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Charles Moore

I t is almost 30 years since Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands. I must admit that those few strange weeks were incredible fun for us journalists. At the Daily Telegraph, where I was working as a leader writer, there was an interesting generational split. All the older men, with the notable exception of the blind sage T.E. Utley, were extremely pessimistic. People like Bill Deedes, the editor, who had fought in the second world war, thought the military task was impossible. It was a rare example of where relevant experience puts one at a disadvantage. To us young ones, it seemed obvious that Britain should recapture the islands — they were British in the eyes of their inhabitants, and they had been grabbed by force. It also seemed clear, although we did not know what we were talking about, that the task force could prevail. Its sheer, unexpected boldness would carry with it its own success. Luckily for the country, Margaret Thatcher was also ignorant of war. No one prepared for all subjects more conscientiously than she, but she was protected from doubts by having no direct personal memory of bloodshed. Her ignorance proved invincible.

Our feelings ran so high against the Foreign Office because of the fiasco that we composed a song to the tune of the Red Flag which we sang in the King and Keys pub in Fleet Street. One verse, so far as I can remember, went, ‘Yet through the darkness yet there’s light/ The end of Carrington’s in sight./ He told us that he didn’t know:/ It’s all his fault that we’re slow./ He’s taken England for a ride,/ He isn’t really on our side./ Rhodesia sold, the PLO —/ Enough’s enough! The man must go.’ This ditty can be almost exactly dated, because the islands were invaded on 2 April and poor Lord Carrington resigned on 5 April. My wife, rightly thinking this was too political and unkind, composed another stanza: ‘The Falkland cliffs are lined with sheep,/Who wildly contemplate the deep,/ And meditate an icy plunge/ Should Britain now throw up the sponge./ So Britons all, be strong and bold,/ Restore these lambs to native fold./ For ’neath their dirty fleeces hide/ Hearts that swell with loyal pride.’

Happening to be at Eton on Saturday, I realised that it was the centenary of the death of Captain Oates, and so I crossed to School Library where, I remembered, there is a commemorative plaque to him which boys touch for luck. Oates had a short and undistinguished career at the school, and was invalided out of it and sent to crammer, which may partly explain the respect in which he was held there after his death. The plaque depicts his head and describes him as ‘a very gallant gentleman’. There was also, to mark the date, a tiny exhibition, touchingly decorated with fake snow. It included a copy of the Eton College Chronicle from 1914 reporting the unveiling of the plaque. From this I learnt that it was made by Captain Scott’s widow, Kathleen, who was a wellknown sculptor. In life, Oates was uneasy with Mrs Scott, finding her, according to one biographer, ‘too much of a formidable challenge, with her sculpture, her feminism and her assumptions of authority’. He found her husband pretty tiresome too, and it could be argued that, without Scott’s mistakes, Oates would have lived. But it is thanks to Scott that we know Oates’s famous parting lines. Between them, the couple made the world remember this simple man.

For some years now, I have attended the annual Scurry of the East Sussex and Romney Marsh Hunt. This is a sort of freelance steeplechase over the 27 hedges and timber fences of our dear Master, Tom Arthur. Tom died only two days before this year’s Scurry, but left a final wish that it should go ahead. In the past, seeing the injuries and the extreme up-and-down terrain, I had always vowed not to take part, but this year I decided to try, probably because I am getting too old. I bought the compulsory safety helmet and back-protector, and went into a month of training with my brave hunter Tommy. We ascended the all-weather gallop most days, and I also jogged the lanes to strengthen my lungs: on horseback as on foot, one runs out of puff. Tommy was skilfully brought to a peak of fitness by our lady Master, Diana Grissell. I was in no such condition, but was sharper than usual. I was discouraged on my last day’s training, however, by one of the Czech stable lasses. I asked her why she was not taking part. ‘Because I like myself,’ she replied. Since I like myself too — enough, at least, to have no death wish — this did not augur well. Walking the course made the anxiety gnaw at me. Hedges with great spreading ditches before or away, or nasty drops, or violent turns, looked dreadful to a pedestrian’s eye. And then there was the additional bad thought — much impressed on me — that in racing, hell is other people, and I would be one of 19.

Taking part in a race is like standing trembling beside a chilly swimming pool and then plunging in, but much, much worse. The wait at the start is so horrible that I think jockeys can endure it only because, like women after childbirth, they forget the agony until the next time. A long way off was the first hedge, bristling like a Russian line at Balaclava, and our task was to charge straight at it. We circled and circled, cracking sad jokes and then, at the starting signal which I somehow missed, rushed forward. Despite plenty of room, the horses all gravitated to the same bit of the fence, and so, as we jumped, Tommy had to turn sideways to avoid others, nearly having me off. And then, as everyone had also told me would happen, my mood changed completely. Everything felt free and exciting. Beside me, the mad gay equestrian Ivan Massow whooped as he leapt the fences. In front, inevitably, were all the thoroughbreds (Tommy is an Irish sport horse and therefore lacks the speed that comes with ‘blood’). Behind, to be honest, was almost nobody, but we careered round and I stayed on and I got a rosette for being 16th out of the 17 who finished. To say it was almost the proudest day of my life would be preposterous, but also true.

the spectator | 24 march 2012 |


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