Sunday, 29 November 2015

What is Jersey Identity?

Simon Reeve’s journey around Ireland was one of the best documentaries I have seen on Ireland, and I really found it most enjoyable to watch.

One of the interesting issues that he brought up in the Republic of Ireland was the decline of the church. In some ways this has been positive: while Jersey is just on its way to get gay marriage on the statute books, Ireland – almost the last place you would think because of the conservative Catholicism – is now legal since 6 November 2015. They had a referendum – and support was overwhelmingly in favour. It became the first country to legalise gay marriage by popular vote.

Jersey has a commitment to introduce legislation allowing same-sex couples to get married in civil and religious ceremonies by the end of 2017. It is extraordinary that it lags so far behind so many other countries on this, but part of the reason for the delay was the apparent need for a consultation and ensure that religious groups had adequate safeguards.

This in fact was rather a waste of time, as the legislative framework for protection of religious groups was already in place in the UK, and it is most likely that Jersey will simply adapt existing UK legislation on the matter. Cynics will note that the delay preceded the election of 2014, and hence kept the matter largely off the election agenda.

But the debate on gay marriage in Ireland highlighted the declining power of the church to persuade ordinary Catholics to follow its party line. The Catholic Church has been severely damaged in Ireland because of the child abuse scandals, and mass attendance has been falling. Even among those who attend mass, a much more critical approach to the teaching of the Church prevails.

Reeve noticed that Catholicism certainly formed a very strong part of Irish identity, and wondered what would take its place if it was no longer there in such a dominant place. That’s an interesting question, and it made me think about Jersey.

How do we describe “Jersey identity”? What in fact is now unique about our own culture, that is not the same elsewhere. Back in the 1970s, when I was growing up, there was a strong sense that Jersey identity related to genealogy, in other words, marking yourself out as Jersey by being descended in some way from a local Jersey family.

While there is a strong family history society, I would say that side of Jersey identity has been waning for some time. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. A primacy of identity on belonging to a genetic heritage can easily be divisive, something which is easily apparent with the Harry Potter stories, where “true blood” refers to families untainted by marrying outside the clan, and mudbloods are effectively immigrants who have no connection at all to those families, but who have the special skills which qualify them for entry into that community. In Harry Potter, of course, it is magical skills, but it could just as easily be business skills of one kind or another.

It is notable that Jersey’s most notorious child abuser, Edward Paisnel, was largely driven by a resentment of English residents, coming to live and work in Jersey, and the way in which the almost automatic respect given to old farming families was eroded as the finance industry began to grow. As Ward Rutherford notes in his book “The Untimely Silence”, Paisnel deliberately set out to target those children he saw as part of families he regarded as interlopers, deriving him of status and power.

So what is Jersey identity? One thing is certain is that it has become very diffuse in a number of ways. Old Jersey families have married with the immigrant population, and no longer hold that prestige, and indeed are in a minority. It should be noted, of course, that this has happened for centuries, but the pace has been usually relatively slow. Post war, with the boom in tourism and finance, the population has grown, as has the pace of immigration.

But not all immigrants are alike. Some would like to impose a UK style view of Jersey with regard to governance and traditions, as that is what they are familiar with, and they don’t want to understand local systems. Others become valuable members of the local community, supporting the Parishes, and have been here many years; they regard Jersey as their home, not the UK.

Keith Beacham, the head of Visit Jersey, has faced a similar task in trying to establish the selling points of Jersey, and where Jersey's brand identity lies. It is a difficult task. Heritage is clearly something we have to offer, and I know from my English friends who have visited that the relics of German Occupation are fascinating: they have nothing like that. We also have beautiful coastline, and good coastal walks for those who want a more energetic holiday.

But there are also High Street Chains, MacDonalds, and wholesale parts of English and American imports. Walking along St Helier down the main precinct, we have Boots, BHS, Waterstones, WH Smith, and other shops which may provide welcome familiarity to some visitors, disappointment to others. I know that when I visit St Malo, the last thing I want to see are those kind of shops: I want a retail experience which seems French, even if, as I discovered when I got home, a pottery star ornament said “Made in Ireland “on the back.

I don’t think there are any easy answers. I think that increasingly, in a segmented market, Jersey will have more niche appeal, and there heritage, coastal walks, and hotels beside the beaches can play a good part. We also have some superb restaurants for the gourmet, for whom expense is not the prime consideration, and also some good local restaurants and pubs using fresh local produce, and with reasonable prices. Jersey milk and ice cream, the Jersey cow, and the Jersey Royal still are brands which have much appeal to the outsider.

Jersey identity, however, like its population, remains a mixed bag, without the obvious brand of Ireland, for instance, and the Irish accent itself, a cultural legacy, and still an identifiable marker of identity. There is no clear cut identity. Jersey is in some ways, very insular, but in others, quite cosmopolitan, and somehow we need to take the best ingredients of both for the shaping of Jersey identity for the future.

1 comment:

Póló said...

When I was working in Jersey in 1961 I interviewed a French lady who was married to a Jersey man. In the course of the interview, which was in French, I asked her to describe the people of Jersey. There was a long hesitation in what was otherwise a flowing interview. Eventually, she offered, "ils sont Jersiais". Says it all.

Just incidentally, at that time the tourist line included an invitation to visit a sort of part of France without the language difficulty.

Since then, of course, things have changed everywhere, including, as you point out, in Ireland. Many of our city and high streets are now indistinguishable from those in Britain, or probably in the US, were it not for the absence of skyscrapers.