First published August 1995 Mail on Sunday’s Night & Day magazine. All photographs © Jez Coulson.
Imagine a village on the coast, where the neighbours are nice and the winters mild. Make believe a post office, a bank, three hotels and two churches. Picture a handful of shops, five pubs, a race track and a golf course. And pretend there’s a school with a teacher to nine kids and a hospital where the words ‘private health insurance’ are never uttered. Imagine to that your village has no unemployment, a negligible crime rate and streets safe enough for the children to walk down alone, no matter what the hour. Now include a village council budget of £34 million a year. Finally, accept that you are in need of urgent psychiatric help, and give the 1,600 villagers £200 billion worth of oil and mineral rights. What a village, eh?
Well, such a ‘village’ does exist and in Britain people ask of it: ‘Who would ever want to go and live there?” The village? Stanley, ‘capital city’ (one of those churches is a cathedral) of the Falkland Islands.
In 1982, my last view of the former ‘Puerto Argentina’, very briefly capital city of ‘Las Malvinas’, came from a ship’s rail. Eighteen of 2 Para dead, two battle honours’ gained, and everyone asking: what was all that about then? Don’t know, don’t care was the popular answer, just get me home. Although, as Stanley disappeared over the horizon, I did kind of half wish, half joke, that one day l might return. “For three days max.” That was my punchline. We hated the Falkland Islands. And if the truth be told we didn’t go a lot on the Falkland Islanders either. A mere 12 years, 11 months and two days later, I Finally got my ship`s rail wish and returned to the islands. In 1982 they were four weeks away by ship. Today they’re only a 15-hour, £1,000, twice weekly, no-smoking flight between us. Still, distance wise, it’s about as abroad as abroad can get. Though the first striking thing about the islands (once past the lecture on minefields while you wait for your luggage) is that it just doesn’t feel abroad. Stanley could be picked up and dropped into the British countryside and it would fit in. And It‘s more than just the language, or the money, or the clothes, or what‘s in the shops, or even the TV soaps talked about in the post office. It’s the people. Falkland Islanders have no doubts about which Test cricket team they support.
Most of us had never heard of the Falkland Islands before news pictures of Argentine marines on the streets of Stanley, grinning big, patriotic smiles reached our screens. Now, of course, we all know where they are, but surprisingly we still know very little about them. As l was to discover, we carry huge misconceptions which, hands up, I did my part in helping to create. Like most soldiers, when I came home in 1982, I sat in the pub, drank my beer, and reminisced about my battles in the coldest place on earth. Everyone listened, very impressed, as they should have been. And everyone laughed when I told the ones about the inbred islanders and worried-looking sheep. Though here’s a strange thing: I’d never spent enough time with a Falkland Islander to distinguish his or her taste in hot drinks, never mind their sexual preferences. For thousands of soldiers, who no doubt told the same jokes that I did on their return, the only contact with islanders was a passing nod on the streets of Stanley. We didn`t like them much. A few days after we’d entered Stanley, the West Store (which is still there) re-opened for business. Two queues formed outside: one for the islanders and one for us troops. To get served we had to queue and wait, and smoke, and bitch and wait some more, for literally hours. The islanders walked straight in, which didn’t seem right to us. After all, we were the ones who’d done all the fighting. (Though maybe, had the islanders been made to queue with us we would have moaned, ‘Why have we got to queue with them: we did all the fighting?)
As for the climate, winter in the Falklands is actually milder, with less rain- fall, than in Britain. I’m not saying it wasn‘t cold in 1982 – it was – but I can recall being on exercises in England and in Wales, and being much colder than I ever was on the Falkland islands. Not as tired maybe, or as scared, or as weak, but definitely colder. Yet everyone back home thought it was the coldest place on the planet, and hey, 2,000 people who live with 710,000 sheep are going to be on the end of a few mint sauce jokes no matter who they are.
Today, if British television shows any Falklands news, it tends to be in connection with money, like, for example, just how much it costs us to defend the place. Many figures have been offered via the Autocue, and if you asked, most of us wouldn’t know what it costs, or probably even have the time to care. So the distortions persist. His Excellency the Governor of the Falkland Islands, David Tatham, told me the latest: ‘Last week a British newspaper said it cost Britain a billion pounds a year. Well, that’s almost 20 times the actual figure. We’re talking about £67 million as being the cost of keeping a garrison here’. When you take into account that our troops on the islands, if not there, would be somewhere else, the figure drops below £20 million. That’s still a lot of money when measured in closed hospitals, but next to nothing when measured against our total annual defence budget of £22 billion. In and around the bars of Stanley though, the money talk of 1995 is not of defence budgets, but of the Argentine President Carlos Menem’s offer of cash for sovereignty. Basically, the good President’s deal runs like this: the Argentine government gives each and every Falkland Islander – that’s 2,120 folk – a cash amount (it has varied from £100,000 to £1m). In return the islanders renounce British sovereignty. Easy! They don’t have to move, or leave their houses or their jobs; they can keep all that. Just live under Argentine rule: i.e. flags, postage stamps, money, police, army, and any evil junta that may or may not come to power. Nor so easy.
When first hearing of the offer, I made: a joke of it, Oh that I’d met some local girl after the war, got married and had 13 kids. Could cash us all in for 15 million quid now.
And l wondered if deep down I actually even really cared whether or not the islanders took the money?