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Sark and the Barclays – a psychological perspective

Sark - Grande Grève


I began this piece as a psychological perspective on the political situation in the Channel Island of Sark, but something happened to divert me into the lyrical and the ecstatic. Because the lyricism that came to me feels authentic I have let the piece stand as I wrote it, though it may appear disjointed. If it attracts even the smallest interest I will write a follow-up.

Famously, Sark was the last feudal state in Europe until its first democratic elections were held in 2008, considerably reducing the powers of the hereditary Lord of the Manor, the ‘Seigneur’, Michael Beaumont. I do not wish to spend too much time on the background, but for those unaware of the history, it may be useful to visit journalist John Sweeney’s Panorama programme investigating the tax affairs of the Barclay brothers (who own the neighbouring island of Brecqhou and many businesses in Sark in addition to their businesses in the UK and elsewhere). The link will probably not be available for long since BBC Worldwide seem to be enforcing copyright.


This link to a January 2014 article in the Independent recounts the events following those first elections when, apparently angered by their lack of success in the elections, the Barclays closed their businesses on Sark, throwing around 140 people (of a total population of around 600) out of work. This decision was reversed a few weeks later but more recently the brothers announced that they would close their four hotels on Sark for 2015 and the foreseeable future. It is believed that this tactic is a response to the island parliament’s refusal to set up a customs post on Sark, thus permitting direct travel from France.

The brothers conduct their businesses on Sark through the company Sark Estate Management: this Guardian article from November 2014 relates something of the toxicity of current events and, in particular, the behaviour of the CEO of Sark Estate Management, Kevin Delaney, as evidenced in the pages of his Sark Newspaper.

I write here as an occasional visitor to Sark. Sometimes I manage a couple of day trips a year, sometimes I get to stay a few nights, so I claim no in-depth knowledge of the island economy or its infrastructure. However I know a little of island life: I have family who have been living on Alderney (a little larger than Sark, with more facilities) for 37 years, and I have been visiting the islands almost annually for 55 years, so I know that island life is sometimes hard, that it is often necessary to take on several jobs, that work is often impossible because of adverse weather conditions, and that feuds are kept alive between families, with the causes of the enmity often long forgotten.

Fortress island?

To live on an island one might perhaps be expected to develop an insular way of being, a fortress mentality, to be stubborn, defended and anachronistic. One might easily lose sight of the ‘bigger picture’ and cling on to outdated values. To some extent that has been true in Sark, and there was considerable justification for democratic elections, particularly in relation to the practice of primogeniture. However island life can also foster a psychologically healthy state of inter-dependence, because the residents of a small community such as Sark can ill afford division (since they rely on each other more than on the mainland), much less the kind of deep division that has been generated by the events of recent years.

A psychological perspective

Rather than focus on the division itself, I want to turn my attention to the psychology of the Barclay brothers. Once they brothers had bought their island, Brecqhou, the brothers spent millions of pounds on transforming the rugged beauty of the island (which was tellingly described by the Guardian as an ‘eyesore’ before the alterations). They poured thousands of tons of topsoil onto the rocks, planted on a massive scale, and created a fairy-tale retreat, mock gothic castle, harbour, village, lake with fountains, village complete with local pub, and two heliports. This image shows the beginning of the terraforming process:

Brecqhou as it was

And this fairly recent image, shot from a different direction, shows the design close to completion.

Brecqhou after terraformingLet’s consider the fantasy here. I think of the phrase ‘fairy-tale’ frequently in relation to these events. The brothers are secretive: access to their island gardens by the public was allowed briefly while their Sark hotels were open, but guests had to be security cleared, whatever that entailed, and photography of the buildings was forbidden. The creation of the castle itself was shrouded in secrecy (as indicated here by the sadly discontinued satirical website Guernsey Futu) prompting John Sweeney’s first investigative report. Clearly something more is going on here than ‘just’ the building of an expensive house and grounds.

The Barclay’s sandpit

Notwithstanding the conspiracy theories, the tales of an underground nuclear bunker or a casino, the brothers have bought themselves a sandpit, and in it they have built an fantasy castle in the same way that a child might build a castle out of Lego. It is secret. It is on an island. We can see it above all as a romantic move. But like children, the brothers want more, a bigger island, more bits and bobs for the fantasy kingdom, as a child decorates every empty space with shells and trinkets. The Barclays want a funicular railway from Sark harbour up to the village, in other words a train set. They have planted hectares of vines on both islands, both the vines and wine redolent of myth, of romance. And also, again much like children, they get uncontrollably upset when they don’t get their own way. They break their toys (the hotels, the businesses), throwing them away and only grudgingly taking them back. They make demands and expect them to be met.

Sark Newsletter

They gave Sark £200,000 for a new community centre, and then demanded the money back, jointly and severally suing the trustees (unsuccessfully) – they gave a present and then, finding that the conditions of giving were not met, they tried to withdraw it. The Barclays dearly want to play with the other children, but the other children don’t like them, and the brothers, rejected and hurt, are left to withdraw to their castle to plan their revenge.

Hearts and minds

In an article in the Telegraph (the Barclays’ own newspaper) the President of the Chief Pleas (Sark’s parliament), Lt. Col. Reg Guille says, “We are a very independent breed. We live and work by our own hand and long may it continue.” This is what the Barclays have not understood, that they must win hearts and minds, and do the work of understanding the culture of Sark, if they want to be invited to play. Instead their agent, Kevin Delaney, has resorted to a propaganda war against what he describes as the Sark establishment, and the scale of the attack (Delaney compares the ‘establishment’ to Nazi Germany in the 1930s) has left some residents feeling bullied and traumatised.

Ironically, The Sark Newspaper’s tone (accusatory, angry, hectoring, blaming) is not a little reminiscent of the infamous Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer (‘The Attacker’), the Wikipedia entry for which reads, “[It] was known for its use of simple themes that took little thought”. Carl Jung had this to say about the abuse of power:

“We cannot change anything unless we accept it. Condemnation does not liberate; it oppresses. I am the oppressor of the person I condemn, not his friend and fellow sufferer.”

C.G. Jung, CW 11, Psychology and Religion: West and East, Chapter V, “Psychotherapy or the Clergy,” § 519-520

Nothing is without shadow. Delaney’s accusations of dictatorial behaviour, of criminality and wrong doing amongst Sark residents may or may not have a basis in truth, but I have to wonder, psychologically, to what extent these allegations are a projection, an identification in others of behaviour that is unacceptable in oneself, for in any community there will be some who are either actively breaking laws or who are operating at the margins of what is legal. So Delaney’s sustained attacks on the ‘octogenarian’ Seigneur, Michael Beaumont (now deceased – his son Christopher is the current Seigneur), describing him as a tyrant, may be Delaney’s projection – and by extension that of the Barclays. The psychologist James Hillman wrote this:

“We adhere to what works for us. What works becomes a privileged way of doing things, soon the only way of doing things. As we get older, and more blind, this tyranny of habitual consciousness becomes more and more visible to others.”

James Hillman, Kinds of Power: a guide to its intelligent uses. 1995

In other words the habitual way of doing things, to bully, to oppress, becomes the only way. The oppressor has become blind, an enraged child, unable to find other ways of influencing.

The mirror of Sark

But why care about this tiny island and its affairs? Because the tragedy in Sark is a mirror for events playing out in the rest of the world. In the UK, and across the globe, rich and influential oligarchs are taking control of land and businesses, stifling competition, and creating a new soviet of rentiers. The Guernsey Press, fearful of a ‘blight’ on the island’s economy, the spectre of closed hotels ‘left to gather dust’,  asks for mediation, but the mediator would have an unenviable task, needing to understand all the tensions on both sides. Perhaps the Guernsey Press falls into the trap of believing in the perennial modern fantasy of constant growth, a fantasy that has led to the present state of titanism in the ‘global economy.

A walk through Sark

“With great power comes great responsibility” said Voltaire, words that went unheeded by the French aristocracy, but eleven years after Voltaire’s death, the Bastille was stormed. While Sark is not pre-revolutionary Paris, nor is the castle on Brecqhou the Bastille, history is replete with examples of the powerful ignoring the weak until it is too late. So my request to Sir David and Sir Frederick, their son Aidan Barclay and their agent Kevin Delaney (and perhaps to some of the population of Sark as well) is this: consider how your wealth and power can be used to benefit Sark, not to harm it further. To help you in stepping out of the drama triangle of Persecutor/Victim/Rescuer in which you are so enmeshed, I take an imaginative walk through Sark from the harbour to the La Sablonnerie tea gardens, and I invite you to join me:

The harbour to Dixcart bay

I walk up the slippery harbour steps from the ferry. Every time I have done this, without exception, I have seen the happy faces of people waiting to greet friends or family. I see many familiar faces, though I don’t know their names. Going through the short tunnel, rejoicing in the light and the sweet air,  I pass by the ‘toast rack’ conveyances because I prefer to walk. Up the hill a few paces takes me to the path that runs parallel to the road up to the village, and I take it as I always do, and the flowers are like jewels. At the top of the hill, I nod and smile at the carriage drivers. I need to walk, but I’m glad they’re standing ready, the horses bobbing their heads. Turning left at the crossroads, there’s the house with the cats and the garden with the apple tree. Another path runs past a water trough where goldfinches are bickering, and soon I’m in a bluebell wood, young green leaves filtering the sun.

Sark - Bluebell wood
I turn left down a path, a stream beside me, and I emerge into glorious light, a wide beach, the stream splashing on to pebbles and the sea stretched out before me. Done exploring, I walk back up the path and a young woman greets me, smiling. “How is the sea this morning?” she asks. “Glittering,” I tell her, and we pass our different ways, conscious of something that happened between us of no importance, which also matters more than anything else, a meeting charged with love.

The Convanche chasm

Now I’m back in the wood, darker here, more mysterious. The trees are young, slender and strangely tall, but the sunken valley feels old, and the stream keeps me company. Then past two hotels, through some of the vineyards (and I wonder what they’re sprayed with), over a stile and on through the cliff path, blackthorn all around me in a froth, warblers singing, the sea now distant as I rise higher on to the back of the island. I want to stroke it, smooth its fur, and I do, running my hand through grass and leaves. Almost before I’m ready, there is that awful chasm, not quite separating the two islands, the waist of the wasp, and I’m on it, looking apprehensively at the frost cracks in the concrete, my stomach clenching as I look down into the depths.

Sark - La Coupee

Sark - Grand Greve

But I take my time, savouring the moment, the unparalleled view, the sea so turquoise-blue it seems impossible, that no sea can be this colour, that there should be mermaids at least, or Aphrodite herself might spring forth from the waters of Grand Grève.

Little Sark

Down the dusty road I tramp, each opening, left or right, offering a new possibility: a field of corn marigolds, an old mill turbaned with ivy.

Sark - corn marigolds

Sark - old mill

I resist refreshment, I turn and weave, through a gate, down past the crumbling ruins of the old silver mines, and I think about greed and growth. Look at that ivy growing there, the stems so gnarled and thick, did you stand here too Mervyn? Did you see Titus and Steerpike here, fighting for their lives?.

Sark - ivy

I reach the sea again, it boils here and I think I’d like to set a conger line, but I just sit and hear the current roiling in the crevices, I feel the power of it as it thuds against the rocks, I let the salt spray moisten my skin and I sniff that iodine tang, the rich rot of the ocean.

Sark - Port Gorey

I go back, the cries of gulls echoing around the cliffs, and this time I give in to hunger. Walking through this lovely garden (where even the outside toilets have fresh flowers), I sit where I always sit, order the seafood chowder (I always do) and think about stealing the prints of Alderney on the wall, but don’t. Outside Jersey Tigers flash orange under-wings as they dart between the blooms.

Sark - Jersey Tiger

Let’s stay here for now. Another time, we might take a different path, and watch sea mist roll in over the northern headlands.

Sark - Eperquerie

Or we might visit the rocks and bays from a boat, and wonder at what fire and molten minerals finally cooled to form these fantastic shapes.

Sark- rocks

Sark - Madonna rock

We might visit the harbour, fish for longnose and pollack, watch curious mullet nose around the piles of the jetty (then, spotting a pod of dolphins in fast pursuit of a shoal of fish, arching and leaping through the water, we are awed beyond speech, and can only point mutely in their wake).

Sark - mullet

Another time. For now, I wonder if we could sit here and draw up some tables, I’m sure they won’t mind. Let’s drink some tea, eat some cake and turn our faces to the sun. And now, may I ask you this? Can you Men of Power see beyond your influence and the sphere of your control? Will you sit with me here, simply, frugally, and consider the ecstatic beauty of what surrounds you, the absolute privilege that we share in being here? Can I persuade you to recognise that it is not just profit that you seek? For to play together only one thing is needed: a shared delight in play.