Karl Miller

After a preliminary bombardment, a party of Conservative politicians has assaulted the BBC, enraged by its treatment of the Falklands crisis. Fierce fighting took place, but there was no loss of life, as a Ministry of Defence spokesman sepulchrally confirmed.

The assault force must by now be suspecting that they overdid it: a poll, for instance, has already reported the public as over 80 per cent in sympathy with the BBC’s informative approach to the coverage of events. This is the same public which has been held to be united behind the Falklands policy of Mrs Thatcher’s government. Fishing in the troubled waters of the South Atlantic, as he has fished in others, Enoch Powell has claimed that the nation is formidable once again, by virtue of this unity, and he has since declared that ‘we must win.’ At any cost, apparently. I doubt whether we have been as unanimous as he thinks. Since the crisis broke, I have met only one person who has spoken of the policy with enthusiasm. Everyone else has seen it as rash, dangerous and damaging; a Whitehall civil servant referred, at the outset, to this ‘crazy horror’. The parties in the House of Commons were at that point more or less unable to imagine that such sentiments might exist. It is instructive that they had very little early appeal to the SDP.

Like Suez, which aroused, though very briefly, much the same rage and euphoria, the Falklands may be considered a de-colonial situation: and it is typical of such a situation that the will to possess the islands should rest with Argentina rather than Britain. It has long been generally understood that they would go in the end to Argentina: this remains the likely outcome, but it is an outcome which the Tory Right now call a sell-out. When the islands were invaded, the British Government rapidly embarked on a course which amounted to bullying the bully. The islanders’ wishes were to be paramount. The Junta was faced with demands which it was plainly impossible for them to meet. Since then, Britain has revised its position, which has latterly appeared to be the implementing of UN Resolution 502, Argentina to get off the islands, the Fleet to be withdrawn, the refusal of eventual Argentinian sovereignty as a precondition for negotiations, qualified acceptance of a UN interim. Signs and signals from Buenos Aires have at times given hope that this could produce a settlement, and that Mrs Thatcher might achieve some sort of colourable success. But even if she had, she would still have failed. Hundreds of lives have been lost. She has fought when she should have waited for as long as she could. She has shown her old ‘unilateralist’ contempt for United Nations intercession. She has made it even easier than before for there to be wars. She has lost a fair part of her support in the world.

But it is true that such a settlement would have meant she had not lost face. American officials have been credited with the view that Britain has been seeking to save face, and that this is a conflict of egos, ‘of two machismos’. The view is easy to deny (just as it is easy to deny that there has been a search for political advantage): but it is a view which it would be a mistake to dismiss. It is natural, and important, for a country which has lost so much in the way of face in the last few years to attempt to save it. That is why it was a mistake to start with a bid to ensure that Argentina lose it.

The crisis has been instructive in a number of bitter ways. We now know that we still have politicians who are quick to send other people into battle, and to insult objectors. Those of them who did not discover that Argentina was a fascist state till the day came when it seized the Falklands are incapable of grasping that it isn’t only fascists in Latin America who covet the islands, and that there are many elsewhere who see the issue of justice in this matter in a different light from themselves. Among these politicians, too, are the freedom-fighters who want to destroy the freedom of their fellow citizens to learn the truth, and who want to smash the mechanisms of editorial control in the media. Delicate and defective as these are, they should not, even temporarily, since this isn’t yet the Third World War, be put to the uses of propaganda and professional politics, and it is good that 80 per cent of people don’t want them to be. The ferocity of the assault on the BBC has in one sense been counter-expressive. It has been taken to indicate a split within the Conservative Party, and within the Conservative Government, and it can be taken to indicate that the unity of the national mood is not what has been alleged. In an open society, a consensus which has to be protected by falsehood is likely to crack. This consensus will do so soon enough if the war in the South Atlantic turns sourer still, and if tougher demands are seen to have been slipped in at this stage – as now seems influentially proposed – to justify the course which has been followed, the war which is being waged. Meanwhile the task force is poised to go in. If it does, and if it wins, the intended lesson will have been taught, the biter bit, the appeaser disproved. Or so we will be told. It is hard to argue with the defeat of an aggressor. But we shall still have the task of settling what there is to be done about the Falkland Islands.

So far, with the impressive exception of E. P. Thompson, Nuclear Disarmers have had very little to say on this subject. In the past, some of them have said that politicians were responsible for misleading or corrupting a nation of peacemongers. Things may look different now, or they may not. A country which cannot halt the murder rate in Northern Ireland has been overtaken by a surge of zeal, with warmongers confident of a hearing.

Simon Raven’s army was not like the army that has been freighted to an Armageddon in the South Atlantic. In his memoir Shadows on the Grass,[*] embellished by a fine cover from Lawrence Toynbee which does summery justice to its cricketing occasions, Raven revisits, not for the first time, the scenes of his youthful disgraces: expelled from Charterhouse for the ‘usual thing’, eased out of the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry for running up debts at the local racecourses where, as befitted an officer and a gentleman, he’d been encouraged and expected to spend his summer afternoons, obliged to leave Cambridge after further embarrassments, and to return to the colours. The school stories are stories of mischief and misconduct on the author’s part: he will keep peeing in wicked places. The sequences featuring three eventually famous friends, James Prior of Northern Ireland, Peter May of England, one of its cricket captains, and William Rees-Mogg, late of the Times, are among the tightest and funniest things he has written. May is present, while utterly silent, as a batsman of genius, and as a figure of fun and a pillar of rectitude during the urinous escapades which it is feared may shock him. All three have to deal with the taxing behaviour of the scapegrace fourth: ‘It’th quite all right, old faggot. The Law shays I can go on either of your off-shide wheelsh.’ At all times, Prior’s judgment is greatly respected.

We are a long way now from South Georgia, repossessed for ‘Her Britannic Majesty’: but the communiqués from that quarter have revealed in expression an element of the archaic which has a counterpart, not only in the Thucydidean comparisons of leader pages, but in this coincidental memoir. Nearly all its acceptable people talk the same patois, which shines through its varieties of affected speech. The patois is measured, syntactical, Classical. ‘I fear lest Bags would deprecate the whole proceeding,’ warns the Roman, the proconsular, Prior. I fear, in passing, that for the very strictest grammarians ‘lest’ may require a subjunctive.

Cricket matches are lovingly replayed; old scores are kept; and old scores are settled, scatologically. Raven ‘sees plain’ this or that eminent writer: E. M. Forster, for instance, who is blamed for meanness, and Forster’s friend Joe Ackerley, who concurs with the author in apportioning that blame. I first saw Simon plain when he came skipping out of a bank in Cambridge: it was as if he had robbed it – and so, in a manner of speaking, he had. Dressed in somebody else’s suit, he was overjoyed to have been falsely found insolvent by the branch and to have received a fat sum in requital: not an experience he was familiar with at that time. At that time he was a byword in Cambridge – whispered about as the stylish, gifted patrician rotter. On acquaintance, however, he seemed strikingly at odds with the legend – friendly and civil. I use the word ‘rotter’ advisedly, and without defamatory intent. It is prominent in his book, which has not allowed the legend to wither on the vine.

The youthful Raven looked back with regret at an old England made safe for grace, beauty and straight bats, for the effronteries of the golden-hearted rotter – the era of the bad egg, and of the plover’s egg for breakfast, with champagne. Then Labour ruined it. ‘It’s graft and grind from now on.’ There was a rotter in what could have been the first novel I ever read: Grim and Gay by, conceivably, Sir Philip Gibbs. This rotter was adored by an acquiescent master (there are several such masters in this memoir), who praised him as ‘a boy of character’. ‘Yes,’ said someone else, darkly: ‘bad character.’ Simon paints himself here as a boy whose character was both bad and good, as a rotter who was also a judge of rotters. He also paints himself as an incipient woman-hater. In those days, ‘one still thought women worth the effort.’ Shortly after he says this, a bad brigadier remarks that subalterns are ‘pestered morning, noon and night by Jews or women’. This brigadier is portrayed as a rotter who calls Raven a rotter. Raven later remarks of a set of malingerers and conscientious objectors that ‘they were a rotten crowd and played the wretched sort of cricket one might have expected of them.’ Raven is then himself accused at the wicket of ‘rotten sportsmanship’: on being falsely declared out, he is told, ‘a gentleman would have walked.’ But he confounds his accuser with one of his displays of 18th-century reason. One way and another, he is a more complex man than the legend admits, or than his own book fully admits. This idler’s maturity has not been innocent of graft and grind. Over the juvenile misconduct falls the shadow of a termagant mother. Not the least of the old scores.

‘As Pericles said of women, a wicket-keeper should be noticed neither for good nor ill.’ This is an acquiescent master speaking. Simon corrected the quotation on the spot, but came to feel as Pericles did about women, or to pretend to. So did Joe Ackerley, whose recent diaries make him out to have been a hater of women, of his sister, and of the working class. Well, there are complexities in Ackerley’s case, as in Raven’s. I was once in a ward full of women, mostly black and working class, who included Nancy Ackerley, the sister of these diaries. That evening, Joe’s gentlemanly voice echoed through the ward – as far as one could hardly help overhearing, the note was patient and consoling. A soup was brought round, to be greeted with cries of outrage from the women – ululations, as Virgil might have put it. What was this? they yelled. Joe was equal to the occasion: ‘I think it’s some kind of minestrone.’ Then home to the diaries – to say what earlier in the evening had been left unsaid.

Having praised a friend’s book, I am the less reluctant to praise another friend’s book. Here again I am able to do so with rather more zest than reasons of the heart would be sufficient to account for. Martin Green – like Raven, a reader, a writer, a drinker and a sportsman, but no rotter – revived a defunct pub in a remote corner of wild Welsh Wales. Similar to Dylan Thomas’s Llaregyb and not far from Thomas’s Laugharne, the town was as silent as the grave or as Peter May. It was rainy, hairy and eerie. Martin Green gets his stories together, and tells, very well, how it all went for this Londoner, under Milk Wood, in the wet.[†]

[*] Shadows on the Grass. By Simon Raven. Blond and Briggs, 227 pp., £7.95, 26 April, 0 85634 125 8.

[†] A Year in the Drink. By Martin Green. Fontana, 186 pp., £1.75, 10 May, 0 00 636488 8.