There’s one area of the high-class Buenos Aires city centre that’s pretty much like Leicester Square. Except it’s not a square, it’s two streets. But they are filled with huge cinemas and entertainment centres that had queues that I wouldn’t join if they were for the last loaf in town.
One of the cinemas was showing ‘Sink the Belgrano’. Naturally enough, I had to go in.
So, anyway, I’m sitting in this packed cinema in downtown Buenos Aires, watching ‘Hundan al Belgrano’. And I’m thinking if you had tried telling me that one when I was up to my neck in mud, blood and sheep shit, I would have thought “battle fatigue”.
And it got better. Or worse. Because there I was, up on the screen, running around the beach at Fitzroy, with the Galahad burning in the back-ground, and 50 Welsh soldiers dead or dying out of camera shot. Who’d believe, hey? And yet, is it really that strange? The film was about the Falklands and I was there. It was being shown, 14 years on, in a cinema in Argentina, and I was there also. Perfectly reasonable. But I wouldn’t like to put it in a novel.
At one point, early in the film, the narrator said something that was accompanied on screen by a Union Jack swallowing up a map of the South Atlantic. The audience, as one, let out a knowing laugh, in an ‘Oh-they-think-so-do-they’ sort of way. Then something else was said and a chorus of boos went up.
And I surprised myself, because I didn’t like it when they booed my flag. Now me, I’m cool, okay. I know war is wrong and I also know that the jingoism got neither side anywhere. I’ve wept tears for Argentine mothers, I understand how we were all victims. So I’m Mister Bleeding Heart Compassionate on all things Falklands. I am.
But sitting in a cinema in Argentina, 14 years on, I couldn’t stop myself sniggering: “You lot, you can boo all you like. Don’t mean shit – because their fucking ours. Ha. Ha.”
Then on came Tam Dalyell. And everyone around me had to start reading subtitles. But oh – the words of Senor Dalyell, were poetry to their eyes. So me, I get angry again. But I keep it to myself because I am the single Chelsea fan sitting among Highbury season-ticket holders. Tam was going on, as he does, about the Belgrano and the Peruvian peace plan and the direction of the ship, and blah, blah, blah. And I think: “Not in front of the Argies, Tam.” And I want to jump up and shout: “Traitor!” at the screen. Which is not right. And I told myself so. But another voice told me to shut up. Asked: “Whose side are you on boy? Remember, some of your mates are buried there.”
Up to that point, I had taken Buenos Aires in my stride, and any thoughts that I felt needed to be stored on paper could be divided into two neat categories: The Falklands war, of course, and the long legged women of Buenos Aires.
In a bar on Saint Martin Street one night, watching tight-skirted bundles of lust flirt by, I hit upon the perfect joke for Argentine ears: “General Galtieri got it all wrong. He should have dispatched 10,000 Argentine women to the Falklands. I would have laid down and said: ‘Take me baby. I’d love to be your prisoner.’ ” Every time I told it, it went down well. It didn’t matter who I told it to. Right-Wing. Left-Wing. Girl. Boy. Soldier. Civilian. It was a hoot.
Only once, among close friends, did I turn the joke around and slap a bit of reality over it. I was actually a British Paratrooper, I explained, and if they were shooting at me, I would have shot and bayoneted holes in Argentinians, no matter how female or attractive they were. Yes, sir.
With hindsight I can see that Buenos Aires was actually strange from day one. And maybe it was my own vanity that prevented me from seeing it at the time. My English-speaking contact told me that a friend who, by chance, that very night, was getting a film show together in a hall somewhere downtown. The film was to be about the Malvinas Islands. Well, that’s me, that is. Sort of thing I’m here for – so we’re on our way.
What we were heading for was actually a gathering of Argentine patriots – and this is Buenos Aires, so why not? – who were having a get-together to watch a film and have a good natter about the voyage of a yacht that bobbed the ocean waves from Argentina to the Falklands. Or to their much-loved, sadly missed, stolen “Malvinas.”
The hall downtown was actually a modern conference centre and on its second floor we found the auditorium where ‘Valeros En Malvinas’ was making its world premiere. On our arrival, I was introduced to the senor who had organised the event. He was in his early forties, I’d guess, slightly overweight all over, very smartly dressed and he spoke perfect English. Which I later found out was the product of a private education in one of Buenos Aires’s English schools. And they’re expensive.
So, we shake hands, and, as you do, I say: “Hi, Ken Lukowiak.” And then he suddenly gasps, looks amazed, taps the palm of his right hand on his forehead and says: “Ken Lukowiak. I can’t believe this, Ken Lukowiak. That I should ever meet you, the author of The Song of the Soldier.” I swear.
Anyway, ten seconds into knowing this man, I love him. I do. And it got better. Because not only had he read my book, but he must have studied it with the Open University. He knew every line. Or at least the Spanish translations of them.
“In England it’s called A Soldier’s Song” was about all I could squeeze in.
“Of course, I know this” he said in reply.
And then he started to explain what some of my words said to him. What they made him think. He picked up on something I had written about the British Remembrance saying “At the rising of the sun and the setting of the same – we shall remember them.”
I wrote: “For me, these words are a lie. When I awake each day, my mind rarely recalls the dead I once knew. It’s usually occupied by thoughts of how I am going to pay the outstanding bills I have pinned to my kitchen wall or what the day before me might hold.” And so on.
So he says that, to him, the fact that I don’t remember the dead every day is incredible. Each morning, he explained, on his journey to work and then on his way home again in the evening, he passes the “Malvinas” monument and he remembers. “How can you not remember your dead comrades?” he asked.
Well, I think he’s misunderstood me. So I try to explain. “Look, I’m not saying that I don’t remember my dead mates. Of course I remember them. It’s just that I struggle to make it a twice-a-day ritual.”
By this time I’m assuming he must be a veteran himself. But, just in case he isn’t, I ask “Were you on the islands during the war?”
“Unfortunately not” he replies sadly.
He had volunteered, of course, but, alas, his country had felt no need of him. I can see by his face and the tone of his voice that he looks back on this piece of life-rejection as about the saddest, most unjust thing that has ever happened or could ever happen to him.
So, I put on an understanding face, one that showed I realised just how unfair, and stupid, the decision not to send him had been. But inside I felt like saying: “Get real, pal. If you had the shit bombed, shot and then bayoneted out of you up on Mount Fucking Whatever, you wouldn’t have thought it ‘unfortunate’ had your invitation to the party not arrived. Dickhead,”
Too cruel, I know. But crap like that brings out the best in me. Thankfully, before I had to be polite some more, the need arose for him to go and get the evening’s proceedings underway.
It started with him making a speech, which was in Spanish, so I didn’t get a lot of it. But whatever it was, it was delivered very sincerely and the crowd of 60 or so certainly appreciated it. And then another five or six guys, who turned out had been crew members aboard the yacht that the film was about, got up in turns and made similar, softly spoken, sincere speeches. And I use the word sincere not in a mocking way – make no mistake, your Argentinians are very sincere about everything to do with the Falkland Islands. Or, as they see them, their much loved, sadly missed, stolen “Malvinas”.
Eventually, the film starts and I discover, which is handy for me, that one of the crew is an English man called Paul and, when Paul gets to have his windswept say to the camera, I learn the gist of the plot, which is that this group of men plus one woman are sailing to the Falkland as a sort of protest thing. When they finally get to the islands, they naturally want to pop ashore and stretch the old legs, even though they know they won’t be allowed to, because Argentine passport holders are not allowed on the Falklands. Which is where Paul comes into it, because he’s got a British passport. Now, what they want Paul to do, if he does get ashore, is to deliver a sack of Christmas cards to the little “Kelper” children from their little brothers and sisters on the mainland.
Well, how I stopped myself laughing I do not know. Sentimental buggers. The last thing the little children of the Falkland Islands want is Christmas cards from the little kiddies whose country put armed troops on their streets. This might be very sad – but it’s sadly understandable.
So our gallant Argies, plus one, only get to bob around for a while in the waters off Port Stanley, look rock-like and wronged at the land ahoy, before pulling anchor and setting off back home. And my silent conclusion is that every single one of them is a raving loco.
But then, after the film had finished, I was introduced to one of the crew members, a Senor Ignacio Gorriti. Ignacio had been a soldier during the war. He fought on Mount Harriet against the Royal Marines and the conflict has been a large part of his mind ever since. We shook hands and both asked and answered the same first question: “Where were you on the islands?” Then Ignacio began to reminisce about going off one day to look for a battery for a radio. And I said: “I’ve heard of you.” And I had, because Ignacio was one of the soldiers featured in my very favourite book on the Falklands war, ‘Fight for the Malvinas’, by Martin Middlebrook.
Ignacio and I were interrupted by the reappearance of Mr English Public School. He was sorry, but he had to go and he wanted to ask me a question before he did. Fire away.
“Why did you kill the soldier on Wireless Ridge when you knew a ceasefire had been called?”
I explained that the soldier had a rifle and it was him or me. “But surely,” he pressed, “you could have shouted that the war was over”
Before I could come up with a reply that, once again didn’t begin with the words: “Get real, pal”, Ignacio jumped in on my behalf and pointed out that battlefield etiquette’s just not like that. The man seemed to accept that and with a short hand-shake, which was more than a little cold, he sulked off. “They don’t understand,” said Ignacio, “They can never know what it was like on those hills for us.”
When it was time for me and Ignacio to go our separate ways , we shook hands once more and then, with no words, we fell into something I had waited 14 years for. An embrace with my one-time enemy. And over the years I had fantasied that it would be a tearful event. But it wasn’t. With my chin resting on Ignacio’s shoulder, all I could do was smile. Then we both said: “Goodbye, my friend.”
I left the conference centre on that moon-warmed, beautiful Buenos Aires night, with not a care in the world. It never entered my head to think over the questions I had been asked about the life I had ended on Wireless Ridge. And that was a mistake on my part. A big mistake.