Reportage / 10 July 2019

The Flag

“I don't know why, but somehow the place is not complete without the flag,” says Mr Salt.

It's February 2006. You catch the earliest morning plane to Gatwick, where a minibus is waiting to take you and your friends to Southampton. The driver is an Asian of impeccable seriousness and politesse. You know that when they call somebody Asian in Britain, they mean people from South Asia, i.e. India, Pakistan, or Bangladesh, whereas to you, the American meaning, someone from China, Korea, or Japan, comes much more naturally. You have pre-paid the minibus trip online for the group, and the honour of tipping the driver once you've reached Southampton falls to you. At thirty-five, you are the oldest male in the company, which would automatically put you in charge of such matters if you were in Asia, either the one or the other. You're quite sure the driver is not one of those Afghans and Pakistanis whom you've read about in the Guardian who live pious family lives in England only to wage no less pious jihad in their countries of origin during the holidays or between jobs. You tip the cabbie handsomely.

Devoid of passengers, Southampton Airport could not be more different from Gatwick or even Vienna's Schwechat. About a dozen young ladies, as if you were in Ukraine or Russia, are biding their time behind check-in counters, doing their fingernails and watching such rare intruders as you and your friends. Aurigny flies to Alderney twice a day, and it turns out the morning plane has been waiting for your group. One of the idle ladies checks you and your bag in, and after the scantiest of security checks you step out on the airfield and board the little yellow aircraft. One passenger sits right next to the pilot. Apart from your group of eight, there are two or three more passengers and no empty seats. You like the stylish way the British use old technology, such as the propeller plane you find yourself in. You think of Noel Coward's song Could You Please Oblige Us with a Bren Gun, a celebration of winning the war using weapons whose inadequate condition is so shameful that you must hide them when “marching through Berlin”. You are, however, told that the plane is a German make, with most parts produced in India.

The white cliffs shine brightly behind you, until you can no longer see them. In Alderney, you immediately feel the slower pace of life and the seclusion from the world at large. Newcomers are screened for drugs. Ridunians want to keep their island drug-free. You approve.

You stay at Fort Clonque, on a tidal islet that can be reached via a causeway. It was built in the 1850s to protect Alderney against the French, who were a rising naval power and perceived as a threat by the British. Clonque is one of fifteen Victorian forts in Alderney, and the impressive breakwater at Braye Bay was built around the same time too. The emergence of steam-powered armoured warships rendered the fortifications militarily obsolete just a few years after they had been built. Clonque was, however, used by the Germans during World War 2. They improved the causeway with concrete and built a bunker for their anti-aircraft cannon.

Mr and Mrs Salt give you the keys and all the information you need. You hand over the Sachertorte you have brought them from Vienna. They are very nice people. Mrs Salt tells you that she is very worried because her husband has been diagnosed with a serious disease. After a lifetime of hard work in England, they have retired to this island paradise. Mr Salt is a very tall man, and he looks strong and in okay shape. You bring up the topic of the tidal-wave power station they are planning to build off Alderney. Certainly a good, environmentally friendly technology, Mr Salt agrees, but Alderney would never be the same again if it really were to be built. The Salts surely hope it won't. Mr Salt also gently corrects your linguistic usage. When you try speaking of the mainland or of Britain, he makes it clear to you that one doesn't say that. One says England, always. You also try saying Normandy and the continent, only to learn that one doesn't say that either, ever. One says France. That's the way Ridunians talk.

Finally, there's the issue of the flag. Mr Salt says that there's a flagpole at the highest point of the fort, and if your group wishes to, you're welcome to hoist the British flag every morning at dawn and take it down every evening at dusk. All eyes are on you. Of course, you volunteer to take charge of the flag.

The ladies of the company have chosen the rooms they wish to stay in. Your friends say, “Kurt, you'll be sleeping in the German bunker.”

Of course you would. The bunker has a huge window that offers a spectacular view of the sea, and the window has a large windowsill, on which you sit, reading Joseph Conrad's Nostromo, often pausing to look out on the sea, across the Atlantic towards South America and the fictional country of Costaguana, where Nostromo is set. Needless to say, you cannot see South America. You cannot see England, which is about a hundred kilometres away, either. But walk across the island, and you can see France, which is just twenty miles away, very well. However, the Alderney Race, the strait which runs between the island and France, is notoriously dangerous for navigation, England making for a much safer passage.

Many toponyms (Clonque, Longis, Mannez) are of Norman origin, and many locals have Norman surnames, as you can see when you check out the graveyard next to Saint Anne's church. Auregnais, the dialect of the Norman language traditionally spoken by Ridunians, became extinct during the twentieth century, its last native speaker being thought to have died around 1960. Standard French, which had partially replaced Auregnais before English took over, ceased to be an official language in 1966. When Alderney's airline was founded in 1968, the name Aurigny was chosen for it, which is the island's name in French. The main reasons for the decline and disappearance of Auregnais are thought to have been immigration during the Victorian era (the people who built and manned the fortifications), lack of use in writing and education, and finally the evacuation of the entire population of Alderney to England during World War 2. It saddens you that Auregnais has died, and it galls you that nobody even bothered to systematically and comprehensively record it in the mid-twentieth century, when there were still speakers and when linguistics was already a highly developed academic discipline.

You are aware that many people couldn't care less about such an obscure patois. Those are people who think a language is just a medium that has no special meaning and value. Any lingo would do, and why doesn't everyone in the world just use English? You don't blame those people. Once you knew a biologist, a very attractive lady, who went on a rant how the EU or whoever allowed only a dozen or so varieties of apples to be sold and how things were so much better in the good old days when there were more than two hundred different kinds. You tried to explain to the lady that in the good old days not many people could choose what they ate and that apples surely were their least worry, but she would not have it. You're an an-apple-a-day person and you know your King of the Pippins from your Kronprinz Rudolf and your Gala from your Liberty, but the ready availability of hundreds of varieties of apples is of no concern to you, while languages are. You didn't hit it off with the attractive biologist.

The main settlement of the island is called Saint Anne now, not a big change from Sainte-Anne. More drastically, its main thoroughfare, where a few shops haven't been converted into residences yet, formerly known as Rue Grosnez, was renamed Victoria Street in 1854 when Queen Victoria visited the island and when Fort Clonque was being built.

You are not a very practical person but one of your friends is a born handyman and he shows you how to raise and lower the flag. Once you've been instructed, you don't find it difficult at all. The Union Flag flies in the wind over Fort Clonque as if you’d been hoisting flags all your life.

On the first evening of your stay you take the flag down at sunset. You vaguely wonder why one does that. The flag would not suffer any harm in the darkness, would it? Is there an old superstition behind this practice? Or does it send a signal that during the night the fort is not ready to engage in warfare, which in older, more chivalric ages would have been heeded?

One of your greatest talents is for sleep. You nod off anywhere within seconds. In the German bunker, it is for the first time in years that you lie awake. You do doze later on, but only intermittently. You are absolutely knackered when you raise the flag early in the morning.

One tiny chamber in the fort has remained unoccupied, the Victorian servant's room. You wonder why it's called that. After all, this was not an aristocratic home but a barracks for two officers and fifty-three men. (Always flaunting their sharp class distinctions, the English.) Anyway, you decide to spend the night in the Victorian servant's room. It's cosy, such a pleasant change from the inhuman German bunker. You sleep exceedingly well there for the rest of the week.

The days are sunny, and every morning you raise the flag, only to lower it in the evening. You walk around the island, run about it, sit on secluded beaches. East Europeans serve you cod that was caught in the Polar Sea. When you go to the cinema, you pre-order a half pint of ale in the pub across the street before the film (The Secret Garden) starts. There is an interval during which you drink it. You decide that that good-old-days feel to the whole ritual is authentic. You have gone to the pictures, which isn't quite the same as going to the cinema. And you have had a half at a pub for the first and probably only time in your life, and it has made perfect sense.

One morning the winds are blowing harder and there is a downpour. It's quite chilly, and your fingers get numb while you are trying to hoist the flag. You may also be slightly or rather not so slightly hungover, but you are doubtless dealing with what you assume is called a metaphysical hangover, i.e. one that induces a great clarity of mind and disposes you towards artistic creation. However, you just can't fasten the flag the way you did the mornings before. You wrap the flag around your upper body to make sure it doesn't touch the ground. When you think you are finally succeeding, a gush of wind blows the flag off your body. You are still holding one corner of the flag in your hand but a good part of it falls down on the wet and dirty ground. Minutes later, the flag flies even more proudly and steadily than before in the strong wind, and you are the only person who would ever guess that it is not as immaculate as it used to be.

At sundown you see the full extent of the defilement you have caused. In the USA, what you have done would surely constitute a violation of the flag code. Perhaps even a misdemeanour? Though almost certainly not a felony, unless you were a soldier, in which case you would no doubt be court-martialled. If you were a black person in the South, they might lynch you, or at best police-brutalize you, or, if you ran away, shoot you in the back.

But this is Europe, even though the Bailiwick of Guernsey, to which Alderney belongs together with Guernsey and Sark, is not part of the EU. It is a Crown dependency, and as such not a part of the UK either, so the Union Jack cannot be its official flag. It is almost a foreign flag, which must make your case a lot easier to argue. Anyway, Europeans do not normally care about flags. They pity and despise the Americans of suburbia with their Stars and Stripes in the front yard just like the crowds of madmen in the Middle East or wherever who always have one at hand to burn.

On the morning of your departure, the Salts arrive with four or five short women in aprons, whose job it is to clean Clonque. Although they remain silent, you are almost certain that they are not East Europeans but members of the local working class. This is England, after all, and you can't have England without a visible, ritually humiliated, alcoholic working class.

You hand the soiled flag to Mr Salt and stammer a few words of explanation and apology. Mr Salt thanks you for flying the flag every day. The pilot of the Aurigny plane has told him that every morning, as they were flying either in or out, they saw the flag over Fort Clonque. He fondles the flag a bit and gives it to one the cleaners, who wordlessly puts it into the washing-machine.

“I don't know why, but somehow the place is not complete without the flag,” says Mr Salt.

You could not agree more. And you hope the cleaner is neither cold-washing nor hot-washing the flag. Thirty degrees might not be enough to remove the blemishes, and sixty might do damage to the colours and the fabric. When everybody has left the room, you sneak to the washing-machine. The flag is being washed at forty degrees.


Kurt Leutgeb

was born in Upper Austria in 1970. He is the author of eight books, the latest of which, Humana fraus (2015), tells two versions of a story from Titus Livius. He lives in Vienna.