Diary

Clive James

As fifty thousand people in Warsaw
March for Walesa and for Solidarity,
They rate, beside the South Atlantic war,
The same space as a fun run staged for charity.
The Falklands dwarf even El Salvador,
Which ought to be a ludicrous disparity,
But clear-cut issues fought out to a finish
Have sex appeal no slaughter can diminish.

Port Stanley’s airstrip is the first thing hurt,
Bombed by a Vulcan and a pack of Harriers.
No skin and hair fly with the grass and dirt.
Unharmed back to Ascension and the carriers
Go all the planes. This war seems snugly girt,
Like some Grand Prix, with crash-proof safety barriers.
It would be fun to watch it on TV
Instead of that chap from the MOD.

You couldn’t call the way he talks laconic,
Which mainly means not to be too effusive.
What few words come from this guy are subsonic.
While waiting for the point you grow abusive.
And yet it adds up to a national tonic
For reasons which to my mind prove elusive,
Unless based on a firm belief that God
Speaks to one people and spares them the rod.

Indeed the other side is first to find
Even a sand-tray war costs full-sized lives.
Summoned by noise of a familiar kind
The Exterminating Angel now arrives.
Perhaps, although like Justice he is blind,
It riles him that the gauchos fight with knives:
At any rate, they are the ones he picks
To prove that punctured ships go down like bricks.

Their cruiser the Belgrano takes a hit
Opening up her side to the cold sea,
Which enters in and there’s an end of it.
Hundreds of sailors either can’t swim free
Or can but freeze, and prayers don’t help a bit
Nor raise the temperature by one degree.
The fire is just to burn those who don’t drown
As too full of young voices she goes down.

This is the finest hour of Mail and Star.
The Sun especially is cock-a-hoop,
Shouting commands as if at Trafalgar.
Swab out the trunnion cleats and calk that poop!
What terrifying warriors they are,
These slewed slop-slingers of the slipshod sloop
El Vino, which each lunchtime takes them south
Into the raging gales of the loud mouth.

A scrivener myself, I should not gripe.
The natural consequence of a free press
Must be that hacks are well paid to write tripe.
One normally feels more scorn than distress
At clichés ready set in slugs of type,
But this exceeds the usual heartlessness:
Faced with a raucous clamour so mind-bending
You wonder if free speech is worth defending.

The war dance falters. Foam dries on the lips
As word by drawn-out word the news comes through:
The Sheffield, one of our most modern ships,
A spanking, Sea Dart-armed type 42
Destroyer built to wipe out radar blips,
A Space Invaders expert’s dream come true,
Is hit. With what’s so far an untold cost
In lives. Has burned. Is given up for lost.

An Etendard released an Exocet
Which duly skimmed the waves as advertised.
Our tabloids wring what mileage they can get
Out of French perfidy, but undisguised
Is their amazement such a classy jet
Flown by these dagoes that they’ve patronised
Should leave the runway, let alone deliver
This thing so clever that it makes you shiver.

Imagination, if it slept before,
Is now awake and fully occupied
By what’s occurred and still might be in store.
With closed eyes you can see the way they died
The bulkheads hot as a reactor core,
The air the same to breathe as cyanide.
And now that the grim news has got us thinking,
Think of the Canberra broken-backed and sinking.

With all at risk there is a pause for thought,
But lest the nation’s troubled heart grow faint
El Vino without ever leaving port
Fires paper salvoes that confer the taint
Of Traitor on the doubtful. All those caught
Equivocating must dodge yellow paint
Which flies in dollops like wet chamois leathers
Whilst air-burst cardboard shells disgorge white feathers.

My own view is we ought to go ahead
Even though press support brings only shame.
But my view’s that of one with a warm bed
While others face the shrapnel and the flame.
What can you do except note with due dread
The other side in this case are to blame
And would, unless constrained to go away,
Keep what they took though talking till Doomsday?

Such elementary thoughts make me feel dull.
Rarely is it so simple to be right.
But for the nonce there is a blessed lull.
It’s possible the UN still just might
Ensure we’ve seen the last cracked-open hull
And fighter plane turned to a fire in flight.
The mind, robbed of its surfeit of raw action,
Spoiled for the real now searches for distraction.

Snooker on television is the moral
Equivalent of war. Man against man,
It is a pitiless yet bloodless quarrel
Racking the nerves behind the deadened pan.
Slowly a break accumulates like coral
Yet has the logic of a battle plan.
Fought out on a flat sea within four walls
Well has this conflict been called chess with balls.

This year the final’s between two ex-champs.
Veteran Ray Reardon’s cool, calm and collected,
While Alex Higgins twitches and gets cramps
Whenever from his headlong rush deflected.
I’d like to keep a foot in both these camps,
Believing the two styles, deep down, connected.
They fight it to a finish frame by frame
And no one doubts it’s more than just a game.

Higgins has won and as the fuss subsides
We realise that a game is all it is:
A fish-tank show of strength by fortune’s tides,
A show-case for old smoothness and young fizz,
Where Reardon’s neatly brushed short back and sides
Bow out with good grace to a lank-haired whizz,
And from the Crucible, their battlefield,
Nobody needs to go home on a shield.

But now on Friday, 21st of May
We hear what happens in a proper fight.
Eight thousand miles south in San Carlos Bay
The invasion has been going on all night.
Men on both sides have really died today.
The bridgehead’s been wide open since first light.
Out in the Sound our gun-line ships pump flak
Through which their planes fly low to the attack.

I’m speaking as an armchair strategist
Who’s been through every scrap since Ma athon
When I suggest (some colleagues would insist)
Amphibious assaults are just not on
Unless you’ve got the air clasped in your fist.
This is the biggest gamble since Inchon,
And there the Yanks had more planes than they knew
Quite what do do with. We’ve got precious few.

Not that the Harrier falls short of being
A modern miracle of engineering.
When it performs you can’t grasp what you’re seeing:
A frisbee fork-lift truck with power steering,
It floats, flies backwards, stem-turns as if skiing –
The thing’s a runabout for Wilma Deering.
The Argentines are suitably outclassed
But still get through by going low and fast.

No pictures except those in the mind’s eye
Exist to give some inkling of the scene.
The Skyhawks and Mirages come mast-high,
We’re told, but must suppose what those words mean.
Our rockets rush to burst them as they fly
Like thrown milk bottles full of kerosene,
But back along their line of flight the bay
Seeded by bombs grows tall white trees of spray.

So it goes on but can’t go on forever
Without ships hit by something worse than spume.
Brave pilots die in swarms but their endeavour
Is part-rewarded when a bomb finds room
Inside the frigate Ardent, there to sever
Her spinal column like a lowered boom.
We’re also told they’ve hit the Antelope
But that bomb was a dud and she can cope.

It wasn’t. Twenty hours from being struck
The Antelope erupts in the dark night.
Having no pictures might be our good luck:
Without doubt it’s a mesmerising sight.
The mere sound is enough to make you duck,
But what might really make us choke with fright
Would be to see the troopships the next morning
Still looming there in spite of that grim warning.

Ashore in strength, our soldiers now advance.
The Pope’s at Gatwick with the same intention.
It could be said he’s taking the same chance
Of getting shot, but let’s not even mention
That possibility as the slow dance
Of ritual opens with his condescension
To kiss the tarmac, which this osculation
No doubt excites to transubstantiation.

The Popemobile moves off on its campaign
Of conquest, firing fusillades of prayer.
Appropriate response I find a strain,
Suspecting that this pontiff talks hot air
And only got the part when Michael Caine
Turned cold on the long frocks he’d have to wear.
But thousands of young Catholics seemed delighted
As if he were the Beatles reunited.

Without fail each rock-concert-sized crowd
Goes mad while the old boy lays down the law.
It seems that birth control’s still not allowed.
Also he deeply disapproves of war.
His fans are all too busy being wowed
To search these propositions for a flaw.
He might as well be singing ‘Love me tender’.
They shout and put their hands up in surrender.

Soon now the Argentines will do that too.
Their Skyhawks still punch large holes in our fleet
But in Port Stanley they must know they’re through.
The paras and marines slog through the peat
Towards them looking too tough to be true.
A chilling enough spectre of defeat
To make those poor young hungry conscripts wary
About the last stand promised by Galtieri.

Reminding us that it’s not over yet
The Coventry is lost and in Bluff Cove
The prospect that has always made one sweat
Comes true. The Skyhawks find their treasure trove:
A loaded troopship, which they promptly set
Ablaze like a defective petrol stove.
We’re given just the name, Sir Galahad.
No figures, which suggests they might be bad.

That was the nightmare from the very start,
The sea full of drowned soldiers, but the dread
Is dulled by distance to a thing apart.
Israel’s ambassador is left for dead
In London, which one tends to take to heart.
He lies there with a bullet in the head.
Israel strikes north into the Lebanon
And instantly another war is on.

Reagan rides into London looking grey
Around the gills at how the world is going.
By this, of course, I do not mean to say
His make-up’s worn off and the real skin’s showing:
Just that the outer pancake’s flaked away
To show the thick foundation wanly glowing,
Cracked by his smile of disbelief at meeting
Lord Hailsham dressed for the official greeting.

If Reagan’s jet-black hair seems slightly strange,
What about Hailsham’s wig, sword, socks and cape?
The President when dressed to ride the range
Looks weird, but not as if he’s going ape.
For Reagan it must make at least a change
Wondering how they let this nut escape,
As backwards Hailsham goes with a low bow
Showing him where the boys sit down to chow.

The Falklands war ends and Galtieri falls:
His hawk-like features drawn as a wet sheet,
He takes a minimum of curtain calls
And finds, outside the stage door in the street,
That though his mouth continues to spout balls
His tears have made mud pies of his clay feet,
And so he has to crawl instead of walk
Home to a house full of his empty talk.

One counts the hundreds dead in the Atlantic
And feels regretful at the very least,
But as wars go it rated as romantic
Beside the shambles in the Middle East,
Where thousands are dead, maimed or driven frantic
As round Beirut the steel squeeze is increased
Some say the Jews have been transmogrified
To Nazis, and that this is Genocide.

One doesn’t have to be a Zionist
To spot the weakness in this parallel.
Begin strikes me as still the terrorist
He started off as and a fool as well,
But bad though things now look, one must insist
That war is war. The Holocaust was Hell.
For Begin, children’s deaths seem incidental.
For Adolf Hitler they were fundamental,

The Nazis sought complete obliteration,
Women and children being top priority.
The PLO’s a warlike armed formation
Whose goal – we have it on their own authority –
Is Israel’s disappearance as a nation.
No nonsense about rights for the minority,
Just dumb insistence that the hated state
Should make its mind up to evaporate.

The Jews won’t sit still twice for being slaughtered.
The Palestinians will fight to live.
Justice and mercy will be drawn and quartered.
Things will be done a saint could not forgive.
The towns and cities will be bombed and mortared
Until like hot sand they fall through a sieve,
And on the day that blood turns into wine
There will be peace again in Palestine.

My Biblical locutions you’ll excuse:
The Royal Birth, if not a new Nativity,
Is everywhere regarded as Good News
Except by those of levelling proclivity
Who think the common folk do not enthuse
At such shows of élitist exclusivity
From choice, but somehow cheer because they’ve got to,
Being by glamour too bedazzled not to.

War-leader Thatcher, having proved her nerve,
Now rants of a new spirit sweeping Britain,
But peace is not war and high talk won’t serve
For long to stop the biter getting bitten.
Let’s hope the lorries don’t run short of derv:
Even as this last couplet’s being written
The London Tube strike’s trumped by British Rail.
Which stops dead too but on a larger scale.

A Borgless Wimbledon soaks up the rain
Which falls like a monsoon arriving late.
Al Haig resigns with every sign of strain:
Someone called Shultz is now in charge at State.
The new prince is named William. The odd train
Starts up again as if to celebrate,
But Aslef thinks a moving train just fosters
Flexible notions with regard to rosters.

Ray Buckton therefore plans a whole new strike.
Meanwhile the members of the SDP
Mark ballot slips to name the man they’d like
To lead them on the stroll to destiny.
The polls and press say Roy will need a bike:
Young Owen’s gone too far ahead to see.
Fuelled by the Falklands Factor Owen’s flowered
And left Roy looking rather underpowered.

Most members of the SDP, however,
Joined in the first place to see Roy PM.
No question Dr Owen’s very clever:
The elder statesman’s still the man for them,
They vote to prove the Falklands business never
Made hazy the true terminus ad quem.
The thing that matters is the next election,
Not smart young David’s feelings of rejection.

Though disappointed, Owen takes it well.
One might just say the same for McEnroe.
Outplayed by Connors he does not raise hell
But mainly hangs his head in silent woe.
He lurks like a sick crab in a dull shell.
His only tantrum is to drag his toe,
And when a cross-court drive goes nowhere near it
Say ‘fuck it’ where the umpire cannot hear it.

Off home flies McEnroe in deep dejection,
His face a sweet potato cooked in steam.
But this time his behaviour bore inspection,
The usual nightmare merely a bad dream.
One looks upon him almost with affection
And hopes the British World Cup football team
Will similarly take the setback stoically
If it transpires they don’t do so heroically.

A goalless draw with Spain wipes out the chance
Britain was in with. Miffed at how we muffed it,
The British fans, deprived now of romance,
Regain the sad hotels in which they’ve roughed it
And ponder at great length the fact that France
Was the one team to whom we really stuffed it.
Many a fan’s bald head shows the deep crease
Made by the impact of the Spanish police.

Young men of Britain sleep now at Goose Green
In plastic bags lined up in a long grave.
Large speeches were engendered by that scene
Of how our Comprehensive lads were brave.
But now, as if the war had never been,
The thrill is gone and when yobs misbehave
In youthful ways that tend towards the strenuous,
Thatcher’s New Spirit looks a trifle tenuous.

A young man penetrates Buck House by night
And duns the Monarch for a cigarette.
It’s her behalf on which we all take fright,
Loath to admit the idea makes us sweat
Of some dark whisper asking for a light ...
But this chill prospect’s easily offset,
For though the endless train strike makes you chafe
It means rail travel’s absolutely safe.