Falkland Sound: Experiencing Life on the Islands

Whisper #181

Royal Fleet Auxiliary memorial for the Sir Galahad and Sir Tristram, Falkland Islands
Royal Fleet Auxiliary memorial for the Sir Galahad and Sir Tristram logistics ships, both heavily damaged with fatalities, situated at Fitzroy, East Falkland
Photo by Brad Birch © The Artist Browse and license our images

In 1982, the British Overseas Territory of The Falkland Islands was the subject of a ten week undeclared war. In the third of four blogs, Brad Birch, the writer of a new play about the conflict, Falkland Sound, talks about meeting the people of the islands and hearing how the conflict shaped their lives.

It was mid-flight, when going through my plan for my two-and-a-half-week fact-finding trip to the Falkland Islands, that I heard my first Falkland accent. I realised that for all my research on the conflict, I hadn’t ever heard an Islander talk. It also struck me then that the Islander experience was seldom the focus of any analysis I came across of the conflict. And yet it had happened to them. It happened in their town. It changed their lives.

I knew then that I didn’t want the play to be a rehashing of the argument of the conflict. I wasn't sure what I could bring to that. But a show from the perspective of the Islanders? That felt interesting. It felt rare.

I wanted to look at Britain through the lens of the Falklands, but at that point I didn’t even know how much I wanted the conflict to be a part of it. I didn’t want to fall into the trap of rehashing the same argument or of telling an overly militarised story. Part of the ironic tragedy of the Falklands conflict is that the vast majority of the combatants had never stepped foot on the Islands before they had to fight for it. And while there are many interesting, sensitive and important stories to tell on both sides of the military story, this play wasn’t going to be that.

There was one moment where I thought the cleverest thing I could have done was to avoid the conflict completely, but that felt a bit like doing a show about Neil Armstrong and not mentioning the moon.

Guided tour
Brad's host Tony included him on tours of the island landscapes and historical sites
Photo by Brad Birch © The Artist Browse and license our images

For the first half of my stay, I was the only guest at the Pale Maiden B&B. My hosts, Teresa and Tony, were very friendly, helpful and also very interested in the project. It was a relief that the first Islanders I met were warm to the idea of me coming and researching this story. The Islanders fell into two camps: those who were immediately on board with what I was doing, and those who needed a bit of warming up. I was surprised and grateful that so many people were willing to engage with me. This is a place where very little happens, and yet this incredible thing did.

For the Islanders, this was an event, of course, of huge significance but also tragedy too. It was important to be respectful. And I think it was important to go in appreciating that people might, in the first instance, be suspicious of me. From the sound of it, there had been a lot of people in the past who had taken advantage of the Islanders’ hospitality, only to then produce work that could be quite incendiary or hostile.

Nonetheless, Teresa and Tony immediately put me at ease. Tony was an Islander who grew up during the conflict. Previously a mechanic on a farm in West Falkland, he now runs expeditions as a tour guide, and many historians have made use of his expertise. I felt very fortunate to have ended up staying with a real expert who was always happy to answer questions in our daily chats.

Writer Brad Birch on a research trip to the Falkland Islands
Brad Birch explores the Falkland Islands
Photo by Brad Birch © The Artist Browse and license our images
Writer Brad Birch's desk while on a Falkland Islands research trip
Brad collated his notes at the end of each day at the desk in his Stanley B&B bedroom
Photo by Brad Birch © The Artist Browse and license our images
Brad's research involved chatting to islanders in cafes, restaurants and Stanley pub The Globe Tavern
Photo by Brad Birch © The Artist Browse and license our images

It was only going there, meeting the people, hearing the accent, spending time in their town, did I realise that the most interesting story I could tell here, the most interesting view of Britain, was not just through the lens of the Falklands, but through the lens of the Islanders themselves.

Apart from the odd occasion where I spoke to someone more than once, I mainly met people in public. Stanley has a few nice cafes and it made it feel a bit more relaxed and less invasive. It also has a couple of good pubs, which it felt very important to my research to spend some time in! The internet is very bad on the Islands so I could only check emails infrequently, which really gave me a sense of being cut off and contained within the task.

I was already encroaching in the town, I felt it too symbolic to then ask to see people’s houses. But when it naturally did occur, I did go round for tea at a couple of houses. The famous wood and corrugated iron buildings feel much bigger on the inside.

I was always made to feel like I was a better kind of visitor than the cruise ship visitors. I guess because I was staying there for a sustained amount of time and was there to talk to the people rather than buy a fridge magnet and photograph penguins.

And alongside this there is everything you’d get in a small town – football, AmDram, you name it. I even hosted a writing workshop with some local creative writers.

Town meeting
Brad attended community events including town meetings during his trip
Photo by Brad Birch © The Artist Browse and license our images

There’s a misconception that the Islanders are entirely white British. That’s not true. I met a Zimbabwean family (who moved to the Islands as part of the mine-sweeping efforts – the Zimbabweans are the best in the world at it). I met people from St Helena. Teresa, who I stayed with, is Brazilian and there are many Chileans. It’s necessarily diverse, with employment at over 100%. And everyone speaks English with a rural sensibility.

You see the same faces over and over. The British soldiers, there are 1000 garrisoned at any one time, have a different feel to Islanders. Like they’re instruments played in a slightly different key.

Thatcher isn’t a divisive figure there. It’s all very straightforward because the only engagement they had with her was the conflict. I spoke with some left-leaning Islanders who totally appreciated the irony that in the UK Thatcher is often thought of as having destroyed communities, whereas in the Falklands, she saved it.

Post Office
Red phone and post boxes punctuate the landscape of the Falkland Islands
Photo by Brad Birch © The Artist Browse and license our images
In the final part of his journey, Brad uses the Islanders' stories to create a rich play of everyday life in extreme conflict.

Listen here to Brad Birch talking about Falkland Sound on BBC Radio 4's Today programme (from Friday 4 August).

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