Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Alderney – Thank God It Isn’t Jersey

A version of this article appeared in the September issue of  The Abacus

Lloyds Bank victoria st

Two thousand alcoholics, clinging to a rock.


There were Nazi concentration camps on British soil. The inmates described the Channel Islands as Les Rochers Maudits.

History and Geography


Alderney is the most northerly and third biggest ( three miles long by a mile-and-a-half wide) of the Channel Islands, 60 miles away from the British mainland and 20 miles from the bright lights of Guernsey. The Duchy of Normandy annexed Alderney in 933 AD. In 1042, William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy (later William the Conqueror, King of the English) granted Alderney to the Abbey of Mont Saint-Michel. After 1204, when mainland Normandy was incorporated into the kingdom of France, Alderney remained loyal to the English monarch as Duke of Normandy. Today, residents of Alderney are subjects of the British Crown, but are not represented at Westminster. Alderney is not part of the United Kingdom or the European Union. As of April 2013, there were 1,903 people living on Alderney.




I first took against Jersey when I was actually there but had not intended to be. I was going on a camping holiday to Alderney with a friend and our plan was to travel to Jersey from Weymouth and then get a hovercraft to Alderney.

Unfortunately, there was no hovercraft until the next day and we had no money for accommodation. A Jersey restaurant ripped us off. We tried sleeping on the beach but it was too wet. We tried a shelter in the park but dogs woke us up and we found ourselves wandering the streets at about 5 am A Gestapo-like policeman searched us and threatened to throw us in jail for vagrancy. The TV series Bergerac, which portrayed Jersey as a seething pit of crony corruption and gangsterism, confirmed my view. In more recent years, personal experience of off-shore banking has confirmed in my mind that Jersey is Rip-Off Island.

Laissez Faire

Alderney was more hospitable. There is a common expression elsewhere in the Channel Islands that Alderney is “two thousand alcoholics, clinging to a rock”. Alderney was one of the last places in the British Isles to introduce a smoking ban in pubs, shops and restaurants. Alderney allows people to ride motorbikes without helmets and drive cars without seatbelts. Although peace and quiet attracts elderly people there is, occasionally, a vibrant nightlife. While Jersey hosts offshore banks, Alderney hosts over a dozen gambling website operators. One of these is Full Tilt Poker, which is currently being prosecuted by the US and Canadian governments.

Alderney has two policemen but almost no crime. People do not lock their cars. Because it is quiet and secluded, Alderney has attracted some famous residents, including TH White (The Once and Future King) cricket commentator and poet John Arlott, cricketer Sir Ian Botham, Beatles producer Sir George Martin, actress Dame Julie Andrews.


However, there was something spooky about Alderney. We had thought we would be pitching our tents on a busy campsite. It turned out that ours were the only two tents on a farmer’s rather isolated field, overlooking Saye beach.


One night, something snuffling about outside my tent woke me up. I shone my torch but could not see anything. Another night, I dreamt that there was a small chapel in the field. It was covered in ivy which indicated that no one had gone in or out for a long time. Slowly the ivy began to break as the heavy door painfully creaked open from the inside. My companion told me in later years that he had had the same dream.

Local people liked to scare newcomers with tales of a headless German horseman who was said to haunt the road leading to our campsite. One night, after an evening spent in the pubs of St Anne’s (the only town), circumstances dictated that I had to walk back to the campsite alone. It was a moonless night and at one point, the trees met over the top of the road, forming a dark tunnel. I saw no headless horseman. I survived.

German Occupation

During the Second World War, the Channel Islands were the only part of the British Commonwealth occupied by German  forces. In June 1940, around 1500 residents were evacuated from Alderney. The German occupation was a test run for the occupation of Britain.


The Germans built four concentration camps in Alderney, with an estimated population of 6,000. Organisation Todt (OT) was a Third Reich civil and military engineering group named after its founder, Fritz Todt, an engineer and senior Nazi.




Most OT workers were forcibly recruited, but the real slave workers were citizens of the Soviet Union, mostly from the Ukraine and Jews. OT used forced labour on Alderney to build bunkers, gun emplacements, air-raid shelters and concrete fortifications.









Local people told us that the huge mound beside our campsite had been a German “hospital”. In fact, the campsite is the location of the Lager Norderney camp, which in 1943 was “home” to European slave labourers. Close by is a tunnel from the camp to the beach, which, some allege, was a killing site.


The Germans sent miscreants from other islands to Alderney. This meant that there were witnesses to the brutality. Arbitrary beatings occurred daily for the most trivial reasons such as searching for food in garbage buckets. Witnesses described sadistic games the OT guards played with the prisoners. One set Alsatians on the workers. Another took pot shots out of a window. Prisoners were dragged around until they lost consciousness.


The worst thing was the systemic violence of overwork and starvation. Breakfast was half a litre of ersatz coffee without milk or sugar; lunch half a litre of thin vegetable soup; supper, the same with a kilo of bread between six men. There was systematic corruption by which the Germans deprived the prisoners of their meagre rations. No clothing was issued. The men worked at least twelve hours a day, with a half-hour break, seven days a week.


It is difficult to say with certainty how many perished in the Alderney camps. In his book, The British Channel Islands under German Occupation, 1940-1945, Paul Sanders believes that it is not unreasonable to assume that one third of those who entered the camps died, which mean a death toll of well in excess of 1,250.


Paul Sanders wrote: “Whatever may have been written elsewhere about the exemplary demeanour of German troops in the Channel Islands, in Alderney, an almost imperceptible, yet genuine disintegration of morale took place which found an outlet in corruption, alcohol excess, sexual debauchery and cruelty towards foreign workers.” Officers routinely kept mistresses or “comfort women” and Major Hoffmann opened his own brothel in a quiet corner of the island. On the larger islands, there were routine health checks of prostitutes but on Alderney, VD was out of control.

Returning Evacuees

On their return to their island, Alderney evacuees had little knowledge of the crimes committed on their island during the occupation. They were shocked to see the state of Alderney, with many houses completely derelict. The Germans had used anything wooden as fuel. When evacuee Marion Bates returned in 1945, she noted the absence of birds – Alderney without birdsong suggested that the island had lost its soul. However, the Germans had installed water pipes, electricity and tarmac roads.


Alderney Today

St Anne's church

Le Huret

The economy has gone from depending largely on agriculture, to the tourism and finance industries. E-commerce has become increasingly important. The residents on Alderney enjoy a 20% income tax rate, and no VAT, inheritance tax or capital gains tax. It is more welcoming than Jersey and Guernsey. Jersey likes no one who is not super-rich and in Guernsey, there are restrictions on incomers buying property. Unlike other Channel Islands, Alderney enjoys an open housing market.

house for sale route de braye

There is a growing stock of commercial property on the island and the States of Alderney are enthusiastic supporters of economic growth. Alderney enjoys a gentle pace of life but still offers a very welcoming environment to dynamic businesses, thanks to high-speed broadband.

fort clonque

The island usually receives about 3,000 visitors a year. There is virtually no entertainment apart from pubs. There is an old-style cinema, which has two weekly showings of films way behind the UK release dates. There are decent places to eat – a choice of Thai, Italian, Indian, pub-grub. Informal dance music events often take place in abandoned bunkers. Families from the mainland come for the white sandy beaches and the dramatic cliff-top walks. ‘Twitchers’ come for the 260 species of birds.

The birds, the soul of Alderney, came back.



Work – Blessing or Curse

 A shorter version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on Wednesday November 12 2014.

Colman's Column3

Work is the curse of the drinking classes. ― Oscar Wilde         

I have a t-shirt, which bears the legend on the front: “Work has ruined my life”. The label that would normally give washing and ironing instructions says: “When this garment is dirty give it to your Mum to wash”.

In his poem “Toads” Philip Larkin asked


Why should I let the toad work

Squat on my life?

Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork

And drive the brute off?


Six days of the week it soils

With its sickening poison –

Just for paying a few bills!

That’s out of proportion.



Ah, were I courageous enough

To shout Stuff your pension!

But I know, all too well, that’s the stuff

That dreams are made on.

What Does “Work” Mean?

It is quite difficult to define the word “work”, which has come down from the Old English noun weorc and the verb wyrċan. The large Oxford English Dictionary has 34 meanings for the noun and 39 for the verb. The modern word is a general term for doing something, or the product of that action. Contemporary usage has tended to modify the idea of activity, effort or achievement to a narrower concept of doing something for money.

Sometimes the concept is narrower still and confined to physical labour for a wage. Basil Bunting has The Chairman telling Tom that writing poetry is not work:

It’s not work

You don’t sweat

Nobody pays for it…


What you write is rot.


Bunting neatly combines the idea that real work has to be unpleasant as well as remunerative.


Travail, Labour, Pain


The word “labour” has connotations of pain, as in the pain of giving birth. “Toil” came from a Latin word meaning crushing, and first came into English as a synonym for trouble,  before it acquired the meaning of arduous labour in the 14th Century. Similarly, the French for work is travail, which has come to mean trials, tribulations and torment.


The specialisation of the word work to mean mainly paid employment is a consequence of capitalist productive relations. To be in work came to mean being in a relationship with an entity that controlled the means and financing of productive work and paid the worker’s wages. The meaning of the word then shifted again to mean not the physical or mental activity itself but the relationship between employee and employer. So the “Mum” who is expected to wash t-shirts is not considered to be in work until she leaves the home to work for an employer for a wage.


Religion and Capitalism

Work has long been thought a curse- humankind’s punishment for Adam and Eve’s crime in the Garden of Eden. Work is a sacred duty and a remedy for vice. During the Reformation, Protestants denounced monks as idle parasites because the elect did not consider contemplative life as proper work.

In his book, Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus (1904), German sociologist Max Weber wrote that capitalism in Northern Europe evolved when the Protestant work ethic persuaded many to engage in work in the secular world, and accumulate wealth for investment.  RH Tawney (whose ideas contributed to the welfare state in Britain) explored the relationship between Protestantism and economic development in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In his book, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926), Tawney “bemoaned the division between commerce and social morality brought about by the Protestant Reformation, leading as it did to the subordination of Christian teaching to the pursuit of material wealth”.

In Victorian times, commentators as different as Ruskin and Samuel Smiles extolled the virtue of work and saw it as man’s highest earthly calling. “One more day’s work for Jesus!” A popular book of Victorian sermons was called Blessed be Drudgery.

Leisure and Idleness

The other dimension is what happens when one is not working. The positive word is “leisure”; the negative word is “idleness”. However, even the word “leisure” is morally tainted as it comes from the Latin word licere, which means “permit”. The root is the same as it is for “licence”. Leisure is freedom to put aside rules and obligations. The devil finds work for idle hands.

Rabanus Maurus, Abbot of Fulda (c780-856), wrote: “The idle man grows dull in carnal desires, is cheerless in spiritual works, has no joy in the salvation of his soul, and does not become cheerful in helping his brother, but only craves and desires and performs everything in an idle fashion. Acedia corrupts the miserable mind which it inhabits with many misfortunes, which teach it many evil things…May the servant of god never be found idle! For the devil has greater difficulty in finding a spot or temptations in the man whom he finds employed in some good work, than in him whom he encounters idler and practising no good”.

The development of capitalism makes possible a clear distinction between work and “free time”. Working for an employer enables or even compels one to have a structure to one’s life, the rhythm of weekends off and an annual holiday. The word “holiday” comes from the old word for a religious festival.

Others have seen something positive in idleness. Samuel Johnson wrote: “Every mode of life has its conveniencies. The Idler, who habituates himself to be satisfied with what he can most easily obtain, not only escapes labours which are often fruitless, but sometimes succeeds better than those who despise all that is within their reach, and think every thing more valuable as it is harder to be acquired.” “Every mode of life has its conveniencies. The Idler, who habituates himself to be satisfied with what

Busyness can even be pernicious. Bertrand Russell:”I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries is quite different from what always has been preached”.


 sEven in the 19th Century, the most usual contract in Britain was terminable at a week’s notice or less. In the 1870s, hiring fairs gave way to employment bureaux but the commonest way to find work was through family or personal connections. The distinction between skilled and unskilled workers was blurred and came to rest upon lack of organisation rather than lack of skill. Wharfingers and stevedores who were organised into unions were seen as skilled while unaffiliated dock labourers whose work was irregular were seen as unskilled casual labour.

In 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by the end of the 20th Century, technology would have advanced sufficiently to cut the working week to 15 hours. What has happened is that many are living in poverty because of unemployment; others are complaining about being stressed out by overwork. Huge armies of people in Europe and North America, spend their lives performing pointless tasks for unseen and unknown employers.

David Weil explains in his book, The Fissured Workplace that corporations have used “subcontracting, franchising, third-party management, outsourcing” to fragment employment. They have maintained the quality of their brands and products (and their enormous profits) at the same time as shedding the cost of maintaining an expensive workforce. Workers have seen their remuneration stagnate and have lost benefits.

Employment is becoming increasingly unstable. Privatisation of government services, short-term and part-time contracts, temping agencies and low wages undermine job security. The British economist Guy Standing has coined the term precariat. Professor Standing argues that the dynamics of globalization have led to a fragmentation of older class divisions. The precariat consists of temporary and part-time workers, interns, call-centre employees, sub-contracted labour – those who are engaged in insecure forms of labour that are unlikely to help them build a desirable identity or career or guarantee them secure accommodation.

Whereas in the past, one might have hoped for (often vainly) some reciprocal loyalty between employer and employee, that is no longer the case. There is little chance these days of working for the same employer for forty years and getting a gold clock at the end of it. Today, there is no single, easily identifiable employer but a web of intermediaries. The outside contractor demands high performance, at the same time as driving down wages, job security, and benefits.

In these circumstances, there is scant opportunity to organize or join a union. These are the conditions that the EU deems helpful to “ease of doing business”. The entire structure of worker protections and benefits legislated beginning in the New Deal in the US , and the social contract of the post-war UK, is predicated on the assumption that the employee is on the payroll of the company that makes the product. “The modern employment relationship,” Weil writes, “bears little resemblance to that assumed in our core workplace regulations.”

As the dark satanic mills of the industrial revolution no longer provided employment, investors and traders gained power over managers in the era of financial deregulation that began around 1980. New technologies made it easier to outsource work while retaining control over worker performance. Fissuring became the new employment norm, because capital markets, the new masters, demanded it.

Disaffected Youth

Alice Goffman was raised by professional parents in one of white Philadelphia’s upper-middle-class neighbourhoods. She wrote a book called On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City based on her first-hand experience of spending years associating with black families in Philadelphia. She started off tutoring some black children while she was at Penn State, became friends of the families and then lived in the 6th Street area for another four years. She took notes on everything she saw while pursuing a doctorate at Princeton. The book has been hailed as a potential ethnographic classic.

Goffman describes the world of young jobless blacks who had almost all served time in prison. The police constantly harass these black young men. Older residents want violent crime and drug use to be reduced but do not believe standard police methods can achieve this. While Goffman accepts that the police are doing what they were hired to do she also recognises that the young men are doing what they have to do in order to eat.  They are usually short of money Their womenfolk support them up to a point.

Economic dependency humiliates them, fuelling anger and resentment that easily turns to violence. Crime, in particular drug dealing, is their job. Even the men who spend months looking for work seldom find even part-time or short-term work. A prison record does not help them to find work.

When I lived in Bandarawela, I sometimes felt uncomfortable to see groups of Sinhalese youths hanging around looking menacing and seemingly without gainful occupation. One remembers that youth unemployment was one of the factors leading to the JVP uprisings. Where I live now, I have similar anxieties about Tamil youths. I have given many of them employment with generous pay when I could and they are friendly and respectful to me, in general. However, one of the most respectful and skilled of them robbed me and seems to have gone off the rails with drink and drugs. I do feel insecure sometimes in this remote spot and one does hear tales of burglary and violence.



In Mayhew’s time, purefinders hunted dogturds

For the Thames tanneries. In London’s interstices

Today, lurk practitioners of queer trades.

Some sell flesh to serve obscure perversions.

Others lease their souls to corporate perversities.


Grimy-nailed commuter, feet a foot above the floor.

Seething under his warty dome, recondite arcana,

Incunabula of redundant costings-lore,

Depreciation value of cabinets, the best deal on staplers.

Good and faithful servant homeward,

To supper alone on  a cold pork pie.


In Whitehall, mandarins pander to ministers

In the morning, dissipate afternoons

Restructuring, rightsizing, diminishing.               

Producing no good, only paper and ‘policy’.


In Sofia’s streets, old men with scales,

Wait for citizens willing to pay to be measured.

Be-suited men in Lima  with open-air typewriters,

On park benches, type legalities for the illiterate.


Raped Congo women succumb to heavy sacks of cassava

Or squat to sell single tomatoes. Vicious  commodity wars,

Fragmenting nations, flotsam of refugees.

Globalisation drowns Chinese cockle-pickers in Morecambe Bay.


Kipling’s “Lesser breeds” shrewdly subsist

Under imperial global mammon’s awful hand.

In the city of dreadful night, deformities displayed for cash.

At ancient Vijaynagara, the guide’s right-hand man

Demonstrates the pillars’ musical properties.

Con brio, he smites the columns to achieve a melody.

Confident to smugness, he has status.

His hand is bent, swollen and covered in calluses.


In concert with worms, I prepare soil for sowing.

The ponies tame the meadow and give manure for hoeing.

The wounded earth affirms the atavistic cycle still.

In the indigo sky, a double rainbow joins hill to hill.

Under every rock toils a society of ants.

Oregano quivers Gregorian with bees’ monkish chants.



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