Saturday, June 23, 2007

Sheep Farming in the Falklands

The Celebrating Sanctuary refugee music festival last weekend (see earlier post) was rudely interrupted by the sound of assorted airborne killing machines flying past at low altitude. Indeed at Gabriel's Wharf on London's South Bank there was the surreal spectacle of a socialist choir (Raised Voices) performing a version of the Internationale being drowned out by military helicopters.

The occasion was apparently an event to remember the 25th anniversary of the Falklands War. The crowd in Whitehall and around Buckingham Palace was the opposite of the diverse crowd of New Londoners gathered on the other side of the river - mainly white and looking back nostalgically to past imperial adventures. A crowd that cheered Margaret Thatcher in a ceremony that 'concluded with the massed ranks singing Rod Stewart's contemporary hit I am Sailing, with rear admirals, former squaddies, Prince Charles and the prime minister's wife seen joining in'.

The Falklands/Malvinas conflict was a squalid affair. On the one side was the fading Argentinian military dictatorship facing growing unrest, on the other a Conservative government in its first term of office keen to blood its armed forces and rally patriotic support after a year of mass unemployment and urban riots. Over 900 people died in an argument about which flag would fly over a sparsely populated group of islands in the South Atlantic.

The short but bloody war inspired a number of songs, the best of which is undoubtedly Shipbuilding, written by Elvis Costello and Clive Langer for Robert Wyatt, and later recorded by Costello himself on his Punch the Clock album. This lament links the war, unemployment and industrial decline, featuring the lump-in-the-throat lyrical gem 'diving for dear life, when we could be diving for pearls'.

The Argentinian Junta had been sold British arms prior to the conflict, a point highlighted by Billy Bragg in his Island of No Return: 'I never thought that I would be, Fighting fascists in the Southern Sea, I saw one today and in his hand, Was a weapon that was made in Birmingham'. Bragg had only bought himself out of the army in 1981, so had had a lucky escape from being dispatched 'to a party way down South'.

The most sustained assault on the war and its instant mythology came from Crass. When How Does It Feel To Be The Mother of 1000 Dead? was released in 1982 there were calls in Parliament for it be banned. It is a fairly straightforward anarcho-punk anti-war rant with lyrics like 'Throughout our history you and your kind have stolen the young bodies of the living to be twisted and torn in filthy war'. The following year's Sheep Farming in the Falklands is more specific, sticking the boot into 'Winston Thatcher', The Sun newspaper and the monarchy: 'The Royals donated Prince Andrew as a show of their support, was it just luck the only ship that wasn't struck was the one on which he 'fought'?" Their most audacious act was to feature a picture of Falklands 'hero' Simon Weston on their album Yes Sir I Will. The title came from the badly-burned Weston's reply to Prince Charles wishing him to 'get well soon'. For Crass such apparent servility to crown and country simply meant obedience to the war machine.

There were other punk efforts. The Exploited released Let's Start a War (said Maggie one day), while New Model Army's Spirit of the Falklands saw the war as a cynical diversion from the home front: 'The natives are restless tonight sir, Cooped up on estates with no hope in sight, They need some kind of distraction, We can give them that'.

Rod Stewart's Sailing wasn't written for the Falklands (it actually came out in 1977), but this dreadful dirge has twice been pushed into the patriotic service. As well as being adopted as an unofficial anthem for the Navy in the Falklands War, it was also the record that was officially declared as the Number One Single in the Queen's Jubilee Week 1977, widely believed to have been a ploy to disguise the fact that the best selling record was actually The Sex Pistols' God Save the Queen.

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