers to our islands have been sensitive to local habits and culture, both in the past and in present times. I am sure I have been guilty of the same, despite my family history here. It is understandable to want those who ruffle feathers by provoking arguments or challenging the status quo to get lost and head back to wherever they hailed from. It is easier that way in the short term but we lose out in the long term. There are ways to integrate and educate those who are unfamiliar with how things work. Doing this with kindness means we still benefit from what they have to offer. It takes time and lots of practice to get to know such a unique place.

We have always had newcomers to our shores – most of my family arrived here from Ireland in the 19th century, with others arriving decades later from France. They sought prosperity, safety and security. They built businesses, contributed to key local institutions and grew a family here. My grandmother, born in Guernsey, naturally thought of herself and her family as locals, but perhaps some purists did not? How far do we have to go back to prove we are locals? What is it that defines a local and why does it matter? Keeping families together is critical to the future of our island and all small communities on this planet and is something many locations struggle to achieve. Surely, we want people to return, reconnect and revive our shrinking population. Better the devil we know than someone with no history here or interest in the island. We should be making the island more rather than less welcoming for those with a passion for and commitment to making their home here. It is already too expensive for most to return or for some to even stay and this must change.

Yulia’s piece is reflective, challenging and also has a great sadness to it. She ponders how relevant such divisions (‘locals’ and ‘non-locals’ in this case) are in modern times when so many people have settled in different parts of the world, bringing their cultural experience, different viewpoints, families and interesting perspectives with them. She also wonders how this resistance to newcomers, so cruelly expressed in such a simple phrase, fits with our history as islands so welcoming to political, economic and religious refugees for hundreds of years until now.

It is healthy to be surrounded by people who do not all look or sound like us. It is so easy to settle into the idea that what happens locally is always for the best and to become defensive when others propose new approaches or solutions.

As many of our more progressive politicians are stepping away from committees they feel are not open to change or innovation, it feels more urgent than ever for us to adopt a more inclusive approach to island life. Everyone here deserves a better existence and a comfortable and happy life, not just those with an extensive Guernsey family-tree. Our heritage is one of innovation, adaptability, tolerance and resilience. We have benefited greatly from young islanders leaving our shores and returning with new skills and experience to share with us all. What has happened in recent years to make us so afraid? Is this not time to move towards change on our own terms rather than waiting for a catastrophe to force us into it?

Art is often able to cross cultural and geographical boundaries in a way that we almost always find more acceptable than we do in our day to day lives. Perhaps it is time we learned from that example, allowed ourselves to be braver, less threatened by the new and open to what we do not yet understand.

We regularly ask for more people to come forward to represent and lead our island into better times yet we will not give a forum to those with new ideas and solutions, so entrenched are we in a way of life that is not serving us anymore.

It’s time to stop being our own worst enemy and to welcome into the inner circle those we are still struggling to keep outside. We have far more to gain than to lose at this stage.

After all, as it currently stands, there might not be a boat tomorrow.