Sark has been in the news recently because of an election. This election is notable because it is only in the last year that moves have been made to transfer political power away from its previous feudal institutions: the hereditary lord of the island known as the Seigneur and the non-elected parliament known as the Chief Pleas. This arrangement fell short of the European Convention on Human Rights and the election will finally replace these institutions in the New Year with a 30-member chamber.
Hooray? I don't know. I've quite a fondness for antiquated forms of government. I much prefer a House of Lords with independently-minded aristocratic inbreeds to one of recent political appointment who are striving for excellence, going forward, etc. Government is ridiculous, and hence to be ridiculed. Government is rigged focus groups asking us for our opinions: "Is that a YES or a NO to our question?" "It's neither! It's the wrong question" "Would you say you were satisfied, mildly disappointed, disconsolate, ecstatic?" "None of those!". As you throw a plate of the complimentary digestives into their faces to little effect. The program runs on regardless. The forms must be filled. We have your answers. Thank you for your democratic participation, citizen. Now piss off and watch Strictly.
I came out of my front door a few weeks ago to find around 25 police officers almost directly outside. Two ambulances, several vans on a side street, full protective gear, possibly guns, one of those hefty door smashers. "Err, I'm just walking my friend back home to the other end of the street? Is that going to be alright?" I questioned. "I can understand this may all look a little oppressive", the officer replied. For an hour they waited there, barely moving, not talking. No sudden noises. Then they drove off.
I've never been to Sark and I can't say that I've ever wanted to until reading about it. The population of the place is around 600. There are barely any speakers of Sercquais left. It's probably a nice spot for a childhood holiday. There are no cars permitted on the island. It's tractors, horses or bikes. Something of an escape from the modern world then.
In the lower right corner of the aerial photograph, you can see an smaller island, which is called Brecqhou. This island was bought in 1993 by the Barclay Brothers, Sir David and Sir Frederick. Who they? Me too. Their reputation appears to be keep their heads down and out of the news. According the Wikipedia entry, as much information as I've read anywhere, their fortunes were founded upon property development, then hotels, expanding into a variety of speculations and investments, many of which we probably have no idea about at all. They are best known for owning The Telegraph group of papers. They keep themselves to themselves. They divide their time between Monaco and Brecqhou.
What should I care? Well, since they bought Brecqhou, the brothers have been making investments on Sark proper, buying up various hotels and other properties. Having been stiffed for £179,000 by the Seigneur on purchase of their island (a Sark-specific feudal tax known as a treizième), they've increasingly involved themselves in opposing these various feudal aspects to island life. The Barclay Brothers want democracy! Their democracy. Recently they've been producing a free island newspaper disseminating their views and opinions known as Sark News:
Yes to democracy, yes to transparency, yes to proper governance
No to feudalism, no to secrecy, no to cronyism
What do I know about it? Very little. Never been to Sark, don't know anyone from Sark, my grandmother used to visit occasionally while holidaying on nearby Guernsey but I can't remember her saying anything about it. Understandably, the Barclays have created their share of tension upon the island. They claim that their investment into the island has created 100% employment and promise great future benefits for the islanders. At the same time, should the Barclay-backed candidates not be elected then they might just take their money elsewhere...
I was glad to read this morning that the Barclay Brothers were unsuccessful in getting their "safe pair of hands" candidates elected. As I said, I've no idea whether the elected candidates are any better or not, but the Barclays' version of democracy was a rather brutal introduction to the modern world. Vote for our candidates, we'll keep you in work, we'll pass laws that work to our mutual advantage, keep your noses clean and you'll get your rewards. If you say no, fine, we'll take our wallets elsewhere and you can live in penury. Understandably, this didn't sound too much like democracy. Or at least one's dream of it. It certainly didn't seem like much of an improvement upon feudalism.
I will admit to a definite prejudice towards the Barclay Brothers in that they are identical twins. I apologise for this, but I can't pretend that the combination of immense wealth and shared genetic information doesn't have me twitching somewhere. What wrong with twins? Nothing I can logically think of. It's a prejudice. Mea culpa. I'm just admitting to it in this case. So, what's wrong with being rich? Well. I'm immensely fond of Fonthill Abbey, the vast house built by William Thomas Beckford, a sort of country house meets Gothic cathedral. Beckford squandered much of his fortune on the building and it repeatedly collapsed on in him. Viewed from afar, Beckford's wealth, significantly derived from Jamaican sugar plantations, doesn't bother me at all. It's wealth balanced by folly. Dissipation over preservation. Epic and pointless. Almost nothing of it remains.
The private island of Brecqhou, however, lacks such intensity of vision. For their island castle, the Barclay Brothers hired arch-Palladian Quinlan Terry. It's just possible that this building may have been more satisfactorily described, or even photographed, somewhere in print but I can't find it. I've only found a few photographs taken from afar.
How boring. All that money and instead of building a proper lair for capitalist villainry, world domination and the like, you build an indifferent chateau. Okay, perhaps there's a whole subterranean section we're not aware of. They have sunk some boreholes, but I don't think there's anything overly suspicious in that. No, they're just rich and, for me, that most dangerous type of rich, quite sane and prudent in their way.
I was having lunch with a friend recently and one of his friends present was talking about holidaying on Martinique. Me neither. Again. Anyway, that seemed to be the sort of life he lead. Interestingly, he said that Tommy Hilfiger had sold his property and left the island after being struck by a mis-hit ball whilst at the tennis club. The very thought of it! Similarly, Mick Jagger and Bryan Adams apparently share a crumblng dividing wall between their properties and they're arguing over who should repair it. I found this quite hilarious. He didn't. When you move in these worlds. The worlds of the Barclay Brothers, Russian oligarchs, Peter Mandelson. Where decisions are made. Where we don't figure.
One illustration of such a world was the 15th annual Haute Couture Ball du Crillon held in Paris, 2005. This one came to light as I was looking for any more information on the Barclay Brothers that might make them vaguely interesting. It was at this ball that Sofia Barclay, granddaughter of Sir David, was presented as a debutante. Does that still go on? It does. Although the list of debutantes is quite revealing about the present state of affairs. Aside from Sofia, Britain was also represented by:
Yasmin Kerr is rock royalty. Her parents are Jim Kerr, lead singer of the group "Simple Minds" and singer Chrissie Hynde of the "Pretenders". Yasmin wants to be an actress. The evening gown by Vivienne Westwood looks ravishing on her, complementing her figure and her personality.
Theodora Warre is gifted with the quintessential British charm. She lives with her parents at "Uppark", the historic residence. Wearing a Neil Cunningham gown to the ball, she is participating with her friend, the ravishing Princess Augusta von Preussen who is wearing a Giles Deacon gown and a Mikimoto tiara that enhances the beauty of her profile and posture. Augusta's sister Beatrice made her debut at the Crillon in 1999.
Well, Warre might qualify as old-school aristocracy, Yasmin Kerr certainly doesn't. Similarly Ashley Bush, niece of the President, or Rainsford Qualley, daughter of Andie MacDowell. Your cinema visits or record purchases helped perpetuate this way of things. Chrissie Hynde may have worked her share of column inches extolling the benefits of vegetarianism or the cruelties of fur, she didn't say much about the virtues of class or coming out balls. Well, it's probably not her fault. It's not the fault of these young women having a night out either. Is anyone at fault? No, no one is at fault. Move along. These people have worked for their wealth (or some relative once did). They are not responsible for your poverty! Got that? It's nothing to do with you and you most certainly were not invited. Piss off! This is a private island.
I was surprised to notice that Ian Bone, Class War agitator and formerly the most dangerous man in Britain, has his own blog. It took me back a bit. It's easy to think, I certainly do much of the time, that "Bash The Rich" was rather short-sighted as a rallying cry. Is it really the aristocratic rich that oppress us or is rather our acquiescence that is the more dangerous? So long as I've got a roof over my head, the kids fed, mustn't grumble. Mustn't upset the overlords. Keep your head down and they'll leave you alone. Whether that's the Seigneur or the Barclay Brothers. What does it matter? Maybe I was wrong to think that kicking the aristocracy was like flogging a dead horse. They were already on the way out. Out of the House of Lords, their mansions crumbling, inheritances spent. But there are others who can afford to move into those mansions and seats of power, exercise their ancient manorial rights, claim they're pretty much like the rest of us - a claim the traditional aristocracy never made - just lucky or talented, in the right place. You love us! You want to be us! Somehow this annoys me more.
The revolution begins with the Sarkees storming Brecqhou, the burning of Toddington Manor, laying siege to the Kabbalah Centre, Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin being airlifted from the top of the US Embassy, the torching of every Premiership stand in the country, people speaking in tongues, a giant lamb descending from the sky, a decent meal for under a fiver, restoration of the Romanovs, no more going forward, a secret chord of unearthly harmony, falling asleep, falling asleep, falling asleep...