In the late 1980s I decorated two display homes in a housing development near Marbella on the Costa del Sol. I flew to Gibralter because it was closer than the airport at Malaga but it also allowed me to explore the old British colony. The Rock itself was fascinating but the town was horrible, filled with shops selling duty-free electronics, cafés offering Full English Breakfasts and Olde Englande pubs. There were Union flags everywhere, too.
When I visited the Falkland Islands recently, I was expecting something similar. The ship entered the natural harbour and moored at a wharf just outside the capital, Stanley. Nearby I can see the abandoned hulk of the three-masted iron barque Lady Elizabeth, built in 1879 and which, after a life on the oceans, was beached here in 1936. It reminds me of the first time I heard of the Falklands, when Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s pioneering passenger steamship, the SS Great Britain, which had been launched in Bristol in the 1840s and was scuttled in the Falklands in the 1930s, was towed back to Bristol in 1970 for restoration. It sparked my interest in the glories of the Industrial Revolution and I remember visiting the forlorn, rotting hulk as soon as it was back in Britain. There are on-going plans for the restoration of the Lady Elizabeth, too.
It’s a pleasant, if windy walk into the town itself. Dark-brown caracaras, a kind of large falcon, swoop overhead, on the lookout for carrion. There’s a string of small houses along the way, most of them made from wood or iron, and in all kinds of states of repair, and there are Union flags. I can’t blame them for that. The Falklands War of 1982 was a seminal moment for the islands, the British forces driving off the invading Argentine forces, who have long claimed the islands – Las Malvinas – as their own territory. Like many, I watched it unfold on the nightly television bulletins. Names like Goose Green and Port Stanley itself were seared into my memory.
Across the water from the town I can see, outlined in white stones, the names of the British naval ships that have patrolled and protected the islands over the years: Clyde, Dumbarton Castle, Endurance, and so on.
Stanley feels extremely British. There’s a terrace of brick houses – Jubilee Terrace – that wouldn’t look out of place in Clapham. The brick and stone cathedral has tapestried hassocks like those in any English church (although the whalebone arch in the churchyard is very Falklands, reminding me that this was an important whaling centre). At times, walking along the waterfront, I feel like I’m in the Hebrides, beside some Scottish loch, and yet when I enter a shop, the woman behind the counter has an accent that’s a little bit West Country with a country burr. ‘Is that the Falklands accent?’ I ask her and she says it must be, as she’s always lived here.
There are pubs which feel like any British pub and later I’ll attempt to buy a pint of British beer. (Sadly the barrel is empty and they can only offer a bottle.) There are a few tourist shops selling anything to do with penguins. I buy some cards and mail them from the post office, with its familiar red telephone boxes and pillar box outside. The cheerful post-mistress (well, this is quasi-Britain) tells me it costs only £1.40 to send anything to Britain so I buy a table mat made from felted wool and send it to my sister.
Beyond the centre of the town there’s a stone cenotaph topped by a statue of Britannia, memorialising ‘those who liberated us, 14th June 1982’, the names of the dead on the wall nearby. On the slope above, a bust of Margaret Thatcher sits atop its own plinth. Later, I watch a film in the lovely museum (packed with everything from ships’ bells to a full Antarctic expeditionary hut) which has residents recalling the invasion. It’s very moving, how terrified everyone was, and brings back my own memories, watching it on television and wondering why on earth we were even bothering to save this far-off outcrop. Later reports show that Britain was quietly negotiating to hand them over to Argentina in the way Hong Kong was handed back to China, but the heads of the Argentine armed forces just went ahead with their plan to invade. No wonder Argentina itself has a conflicted attitude to the war and the many deaths that might have been avoided.
Despite the overwhelming Britishness, I find myself warming to the place itself. Later, we join a convoy of Land Rovers and drive through the rock-strewn and treeless landscape to Bluff Cove, a large farm that has King penguins breeding near its beach. They’re so tall and handsome, compared to the chunky little Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins I’ve seen in Antarctica. Many are sitting on eggs but there are a few maturing chicks, comical in their fluffy coats.
Later I chat to a man who has lived in Stanley for some time and he tells me that the main problem is that there’s nothing to do there. Even worse, he tell me, the prison is full of paedophiles. That’s sobering. After the war ended, the Islands received help to rebuild, and in 1986 it started selling off fishing rights to its waters, which reaps a huge annual income still. It allows free health care and free tertiary education in Britain. I’m surprised to hear that most new graduates return to the Falklands.
It’s an intense day of politics and penguins. Over the next two days, we visit two different islands on the west side – Carcass and West Point. Both are fascinating. At Carcass, named after HMS Carcass which surveyed the island in the 18th century, we walk the peaty hillside in a fine drizzle, sidestepping the worst of the sodden bogs, and we’re rewarded by a colony of Magellanic penguins which nest in burrows, suddenly popping up like rabbits. It’s rather surreal to see them wandering up hillsides that could be in Scotland.
There are beautiful geese, too, some with goslings, and in the trees around the main farmhouse on the island there’s a host of birdlife, from tiny black-chinned siskins singing their hearts out to Gothic-looking turkey vultures sitting on the roof and gazing down at us.
The next day, at West Point, it’s another long walk up over the hills to the breeding site of Black Browed Albatrosses.
It’s a remarkable sight, seeing so many of them sitting on their high nests of mud. They don’t seem to be the least bit bothered by having people standing right next to them. Even more peculiar is how tiny Rockhopper penguins, with their bushy eyebrows, nest between the larger birds, one of those symbiotic relationships you find in nature.
There’s quite a din from all the cackling and bickering, as one albatross reaches down to steal mud from another’s nest, and others swoop so low you feel them ruffle your hair. We sit for a long time just watching it all, and then we notice a large Southern Right whale circling in the bay below, its barnacled nose rising out of the surging sea.
I’m really quite taken by this island. It’s a romantic place, so alive with nature. I hadn’t expected so much. We sit by the stony beach, listening to the strange whirring calls of the Falklands flightless ducks, and watching the constant movement of other birds, from penguins emerging from the water to giant petrels soaring overhead. There are flocks of sheep on the distant slopes and the air is heavy with the honeyed smell of gorse. Eventually we take the last zodiac back to the ship, accompanied by black and white Commerson’s dolphins, darting through the water around us, always exhilarating to witness.
A few weeks later, in Argentina, I come across many memorials to those lost in the Falklands conflict. In Buenos Aires there’s a large painting at Belgrano underground station of the General Belgrano cruiser which was sunk by the British, drowning over three hundred sailors. There are makeshift memorials in small towns, others grander but all heartfelt. I see signs daubed on the back of trucks or on outbuildings simply saying Las Malvinas.
Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentine writer, called the war ‘a fight between two bald men over a comb’. A political comb it might be but for me, to my surprise, I think it’s actually some kind of Eden.