George Alagiah interviews us on the BBC
Tuesday 24 July 2007
Alex Horne – 24th July 2007
According to one of the many dubious dictionaries on the net, a blog is supposed to be ‘an online diary; a personal chronological log of thoughts published on a web page’. So I feel I should apologise for this one’s chronological shortcomings and the growing number of entries that have not yet been entered, weeks and months after the relevant country was added.
So far we’ve resisted the temptations of Facebook and other online communities that could well make our search a lot simpler, mainly because we feel there’ll be more interesting stuff to write about if we have to find our people by ourselves using our feet and our mouths. What this does mean, however, is that we end up spending an awful lot of time wandering around London and only a tiny (the opposite of awful?) amount of time sitting in front of our computers, typing up our adventures.
Yesterday* however, we both headed up to Edinburgh for a month at the festival, when and where we plan to ignore the fact that we’re in the wrong capital for a large chunk of our year and use at least some of that time Getting Our Blog in Order. So if you’re waiting for your story to appear here soon, apologies again, but hopefully it will materialise in the near(ish) future.
In the meantime I do want to hastily write about my most recent encounters, if only to make my Scottish workload appear just slightly lighter.
I met two guys a week ago today, Phillip and Stephen, both 26 years old, both white, both university-educated, both with pretty similar backgrounds to my own. We all grew up in close-knit communities in fairly idyllic surroundings (some more idyllic than others, admittedly), and are all now based in London (well, very near London in my case), returning to our childhood homes every now and again for a few breaths of fresh air.
The gap between Phillip’s two worlds is substantially more pronounced than mine or Stephen’s. He was born and spent most of his formative years with 80,000 other people in the Seychelles, a small group of islands off the east coast of Africa. He currently works at Freshfields, one of the world’s largest corporate law firms, and we met in Room 45 on the 6th floor of their impressive offices, overlooking Big Ben, the Patent Office and the Royal Courts of Justice, to where coffee and biscuits were brought midway through the interview making me feel, for once, like I actually had some business in this neck of the woods.
‘I came to the UK to do my GCSEs’, he told me, ‘because my family knew it would be much easier to get on in life once you're in a system like the one here. Obviously you can do well if you stay in the Seychelles but it’s just a lot harder if you’re not on the track’. And so he’s been here ever since, collecting A-levels and a Law degree before qualifying and landing a job at Freshfields two and a half years ago - the British track well and truly trodden.
He used to fly home every holiday (‘it’s amazing how many friends you suddenly make when people find out you’re from a place like that’) and still returns annually to what he freely admits is the closest thing to paradise. ‘You take it for granted when you grow up there’, he said, ‘but now I go back and realise that it really is an amazingly beautiful place’.
He was raised on the most northerly island, three degrees south of the equator, a rock named Bird Island after the three million sooty terns that summer there. I, of course, got over-excited about this (the show I’m doing here at the Fringe is called Birdwatching and is about Birdwatching, inspired by the fact that my Dad is a Birdwatcher. If that tickles your fancy – and I don’t see why it shouldn’t – you can read more about the show here) and explained my own birding heritage. We bonded about dads. Phillip’s, it emerged, is a hotel developer (the Seychelles' biggest industries are tourism and tuna and I can’t help thinking he chose the less predictable option), now retired, who used to pretty much run the ecologically renowned island. He learnt his birds on Bird Island. And he learnt his hotels on a course in the UK where Phillip’s mum was training to be a teacher and living, coincidentally, with a girl from the Seychelles. They met and married within six months. ‘A year later, they moved to the Seychelles - to my grandparents' dismay, I imagine’, said Phillip.
Indeed. I can’t imagine my parents-in-law being entirely thrilled by their daughter being whisked off to a far-flung island after an eighteen month relationship. My wife currently lives on the island next door to her home (we live in England, her family in N.Ireland), and I know even that’s sometimes a struggle for such a close family.
But I did like the idea that within two years of meeting someone, Phillip’s mum’s world could have been turned so literally upside down.
It all seemed so surreal. Us, sitting in a room on top of London, so much in common, except for the fact that he grew up on a tropical island where adults still dig for pirate’s treasure in the hope of finding gold (‘I know one bloke who’s been digging the same hole for the last twenty years. He’s using an enormous drill at the moment. I can’t help wondering how the pirates would have got it in that deep…’).
I pondered the whole situation for a while and it did cross my mind that it could all just be an elaborate hoax. A remarkably well-researched and quite pointless hoax, but a hoax nevertheless. I told him his story was so fantastic, I just couldn’t believe it. He smiled and showed me a picture he’d taken of Bird Island on his phone. Evidence! I succumbed. He’s a cracking laywer.
To be honest, I never really had any doubts. That was just a bit of fun. We were getting on well enough to have a bit of fun after twenty minutes. We probably won’t end up moving to a desert island together but I could imagine us staying in touch. Like I said, we had a lot in common. And anyway, we’ve met enough people now not to be surprised by these exotic backgrounds. What’s more, paradise is never that simple. Fuelled by the freshly brewed and delivered coffee, Phillip went on to tell me about the political problems masked by the Seychelles’ make up.
‘It’s officially the most indebted country per capita in the world’, Philip revealed in typically precise legal English. ‘That’s not a particularly well publicised fact’.
True. I also didn’t know that apart from the odd visit by people like Vasco Da Gama around 1500, the islands weren’t actually populated until the French briefly settled in the eighteen hundreds then the British got even more comfortable in 1812. One hundred and sixty four years later, the Brits kindly granted the island independence, meaning the population today is, to me, quite a bizarre mix of people descended from European colonists, African slaves and Chinese and Indian traders.
He and his family actually left for a while in 1982, when the country was ‘quite a communist sort of place … Having only recently gained independence from Britain and with my mum being British I think we were urged to leave.’
Now the blend is settling, with the islanders speaking a combination of French, English and Seychellois Creole, apparently at random. The last was recognised as an official language in 1995, the only Creole to have such recognition (unlike those spoken in Reunion, Mauritius or the southern states of the USA). When Phillip’s Dad was being educated at a Jesuit college in the islands some forty or fifty years ago, the language was strictly prohibited. Last week, Phillip spoke to his Gran on the phone, almost entirely in her native tongue.
I still can’t quite imagine this London lawyer growing up on the beaches, speaking the languages, surrounded by sooty terns. Unfortunately, I don’t think I can ask for an invitation to see and hear it all with my own eyes and ears just yet.
From Philip’s office I took the central line three stops west to Oxford Circus where I met Stephen in the doorway of the Nike Shop, a place I’ve never actually dared to enter but an excellent spot to locate foreign strangers in London’s most ridiculously busy crossroads – especially if, like me, you’re wearing yellow shoes.
Now, Stephen also grew up on an island, one with an even smaller population of just 65,000. He too studied in the UK and now works in one of Soho’s many post production houses. The only major difference between his story and Philip’s is that Stephen lives in Guernsey. And Guernsey, according to the UN, is not a country.
Stephen contacted us after reading about the project in one of London’s free papers. He immediately checked our Countries Found List, saw we hadn’t got Guernsey and fired off an email. It never even crossed his mind that Guernsey wasn’t ever on our Countries Wanted List.
While I have some difficulty remembering whether the likes of Taiwan, Kurdistan and Reunion are recognized by the UN or not, I don’t think I’ve really given the Channel Islands a second thought. ‘Part of the UK’, I would have muttered. ‘If we’re not counting England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland separately, I don’t see why the Channel Islands should be given special treatment’. But, like I say, I don’t think I ever gave it more than the one thought.
What I didn’t realise, and what Stephen was keen to inform me, however, was that Guernsey does have a number of strongish claims to Being a Proper Country and that the people of Guernsey do indeed presume that designation.
He kicked off with the statement: ‘I’m still not used to the English weather’, which immediately put me on the back foot. ‘Surely it’s not that different?’ I asked, a little aggressively, presuming that Guernsey was just a matter of yards away from the Isle of Wight.
Stephen silently drew me a map. And he drew it with such speed and precision that I had no doubt he’d drawn it for several other ignorant Brits in the past. It turns out Guernsey is just off the coast of France, not England, (although, I still insist the weather can’t be that different), and is only affiliated with Britain now because it stayed loyal to the Duke of Normandy back in 1066.
He went on to describe Guernsey’s own currency - ‘try using a Guernsey £1 note in London’ - Guernsey’s own accent - ‘unfortunately it’ll die out with my Grandfather’s generation, nearly all the kids were evacuated to England during World War II and it’s been diluted ever since’ - and Guernsey’s own government - ‘as I understand it, we’re loyal to the Queen but not to the British Government. We have our own one called The States of Deliberation’ - all of which, he insisted, meant that Guernsey is as much a country as France or, indeed, the Seychelles.
And, just to conclude, here are five other statements that Stephen made and which did eventually sort of convince me that Guernsey is sort of probably a country of sorts:
1. ‘I hold a Bailiwick Guernsey Passport’
2. ‘University in Britain was a massive culture shock. When I was growing up Guernsey was absolutely a white Christian place. I think I had one Chinese friend. Then I went to Manchester University and remember being stunned by my ignorance – ‘why are those people wearing those funny hats?’, I thought to myself. And it was even more of a shock moving to London.’
3. ‘I used to shoot for the school against France and England’.
4. ‘People always ask me ‘why aren’t you French?’, ‘are you cheating on your tax?’ and ‘do you have electricity?’ (I didn’t, but did ask him which one of Graeme Le Saux and Matt Le Tissier was from Guernsey. It’s Le Tissier. Le Saux’s from Jersey. So Guernsey definitely wins that one).
5. ‘It costs me as much to fly home as it does to get to New York’.
*I’m writing this on July 31st, not July 24th, but the Country Concerned was Encountered on July 24th so that’s what I’ve put on the Blog Date. It’s a muddly system.