Short Cuts

Jenny Diski

I can’t say that I’ve ever had a strong opinion – or any opinion – about Sean Penn. I may have watched a film he was in, and I booked but didn’t get as far as the cinema to see The Tree of Life. In future, I’ll be hanging on his every word. He finds Britain ‘colonialist, ludicrous and archaic’ for hanging on to the Malvinas, and refusing to try and come to an agreement with Argentina. The Telegraph isn’t pleased with him, and the Mail calls him ‘vainglorious and ill-informed’, though the adjectives he chose seem remarkably informed to me.

Although I’ve tried to block it out, some scratchy old feminist record in my head keeps suggesting that the ludicrous, archaic colonialists who want to keep the Malvinas British are feeling even more annoyed than usual. This time the demand for a logical jurisdiction over islands which, while nowhere near anywhere (or even each other), are nearer to Argentina than anywhere else, especially Britain, is coming from an Argentinian president who is also a woman, and a middle-aged woman at that. The photos in the British papers show a good-looking woman getting older, but not hiding either the looking good or the getting older. The Penguin News, the media outlet of the islands, called her ‘a bitch’, which, as the Argentinian papers explained, could be translated into Spanish as perra and is an ‘Anglo-Saxon term … signifying disrespect’. But I think that insult is a response to a much more devastating insult. Who went to war to keep the Falklands British? Our one and only woman PM, the future Baroness Thatcher of the concrete hairdo, armoured handbag and pussy-bow. Our very own Britannia’s victory (‘Rejoice, rejoice’) is being challenged by an upstart Latin perra with loose hair and a fluid dress, a woman who dares to bring the matter up again, when it was all so definitively done and dusted by our very English Iron Lady, who to make things all the more poignant (or aggravating) is now just a shadow of her former self.

So too is the British Empire, which persists, against all the evidence, in reimagining itself ruling the waves and capable of decently governing even its local citizens. There might be some who find a touching irony in Meryl Streep’s mentally diminished and aged baroness cut against her glory days, but what can there be but embarrassment at the sight of a backwater in the world-power game puffing itself up like an elephant seal to fight for its colonies? Gore Vidal once said that England should become one of the ‘lands’ and understand its geographical and political place in the world: Iceland, Newfoundland, Greenland, England. If that’s too hard to bear, we could at least look to Scandinavia (does the recent Saturday-night obsession with Swedish and Danish domestic murder and politics signify a will to understand this?) and consider it a boon to have a decent welfare and education system that doesn’t have to compete with a world-power military budget?

It is grim to have to be told an accurate truth about our place in the world by an American film actor. It isn’t only the papers who are furious. Ben Fogle, who currently has a programme on TV in which he swims with crocodiles (I don’t know what else, if anything, he does), is not standing for it. The Telegraph reported his twitter comment: ‘I would like to take Sean Penn and place him in the jaws of one of those crocodiles.’ Damn fine response.

Instead of putting Penn in the Tower, the British have sent a prince in a helicopter, David Willetts and a nuclear submarine to the South Atlantic to show the Argentinians who they’re messing with. Not unreasonably, their foreign minister has made an official complaint to the UN about the submarine – William and Willetts they can take in their stride. The British ambassador to the UN had nothing to say about nuclear submarines but claimed it was ‘manifestly absurd’ to say that Britain was militarising the region, while that organ of the Ministry of Defence, the Daily Mail, announced that a Trafalgar-class nuclear-powered submarine had been deployed, but was only armed with conventional weapons. As I see it, even bows and arrows would be an extreme response to Kirchner’s statement that the ‘Malvinas is not an Argentine issue, it is a global issue because they are taking our energy and fishing resources out of the Malvinas and when they require more resources – and those of you who have resources think about this – their (armed) forces will go and seek out those resources wherever and however they see fit.’ At any rate, we have confirmed her fears. It’s true we’re a bit desperate and could use the offshore oil and gas, but that doesn’t mean we ought to have it when the shore it is off is not ours.

One of the saddest things I’ve seen was in one of the saddest of places, Grytviken in South Georgia, the other Falkland island. Ernest Shackleton is buried in the picket-fenced cemetery up on the hill behind the old whaling settlement. Nearby is the grave of Felix Artuso, his name and date of death (26.04.82) burned into a white-painted wooden cross. He’d been a sailor on the Argentinian submarine Santa Fe, which was damaged by a British depth charge and surrendered to the marines at King Edward Point. According to an MoD board of inquiry, Artuso was killed while working as a prisoner of war on a repair of the Santa Fe when a marine, who saw the expression on his face change and thought that he was either going for a weapon or trying to scuttle the ship, took out his gun and shot him. In fact, Artuso was unarmed. When I was there, Artuso’s and Shackleton’s carefully tended graves each had a small bunch of fresh wild flowers at the foot of the cross. The British soldiers had buried Artuso there with full military honours at the request of his family; and painted a blue and white striped Argentinian flag under his name. Fifteen years later, a soldier called Andy told me a different story – Artuso, he said, had been one of a party who pretended to be scrap-metal merchants and briefly took South Georgia – but it still ended in the unarmed Artuso being shot by a marine. ‘It’s what happens in war,’ Andy said respectfully.

Sad, even a little charming, but around nine hundred people died in the Falklands adventure which gave Margaret Thatcher breathing space during the recession of the early 1980s and boosted her popularity ratings just in time to save her leadership of the Tory Party and to bring her victory (‘Rejoice, rejoice’) in the 1983 election. While it’s true that David Cameron’s popularity is higher than it should be, another war over the Falklands could be just the thing, when the domestic unpleasantness becomes too much even for Tory agitprop to handle. Cristina Kirchner’s timing might have been ordered by the coalition.