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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

Flower power and the possibilities of civic engagement

Jersey says it best with flowers, but its annual festival might also serve up some food for thought on friendly rivalry

Jersey is a Crown dependency of the United Kingdom, off the coast of Normandy, France. Elizabeth Castle is a castle on a tidal island in Saint Helier, Jersey. Construction was started in the 16th century.
Jersey is a Crown dependency of the United Kingdom, off the coast of Normandy, France. Elizabeth Castle is a castle on a tidal island in Saint Helier, Jersey. Construction was started in the 16th century.

Over the past few years, it has been my practice while spending some summer leave in my other home of the British Channel Island of Jersey to try to identify a few ideas that, suitably adapted, might be of relevance to life in the UAE.

They’re very different places, of course. While Jersey is roughly the same size as the island of Abu Dhabi, it has a widely diversified habitat, from an urban centre to wooded valleys and rugged cliffs overlooking the sea. Its population is around 100,000, rather than the 1.5 million of Abu Dhabi, the greater part of whom are either Jersey-born or British, although it does have communities of significant size from Portugal, Poland and France.

What Jersey also has, among both locals and expatriates, is a thriving sense of community spirit and engagement. For outsiders, this is perhaps most visible during the annual Battle of Flowers, which takes place during the second week of August, the peak of the tourist season.

This festival, now over 100 years old, involves daytime and moonlight processions of lavishly-decorated "floats" along the seafront corniche in the island’s capital, St Helier. Each of the floats is covered with fresh flowers, tens of thousands of which are flown into the island for the event each year.

A variety of organisations take part, of which the most significant are the Battle of Flowers Associations in each of the island’s parishes (local districts), which are the focal points of Jersey’s history and heritage.

Over the last 10 days, my family and I have felt privileged to have been welcomed into the group from the Parish of Grouville who have been hard at work building this year’s floats, one for the "Seniors" and one for the "Juniors".

There is room for anyone to become involved in tackling tasks - ranging from the construction of the complex design and frame of the float to painting - ahead of laying out thousands of flowers and then sticking them on to the frame to create the colourful designs.

Some volunteers devote many hours over many months, for this year’s design was approved as far back as last November and building began in the late spring. Others appear – in considerable numbers – at times of special need, in particular since the flowers began to arrive a week ago.

Young and old are equally welcome, with sometimes three generations of the same family being involved at the same time. A wide range of local expertise is engaged. One of Jersey’s top wildlife artists designed the float, while the local deputy in the island’s parliament, the States of Jersey, worked side by side with her fellow parishioners and constituents to decorate it.

There’s plenty of hard work, but time for laughter and relaxation too. On Saturday evening, before the final rush began, participants in the float-building took a break for a traditional hog-roast on a nearby farm, with entertainment being provided by a dress rehearsal for the teams of dancers who will accompany the floats during Thursday’s parade.

“The Battle and the building of our float,” says one of the key organisers, ”is a central part of our community life in Grouville. It’s nice if we win prizes, of course, but it’s the way in which everyone is able to play their part that really matters. “

It wouldn’t be possible to transfer the model of Jersey’s Battle of Flowers to the UAE unaltered, nor would I necessarily wish to do so. Perhaps, though, there are some lessons about community engagement and the stimulation of friendly rivalries that could be learned. There is certainly scope for that in a country like the UAE, with its 200 or so different nationalities.

In the meantime, I shall watch with pride on Thursday as Grouville’s entries in the 2017 Jersey Battle of Flowers makes their way past the cheering crowds, happy to have played my part in their creation.

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