5 April, 1982, is a day I shall always remember. All afternoon the TV news showed huge crowds waving hundreds and hundreds of union jacks at departing battleships bound for the South Atlantic. The British Task Force was setting off to recapture the Falkland Islands, seized by Argentina just three days earlier. We watched in stunned silence, hardly able to believe our eyes. The speed and scale of it was overwhelming. Oh well, I said in a loud voice to no one in particular, they must know what they’re doing.
In the kitchen, a pan crashed to the floor. My mother had heard me. She hurtled into the lounge in her apron and in no uncertain terms proceeded to read me the riot act. Her actual words are now a blur but that righteous anger of hers brings a blush to my cheek to this very day. I can still see my kids on the floor where they were playing, open-eyed and open-mouthed, their faces turned up to watch and hear their grandma – kind, gentle, sweet-natured grandma – tearing into their dad as if he was still a small child himself and one who had been brought up to know much better than to spout such stupid nonsense.
My mum began to hurl imprecations at my head like the Fury in a Greek drama, o ye gods, how on earth could I have forgotten that the Americans had promised they would mediate between us and the Argentinians at the United Nations? Surely I could see that this ridiculous trumped-up farrago of force and hubris was designed to pre-empt negotiations which might yet save lives? This was just another shabby deal behind closed doors, a dirty conspiracy between the hawks in the States and Whitehall, yet one more lost opportunity to employ ‘jaw-jaw not war-war’ … her words return to me in fragments … ‘that man Haig’ … ‘she wants her way, they’re all terrified of her‘ … ‘the old, old story’ …
Once my Mum got going like that, there was no stopping her.
Oh, I try but I can’t really reply to her. There are things I could say in defence of the British action, if only I could think of them, but I’m entirely absorbed in how my kids are reacting to this new and unexpected experience. Their eyes skitter between grandma and daddy, taking in her beautiful anger and my sheepish submission. My cheeks are still burning, more than thirty years later, but now it’s pride and gratitude that lights them up.
I’m so glad they got to see her like that, in her true colours, flying before the wind of her indomitable human conscience. Whenever she disagreed with something you said, she would use a phrase which she got from her dad who must have heard it from one of his own forebears, a phrase that has always stayed with me … Never, she would say, never in the memory of man …
Mum believed that the United Nations was at the summit of all human striving for a better world. She agreed with Thomas Jefferson that the price of freedom was eternal vigilance. And there was no one more vigilant than she, especially when others were climbing on a bandwagon going the other way. That April afternoon, amid all the bunting flying and ships’ horns tooting, never in the memory of man was her contrary clarion call.
And now it was a touchstone my own children would inherit.