So after World War II, the whole world was going, “Come on, Europe, give these countries back. Come on, we just had a bloody war; let’s give ’em back. Britain?”
“What’s that behind your back?”
“Oh, that’s … India, and a number of other countries.”
“Give ’em back.”
“Oh, all right. There’s that one there, and there’s that one…”
“No, we need the Falkland Islands … for … strategic … sheep purposes.”
– Eddie Izzard
The general consensus is that wars are terrible. But we forget they can be pretty funny too. And the Falklands War might just be the funniest of the lot. For starters it involved Argentina, who are about the least warlike nation you could propose. It also involved a nation who I can only think of in terms of pathetic ‘90s cricket teams: mention Britain and I just see Michael Atherton poking around for four painful overs before edging to second slip. Which isn’t really fair on Scotland or Wales, but there we have it. Then there’s the fact it happened in 1982, and shit, everything that happened in the ‘80s is absurd to the point of hilarity. My birth included. So it was a war with hilarious haircuts and post-disco music. And it makes that Argentine victory over England in the ‘86 World Cup all the more relevant, doesn’t it? But the funniest thing of all is what they were fighting over.
The Falkland Islands.
That’s right. The Falklands are a couple of windswept, barren, godforsaken lumps of rock in the middle of the Atlantic. Argentina kept claiming them for about 150 years. Britain kept rejecting those claims. Then, with the military government in Argentina getting less and less popular, its chiefs invaded the Falklands in the hope that patriotic pride would distract people from massive human rights abuses and a crumbling economy. It worked too – for about two months, which is how long it took their untrained, under-supplied army of exploited 17-year-old conscripts to be dispensed with by the angry Brits. Thatcher was typically Iron Lady about it all, and swept the next election on her own nation’s tide of patriotism. The best line of the contest was Newsweek’s headline across a picture of an aircraft carrier steaming to the mid-Atlantic: “The Empire Strikes Back.” But all this kerfuffle happened over The Falkland Islands. Over the most inconveniently-placed handful of freezing sheep paddocks in the known world, a place that makes northern Scotland resemble Bermuda. Not far from where the British exiled Napoleon as punishment for invading the entirety of Europe. This is what had wounded Argentine pride for a century and more. This is what made them attack one of the world’s major industrial powers. It’s like me challenging Kostya Tszyu to a fistfight over a wet piece of week-old fish.
Even now the Argentines are well and truly touchy about it. I asked a guy in Rosario what the Falklands were called in Spanish, and his face went from smiley to thunderous in less time than it took Britain to whoop his country’s collective arse. “Las… Islas… Malvinas,” he spat out between gritted teeth, sounding like a Hispanic Jack Palance. “Pick up the gun.” Shit, I just came to town to get some gingham for my wife. On my Argentine highway map, a large inset box shows “Las Malvinas”, with all the roads marked and all the place names in Spanish. And any national or world map you find will have “Las Malvinas (Arg.)” marked defiantly upon it. You go, girlfriend.
So, why am I talking about The Falkas Malvinands Islands? Because I just got back from Antarctica. And before we went to Antarctica, we sailed to the aforementioned Islands, and then to South Georgia, a strange and even more isolated sub-Antarctic island that used to house whaling fleets. And now I’m back. Which means the next little while will all be posts about what happened, in the past, but written in the present tense. There won’t be one post per day or anything ordered, but I’m sure you can figure it out.
Double Entendre of the Day: “So we’ll have the first boat ashore from 3 o’clock, for those of you who are most keen to spread your legs.”
– Our German expedition leader, the fabulously-named Rupert Krapp, hasn’t quite mastered some subtleties of English yet.
We are apparently on an ‘expedition vessel’. It’s full of Zodiacs and cranes and cool shit like that, but I’m not going to lie to you. This boat is cushy. It’s an ex working ship that’s been converted for passengers, and while it definitely isn’t a cruise liner, it now has maids, chefs, three course meals, and is entirely set up to cater for the sightseers on board. There’s not really a ‘brave frontiersmen’ vibe about the place.
This is not our ship. But I like its healthy, clean-living style.
Aside from the war, the Falklands themselves are hilarious. Being completely ignorant about this part of the world, I thought that there were just a few mad inbred sheep farmers hanging on out here. But actually there’s a community of two or three thousand people– and a garrison of two thousand soldiers to protect them. Everyone has a date at Bring-a-Bombardier Night. Stanley is a neat little town with a wharf and shops and shiny sterile supermarkets (two of them, even). the whole thing is so inescapably British. The islands themselves look parched and bare, and even on this sunny midsummer’s day it was blowing a freezing gale. Yet nonetheless, there are jolly-coloured cottages, picket fences, English rose gardens, neat lawns and garden gnomes.
If you live on a bitterly cold morbidly depressing rock, cheer yourself up with a nice colourful roof.
The people are staunchly British in their accents and demeanour, the currency is Falkland Island pounds. You are served in the supermarket by a kid just as bored and insecure and frustrated as the ones in British supermarkets, and the conversations of the kids out front are straight out of Skins. And They have a street called Thatcher Drive (I’m serious), and celebrate Margaret Thatcher Day on an annual basis.
Now, on the ship is a lovely chap named Mark Hastie-Oldland. He is younger than me, has been to Oxford, has a 1940s BBC accent, a girlfriend called Lucinda Strickland-Skailes, wears vests and rugby jumpers (he does, not she), and uses phrases such as “work like billy-o” without any trace of irony. He is the most English Englishman I’ve ever met. And even he looks around and said “Gosh, it’s just so British, isn’t it? It’s like they’re saying, ‘We’re not British. We’re Britain.’” They just happen to be a few thousand miles from home. He also fills me in on the most fascinating fact about Stanley. The fish and chip shop is also the disco. Yep. There it is. Clear as day. On the board outside the front door: “Dino’s Fish and Chips. Tonight: Disco!” The height of cool, Stanley’s night of nights, at the fish and chip shop disco. Dino is the coolest man on the island. At least, explains Mark, you don’t need to go looking for a kebab shop. Come one a.m., the house lights come up, the fryers go on, and everyone queues up for a feed before the short stagger home.
Fred and Vera. Not British. Britain.
If you need further evidence that the Falklands are hilarious and strange, I can tell you that marked on the official Stanley list of Sites of Interest are a guy’s front yard with a bunch of whalebones in it, and the front yard of the man with the largest number of garden gnomes on the island. Scintillating stuff. There was also one guy out of 2000 who was prepared to pay the asking price and the considerable import costs in order to be the only resident of Stanley with a Hummer. A new shiny one, not a working one. Essential for farm life. If you need still further evidence, please find it in photographic form below.
Falkland Islands logic.
The Falklands coat-of-arms. Who isn’t filled with pride by a sheep? On a bin? That you can’t put rubbish in?
The imposing offices of the Falkand Islands Attorney-General.
No disrespect, but I would not want to be immemorialised for eternity as Assistant Laundryman. First Rad Officer would be good though. Also, notice how the Chinese guys get all the shitty jobs?
Furthermore, were I going to fight a war, I would not want to be on a ship called The Wimpey Seahorse. “Oh no! Run! The Wimpey Seahorse! She strikes terror into the stoutest heart!”
The arch is made from the jawbones of two blue whales. Does that seem quite right in a church… ?
Ah, now it makes sense. Passive aggression, Falklands-style. I can imagine this priest calling for skeletons to build his Castle of Worship.
This is what a seagull looks like if you colour it in with a greylead.
Not Davies St, but almost. This house has a chainsaw on the gate. We should have a chainsaw on the gate.
Just a final note on hilarity and war. I was gobsmacked on leaving Ushuaia to see this pulled up at the port.
The Yamato was Japan’s most famous ship of World War II. It was monstrous and monstrously expensive, the biggest battleship in the world, built when Japan thought that battleships would be modern warfare’s decisive factor. Then aircraft carriers made them indefensible and redundant. The Yamato became a paradoxical liability: so powerful and expensive that they couldn’t risk losing it. It barely saw engagement, until its final suicide mission ended in a swarm of American planes and a smoke plume six kilometres high. Its existence symbolised the scale of Japan’s ambition. Its utter destruction symbolised their own: outclassed in military intelligence, outnumbered, too archaic and rigid to adapt to war’s new demands. And now? A freighter cruises around blithely bearing the same name. Maybe it’s just that I’m a history geek, but it seems more than a little odd.