Populists Inflame the Coronavirus Outbreak Across Latin America

Brazil Is Starting to Lose the Fight Against Coronavirus, thanks in large measure to Jair Bolsonaro’s negligence, Brazil’s cemeteries, are filling up with coronavirus victims.
In mid-May, Brazil secured a grisly world record: it had the fastest-growing coronavirus infection rate of any country on earth. Within a month, it surpassed a million confirmed cases. This milestone made it second only to the United States in everything related to the pandemic, including total fatalities, with around a thousand people dying every day. By some estimates, Brazil may eventually see as many as thirty-four million infected and three hundred thousand dead.

The country’s far-right President, Jair Bolsonaro, has made no effort to curb the pandemic. Instead, he has belittled the threat of the virus, calling it mere “sniffles,” and responded to reports of sufferers by declaring, “We all have to die someday.” When state governors encouraged social distancing, Bolsonaro joined rallies with supporters to demonstrate against them.

Oliver Stuenkel, an associate professor of international affairs at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, in São Paulo, believes that Bolsonaro’s pandemic response is the result of a brutal calculation. “I think he looked at this and thought, This will cause a profound crisis in the Brazilian economy,” he told me. “He knows it’s hard for a Latin-American leader to remain in office with an economy that gets as bad as it is now. So, in the states where governors imposed social-distancing strictures, he’ll say the coming economic slump wasn’t his fault but theirs. If the numbers level out, he’ll say, ‘Look, it wasn’t that bad after all.’ And even if they are bad, he can easily construe some narrative that actually they really weren’t.” For the moment, Bolsonaro’s P.R. tactics seem to be working; although recent polls show rising disapproval of his performance, about thirty per cent of the population still fervently supports him, as immovable as the fans of his role model Donald Trump.

Among Brazil’s neighbors, the fear of contagion has led governments to tighten their borders or shut them completely. Still, two nearby countries have suffered soaring rates of covid-19. Ecuador has fifty-eight thousand cases and more than four thousand deaths. Peru—despite a three-month lockdown, enforced by the police and the military—has two hundred and eighty-eight thousand cases and nearly ten thousand deaths. In the Amazon region, where river traffic flows freely in and out of Brazil, the virus has spread to devastating effect, with some indigenous communities very badly affected. It has claimed hundreds of lives, including that of Paulinho Paiakan, a prominent Kayapo chief who came to fame in the nineteen-eighties when he helped lead protests alongside other indigenous leaders and global celebrities, including Sting, in opposition to the construction of a massive dam on the Xingu River.

Thanks in large measure to Bolsonaro’s negligence, Latin America has become the world’s virus hot spot, but the misery has not been equally distributed. The region’s chronic economic and social inequalities have meant that the poor, who often live in crowded slums and depend upon precarious daily earnings to survive, have been hit hardest.

It has not proved impossible for governments to curtail the effects. In Costa Rica, one of the first countries in the region where covid-19 appeared, the government banned mass gatherings within days, declared a state of emergency, and closed the borders. It has had three thousand and seven hundred-odd cases and seventeen deaths. Responses need to be swift, organized, and consistent. Whether in Brazil or elsewhere, it now seems broadly true that when heads of state have reacted to the pandemic politically rather than clinically, their citizens have suffered for it. The region’s autocrats have arguably led the worst responses; as they try to force medical realities to conform to their preferred political narratives, the consequences have been, from country to country, either devastating, punitive, or painfully absurd.

When the virus surfaced in Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the left-of-center President, dismissed the dangers and encouraged people to go to restaurants, in order to support their local economies. He insisted on attending gatherings with supporters, where he was seen hugging old women and kissing babies. He claimed to have special protection from contagion, thanks to a pair of Catholic talismans, as well as a four-leaf clover and a two-dollar bill.

By the end of March, however, López Obrador had changed tack. He gave a speech recognizing the risks from the coronavirus, and encouraged Mexicans to practice social distancing. Three days later, his government declared a national health emergency, and issued guidelines. Schools, shopping centers, and government offices were closed, but there was no obligatory lockdown, and little testing was reportedly carried out.

A month later, Mexico’s official numbers—nineteen thousand cases, in a country of a hundred and twenty-six million—still seemed low by comparison with other countries. In late April, López Obrador proposed that his country had “tamed” covid-19, and his top health officials also suggested that the contagion would soon reach its peak.

Since then, a spike in cases, especially in Mexico City, suggests that the announcements of victory were premature. Media outlets in Mexico and abroad published stories accusing the government of undercounting the dead. A duel has ensued between the government’s critics and its defenders. At the height of the debate, José Hernández, a political cartoonist and commentator who supports López Obrador, expressed outrage over the critical media reports. “They portrayed things as really terrible,” he said. “It’s just not like that. Of course, there are deaths—this is a pandemic. But nothing like what is said.” He added, “Mexico City is the place with most contagion in the country, but it has been kept under control, and, thanks to the fact that movement has been reduced by sixty-five per cent, the epidemic has been contained.”

Other observers dismissed this as wishful thinking. Even López Obrador’s deputy health minister had estimated that the real number of infections was eight times greater than the confirmed number. Enrique Krauze, a leading historian and ardent critic of the Mexican President, told me, “López Obrador has never taken the pandemic seriously. After the outbreak he continued travelling throughout the country, encouraging social interaction and even hugs; his government has done almost no testing.”

By the end of May, the daily infection rate had climbed to thirty-five hundred. Nevertheless, the government put forth a plan to reopen the country to tourism. As part of the promotional effort, some Cancún resorts began offering tourists free days on rental cars and hotel stays. During the week when many hotels in Cancún reopened, Mexico reported the second-largest number of coronavirus deaths in Latin America: more than fifteen thousand. (There are now more than two hundred and thirty thousand confirmed cases and twenty-eight thousand deaths, with a daily new infection rate of roughly five thousand.) The real figure, by all accounts, is many times that. “López Obrador has restarted his trips around the country, without a face mask,” Krauze said. “While he does, Mexicans are dying quietly and stoically in their homes.”

Earlier this week, López Obrador declared his intention to travel to Washington to meet with Trump. The stated purpose of the trip, which will be López Obrador’s first outside Mexico since taking office, is to celebrate the implementation of the revamped North American trade pact between the U.S., Mexico, and Canada. But the move has raised a firestorm of criticism at home. Mexico’s preëminent diplomat, the former foreign secretary Bernardo Sepúlveda, published an open letter arguing against the trip and reminding his successor as foreign secretary, Marcelo Ebrard, that “Trump and his antagonism and contempt for Mexico cannot be forgotten and be simply erased from the memory of Mexicans.” Most controversially, López Obrador does not intend to meet with Joe Biden on the trip, and Sepúlveda warned that, amid the U.S. Presidential campaign, his participation in “an irrelevant ceremony will be interpreted as support for the reëlection of President Trump.” On Monday, in his daily press conference, López Obrador stubbornly defended his decision by saying he had “no problem of conscience in going to the United States.”

In El Salvador, the virus has been contained, but only with severe repression. The effort has been led by President Nayib Bukele, an insouciant thirty-eight-year-old former mayor and night-club manager, who ran for office as a political outsider, and who runs the country via Twitter. At the outset of the pandemic, before any cases were reported in El Salvador, he ordered one of the strictest lockdowns in the hemisphere. After closing the country’s borders and its international airport, Bukele deployed police and soldiers to make sure no one left their homes. Thousands of Salvadorans accused of violating quarantine were hauled away to “containment centers” for thirty-day detentions, as were Salvadorans returning to the country from abroad. When the country’s Supreme Court ruled that the detention decree was unconstitutional, Bukele ignored the rulings and ordered it extended.

Rule of law and transparency remain major issues in El Salvador, nearly three decades after a devastating civil war, and Bukele’s authoritarian streak has drawn criticism from human-rights organizations. In April, after a string of homicides in gang-controlled neighborhoods, he responded by orchestrating a mass humiliation. In prisons across the country, he placed gang inmates in cells with their rivals; he also arranged a bizarre photo op in which hundreds of handcuffed, shirtless gang members, with their heads uniformly shaved, were forced by armed guards into long rows, sitting body to body with the men in front of and behind them. This followed an episode in February, when Bukele ordered armed troops to accompany him into the Legislative Assembly, where he sat in the Speaker’s chair and demanded that legislators approve a hundred-million-dollar security-assistance loan to pay for a helicopter, night-vision goggles, and a video surveillance system for the military.

Bukele retains the unqualified backing of the Trump Administration; he has acceded to U.S. policies on immigration and narcotics trafficking, and positioned himself as a critic of China, which has been seeking inroads in the region. The U.S. Ambassador, Ronald Johnson, a longtime military officer and a C.I.A. agent, regularly tweets his approval of Bukele’s decrees, as well as dispensing unsolicited advice and warnings to Salvadorans. Last month, Bukele held a joint press conference with Johnson in which he revealed that, like Trump and “most of the world’s leaders,” he takes hydroxychloroquine as a preventive treatment against covid-19. (In fact, the only other leader who has boasted of taking the medication is Bolsonaro.)

A Washington insider with experience in the region told me that a Biden victory in November would be disastrous for Bukele: “Bukele seems to think that the pass he is getting now because of his coöperation on migration and deportations offers some kind of lasting protection as he takes apart democratic institutions. There is already skepticism on both sides of the aisle in Congress, and Democrats are increasingly alarmed that he’s bent on authoritarian rule. I’m concerned that he’ll cross a line that he can’t come back from.”

Carlos Dada, a leading Salvadoran journalist, also predicts calamitous consequences, but for different reasons. Bukele’s strict quarantine measures, he told me, were “more like a punishment than anything else.” People became desperate. “Three months after the first measures were taken, we remained in a lockdown controlled by the police and military officers and not by health officials. Out on the streets, where the police and army were deployed from late March onwards, if you couldn’t justify what you were doing outside your home, you were sent to a containment center. He shut people up—over fifteen thousand in all—many of them in places where they were all bunched together, without the most basic services, and the virus began to propagate from there.” An economic disaster also loomed, Dada said. “Sales-tax revenues have plummeted, foreign remittances have gone way down; unemployment is significantly up, and some businesses have collapsed because they can’t sustain themselves.” Most troubling of all, he said, an epidemic of hunger had begun to spread among poor Salvadorans, many of whom live day to day on earnings they make outside the formal economy. “All over El Salvador there is a sea of white flags showing that people need food assistance,” Dada said. “They don’t have enough to eat.”

Despite Bukele’s dismantling of democratic institutions and his polarizing discourse, the President of El Salvador has the highest public approval ratings of any head of state in Latin America. Dada said this can be partly explained by the fact that there is no alternative. “The army and the police have pledged allegiance to Bukele over their allegiance to the constitution, and the mainstream political parties have discredited themselves through corruption scandals.” Three of the country’s recent Presidents have been indicted for corruption; one is in prison, another died while awaiting sentencing, and the third fled to Nicaragua.

Dada said the Trump Administration also bore a large responsibility for Bukele’s misbehavior. “The role of the U.S. Embassy in backing his dismantling of El Salvador’s democratic institutions illustrates the shift in the agenda by the United States towards El Salvador,” he said. “Ever since the peace agreement that ended the civil war, Democrats and Republicans have invested their efforts in helping to support the country’s democratic consolidation and in the fight against corruption and the strengthening of its institutions. The Trump Administration has reduced the bilateral agenda to just two issues: immigration and drug trafficking. The message is clear: as long as Bukele fulfils those two goals, the U.S. will go along with everything else.”

In mid-June, El Salvador’s Supreme Court determined again that Bukele’s decrees were unconstitutional. After a round of truculent tweets, Bukele announced a lifting of quarantine measures, but thirteen hundred people are still detained in his “containment centers.” El Salvador has now recorded seven thousand coronavirus cases, with nearly two hundred deaths. These numbers are not any better, proportionally, than those of some of its closest neighbors in the region. Costa Rica achieved a better outcome without putting its citizens in prison.

Nicaragua is the Latin-American country where the official response to covid-19 has been the strangest. The First Couple—the former revolutionary Daniel Ortega and his wife and Vice-President, Rosario Murillo—have become known for a combination of autocratic tendencies and bizarre whimsy. In 2018, they cracked down on pro-democracy protesters by unleashing paramilitary thugs, who killed hundreds of civilians. In March, Ortega and Murillo organized a carnival-like procession of their supporters in the capital city of Managua. Under the Marquezian banner of “Love in the Time of covid-19,” the marchers ridiculed the pandemic and proclaimed that peace and love would conquer all.

For months, Ortega did nothing to protect the country, but the official death toll remained suspiciously low. As of mid-May, the government acknowledged only twenty-five cases and ten deaths, leading the medical journal The Lancet to issue a critical report. “The Nicaraguan government has not revealed how many tests it has done. It is, therefore, impossible to know the truth of the number of cases,” its authors said.

As the pandemic began, Ortega vanished for a month, leading to widespread speculation about his health. On April 15th, he abruptly reappeared, with no explanation for his absence, and announced that covid-19 was “a sign from God” against U.S. militarism and hegemony. Soon afterward, reports emerged of unreported deaths in Managua’s hospitals, of falsified autopsies, and of victims disposed of in nocturnal “express burials.” Murillo dismissed the reports as “fake news.” After a group of health professionals published three open letters begging for a more effective and transparent official response to the pandemic, she derided them as shameless “extraterrestrials” with “diminished brains.” In a speech on May Day, Ortega suggested that staying at home would “destroy the country.”

When I asked the novelist and essayist Sergio Ramírez, a former Ortega Vice-President turned critic, whether he believed that the First Couple was underreporting infections, he told me that he did. “They are doing it deliberately,” he said. “I am not very sure why, because they live in their own world. But they see the virus as a source of political aggression against them.”

On May 27th, after months of denial, Nicaragua’s health authority reported seven hundred and fifty-nine cases and thirty-five deaths—figures that are widely understood to be impossibly low. (The official figures are now up to twenty-five hundred and nineteen cases and eighty-three dead.) According to the independent monitor Citizen’s Observatory, the real toll in Nicaragua is more than six thousand cases and nearly two thousand deaths. Last month, the Washington-based Pan American Health Organization predicted a “sharp increase” in the incidence of the disease, but it is hard to know how sharp: it is impossible even to draw models, because the regime has been so opaque.

On June 2nd, Murillo gave a speech memorializing twenty-two recently deceased Sandinista loyalists, who were widely understood to have died of the coronavirus. Rather than reveal the causes of their deaths, she said only that they had “journeyed to another plane of life.”

One of the keenest observers of Latin America’s populist trend is Christopher Sabatini, a senior research fellow at Chatham House, a London think tank for international affairs. “Populists like Ortega, Bukele, López Obrador, and Bolsonaro like to present themselves as representing the popular will,” Sabatini told me recently. “Such a conception of politics, shared by many of their followers, doesn’t admit for diversity of opinion or checks on authority. And as a result, politics become zero-sum. The policies may differ—Bukele’s gunpoint quarantine or AMLO’s profession of mystical protection—but the inflexibility and the danger is the same: no capacity to take on new or contradictory information or opinion. The people’s will and those who believe they embody it don’t allow for nuance or, heaven forbid, challenges.”

Jon Lee Anderson


Back-stabbing, bullying, busking: how The Clash disintegrated

The boys in the band, White, Simonon, Sheppard and Strummer

In 1983, The Clash sacked founder Mick Jones, hired three new members and tried to return to their punk rock roots. Cue two years of fighting and one of the worst albums ever made.

The official statement, released September 10, 1983, was brief and blunt: ‘Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon have decided that Mick Jones should leave [The Clash]. It is felt that Jones drifted away from the original idea of the group...’ 

If you had asked anyone in the know, they would have told you that The Clash were dead long before that axe fell. The band had divided into two camps – Mick Jones on one side and everyone else on the other. Strummer, Simonon and manager/svengali Bernie Rhodes constantly rowed with Jones over contentious issues like tour schedules, album lengths and The Clash’s musical direction. 

Jones had also become obsessed with the New York hip-hop scene and was growing tired of his second banana role in the band. On-stage, Jones had reinvented himself as the Clash’s co-lead singer. Off-stage, he spent his time messing around with beatboxes and synthesisers while his Les Paul collection gathered dust in the corner.

On Jones’ insistence, a brief holiday break in 1982 had stretched into a nine-month indolence. Not only was nothing being worked on, but the boys were not on speaking terms. The Clash’s only activity in 1983 was a mini-tour leading up to an appearance at the mammoth, three-day Us Festival in California.

The Clash were a man short at the time. Drummer Topper Headon had been sacked the year before and his predecessor/replacement Terry Chimes signed up for the Combat Rock tour but chose not to stay on. Following a series of auditions, an astonishingly powerful and prodigious 23 year-old from Bath named Pete Howard came onboard to slam the cans. But Pete was soon to discover that this dream gig was more like a nightmare. The Clash’s ongoing, behind-the-scenes dysfunction was not going to make his job an easy one.

Pete: “After the auditions, they basically just said, ‘Go away and learn everything.’ Not ‘these songs’ – everything. We had some rehearsals in Notting Hill, and basically Mick wouldn’t turn up. If he turned up at all, he would turn up three hours after everyone else had. The tension between Mick and Joe was palpable.”

After the Us Festival, the band did very little. “I didn’t get a phone call for four months,” says Pete Howard. “And then all of a sudden I got this incredibly fucking vitriolic phone call from Joe, saying ‘I fuckin’ sacked the stoned cunt! Whose side are you on, mine or his?’ And I was like, ‘Uh-uh-uh… yours, Joe, yours!’”

The band wasted little time in replacing Mick. A series of auditions were held at The Clash’s rehearsal space, Lucky 8. The lucky applicant was 24 year-old Nick Sheppard, former guitarist for 70s punk act The Cortinas. Marathon rehearsals were held and over a dozen new Strummer songs were worked on. “It was more a back to basics approach, after the excesses of Mick’s last days,” says Sheppard, “[Joe’s new songs] were far more of an eclectic bunch of tunes than we ended up with. Lots of world music influences - Latin, African grooves – that kind of thing.”

However, ‘that kind of thing’ wasn’t what Rhodes had in mind for the new Clash. ‘Back to Basics’ was soon upgraded to ‘Back to Punk Rock,’ or ‘Rebel Rock’ as Joe rechristened it. After a couple weeks of rehearsals, another new guitarist, Gregory “Vince” White, was brought on board. The new Clash became a three-guitar band.

A middle-class boy from a wealthy family, ‘Vince’ was ‘punked’. “Vince’s real name is Greg,” says Sheppard, “but he was told that he had to change it because it wasn’t cool enough. Paul said, ‘Name me one cool guy called Greg.’ To which Vince instantly replied, ‘Gregory Isaacs’ [aka ‘the Cool Ruler’]. That shut everyone up!”

A rowdy new batch of face-punching rants was eventually chosen to be played on tour. Three Card Trick, Jericho, Are You Ready For War, The Dictator, Sex Mad War, Glue Zombie and This Is England displayed rockabilly, funk, reggae, surf and Brazilian influences, but were wrapped up in an iron-hard blanket of guitar aggro that strongly recalled second album Give ‘Em Enough Rope.

“I felt a similarity of intent between the new songs and that era, although it was never specifically mentioned,” says Nick. “I think the twin Les Paul sound lent itself very well to that style, and songs from that period translated very quickly to the new set-up. Bernie was adamant that we both play Les Pauls: he wanted the Pistols’ guitar sound.”

After rehearsals, Joe would subject his new band to marathon pub sermons. Strummer was a man on a mission – a mission to save the world from Ronald Reagan and Duran Duran. Combat Rock’s success had done nothing but bolster Strummer’s messianic complex. The mandate of the new Clash was nothing less than total revolution.

Seeking to secure The Clash name, a mini-tour was booked in Southern Calfornia in January ’84, a mere few weeks after the new line-up had been in existence. Despite touring without record company support, the dates received a substantial amount of press attention, adding to the pressure on Strummer to make it all work.

The credit or blame for the new Clash would fall solely on his shoulders, and he was touring with a band unaccustomed to large venues. Of the new members, only Howard had played to more than 200 people. And as if there wasn’t enough pressure to begin with, Mick’s zealous legal team harassed the new Clash at every turn, seemingly just out of spite.

“The pressure on Joe was big,” says Pete Howard. “I mean, fucking hell, Bob Dylan came back to see him after we played. And Joe – he was crying. There was a lot to take on. In that respect, I can understand why he had to see himself as being in fighting form. He believed in Bernie as his trainer very much like a boxer.”

Nick: “I always thought we should have done some commando-style secret club gigs before we played any halls or arenas. If you’ve never played those big stages, there’s a lot of adjusting to do.”

Without a record to promote and no corporate advertising, most gigs were not on the scale of the 1982 US tour. Except in San Francisco. There the new Clash played to a capacity crowd of over 10,000 gone-apeshit fans. San Francisco was chafing under Ronald Reagan’s rule and the new Clash were treated as conquering heroes. It should come as no surprise that a Clash-influenced punk scene emerged not long after in the Bay Area.

After California, the band flew to Europe and found that The Clash were superstars on the continent. They were front page news in the European music press and headlined larger venues than they were used to playing in the US and UK. Then, in late February, while preparing to play the first of two nights at Milan’s Palasport stadium, Joe received news that his father had died.

“I only saw my father once a year [after being sent to boarding school],” Joe had told the LA Times in December 1983. “He was a real disciplinarian, who was always giving me speeches about how he had pulled himself up by the sweat of his brow: a real guts and determination man. What he was really saying to me was, ‘If you play by the rules, you can end up like me.’ And I saw right away I didn’t want to end up like him.”

Strummer’s relationship with his family was strained. Joe once said that if he had seen his father more than once a year he “probably would have murdered him.” His only sibling, brother David, had succumbed to mental illness and committed suicide in 1971. In his increasingly volatile state of mind, this latest tragedy was the last thing Strummer needed.

“When we were in Milan, Joe was fucking mental,” remembers Howard. “He stayed up for about three days drinking bottle after bottle of brandy, and berating everyone around him for their weaknesses, and just really fucking losing it. We had a couple of days off or something, and we didn’t see him. And then he came back. We were all soundchecking and Vince was pissing and moaning saying, ‘I can’t hear my fucking guitar in the monitor.’ And it led to an argument. Bernie was going, ‘Look at you. You’re so fucking pathetic. You’re so middle-class, you’re so fucking weak.’ He said, ‘Look, this guy here’s just fucking buried his father, and you don’t hear him talking about it, do you?’ I remember that time very clearly as being among the worst.”

The Clash - New York City 1982

“I didn’t find out what had happened until the next day,” says Nick. “He didn’t know us that well, so I guess he didn’t feel comfortable sharing his hurt with us.”

In the UK, the pressure was even more intense. For the past four years, the press slagged The Clash for abandoning punk and now they were slagging them for returning to it. Though the NME admitted through gritted teeth that the tour was a ‘lightning sell-out’, long time Clash-basher Gavin Martin dismissed a Brixton date as ‘the heaviest and most orthodox rock show I’ve ever seen The Clash play.’

“After the first album, The Clash hardly ever got good press,” says Sheppard. “Have a look at the recent NME collection of Clash articles.”

The critics were also put off by the paramilitary ambience of the new Clash’s shows and what Lola Borg of Record Mirror described as their fans’ ‘total hero worship’. Strummer also had a beef with The Clash’s fans due to the revival of ‘gobbing’ ( the charming punk custom of honouring your favourite band by spitting on them). Strummer had contracted hepatitis in 1978 from a well-aimed gob, and following the death of his father he had no intention of humouring this repugnant ritual. After facing a nightly rain of phlegm, Strummer’s string snapped. Towards the tour’s end, he singled out a gobber and, well, threatened to kill him.

A bootleg of the Brixton Academy gig, March 16, 1984, captures his rage: “Are you a gobber? Have you spat on me? Well, get the hell of here then, you berk!” he shouts from the stage. “Listen! I’m prepared to murder someone tonight! I don’t give two fucks! I want some fucking human respect – when I clear my throat, I do it on the floor! I’m serious! I’m prepared to kill someone! I don’t give a fuck anymore! Blood – if you want it, let’s have it! Let’s get down to it! And fuck the lot of you!”

Following this drama, the band then returned to the US for a relentless two-month jaunt. Having experienced several difficult tours, Joe and management laid down the law to the new lads. Joe, obsessed with military metaphors, repeatedly referred to his band in interviews as his ‘new recruits’ and his ‘new platoon’. Bernie, for his part, saw himself as The Clash’s drill instructor.

Pete: “There was a lot of [the attitude that] when you’re on the road, that’s it. You don’t contact your fucking family. If you do, you’re a pussy. No girlfriends on tour, we don’t want women around. Bernie used to frequently talk about boxers not being allowed to fuck their wives before a fight. And I do understand where that comes from, because if you’re going to look at yourself in the world arena, then you have to be up for the competition.”

But Bernie was also more abrasive and abusive. “He’d ask questions like ‘What would you do with a million dollars?’ to which every answer proved you were an idiot,” says Nick. “I stared at his ‘new’ nose and said I’d have my ears pinned back. It was like being hauled into the headmaster’s office, and served as much purpose.”

Pete: “It was constantly, every day, ‘Right, tonight you’re going to wear sunglasses.’ And then after that show, it was like, ‘You look like a wanker in sunglasses. Never wear them again.’ I remember having an argument with [Clash road manger] Kosmo Vinyl once. I was saying, ‘This is like being in the fucking Moonies. You’ve got this fucking dwarf Buddha standing up there handing out dictums, and you have to follow them. I don’t think like that, I don’t want to live that way.’ And he just said, ‘That is how it is. You take it with Bernie or you don’t take it at all.’ And then he went on to tell the story about Bernie turning Joe from a nothing to a something. And he said, ‘If you don’t believe that Joe is an iconic figure, then that’s your issue. But most of the world who know of him do believe that, and Joe believes that Bernie made him that.’”

For all of his middle class pedigree, Vince White was the wildest card in the deck. Though picked primarily for his Townshend-like antics during his audition, Vince had the chops to back up his pose. But there was something feral about him, a hint of barely suppressed violence in his perpetual smirk. Bernie would soon discover he got more than he bargained for when he brought Vince aboard.

“Bernie was going out with this kind of crazy wild-child girl from Detroit who was probably a third his age,” says Sheppard. “We were all in a restaurant, everyone was there around the table. And this girl had been flirting around a bit for days. Anyway, she got up and went out. Then Vince, about two minutes later, got up and went out. And when they both came back in, [we knew] they’d been fucking in the car park. I don’t know if Bernie sussed it or not, but he didn’t give it away.

“My bedroom in the hotel was next to Bernie’s, and me and Nick could hear this argument beginning, so we basically brought everyone in, and we were all in my bedroom leaning against the wall, pissing ourselves laughing at Bernie, with that ‘ridiculouth lithp’ of his, going ‘You slag, you fucked my fucking bird? You slag!’ To be honest, my respect for Vince went up quite considerably after he’d done that. It was one in the eye from all of us, really.”

Nick: “Bernie brought Vince in as ‘The Punk’ and got what he asked for.”

As the tour progressed, Joe introduced subtler tracks from Sandinista! and Combat Rock into the set. Under the heavy duty discipline, the once-ragged band had matured into a raging, razor-sharp, rock’n’roll leviathan. “We were definitely a heavier, more hard rock proposition than the previous incarnation,” says Nick. “Our versions of Broadway, Magnificent 7 and Rock The Casbah didn’t mess about.”

The reviews praised the power of the band, but questioned the relevance of punk in 1984. Which is not to say punk wasn’t still in favour with the punters. The band’s entrance into the mainstream had brought a younger and more athletic audience whose approval was often displayed through acts of mayhem. Near-riots broke out at venues in Philadelphia, Chicago and Providence. But as the tour progressed, nerves began to fray. Like the original Clash, the new band soon discovered that Rhodes’ Spartan ideals didn’t apply to himself: he flew between gigs, while the band spent “three months in a fucking Greyhound bus because we were so fucking middle class that we were used to luxury”.

“[That sort of suffering] doesn’t make you into an elite, mean killing machine. It just makes you angry,” says Pete. “We were at a soundcheck at a gig and Bernie just said something that was just one thing too fucking far, and I just left and packed my bag. One of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t leave at that point because I would have liked to have fucked Bernie over, for him to have to cancel gigs. But he actually curled around my legs like a fucking cat: ‘You know, you’ve got to understand the pressures, we really value you being in it, blah blah blah.’ Two days later, he was being exactly the same all over again.”

The band had some good times, too. “We saw Black Flag in Atlanta. We had other great days off in Chicago, Kansas City and Detroit,” says Sheppard. “Shopping, eating soul food, watching protest marches, being taken out by great looking girls – I’ve had worse jobs, believe me.

“In Philadelphia, we stayed at the same hotel as The Grateful Dead. When I got on the bus in the morning neither Joe nor Kosmo had been to sleep, and Joe had this pillow of ‘hippy hair’: Kosmo had set up a Mohawk barber service in the Dead’s entertainment suite and cut mohawks all night!”

Paul Simonon, who had chafed under Mick’s excesses, enjoyed his time with the new Clash and acted as a mentor to them. Pete:

“Everybody was sort of muttering, ‘If Joe could get away from Bernie, then this thing could be really good.’ And Paul was very much of that party. He’d never really stick his neck out about it, but he was one of us mutterers who were going on about Bernie the whole time.”

The band returned from their US marathon, ready to go into the studio and do the album. But then came the news that Joe’s mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Right on the heels of his father’s death, the news sent Joe into an emotional tailspin and The Clash’s back was broken for good. Joe left the band to fend for themselves. A mini-tour of Italy in September was undertaken without Joe rehearsing with the band.

Joe’s sole preoccupation in the second half of 1984 was tending to his dying mother. The Clash withered without his involvement. Rhodes took advantage of Joe’s plight and finally seized his long-sought “complete control” of the Clash. He booked a studio in Munich to record a new Clash album, the notorious Cut The Crap.

Most of the backing tracks were assembled by anonymous studio musicians, using the very synthesisers and drum machines that led to Mick Jones’ dismissal. Pete Howard was replaced by some dolt with a drum machine, which was like replacing a Maserati with a Matchbox. When White and Sheppard were finally summoned to provide guitar overdubs, they were stunned to discover that the album was nearly complete.

Inevitably, Joe and Bernie soon fell out. Rhodes took the master tapes from the Munich sessions and disappeared. Boxed in by his new contract, Joe was powerless to stop him. He went so far as to track down Mick Jones in the Bahamas and beg him to rejoin The Clash, only to be rebuffed. The album was one of the most disastrous ever released by a major artist and a complete failure artisically and commercially. To get out of a depression, the band went on a ‘busking tour’ of the north of England in May ’85. Paul Simonon later called it one of the band’s best times, but it couldn’t last. Strummer called a band meeting in October. “We sat down, and Joe said, ‘It’s over’,” says Pete Howard. “He gave us a thousand pounds each. I said, ‘You followed Bernie’s advice, and this is where it got you.’ He said, ‘Yeah, I know.’”

In 1999, Joe tore himself out of his 10-year retirement, formed a new group and called them the Mescaleros with strong parallels with Clash II: the mix of new, Clash-like material and Clash favourites, along with the multi-guitar frontline, was taken right from Joe’s 1984 playbook. After an appearance in Australia in 2001, Joe hooked up Nick Sheppard and healed old wounds. “Joe apologised for what happened,” says Sheppard. “I told him I didn’t regret a moment. I know we were never the ‘classic’ Clash, but I’ve moved on, made some great music, and have a great life.”

Now playing with the highly regarded indie band Queen Adreena, Pete Howard never had the opportunity to square things with Joe. While recording a new album with the Mescaleros, Joe died in his home just before Christmas 2002. “Before he died, Joe said something in an interview. He said, ‘I felt really sorry for Pete, Vince and Nick, because you had a chemistry between four people that worked really well, and there was no way anyone could have replaced that.’

“And I felt somewhat exonerated by that. Because I was limping, mentally, for a while.”
Last Man Standing

Simonon and Bowie backstage at Shea Stadium, 1982

In 1999, bassist Paul Simonon – the only member of The Clash who was in the band from the beginning until the bitter end – spoke about the last days of The Clash.

“How did it feel after Topper left? A bit empty. I mean, we didn’t realise that you were supposed to go on holiday and have a break from each other. We just worked non-stop really, from day one onwards. Inevitably it’s gonna catch up on you. Me and Joe were just pretty much sick of waiting for Mick to turn up and problems with his reliability and we just said, ‘Well, sod it.’ And that was it – we just asked him to leave.

“But it was interesting in a way ’cos one time in rehearsal, Joe got a piece of chalk and drew a line on the floor and said, ‘On this side there’s the musicians, and on this side there’s the entertainers’. And it was Topper and Mick on one side and me and Joe on the other. It was like: so there’s a few wrong notes – who cares, really? We want to see some people jumping around, we wanna see some excitement, we wanna be entertained, not us all standing dead still getting it all right. You may as well listen to the record.

“I suppose the end really came when Mick was out of the group. ’Cos with drummers we always had this sort of: they were there, and then they weren’t. But when Mick was out that was a big change because the musician of the group had left.

“But then again, after Mick left, we had a pretty good time. We did loads of shows around America with these new guys, and we did the ‘Busking Tour’ which was really exciting [in May 1985, The Clash hitchhiked and busked around the north of England, at one point following Clash-copyists The Alarm from gig to gig]. Why did we choose the Alarm? Why not? Just to wind them up, really.

"It was just being playful. We didn’t ever speak to them – they were probably very pissed off. Their bouncers were trying to get rid of us, red paint was chucked at us – it just made it more exciting. It was the last thing we should have done, really, but we had a lot of fun – it was as exciting as the Anarchy tour. You didn’t know where you were going to go next or what was gonna happen and I really enjoyed that.

“I think the last show we played was probably in Greece at some festival and that was really great. We had three guitars by that point, so it gave me a bit more space in some ways. I’d been practising break-dancing for some reason and in the middle of The Magnificent 7, I took the bass off and started spinning around. We were just so comfortable on stage by that point, it didn’t matter – it just mattered that people got a good show.” (Interview: Scott Rowley)


James Baldwin's America and its Urgent Lessons for Our Own

James Baldwin
"In the midst of an ugly Trump regime and a beautiful Baldwin revival, Eddie Glaude has plunged to the profound depths and sublime heights of Baldwin's prophetic challenge to our present-day crisis." —Cornel West

James Baldwin grew disillusioned by the failure of the civil rights movement to force America to confront its lies about race. In our own moment, when that confrontation feels more urgently needed than ever, what can we learn from his struggle?

We live, according to Eddie S. Glaude Jr., in a moment when the struggles of Black Lives Matter and the attempt to achieve a new America have been challenged by the election of Donald Trump, a president whose victory represents yet another failure of America to face the lies it tells itself about race. From Charlottesville to the policies of child separation at the border, his administration turned its back on the promise of Obama's presidency and refused to embrace a vision of the country shorn of the insidious belief that white people matter more than others.

We have been here before: for James Baldwin, these after times came in the wake of the civil rights movement, when a similar attempt to compel a national confrontation with the truth was answered with the murders of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. In these years, spanning from the publication of The Fire Next Time in 1963 to that of No Name in the Street in 1972, Baldwin transformed into a more overtly political writer, a change that came at great professional and personal cost. But from that journey, Baldwin emerged with a sense of renewed purpose about the necessity of pushing forward in the face of disillusionment and despair.

In the story of Baldwin's crucible, Glaude suggests, we can find hope and guidance through our own after times, this Trumpian era of shattered promises and white retrenchment. Mixing biography—drawn partially from newly uncovered interviews—with history, memoir, and trenchant analysis of our current moment, Begin Again is Glaude's endeavor, following Baldwin, to bear witness to the difficult truth of race in America today. It is at once a searing exploration that lays bare the tangled web of race, trauma, and memory, and a powerful interrogation of what we all must ask of ourselves in order to call forth a new America.

Eddie S. Glaude Jr. is a scholar who speaks to the black and blue in America. His most well-known books, Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul, and In a Shade of Blue: Pragmatism and the Politics of Black America, take a wide look at black communities and reveal complexities, vulnerabilities, and opportunities for hope. He is the William S. Tod Professor of Religion and African American Studies and chair of the Department of African American Studies at Princeton University.

Cornel R. West
Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy at Harvard Divinity School. He is best known for his classics Race Matters and Democracy Matters, and his memoir, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud. He is the host with Tricia Rose of a new podcast, The Tight Rope.


Watch out, Canon – the thunder-stealing Sharp 8K Video Camera is back

The Sharp 8K Video Camera has just been added to Sharp's website – is it set to steal the Canon EOS R5's thunder?

The much anticipated Sharp 8K Video Camera is one step closer to its "second half 2020" release, as it has just made its first appearance on the Sharp website. 

The Sharp 8K Camera was the first ever consumer 8K body to be revealed by a manufacturer, but it looks like the Canon EOS R5 will beat it to market. Still, with Sharp's product poised for release later this year, it's clear that the two cameras will be battling head-to-head for customers' cash. 

So what do we know about Sharp's camera? The manufacturer has yet to actually put anything on paper, as until this point the product has only ever appeared at trade shows like CES, where it was always a darling among the vlogging and videography crowd.

The latest development has simply seen Sharp add the camera – described as the "world's smallest interchangeable lens 8K video camera" – to its page listing all its 8K products (including monitors, TVs, camcorders and hard drives). 

As such, all that we officially know about the camera comes from what Sharp's technical spokesperson Cliff Quiroga has revealed in interviews. Photo Rumors has helpfully collated the expected specs: 

• 8k at 30 fps in H.265 codec (Sharp is working on 60 fps)
• 4k or HD up to 60p at 200 Mbits/s at 10-bit
• UI fully implemented
• Micro Four Thirds lens mount
• CMOS sensor (no sensor info besides Micro Four Thirds format)
• Mini-XLR input
• Full HDMI out
• Headphone and audio jacks
• One SD memory card
• 5.5" fully articulating touchscreen HD LCD (swivel)
• Release timeframe: second half of 2020 for Japan, US shortly after
• Price under $5,000 (update: priced between $2,800 - $3,700)
• 1 SD card slot
• Ultra-compact BMC design
• Looks like the Blackmagic Pocket camera
• Red could be involved with this camera (Foxconn and Sharp were considering to invest in Red to develop an affordable 8K camera)

We heard last year that the Sharp 8K Video Camera will feature a 33MP Micro Four Thirds sensor in a new 16:9 ratio – a completely new sensor design by Sharp, unlike anything seen in Olympus and Panasonic cameras (which feature 4:3 sensors that max out at 20.1MP). 

Clearly the Canon EOS R5 outguns it in many tech respects, with a rumored 44MP sensor, dual memory card slots and up to 120fps shooting. The Sharp model will have the advantage in size, though, both in terms of its smaller footprint and its massive 5.5-inch rear screen. 

And if it really does sell for somewhere between $2,800-$3,700, Sharp could be set to give Canon a real run for its money on the new 8K battlefield.


How Prosperity Transformed the Falklands (A Reporter at Large)

Once a distant outpost of the British Empire, the islands have become a global crossroads. In the season of the coronavirus, the intimate communities may evolve yet again.

It is a place to retreat to in a time of plague. Outside the town are miles and miles of empty land, and few roads. Nothing anywhere but whitegrass, dark, scrubby bushes growing close to the ground, and rocks. Only low mountains and no trees, so there’s little to block the incessant wind that blows in from the sea. It’s very quiet, at least when the wind dies down, and some people find the silence and the emptiness hard to take. Before the war, in 1982, some of the bigger farms employed dozens of men, and there were settlements with forty or fifty people living in them, but most of those people are gone now, either moved or emigrated. These days, there is one person for every twelve square miles. Some of the old houses are vacant and derelict; others were hauled out of the settlements, leaving not so much as a gravel track behind, because the people who lived there rode horses.

At the edges of the two big islands, East Falkland and West Falkland, are more than seven hundred smaller islands, some empty, others inhabited by only one or two families: a couple of houses, some generators, a landing strip. There is plumbing and Internet. With a big enough freezer, you could stay here without contact for months. Longer, if you know how to live as people did here until very recently: killing and butchering their own mutton, milking cows, collecting seabird eggs and diddle-dee berries, digging peat for fuel. During the war with Argentina, when people were fleeing the town and turning up at farmhouses, there was not much worry about feeding them, or the British soldiers who took shelter in henhouses and shearing sheds. The farmers had vegetable gardens, and countless sheep, and flour and sugar in fifty-kilo sacks.

For a hundred and fifty years, when the Falkland Islands were a distant outpost of the British Empire, many men came from the Scottish Highlands to work as shepherds, and the islands are oddly similar to the Shetlands or the Isle of Skye—the bleak, rocky landscape; the blustery rain; the nearness of the sea—as though a piece of Scotland had broken off into the Atlantic and drifted eight thousand miles south, past Ireland, then Portugal, past Morocco and Mauritania and Senegal, down past the coasts of Brazil and Uruguay, and come to rest just a few hundred miles north of Antarctica. But here, on days when the air is very sharp and clear, people know that a floating iceberg must be close. And here there are penguins at the water’s edge: three-foot king penguins with egg-yolk bibs; squat rockhopper penguins with spiky black head feathers like gelled hair; whimsy-hatted gentoos. In March, as the plague was circling, the penguins had nothing to do. They were molting, so they couldn’t swim or eat. Molting, people said, was tiring and uncomfortable. The penguins stood about in crowds near the surf, backs to the wind, waiting for their feathers to fall out.

Then again, when the plague does come there may be no escape. Two commercial flights leave the islands each week: one to Punta Arenas, in southern Chile, on Saturdays, and one on Wednesdays, to São Paulo. Even in normal times these flights are often cancelled owing to strong winds at the airport, and now both have been halted. There are military flights to Britain, but these rely on a stopover to refuel, and so many countries have closed their borders that for several weeks there were no flights at all and the islands were completely cut off. There used to be a boat that brought fruit and dry goods and mail once a month from Montevideo and made the rounds of the settlements, but that was a long time ago. People who live on the more remote farms have been warned that if they get sick no one will be able to come and get them, so those most at risk are departing for the only town—Stanley, on East Falkland—if they can.

Until recently, the Falkland Islands were a quasi-feudal colony, in which an arcadian Britain of the past was preserved in microcosm—a population of eighteen hundred, territory a little larger than Jamaica. The islanders, almost all of whom claimed British ancestry, ate British food and planted British gardens, with crowded flower beds and gnomes. They flew Union Jacks from their cars and greenhouses. They were given to displays of patriotism that were rare in the mother country: they celebrated the Queen’s birthday, and sang the national anthem every Sunday in the cathedral. When older islanders talked about Britain—even if they had never been there, and their families had been in the Falklands for five generations—they called it “home.”

John Fowler arrived on the mail boat in 1971. After several awful days at sea, he woke up at four or five in the morning to find that the ship was still. He went up on deck in his pajamas and saw that they were moored on the jetty at Stanley—the town just a few streets on the steep slope above the harbor, little white houses with colored roofs, the air smelling of peat smoke—and saw what looked like three-quarters of the population assembled onshore to greet the ship. To him, just woken up, and disoriented by appearing in public in his pajamas, it was a dreamlike sight, in 1971—like England twenty-five years before, the men in ties and mackintoshes, the ladies in the sort of dresses he remembered his mother wearing when he was a boy.

At the time, the Falklands were poor and embattled, losing so many people to emigration that it seemed the society was in danger of becoming extinct, the islands abandoned. Nobody knew that it was in fact on the verge of an astonishing change: that, a generation later, it would be unrecognizable, its politics transformed, its population doubled and commingled, its identity mutating. It is the fruit fly of societies—a tiny social organism that has metamorphosed through centuries of history in twenty years.

Everything changed for the Falklands because of a chain of events set in motion by the decision of General Leopoldo Galtieri, then President of Argentina, to invade, in April, 1982. Argentina had long claimed the islands, which lie three hundred miles off its coast, and although it was defeated in the war, it claims them still. It maintains that the Falklands are an illegal colony, populated by implants sent by London, and that the British forces on the islands are there to prevent islanders from escaping to Argentina.

In a referendum in 2013, all but three voters elected to remain a self-governing British territory, but the Falklands are no longer now as British as they were. They have become a place where people fetch up from all over the world, for all sorts of reasons—rootless wanderers, transient workers, people fleeing politics at home. In February, a small delegation arrived representing a group of Hong Kong Chinese who were nervous about Beijing. Several white South Africans have turned up; in early March, a divorced contractor from Cape Town who had recently emerged from ten years in prison, in Kuwait, visited offices in Stanley with a stack of business cards. But the constant pressure of the Argentine claim compels the islanders to make the case to the world that they are something more than a haphazard group of settlers, sharing nothing but the ground they live on.

Until three hundred years ago, the Falklands were uninhabited, except by wolves, seals, and island birds—penguins, cormorants, skuas, dark-faced ground tyrants. In 1690, a British captain, John Strong, made the first recorded landing, but he didn’t stay long. A French settlement was established in the seventeen-sixties, and quickly handed to the Spanish. For a few years in the same period, the British maintained an outpost on Saunders Island, near West Falkland, but after clashes with the Spanish they decided that it wasn’t worth the money and went home, leaving a lead plaque asserting British sovereignty. The Spanish kept a garrison on East Falkland for forty years at the end of the eighteenth century, and in the eighteen-twenties, under license from Buenos Aires, a Huguenot cattle-ranching merchant from Hamburg hired gauchos from the mainland and started a settlement that lasted for a few years until it was destroyed by an American gunboat. The British reclaimed the islands in 1833, but it was not until the eighteen-forties that a town was established at Stanley.

After that, people came from all over on boats—sheep farmers from England, fishermen from Scandinavia, seal hunters from Connecticut, whalers, pirates. For the better part of a century, Stanley’s harbor was crowded with abandoned ships wrecked on the terrible journey around Cape Horn—the route taken by European prospectors heading for the California gold rush. Many sailors deserted—traumatized by their brush with death, or just from being horribly seasick on the rough passage from Montevideo. They hid out in Camp (an Anglicization of campo, or “countryside”—in the Falklands it meant everywhere that wasn’t town) until their ship had left. Later, people arrived on yachts—they sailed into Stanley Harbor on their way somewhere else and decided to settle—a couple from Australia, a family from France.

The Lady Elizabeth, a ship grounded at the east end of Stanley Harbor.

A man who lived on one of the outer islands for many years used to say that there were two kinds of people in the Falklands: those in Camp, who were mostly descended from farmers who had been kicked out of the Highlands during the clearances, and were hardworking and honest, and those in Stanley, who were descended from people thrown off ships for bad behavior, and were not to be trusted. But there were all sorts in Camp. When Lionel Blake—known as Tim—was the manager of Hill Cove Farm, on West Falkland, in the nineteen-sixties, there were juvenile delinquents working there, one of whom had come to the Falklands straight out of Borstal. It wasn’t easy to get people to move eight thousand miles for low-paid contract work, so you couldn’t be choosy. Tim advertised for shepherds in Farmers Weekly and got a steelworker, a gardener, and a cinema projectionist.

That was how many people came: they answered an ad. The Falklands weren’t a place that most people thought to go to, or had even heard of, so you had to catch their attention. In the early days, farm managers would place notices in newspapers all over Britain. Later, people would post their résumés on hospitality job sites like Catererglobal, or type “overseas jobs” into Google. You didn’t get people who were leaving a lot behind. Even Tim himself was there because he was a third son and there was no room for him on his father’s farm in Somerset.

Tim was Falklands gentry: his grandfather Robert Blake had bought a half-share in Hill Cove in the eighteen-seventies; he lived on the farm for twenty years and had eight children. Shortly before the turn of the century, his body damaged by arthritis and riding accidents, he returned to England, but his share of Hill Cove stayed in the family. This was a common pattern: the early owners lived on the land, but by the twentieth century most farms were held by absentee landlords in Britain, or by the Falkland Islands Company—the Falklands equivalent of the East India Company, combining trade with governance. The government was run by expatriates who didn’t mix with the locals: Falkland Islanders were colonial subjects, and were treated accordingly. At the annual May Ball, people danced the waltz and the foxtrot, and then halfway through the evening everyone moved to the sides of the room so that the governor and his wife and invited dignitaries could process through the hall as the band played “God Save the Queen.”

Tim’s plan was to work in Hill Cove for four years and save enough money to buy land somewhere in England. But, soon after he arrived, he met Sally Clement, the daughter of Wick Clement, another farm manager. Sally had grown up on West Falkland but had been sent to an English boarding school at twelve. By the time she finished there, she barely knew her parents and didn’t want to go back. She wanted to study history at university, but she felt she couldn’t ask her parents to pay for it, and what would she have done with a history degree, anyway? Shortly after she came back to the Falklands, she met Tim at a Christmas party. It was fortunate that they liked each other, since there was almost no one else on the island that either could have married.

In Tim Blake’s first six months at Hill Cove, he found the pace so much slower than English farming that it nearly drove him mad. There were tens of thousands of sheep, but there was no arable land in the Falklands; it was all rocks and peat bogs, so there was much less to do—no working the fields, no plowing and seeding, no harvest. The farmworkers at Hill Cove were always telling him that it was no good getting excited, you could do it tomorrow as well as today: you had a year to do a year’s work, and there was nothing you could do to change the cycle. Eventually, he saw that this was true, and he grew to love the slowness of it, the meditative rhythm of the months going by:

Tim: Riding behind a flock of sheep, or walking behind a flock of sheep—
Sally: You couldn’t hurry them.
Tim: You can’t hurry them. And you’ve got time to—for your mind to float where it will. It was an absolutely fabulous life.

When he was walking behind the sheep, he was always watching them, watching for the wrong sort of movement:

Tim: You upset a sheep, it will switch off, and it ceases to be a thinking thing. But you leave a little gap like that in a fence, somebody will find a way out and the whole lot will go.
Sally: If you make a pig’s ear of it and get them all scattered.
Tim: There will be troublemakers about. When you’re gathering, you’ll always find the odd one that doesn’t want to come in, and you’ll need to watch that sheep. Because when you root her out from one hiding place she won’t have given up. But to stop the spread of ked, which was a skin parasite, you have to be ruthless: if you leave a sheep behind today and it’s got ked on it, it’ll infect any sheep it comes into contact with. We had a rule on the farm that I was taught the moment I got there: if a sheep stops, kill it.

You had to watch for other things, too. In the spring, gulls and turkey vultures attacked the lambs, pecking the underside of a lamb’s chin until they pecked its tongue out. You’d see a ewe with blood on her underside where the lamb had tried to suck but had no tongue to do it. In those days you didn’t butcher for meat, other than the few animals you needed for your own mutton, because there was no abattoir on the islands and no way to get the meat to market, so when a sheep was too old to yield good wool you just killed it and tossed its body on the beach.

For the first twenty years that Tim Blake was at Hill Cove, from the late fifties to the late seventies, the farm, like the other farms in the Falklands, was run on a system that had progressively been outlawed in Britain by legislation, the Truck Acts, which stretched back to the fifteenth century. The farmworkers rarely handled cash: they were paid in scrip, and had a credit account at the farm store in the settlement. At the end of the year, the farm manager would tell them how much money they had left after subtracting their purchases; he would pay their taxes for them and deposit what remained into a government savings account, or help them invest it. The manager might be the only local authority—he conducted marriages and assigned punishments; it was said that not long before Tim Blake came to Hill Cove a man there was fired for whistling. Because drinking could be a problem, especially in winter, when there wasn’t much to do, the farm store rationed sales of alcohol. When a man grew too old for farmwork, he had to retire, which meant that he had to leave his house on the farm and move to Stanley. But there was little for retired men to do in Stanley except go to the pub, and they often died soon afterward.

The farm manager and his family lived in “the big house,” with a maid, a cook, and a gardener. The married men lived either in small houses in the main settlement or in “outside houses,” isolated in distant parts of the farm, where they could tend to the flocks that were near them. As part of their contracts, the families were housed and given mutton to eat and cows to milk. For variety, they ate penguin eggs, which were round, and big as tennis balls; they tasted of seaweed and their yolks were red. Education on the islands was patchy. Some of the larger settlements, with ten or fifteen children, had a schoolhouse, but many children had a travelling teacher, who might live with them for two weeks every two or three months. Among the older generation of farm managers, some considered it imprudent to educate farm children too well.

Single farmworkers lived in a bunkhouse with a cook. With the exception of the maid in the big house, there might be no single women anywhere nearby: around the time of the 1973 census, on the whole of West Falkland there was one unmarried woman and fifty-one unmarried men. Many women married British soldiers—there was a small garrison of Royal Marines on East Falkland—and left the islands; even if a man found someone to marry, the divorce rate was exceptionally high. So, if a man got hurt, it would likely be the manager’s wife who took care of him. When Tony Smith crushed his hand under the drive belt of a generator in Port Stephens and blood was spurting out the tips of his fingers, it was the farm manager’s wife who heated a needle over a candle flame and pushed it through each one of his nails to release the pressure.

If there weren’t enough married men to live in the outside houses, sometimes a single man would live there by himself, not seeing anyone for weeks at a time. There was an outside shepherd living alone on a farm on West Falkland around the nineteen-fifties who fell very ill and thought he was dying, so he let out his dogs and fed his chickens, lay down on his bed, crossed his arms over his chest, and waited for death, figuring that sooner or later someone would find him. After a while he felt better and got up again, and the story was still being told decades later. Everyone thought it was hilarious.

There was a compressed intimacy in the settlements, both stifling and enfolding: there could be few secrets in places that small, and families depended on one another for help. If someone got sick, it could be a couple of days before the doctor reached him; deliveries came rarely, so people had to borrow. Every year after shearing was over, one settlement on each of the main islands would host Sports Week, and the farmers’ families would get together to celebrate. During the day, there was horse racing and shearing competitions and sheepdog trials, sometimes fuelled by gin-and-tonics for breakfast, and in the evening there was drinking and dancing until four or five in the morning. There was no place to stay other than the houses, so there might be twenty people sleeping in two or three rooms, crammed together on the floor.

Ailsa Heathman, a fifth-generation islander, on her farm, Estancia.

Until the nineteen-eighties there were no roads in Camp, so most people got around on horses. Some had Land Rovers, but the soil was so wet that they were always getting stuck in bogs. There weren’t many landmarks to steer by, and fog often obscured the few that there were, so people learned to navigate by looking at the ground. No matter how you travelled, it took hours to get anywhere, so when you passed a house you would stop in for a meal or to sleep over. Anyone living outside a settlement was expected always to be able to come up with a meal and a bed for the night.

For a long time you rarely knew when someone was coming, because there were no phones in Camp, and the mail came once a month. When the mail boat brought letters for one of the outer islands, someone on the mainland would light fires to let people know where the letters were from: one fire for local, two for England. Later, when mail for an outer island arrived in Stanley, it was sorted into sacks, which were then dropped out the door of a plane onto the island. In 1950, the government set up a radio-telephone service linking forty farms; the drawback and the charm of this system was that people could hear one another’s calls. Each morning at ten, a doctor in Stanley would hold consultations over the radio-telephone, and everyone would stop what he or she was doing and sit down around the radio with a cup of tea to listen to islanders describe their coughs and aches and gynecological problems and irritable bowels.

The enormous changes that propelled the Falkland Islands through two centuries of history in twenty years actually began shortly before the war, in the late nineteen-seventies, around the time that Tony Heathman learned how to shear sheep. Tony’s roots in the islands went back as far as Tim Blake’s did, but he came from farmworkers, not gentry: he grew up mostly in Cape Dolphin, on East Falkland; his father was an outside shepherd. He left school at fifteen, in 1964, and worked on the farm at Port San Carlos, then went to Stanley in the winter of 1968 and cut peat.

He had always wanted to learn how to shear sheep in the modern New Zealand style, but there had been no one in Port San Carlos to teach him. Then he heard that in Goose Green there were two managers just over from New Zealand, so he got a job there and started to learn. The method was graceful, precise, every movement choreographed for maximum speed and minimum effort: the shearer standing bent over rather than kneeling, the animal gripped between his legs, the shearer taking up the sheep’s front right leg with his left hand, the first blow of the machine shears down inside the flank, stretching the belly skin up, covering the teats for two blows up the crotch to the center, then rolling the sheep over, two blows across the topknot and above each eye, step through. Then the brisket blows, the neck wool and straight up the throat, round onto the side of the cheek, short one under the ear, the sheep’s head on the shearer’s knee; then down the leg and the sock peeled off, the sheep turned again for the long blow across the back and down the leg—the longest blow in shearing—so that the fleece came off neatly in one piece, like a shed overcoat.

Tony spent a couple of years perfecting his skills at Goose Green, and then, in the early seventies, he joined up with two other men to form a shearing gang, the first in the Falklands. The idea was to go from farm to farm as freelance shearers, charging eightpence a sheep, which was better money than being a shepherd. The shearing gang worked out better for the farms as well, because under the old system they had to employ large numbers of workers for the shearing rush who then didn’t have much to do for the rest of the year.

The gangs came just in time, because the farms were in trouble. Whereas in the previous few decades wool prices had been high and the Falklands had brought in more tax revenues to the British exchequer than they had cost in investment, by the end of the nineteen-seventies the price of wool had plummeted. In 1975, the Foreign Office sent Lord Shackleton—a former Labour Party leader in the House of Lords and a son of the Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton—to the Falklands to assess their prospects. Shackleton recommended that the Falkland Islands government buy the big farms back from their absentee landlords, divide them into lots small enough to be managed by a single family, and sell them to islanders. The absentee landlords were delighted to be rid of their failing properties, and Shackleton’s plan was gradually put into effect.

A few years after Tony Heathman joined the shearing gang, he got married, to a woman named Ailsa, whom he had known all his life—his sister was married to her uncle. They were both fifth-generation islanders, descended on their mothers’ side from the same man, William Fell, who came to the islands from Scotland around 1859. Ailsa had grown up in the Rose Hotel, a pub in Stanley that her parents and grandmother ran, but she spent all her summers with relatives who worked at Green Patch, a farm on East Falkland.

As it happened, Green Patch was the first of the big farms to be subdivided after the Shackleton report. The Falkland Islands Company sold it to the government, and in 1980 the government divided its seventy-two thousand acres into six holdings of around twelve thousand acres each. Tony and Ailsa jumped at the chance to have their own farm. In the years that Tony had been on the shearing gang, Ailsa had been working as a rousie, piling the wool in the sheds, and in the off season they lived in a caravan and drove around Goose Green repairing fences. They could make a hundred pounds a day between them if they were lucky, and they had saved most of it.

They applied for one of the holdings, Estancia, and were offered a lease for fifteen thousand pounds. But running their own farm was not what they’d imagined. The first winter was hard, and they lost a lot of sheep. Because the land was so poor, it could support only three thousand sheep, but you needed a minimum of six thousand to make the farm viable. Wool prices kept going down. Tony and Ailsa couldn’t have got rid of the farm, because they couldn’t have sold it for enough money to buy a place in Stanley, so they cut back everywhere they could think of and held on.

They weren’t alone: the mood everywhere on the islands was grim. It had become obvious to the islanders that Britain considered them a problem. For years, the Foreign Office had been pushing them closer to Argentina, arranging for goods and services to come from there rather than from Britain. Argentina, whose government had recently been taken over by a military junta, had been growing increasingly bellicose on the issue of sovereignty, and the last thing Britain wanted was an international dispute over some distant rocks nobody had heard of. It seemed clear to the islanders that Britain planned at some point to simply hand them over. At the end of 1980, a minister from the Foreign Office visited Stanley and proposed to an apprehensive audience in the town hall that the Falklands be given to Argentina in a long-term “leaseback” arrangement, similar to the one that Britain and China had for Hong Kong. Not long afterward, the House of Lords voted to refuse the islanders British citizenship. “In a place where people have become well aware that loyalty expressed over many generations is swiftly forgotten,” the Penguin News wrote, in a bitter editorial, “they are not surprised that they have been pushed a little further out into the cold.”

If the farms were failing, and Britain was likely to betray them to the Argentines, what was there left to stay for? People began making plans to get out—contract workers went back to Britain; people with enough savings emigrated to New Zealand—but many islanders didn’t have the money to start over in a new country, and had been in the Falklands for so many generations that they no longer had any ties to Britain or anywhere else. Where were they supposed to go?

On April 1, 1982, the governor of the Falkland Islands, Rex Masterman Hunt, received a telegram from the Foreign Office: “We have apparently reliable evidence that an Argentine task force will gather off Cape Pembroke early tomorrow morning. You will wish to make your dispositions accordingly.” Hunt had evacuated from Saigon in 1975 and remembered how long it took to shred documents, so he immediately ordered shredding to begin; then he went on the radio and told the islanders to expect an invasion but not to be inquisitive and go outside, since they’d only be in the way. Patrick Watts, the head of the radio station, announced that he would keep broadcasting, interspersing music with news; people began phoning in to report what they were seeing, and he broadcast the calls. The next day at dawn, the Argentines landed and marched into Stanley. After a brief resistance, the governor realized that fighting back with the islands’ tiny defense force was futile, and surrendered. The Argentines declared that they had come to liberate the islands from colonialism, and ordered schools to be taught in Spanish and everyone to drive on the right-hand side of the road.

For the first few hours, no one knew whether Britain would come to defend them or not. That Argentina would invade when Britain had been more or less asking to hand them over made the country’s regime seem even crazier; people in Stanley began talking about where they could flee to if Britain capitulated. Some began frantically packing to evacuate to Camp, though the Argentines were in Camp, too, forcing people out of their homes, herding them into buildings, demanding food and vehicles. Later that day, the islanders learned that Margaret Thatcher, the British Prime Minister, had decided to send the Navy, after all, though it would take many days to get there.

The islanders did what they could to undermine the enemy. Reg Silvey, the Cape Pembroke lighthouse keeper and a radio ham, rigged an aerial out of a steel-core washing line and transmitted troop information to the British. Terry Peck, a policeman, concealed a telephoto camera in a drainpipe and walked around taking photographs of Argentine missile sites. A farmer named Trudi McPhee led a caravan of islanders in Land Rovers and tractors through hostile territory at night across East Falkland to Tony and Ailsa’s farmhouse, where British troops needed vehicles to transport weapons. Eric Goss, a manager at Goose Green, convinced Argentine soldiers that the lights of British ships in Falkland Sound were moonlight reflecting off seaweed.

A house in Goose Green, a settlement on Lafonia, the peninsula that forms the southern part of East Falkland.

The conflict lasted seventy-four days; around six hundred and fifty Argentines and two hundred and fifty Britons, as well as three Falkland Islanders, died. On the fourteenth of June, Argentina finally surrendered. The commander of the British land forces sent a message to London: “The Falkland Islands are once more under the government desired by their inhabitants. God save the Queen.”

Afterward, Stanley was so wrecked and filthy, rubbish and debris everywhere, that it was hard to imagine it could ever be repaired. People returning to homes where Argentine conscripts had camped out found their things broken or stolen, graffiti on the walls and drawers full of feces. Outside the town, farmers were afraid to move around, because the land was strewn with mines. People were angry and depressed, traumatized by the violence of the invasion and by how helpless and vulnerable it had shown them to be. Many felt guilty about the British soldiers who had died: two hundred and fifty dead for eighteen hundred Falkland Islanders. Were they worth it?

During the war, groups of islanders had been crammed together, either forcibly, by Argentine soldiers, like the more than a hundred people held captive for nearly a month in the community hall at Goose Green, or because they took refuge in the West Store in Stanley. The people who spent the war like that grew very close; but in the dismal aftermath they were overwhelmed by the task of purging the filth from their houses and earning enough money to repair them, and the feeling of togetherness mostly dissipated. After the war, most people in Stanley had troops billeted with them, and everywhere you went there were soldiers in uniform, so the town still felt like a place under military occupation. The British troops called the islanders Bennys, for a village-idiot character in the long-running British soap opera “Crossroads.” When they were ordered to stop, they took to calling them Stills, as in, “Still a Benny.” With so many soldiers coming through on three-month tours, a lot of marriages broke up, and a lot of people turned up at the hospital with S.T.D.s.

Trying to keep their heads above water in Estancia with too few sheep, Tony and Ailsa looked for ways to diversify. They sold hay. They planted vast vegetable gardens and sold produce to the mess kitchen on the base, though the military’s specifications were so rigid that selling to it was barely worth the trouble. (“Each root must be not less than 20 mm in diameter and not less than 50g in weight. The difference in weight between the smallest and largest root in any one package must not be more than 30mm in diameter and 200g.”) Some years, they grew six tons of carrots. For the most part, Ailsa and Tony pulled them all themselves, though one weekend a woman came to help, and was so crippled afterward from all the bending that she had to go to the hospital.

After the war, the wretched condition of the Falklands attracted international attention, and Britain allotted the islands more aid money than it ever had before. It passed a nationality bill that granted Falkland Islanders full British citizenship, and it gave the islands independence in all matters except foreign policy and defense. The islands would be run not by the governor but by their legislative council; this would consist of eight elected members, though there would be no political parties—there was no need, since most people had known one another all their lives. There was already a local court, and since it was difficult to assemble a jury in which no one was related to the defendant, the bailiff was empowered to step outside and collar more potential jurors literally off the street.

But the turning point that changed everything was Britain’s decision, in 1986, to permit the Falklands to claim fishing rights to the waters for a hundred and fifty miles offshore, which it had not allowed before for fear of antagonizing Argentina. The waters surrounding the islands lay on the yearly swimming routes of toothfish—Chilean sea bass—and two species of squid much valued in Asia and southern Europe. For decades, the islanders had watched Russian and Taiwanese fishing boats fill their nets—working by night, shining bright lights into the water to attract the squid to the surface—without being able to do a thing about it. Sales of fishing licenses to foreign fleets multiplied the islands’ collective income threefold, virtually overnight.

Suddenly, all sorts of things that people had been longing for were actually possible. Since the late nineteenth century, islanders had wanted a swimming pool because the sea was too cold to swim in, so nobody knew how, and, when boats capsized, people would drown. Now there would be a pool. A new secondary school was built, and a hospital. The changes that had begun before the war accelerated: the old farms were subdivided, the government lent people money to buy the new ones, and soon nearly all the land in the Falklands was owned by the islanders who farmed it.

Merlita Ponsica immigrated to the Falklands from Cebu, in the Philippines, in 2017.

The government set about building roads all over the islands, so that people could visit one another without its taking eight or ten hours to get there. It subsidized a car ferry linking East Falkland to West Falkland, twenty miles across the Falkland Sound, and a few nine-seater planes to transport people longer distances, or to the outer islands. Proper phones, with numbers and private lines, were installed. It was decided that any Falkland Island teen-agers who passed their exams could attend sixth form and university in Britain, all expenses paid, including trips home each year. A union negotiator went in to haggle with the government and emerged with salaries doubled, wondering if he was hallucinating.

Most people quickly got used to the new way of living, and found that they liked it. But, having grown up in the bad times, Falkland Islanders were extremely frugal, and each new project was strenuously resisted by those who said that it was unnecessary, or too expensive, or that it would never work. Members of the legislative assembly were leery of wasting money on mistakes—and, early on, there were some very expensive mistakes—so before embarking on big projects they hired experts to draw up reports detailing different options, and the pros and cons of each, and everything that could possibly go wrong. The people who had previously complained about the expensive mistakes now complained about the expensive experts, and the regulations and paperwork and best practices they brought with them:

Tony: The fisheries office in Stanley—they spent nearly five hundred thousand pounds on the foundation. You could launch a bloody space shuttle off that foundation!
Ailsa: We’ve been building houses in the Falklands for nearly two hundred years and nothing’s blown away that I ever heard of.

Even with all the experts, things went wrong. When the road from Stanley to the airport was built, it was built with deep ditches on either side. Rumor had it that somebody who wasn’t a Falkland Islander had mistaken the annual rainfall figure for the monthly one, and designed it that way to accommodate flooding. Many years and countless accidents later, the ditches—too expensive to fix—were still there, and people were still bitter about them. After the airport road was tarmacked, some wanted to tarmac more roads, like the one out to the ferry port, while others thought that, if you did that, next thing you knew people were going to want lines painted down the middle of the roads, and then barriers along the edge to prevent cars from falling into the ditches, and by then you might as well give everyone their own limousine and throw in a year’s supply of tiaras while you were at it.

The Falkland Islands were now among the richest places on earth—with an income, per capita, comparable to those of Norway and Qatar. Despite its spending, the government had also put aside several years’ income for a rainy day: it had no debt at all. And, meanwhile, the possibility had arisen of exponentially more money in the near future. Since the nineteen-nineties, oil companies had been exploring the waters around the islands, and by the early twenty-tens it had become clear that substantial oil deposits existed in the basins offshore. The islanders cautiously reminded themselves that drilling was not a certainty—it depended on oil prices and various technical issues—but it seemed increasingly likely that this would happen, and that the Falklands’ annual revenues could soon quadruple. On April 1st, a broadcaster on Falkland Islands radio announced that the government had struck gold and everyone should claim free shares in a mining venture. At that point, the news seemed so plausible that few people realized it was a joke.

Merlita Ponsica was in her forties and working as a receptionist at the visa office in Cebu, a city in the Philippines a few hundred miles southeast of Manila, when a woman a little older than she was came in to apply for a visa to the Falkland Islands. The woman had been working overseas for years—in Hong Kong and Macao and Singapore—and sending money home to her mother, who lived in a rural area and was taking care of the woman’s three children. Then the woman had met a man in an online chatroom, and he had suggested that she join him in the Falklands. Now she had a job in Stanley, working in the convenience store of a gas station, and she was living with the man. She had even brought her children over.

It was safe in the Falklands, the woman said—maybe the safest place in the world. The money was good—up to ten times what you would earn in the Philippines—and health and education were free. It was better than Dubai, even, because in Dubai it was almost impossible to get residency, whereas you could get permanent residency in the Falklands after five years. The woman explained to Merlita how she had met the man online, and soon Merlita, too, had a boyfriend in the Falklands, about twenty-five years older than she was. This man helped her find a job in Stanley, working at the supermarket—you couldn’t move to the Falklands without a job—and in 2017 she flew over.

Patrick Watts, the former head of the Falkland Islands’ radio station, outside his home.

It was cold in Stanley, and very quiet. It was so tiny, after Cebu, and almost nobody about, only a few cars driving by, or sometimes a couple of kids on bicycles. From a distance the town looked pretty, the white houses with colored roofs, but when you walked past the houses you saw that many were cheaply made, with painted siding and corrugated metal. Some people had planted flower beds, but many back yards were messy, strewn with spare building materials and old cars. Some people kept animals—dogs and chickens, even horses and sheep. Sometimes in the evening a lamb could be heard crying. On Saturday nights, if you walked past one of the pubs you could hear loud music inside, and there would be people standing outdoors smoking, women in tight dresses, and sometimes drunk people flailing about, punching each other. But the woman in the visa office had been right; it was safe. At home she’d been afraid to carry money, but also afraid not to carry money, because if someone attacked her and she hadn’t got any she might be killed. In Stanley, she never worried about walking alone.

At first, she was very homesick. There were other Filipinos in Stanley, but the ones who’d come before her could be snooty about new arrivals, so she mostly kept to herself. After a few months, she and the boyfriend broke up—she found out that he’d been seeing another Filipina on the side—but the money was good and she decided to stay. She worked, went home, cooked dinner, went to sleep. She had left her three-year-old son back in the Philippines, and she missed him so much she wanted to die. Then she figured out how to get one of her sisters a job in Stanley, as a waitress. Once her sister arrived, she felt better. Her sister worked late at the restaurant, so in the evenings after the supermarket closed Merlita was alone. But at night, and on their days off, she and her sister sat in their house and sang and drank together, and video-called home after midnight, when the Internet was cheaper.

Filipinos were relatively recent arrivals. After the war, people had started arriving from St. Helena, another British island territory in the South Atlantic. In the nineties and early two-thousands, Chileans who had grown up under military dictatorship had started moving to the Falklands to work in the hotel—for a long time there was only one hotel, the Upland Goose—or in the shops, or to drive a taxi. Later on, a group of mine-clearance workers from Zimbabwe spent a couple of years on the islands, ridding them of mines from the war, and some liked it enough that they decided to stay and bring their families.

Some of the de-miners had already lived all over the world—the Falklands was just another posting. Shupi Chipunza had grown up in Harare and done A-levels in history, Shona, and English literature intending to go to university, but then he heard that de-mining paid double what he could earn as a teacher. He left to take a series of de-mining jobs, in Croatia, then Lebanon, then Congo, then Cyprus, then Afghanistan, and, finally, the Falklands. By the time he got to Stanley, he had married Agnes, a girl who grew up on his street in Harare, and they had three young children. He wanted to stop going away so much, so he got a job installing floors, and later worked as a firefighter at the airport. He brought Agnes over, and she started a house-cleaning business. Shupi was determined that he and Agnes would not fail to integrate into the Falklands community, and he had lived in so many places that he knew what it took to get the natives to accept you. He joined a soccer team, he participated in charity fund-raisers—there were a lot of charity fund-raisers. He explained to Agnes which foods the islanders ate with cutlery and which with their hands, so that they wouldn’t embarrass themselves if they were invited to dinner.

Whereas in the seventies in the Falklands there had been only sheep, now there were not only the fisheries but also tourism, which was growing every year, with all the cruise ships stopping by on their way to Antarctica. Tony and Ailsa, like many islanders, started a sideline in tourism. They did battlefield tours and talked about their war experience, and showed people the remains of two Argentine helicopters near their farm. They drove people out to see the king penguins on the beach at Volunteer Point. On a big cruise-ship day there might be fifty vehicles at Volunteer Point, with four passengers in each. During the summer, many people took time off work to pick up tourism gigs, but there still weren’t enough drivers for the days when four thousand passengers came ashore, more than doubling the islands’ population, so the tourists who hadn’t booked car trips in advance would trudge around Stanley in matching promotional rain jackets and extreme-weather boots, taking photographs of the statue of Margaret Thatcher and the red post boxes and the red phone booths outside the post office.

It was impossible to fill all the jobs—many people in Stanley had two or three. Young people switched careers easily if they felt like it: from I.T. consultant to running an embroidery business; from research biologist to airline pilot. People who had emigrated in the seventies began moving back, and three-quarters of the students who went away to study returned, but there still weren’t enough. Shops and hotels started bringing in more and more people from abroad, and by the time of the 2016 census only forty-three per cent of the population was native-born. Of the remainder, about half were from Britain, but the rest came from nearly sixty countries. Of course, it being the Falklands, many of the sixty countries were represented by one or two people. (“The Russians came through fisheries science. There’s a Romanian in Port Howard—he’s a farmworker. The Latvian, I really don’t know how he got here.”)

In addition to those who came for work, there were a lot of travellers in the Falklands—people who spent their time staring at maps, who had been all over the world, who had no deep roots and had fetched up in the South Atlantic for one reason or another. Pat Warburton was a dental hygienist in her sixties from York Springs, Pennsylvania, who had been to Tibet and Mongolia in a Unimog truck that she and a boyfriend had kitted up into a mobile home. She had followed the Silk Road through Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan into northwestern China; she had been all over Europe and South America and Africa. She would stop to work for a few months in dental offices that took her on temporarily, in South Africa or New York or Kathmandu, and then, when she had saved enough money, she would search on Web sites—Workaway, MindMyHouse—for people who could give her room and board in exchange for some kind of help. On a three-month coconut-harvesting Workaway in the Tuamotu Islands, in the South Pacific, she decided that she liked remote islands, and she liked the sound of the Falklands, so she placed an advertisement in the Penguin News. She was taken in by a couple at Hill Cove who wanted help around the farm, and spent a few months cooking for a shearing gang, cleaning barns, and castrating lambs. A neighbor spotted her, and she ended up moving in.

A group of penguins at Volunteer Point, on East Falkland.

Keith Biles started out in the nineteen-sixties working in London for a firm of bullion dealers, but when he visited his brother-in-law, who was working in Pretoria, he realized that many people were living better for less money overseas, and he wanted to be a part of that. He went to work for a bank that would send him abroad, and was posted to Manila, then Hong Kong, then New York, Sri Lanka, Oman, Dubai, Ghana, and the Falklands. While he was living in Stanley, he turned fifty-five and came up for retirement, and he and his wife had to decide where to settle. He was drawn to Cyprus because the climate was nice and life there was easy, but his wife couldn’t face it, thirty years of sitting in the sun and going to bars and meeting other expatriates for dinner. They considered returning to England, but it had been so many years since they’d lived there that they had no roots anywhere in particular. Their children were living in different parts of the country and planning to emigrate themselves. So in the end they decided to stay. They had friends in Stanley, they were active in local organizations, they had a nice house with a picture window overlooking the sea.

Prosperity changed nearly everything. When an islander bought one of the new farms, he needed to live on his own land, so typically he moved into the outside shepherd’s house that was already on it. Suddenly, the people he had lived with for years, maybe his whole life, were gone, and his family was alone. The work on each farm could be managed by one couple, especially once people started herding sheep with quad bikes rather than horses, so farmworkers who couldn’t afford to take on their own farms either moved to Stanley or left. Within a few years, many of the settlements had emptied out—a place that had had fifty people living in it might now have four. People didn’t need neighbors anymore, though, the way they once did; now they had money, and it was easier to get into Stanley on a plane, and products were flown in from abroad all the time, so, if they needed something, they might no longer have to borrow.

The new roads made getting around much quicker, which meant that if you wanted to visit someone you could, without taking two days to do it. But, because of that, you didn’t need to stop at anyone’s house along the way, or spend the night. People got into the habit of calling before they came, to make sure that a visit was convenient. A lot of people stopped staying over for Sports Week. They might come out to see the races, drink a few Budweisers in the afternoon, and then drive home that night. It was a bit of an imposition to stay over, and who wanted to spend a night on the floor when you could sleep in your own bed? Anyway, Sports Week was no longer as exciting as it had been when it was the only time you’d see certain people all year. With so many leaving early, Sports Week became Sports a few days, and the all-night dances petered out:

Tony: There’s no social life left in the Camp.
Ailsa: I used to keep all the beds made up—people often stopped here overnight. We used to get about eight hundred visitors a year.
Tony: Twelve hundred, one year!
Ailsa: We all knew each other. Tony would be away nearly every weekend looking for somebody that was lost or bogged. When we first got this place, I said, “I want hooks in the storeroom for twelve mugs.” He said, “What the hell do you want twelve mugs for?” Well, there was many a day they were all dirty and I’d be washing them before the next lot came in. But once the road went in people would just drive past.

With the new phones, you could finally talk to a doctor in private, and people quickly got used to that. Years later, when the hospital was being refurbished, a temporary waiting room was set up, with windows that were visible from the road, and people complained that it was outrageous that passersby might see them there and know that they had an appointment. On the other hand, while there was now more privacy, some things that had not been spoken of before, or had been hidden in isolated farmhouses, began to come out. Stanley’s small jail grew crowded with elderly sex offenders. The hospital could now afford to invest in mental health; visiting therapists noticed in the islands’ population a surprising near-absence of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, but a higher than usual incidence of alcohol abuse and depression.

There were a few people who said that they liked the Falklands better the way they used to be, though almost everybody mocked them for pining for the good old days, when everyone was poor and miserable and half the population was trying to leave. “I wish it had never happened,” Patrick Watts says. “I did love the old Falklands the way it was—the nice, relaxed, slow way of life we had—which some people couldn’t tolerate, so they upped and went. It was a small population, and we were closer together. Pre-’82, the Falklands was the place where I lived; now it’s the place where I work. That’s how I describe it.”

It used to be that people who lived in Stanley knew everyone they saw on the street, and would say hello to them. Of course, you always had the odd foreigner turning up. Patrick Watts had brought home his wife, Sima, a Dutch citizen of Indian extraction who had grown up in Suriname, having met her at an all-you-can-eat buffet dinner at Mr. Wu, a Chinese restaurant in London. But in the old days people came one at a time, so you recognized them. The older generation found the number of strangers disturbing, although they weren’t greeting people on the street anymore, anyway, because now everyone had cars so nobody walked.

Some islanders complained that, with so many people from all over the world, the Falklands were becoming unrecognizable. Others found the new cosmopolitanism exciting, and thought that those who complained were lacking in vision and probably racist, harkening back to the days before the war, when islanders used to cite the nearly hundred-per-cent whiteness of the population as proof that they were truly British. But, in addition to this familiar divide, there was a twist unique to the Falklands, caused by the lingering spectre of the war. Falkland Islanders claimed the right to self-determination under the United Nations Charter. The charter granted that right to “peoples,” but it didn’t define what that meant. What did it take to be a people? How did some people become a people? Was it a matter of time? Shared culture? Children born on the land? Was there, on the other hand, a point at which a population was so transient and unstable that it looked less like a society than like an airport? Islanders liked to point out that their old families had lived in the Falklands for more generations than many Argentine families had lived in Argentina—for practically as long as Argentina had been a country—and some worried that if the islands again came to be inhabited mostly by travellers and contract workers from abroad this advantage would be lost.

People had come to the Falklands for so many different reasons that it was hard to combine them into the kinds of larger national legends that explained who you were. Most of the usual stories were not available. The first arrivals had not tamed or transformed the land, uprooting trees and plowing fields: there were no trees, and the sheep took the land as it was. The islanders had rid themselves of their colonial masters, but not by revolution; the colonial masters had wanted to be rid of them. A liberating war had been won, but not by the islanders themselves. Moreover, although the islands now had plenty of money, they were still reliant on Britain in many ways—for medical care, education, and defense, for professionals and experts. Independence seemed impossible, at least in the foreseeable future; the place was just too small.

Most people now described themselves as Falkland Islanders first and British second, but it was hard to say what that meant. Britishness was easy to proclaim—the Union Jacks, the red post boxes. Symbols were enough because everybody knew what Britain was, and there was too much of it to capture, anyway. But what a Falkland Islander was, was harder to describe. Most people felt strongly that sheep farming was an important part of their heritage, but not many people lived in Camp anymore. The gift shops were full of penguins, but although everybody liked penguins they were not obviously totemic. “We’re so young, we don’t have a long history,” Leona Roberts, a member of the islands’ legislative assembly, says. “And there’s no native population, no carvings to tell us who we are.”

When asked what it meant to be a Falkland Islander, most people with deep roots in the islands would talk about survival in isolation and bad weather; making do with very little; figuring out how to fix something without training or the proper parts; helping one another out because nobody else was going to do it, because there was nobody else. A lot of being a Falkland Islander had to do with being poor, but now Falkland Islanders were no longer poor. “When Premier Oil researched its first environmental and social-impact statement, we had people saying, We’ve got to protect our way of life, we’ve got to protect our way of life,” Mike Summers, the head of the chamber of commerce, says. “And at some point in a meeting I said, ‘So what is that, then?’ And there was a silence. And I said, ‘You see—the problem is, we don’t know.’ ”

In late March, as the plague drew closer, and the planes stopped coming, the islanders, like people everywhere, sat at home and went online, trying to figure out what was going to happen. Oil prices had plunged since the pandemic began, and covid had been spreading among workers living in close quarters on rigs, so it seemed unlikely that drilling would start anytime soon. With restaurants closing in Europe, demand for fish was a fraction of what it had been, and that was in addition to the possibility that Brexit would result in European tariffs approaching twenty per cent. It was not yet clear what all this meant for the fisheries, but their revenues made up nearly two-thirds of the islands’ income, so any reduction would have an enormous impact. Tourism was the second-largest business, and that consisted almost entirely of cruise-ship passengers. Who was going to sign up for a cruise now? And if the tourists stopped coming restaurants and hotels would close. You weren’t allowed to stay in the Falklands without a job, so the people who worked there and didn’t yet have permanent residency might have to go home.

What would happen if planes stopped bringing in regular supplies? Would the islands become remote once more, hoping the deliveries came in, relying on homegrown food if they didn’t? In the old days, fruit was shipped in once a month—it was hard to grow anything on the islands other than berries—and people called mutton “365” because they ate it every day, sometimes for all three meals. Could that happen again? Would younger people who’d grown up in Stanley learn to slaughter sheep? Maybe the people who missed the way the Falklands used to be would get what they wanted:

Ailsa: Another World War. Heaven forbid, but it might sort the world out.
Tony: Shut shore down for a month.
Ailsa: We’d have to learn to live on our own resources and get along together for once.

It seemed inevitable that the plague would come. Everyone was waiting. For weeks, some people had been saying on Facebook that the government ought to close the borders, at least to the cruise ships, but the passengers kept arriving, walking all over Stanley, spreading God knows what.

Now, though, with the beginning of fall in the Southern Hemisphere, the tourism season was over. There would be no more cruise ships, and the bed-and-breakfasts and the gift shops would shut. With borders closing in other countries and the uncertainty of flights, many of the experts and consultants had gone home. The long-term islanders would be on their own again for the winter. And if people started dying everyone would mourn, because everyone would know who they were.

Larissa MacFarquhar