The Falklands war, 40 years on

HMS Ardent explodes, May 1982

I never expected Britain to be at war when I prepared to sit my A levels in 1982. Let alone at war with Argentina over a group of islands 8,000 miles away.

Yet that was the reality as I woke on the morning of Friday 2 April 1982. Barely awake at the start of the last day of the school term, I heard on Radio 4’s Today programme some armchair general talking of nuking Buenos Aires. Later that day, we learned that Argentina had invaded the Falkland islands, one of the few remaining British overseas territories. Margaret Thatcher’s British government was stunned.

Contrary to popular belief, the invasion wasn’t a complete bolt from the blue. Two days earlier. I noted in my 1982 diary: ‘Falkland island crisis worsening: Guardian front page lead’. Yet the legend holds that many people in Britain were shocked, thinking the Falklands were off the coast of Scotland. Recovering them would have been a lot easier had that been true.

Going to war was a novel and shocking experience in 1982, almost 40 years after the end of the second world war. Yet it felt like an echo of the past. I described it in my 1982 diary as Britain’s last colonial war, a description that has stood the test of time. (Although there was no doubt that the islanders wanted to live under British rule.) Several of the warships involved in the Falklands took part in or were laid down during the second world war: the Argentinian cruiser General Belgrano, sunk by the Royal Navy, survived Pearl Harbor as USS Phoenix. In 1982, it was not so lucky. HMS Hermes, the Royal Navy’s Falklands flagship was laid down in 1944. And the RAF Vulcan bombers that flew 8,000 miles to bomb Stanley airfield relied on an updated version of the wartime H2S navigation radar system to find their target.

Continue reading

COP26: the end of King Coal?

Penrhos Junction, 1920. Gwyn Briwnant Jones, Photo credit: Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

It was a symbol of Welsh industrial might: a locomotive hauling a coal train that seemed to go on for ever. A century ago Welsh steam coal powered the world. Yet Wales has become one of the first countries to join a global coalition of nations aiming to phase out fossil fuels: the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance. It’s comes as criticism grows of the weak response of the COP26 climate conference to the climate crisis.

I grew up in Cardiff on tales of King Coal. As I lay in bed I could hear the growl of locomotives hauling coal trains along the old Rhymney Railway line from Caerphilly. And I loved visiting the mock coal mine at the National Museum of Wales – appropriately located in the basement. The museum is in Cardiff’s magnificent civic centre, part of the impressive architectural legacy of the immense wealth created by the coal boom, along with elegant ship and coal owners’ mansions such as Insole Court, Llandaff.

Continue reading

Flintshire detached: remembering our old counties

Flintshire detached county

Flintshire detached: our old blurred county lines

Forty years ago today, many of Britain’s most cherished counties disappeared under local government reorganisation. The changes also ended a curious historic anomaly: ‘Flintshire detached’: the area of Flintshire, Maelor Saesneg, which was detached from the rest of the county of Flint and surrounded by the Welsh county of Denbigh and the English counties of Shropshire and Chester.

Maelor Saesneg (‘English Maelor’) was one of the very last ‘exclaves‘: detached county territory. Most of these exclaves were tidied up in the 19th century. For example, much of Minety, Wiltshire, was part of neighbouring Gloucestershire until 1844, the year parliament started the tidying process.

I remember being curious about ‘Flintshire detached’ on childhood maps of Wales. I had a reminder of those long-gone days last Sunday on a bike ride in Buckinghamshire. Near Amersham, I passed a handsome property called Hertfordshire House. Its name reveals that it was once in an exclave of Hertfordshire in neighbouring Bucks, centred on the village of Coleshill. Centuries ago, the house was owned by Thomas Ellwood, who held illegal Quaker meetings there, safe in the knowledge that it was too remote for Herts justices of the peace to interfere. (It was Ellwood who rented a cottage for John Milton in Chalfont St Giles, where the great poet lived during London’s great plague of 1665 and completed Paradise Lost.)

Back to 1974. An even greater historical anomaly was Monmouthshire. Until 40 years ago, that border county was regarded by many as technically part of England rather than Wales, having been annexed as an English county following the forced acts of union in the 16th century. The 1974 local government reorganisation in Wales put an end to such nonsense. Never again would acts of parliament refer to South Wales and Monmouthshire.

I was there: the night Jock Stein died

Ticket to tragedy: the night Jock Stein died

Wales are playing Scotland in a FIFA world cup qualifier tonight. It’s a fixture freighted with ill luck for Wales and tragedy for everyone. On a September night 27 years ago, Scotland’s revered manager Jock Stein collapsed and died at Ninian Park after his team qualified for Mexico 1986 at our expense. As Max Boyce would say, I was there.

I had a pitch-side view of the events of that extraordinary night, although I didn’t see Jock himself. I described the experience in my blog five tears ago:

“My friend Anthony Beer and I sold programmes at the dramatic Wales v Scotland World Cup qualifier game at Ninian Park, Cardiff. My diary notes that we were the only sellers inside the ground; we went down the players’ tunnel as the Welsh national anthem was played. We had to exchange programmes for cash through the netting that kept fans from the pitch – not so easy when many fans wanted five or more! We soon ran out of our initial 500 – the Welsh FA had printed just 20,000 programmes for a crowd of 40,000.

“We saw Mark Hughes give Wales an early lead before Scotland snatched a draw through a very dubious penalty, ending Wales’ hopes of playing in the 1986 Mexico finals. Afterwards, we passed Scotland’s Willie Miller being interviewed live on ITV as we took our takings in to the offices under the grandstand next to the dressing room. It was there that we heard that the Scotland manager, Jock Stein, had collapsed. Later, we heard the tragic news that he had died. We collected our £10 seller’s fees and walked out of the ground as an ambulance driver manoeuvred to avoid a Securicor van. Scottish and British football had lost a legend – the first manager to lead a club from these islands to victory in the European Cup.”

PS: Wales won! Cymru am byth. That will help overcome the painful memories of 1977 and 1985.

Cardiff City: why the Bluebirds mustn’t become the red dragons

Blue is the colour: Cardiff City at Millennium play-off, 2003

In the week the traditional 3pm FA Cup final kick off disappeared, another football tradition is under threat. The Malaysian owners of Cardiff City want to turn the club red – and replace the bluebird symbol with a red dragon.

It would not be City’s biggest change. The club said goodbye to Ninian Park three years ago. But there’s something symbolic about a team’s home colours. Can you imagine Liverpool in green or Chelsea in red?

And there’s something lazy and unimaginative about opting for a red dragon symbol. As future Welsh first minister Rhodri Morgan argued in the 1990s, in a book about Cardiff called Half-and half a capital, the red dragon symbol was all too often chosen by businesses because “it was safe, bland and reassuring and therefore dead right in modern marketing terms.”

Let’s hope that common sense and tradition prevails.