This job was won by Fiona Gilmore and her firm Acanchi (see their finished work by doing a right-click/SAVE AS manoeuvre here), but not before Saffron and I went all out pitching for it. I visited the island for a pre-pitch audit, and then wrote up my first impressions for the local newspaper. Here’s an edited version.
The Isle of Man at First Blush
By Jeremy Hildreth
Isle of Man Examiner
My brisk, 26-hour maiden visit – I must emphasise the cursoriness of it – revealed an island that in physical terms runs the gamut from rather attractive (downtown Douglas) to downright charming (Castletown and elsewhere), with much lovely, if not quite world beating, landscape in between. What’s more, save for a derelict building or two, nothing I saw appeared hopelessly marred or irretrievably ugly. This is helpful to say the least.
What struck me most positively, however, were the people I met and talked to, and their disarming combination of friendliness, trust, pride and candour. These impressions of Man and Manx first began to gel as I drove along a stretch of roadway north of Douglas and saw a sign advertising fresh quail eggs. Intrigued, I pulled into the driveway, which turned out to belong to a house.
Straight ahead, against the garage, was a white refrigerator. On the door of the freezer section was a placard, not amateurishly handwritten as one might have expected, but commercially produced, apprising the would-be customer that the eggs – and cash to make change – were inside.
But within the freezer were not eggs but another carefully lettered notice: “OWING TO EXCESS DEMAND, ONLY A LIMITED NUMBER OF QUAIL EGGS AVAILABLE. TEL. MARK 464 696”.
Mark took my call, then my order, and then walked down from somewhere nearby bearing a dozen speckled ova in a plastic carton. “Some of these were just laid an hour ago, so the shells are very hard,” he explained, no doubt aware that he was speaking to a mainlander who would be rather thick regarding such things. “Best to let them sit for a week till they soften and are easier to peel.” I live in London and I like it, but this utterly enchanting encounter, it must be confessed, isn’t likely to occur there.
Speaking of peel, a little later in a town by that name I stood outside Moore’s kipper establishment and rang the bell – not an electrical device, mind you, but an iron bell hanging outside the storefront.
A man who introduced himself as Paul appeared presently, wearing an apron, a grimy yellow shirt (“It was bright white this morning,” he said, “bright white”) and a painter’s spray mask, which he pulled aside to speak.
“I’m at a critical point in the smoking process,” he said as he walked me inside the plant and showed me how he controls the amount of heat and smoke to which the fish are exposed by adjusting the doors and vents at the base of the chimney.
He said things were changing on the Isle of Man – for better or worse it was not always easy to know – with dynamics like immigration from the Far East and recent pressures in the financial sector. On the latter point he told me, “I have a friend who lost two jobs within a matter of weeks.”
Before departing Paul’s shop, I bought a pack of kipper fillets to bring back to a friend from Lincolnshire whose grandparents had lived and died on the Isle of Man. Peter had mentioned his fond childhood memories of visits to the island (and the association with his beloved kippers). Now, having been there myself, it’s plain that the Isle of Man is very definitely a place about which one could have fond memories, childhood or otherwise.
Next door at The Creek, I drank Okell’s and talked to two locals. Whilst a tourist poster I saw at the airport characterised the Isle as “Britain’s treasured island,” such a bond with the Kingdom was for these gentlemen somewhat disagreeable. “I’m Welsh by birth, but I think of myself as a Manxman,” said the one on the right. “I’d rather be European than British,” said the one on the left. When I asked if it is possible to fly to the Continent directly, I was told, “No, we have to go through Britain first – unfortunately.”
Not everyone, of course, has such sharp views, but most people I spoke with did express a strong sense of a Manx identity, of the Isle of Man as a place that is distinctive from both Britain and Ireland.
Naturally, one of the most salient of the Isle of Man’s distinctive traits is that it’s an island. Thurston Clark, author of Islomania, believes we love islands because they echo our own isolation and individuality. Probably true, and I would add that like boats or ships, islands are transformative. Put a man on a yacht and he becomes a sailor. Put him on an island, he’s an islander.
Likewise, take a community of 75,000 people and locate it, not in the middle of the countryside or even on a mainland seacoast, but on a chunk of vegetation and rock in the midst of a treacherous sea – and add ten centuries of history and heritage – and you wind up with something exceptional. It becomes a place, I discovered, where people use the national symbol everywhere and proudly, leave cash in unlocked refrigerators and give out their home phone numbers on the radio. All of which, especially in this day and age, is terribly endearing.
From the one-time whaling centre of Nantucket to the South Sea pearl farming haven of Manihiki, I’ve been to maybe 15 islands in the past few years. The Isle of Man, for reasons I cannot yet fully articulate (and beyond that there might be a job there), is one of the ones I’d like to revisit.
Alas, too many destinations in this cruel, competitive world, when they go to promote themselves, discover that they are entirely ordinary. The Isle of Man may well have its challenges, but if my first impressions hold, ordinariness isn’t one of them.
Jeremy Hildreth is a consultant with Saffron Brand Consultants based in London and Madrid.
Photo: [the sign on the refrigerator about the quail eggs]
Caption: Hildreth was impressed by the friendliness, trust and candour of the Manx residents, and their abiding sense of identity.