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8 October 2015

I went to Guernsey for a walk but ended up playing tax-dodger dodgems

Guernsey Airport is pretty weird; but then, so is the rest of the island.

By Will Self

Guernsey Airport is pretty weird; but then, so is the rest of the island. I was standing in the queue on the stairs leading up to my Gatwick-bound flight, when the young man in front of me – a player for the Guernsey Tigers, according to the patch on his navy tracksuit – jerked his thumb up at the fuselage and exclaimed, “Now that’s what I call a proper plane.” I guffawed, then explained myself: “I certainly hope it’s a proper plane, or else we’re all f***ing dead!”

Yes: dead in the waters around Sark, where apparently the piffling politics of this picayune place have been poisonous since the Barclay brothers pulled their investment out of the local economy; or perhaps plummeting from the skies over nearby Brecqhou, the weirdo twins’ own fiefdom – but either way, brown bread, duck food. Dead.

As the plane taxied and turned, I saw the runway rolled out before us, an undulant grey tarmac wave, swooping into and out of a substantial dip. It had been folly to come to Guernsey, I thought – and now I would pay for it with my life. True, there’s nothing wrong with visiting the thinking man’s Jersey once: I’d done it once before with impunity; but to go there twice smacks – as Lady Bracknell would no doubt agree – of carelessness.

The first time I visited it was because of a series I was writing for the aptly named British Airways in-flight magazine High Life. (Aptly, because long ago it used to be said that some BA employees were monged out of their brains on major psychotropics.) The conceit was this: I’d board an early-morning flight from London to some remote location in the British Isles, take a long walk, then return to the metropolis in the evening, thereby demonstrating the perfect fit between their domestic flight schedule and our sceptred isle. It was a crap idea, of course, representing a new nadir when it comes to environmental insensitivity; moreover, by combining two flights and a country walk in a single day, I managed to ruin all of these experiences.

Still, as fly-to-walk outings go, Guernsey had been one of the better ones. I’d arrived on a sunny day, strolled along the southern coast marvelling at the multi-storey gun emplacements that the Second World War German occupiers had built, then turned back towards the dippy airport. I don’t remember talking to a soul all day, which was something of an achievement, given that the island’s population density is 844 of the buggers per square kilometre.

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This time it had been different: a nice young man called John met me at the airport and we walked together into the main settlement of St Peter Port. John was born in Guernsey, and despite having tasted the fleshpots of Portsmouth while he was away at university, he had returned to make his life on the island – which was fair enough, although he seemed a little bemused when I asked him if he knew a way of avoiding the main road.

Really, to live all your life on a fly-speck of land a mere five by three miles and not know such a thing defies reason – until, that is, you stop thinking about Guernsey as a physical fact and start considering its human reality. The only island I have ever lived on (besides the sceptred one) is Rousay in Orkney; it is roughly the same size as Guernsey, but there the resemblance ends: Rousay’s population is around 200 rather than 65,000, and the island thoroughfares are so unused that nobody has to pay road tax.

John’s car was parked up at the airport – but on a sunny Saturday morning everyone else had decided to go for a cruise. Car ownership on Guernsey in fact exceeds one per capita, and although no one can actually drive two cars at once, the second you step on to any of the main island routes it feels as if they’re doing just that, such is the density of potentially death-dealing metal. That the speed limit is a mere 30mph throughout the island makes the vast amount of car-flesh on display still more disturbing. Contemplating these cavalcades of tax-dodgers in their dodgems was more than I could bear.

Luckily, I didn’t have to: John led me down a lane into a bosky realm of miniature flowery dells and sidelong views of crystal waters lapping against rocky cliffs. Bees bombinated, butterflies flitted, and we didn’t meet a soul for an hour, besides a rather patrician-looking gent in a fleece who John told me was one of the island’s superstar investment gurus. True, we had to take a bus the last mile in order to avoid swimming in the traffic stream – but if I squinted a little I could still imagine I was in some desert place. And I kept up the pretence the rest of the day, despite the crowds milling around St Peter Port.

John accompanied me on foot back to the weird airport, I checked in, went through security. And there I am: forever waiting to leave Guernsey – just like its 65,000 inhabitants, who, despite their mobility and their wealth, still can’t take it with them.

This article appears in the 30 Sep 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide