It’s now close to two months since we (Julie has since left the ship in Rio) boarded in Venice, the list of places visited on this assignment on the Oceania Marina has grown seemingly more impressive by the day. To name a few of the major ‘ticks’ on many people’s bucket lists – Corfu, Malta, Sicily, Rome, Naples, Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Gibraltar, Tangiers, Lisbon, Tenerife, Cape Verde, Rio de Janeiro, Santos, Montevideo, Buenos Aires….and so we continued to one of the most prized destinations – Port Stanley, Falkland Islands. My three previous visits had been successful as landing from a tender in the wild and capricious waters around these islands is far from guaranteed – if fact little better than 50/50…and so we viewed the sea and the weather conditions with some concern as we approached the outer harbour. The tenders were launched and off we went to land on this piece of the United Kingdom which is more British than Britain itself.
The day previous to this had been a day of exhilaration. I had given my presentation, to a full theatre, on the conflict of 1982, when Argentina had invaded and then been ejected from what they laughingly call their own islands –Las Malvinas – ignoring UN resolutions, common law, historic sovereignty and most importantly the overwhelming will of the resident population. I cannot promise that my presentation was strictly neutral, but I do try and give both sides of the issue – along with a flurry of Union Flags at the beginning! And so besieged by endless questions as I made my way around the ship we eventually found time for the rehearsal for the main show that evening, yes, the Christmas Day Show! At 7.30pm I met with the lovely ladies of the resident string quartet – Sasha, Inna, Kristina and Polina – to go through what we had agreed on small scraps of paper handed to and fro during the preceding days. We tried the combination of guitar and quartet to form the title of the show – 22 strings in concert – and felt pretty pleased with the result. So at 9.30pm we performed a mixture of solo songs, quartet and ensemble pieces on a Christmas theme….and I’m sure the standing ovation at the end was for the ladies…and not for me…but I tried to bask in their reflected glory. A couple of glasses of red wine watching the late night broadcast of the Christmas Day American football game of the big screen I had hoped would ‘bring me down’, but sadly, my team the Denver Broncos were being thrashed by the Kansas City Chiefs….and so to bed, to sleep badly and then to rise early for the day ashore in this outpost of the Empire.
Having arranged through a local contact on the island for 4 friends on board to get a 4 hour private tour, I saw them off with Tony to visit penguins, battlefields and memorials…with an agreement to meet in the Globe Tavern, I set off for my walk.
The 50 or so Royal Marines who constituted the garrison for the islands in 1982 had been stationed at the barracks at Moody Brook, about 4 miles out of Stanley, and this was my target. I knew the barracks had been attacked and destroyed by the invading forces, but the site was still on my ‘want to see’ list. It was chilly, windy and bleak as I walked along the waterside away from civilisation to eventually leave the tarmac for the gravel and discover the location of the barracks. A photo or two and turning my back to the wind (which was on the increase along with the threatening rain clouds), I trudged back to Stanley. More and more guests from the ship were being brought ashore to be whisked away in various forms of transport to view the penguins and the sites of that conflict 34 years ago. I settled for a pint of locally brewed stout and sat out in the watery sunshine aware that there were groups of young men, and some young women wandering around, which in other places and circumstances might have brought anxiety and concern, but not here. Their demeanour and attitude was anything other than threatening, as they passed by, some in Santa hats, and one even proclaiming himself to be Santa’s Little Helper’. They took on ‘liquid refreshment’, and I engaged some of them in conversation. As I thought they were from the Mount Pleasant military base a few miles out of town – army, navy and air force personnel who had come to town for the Boxing Day horse racing event which forms a major part of the festive celebrations on the islands. Sadly due to bad weather over the previous 4 days, the track was waterlogged and the racing had been abandoned. No one seems to have filtered that information up to the base. I was struck by the physical appearance of these young men, most in their 30’s I guessed, and most, again I presumed to be of officer class. They had an easy camaraderie, a politeness to the bar staff, and an easy manner when in conversation with me (who they recognised as a fellow ‘Brit’!). I asked them questions – and they found out about me and my role on the ship. They wanted photos (based on the usual slightly comical perception that I have some resemblance to a famous wrestler – Hulk Hogan – but it was fun.)
I took on more beer, met my friends and we enjoyed the fish and chips. I was able to catch up with Tony on the latest developments on the island, particularly with their relationship with Argentina, and we promised to share another drink when next I am in Stanley. The wind was increasing and the rain was falling as we made our way to the tender for a rather bumpy ride back to the ship. On board we were told no one else would be debarking due to the weather….
I was wind blown, full of good food and John Smith’s bitter, and found myself giggling with pleasure at the events of the last 36 or so hours. And I pondered on the islands and the men I had met. It was so apparent that the islands were in very good hands, and if the quality of the troops we had sent in 1982 was anything like those I had just met, there was never any hope of Argentina having been able to hold those islands.
I had heard from others from time to time that a military 6 month posting to the Falklands was not popular….so I had asked a couple of guys if that was true..
One of the men said…’How can you not appreciate the history of this place, what we did, and what we are trying to do here for the people, you need to make the most it, it’s ok…you must have heard that from someone who hasn’t been in Afghanistan’