My Anglo-Argentinian boss at the Buenos Aires Herald, Andrew Graham-Yooll, used to call the city where we worked “the forgotten colony”, referring to the amnesia on the Anglo side. How, he asked, could all those years of investment, railway-building and trading in Angus beef be so insignificant to Britain’s collective memory?
As I head out of my hotel and along the calle Reconquista on a damp Sunday, parts of the city look more like an abandoned colony.
The Retiro railway station, built a century ago with girders from Francis Morton & Co of Liverpool, is dilapidated. The Richmond, once the smartest café on calle Florida, has been boarded up for demolition. Its most celebrated habitué was Jorge Luis Borges, a writer so unrepentantly anglophiliac that, when composing his verses in Spanish, he used English word order to facilitate translation.
The former branch of Harrods on the same street is in a ruinous state. When I lived in the Argentinian capital between 1991 and 2001, there were perennial rumours that the store would be reopened; but it lurks there, doomed for the wrecking ball, an entire city block full of dark shadows.
The one building that looks intact is the Torre de los Ingleses, or English Tower, a replica of Big Ben gifted to the city by British expats in 1910 for the centenary of the wars of independence. The tower was renamed the Torre Monumental after the 1982 war. Facing it is the august black marble Malvinas war memorial where, a week before my visit, a French photographer was stabbed to death while taking pictures.
The 30th anniversary of the invasion of the Falklands feels different from earlier ones. The media are following President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s populist lead in making as much fuss as possible. Like her late husband, the former president Néstor Kirchner, she is an expert rabble-rouser and the oil question gives her ammunition. But she is also a classic Perónist, relying on the votes of the “shirtless ones”. The decay I see in the city is not confined to the vestiges of Englishness; modern-day Buenos Aires would like to be a cool, cosmopolitan city but it is run as a vast provincial shanty town.
I go with my old friend Mariano for a few beers at El Británico bar in San Telmo. Like many Argentinians, Mariano is an Anglophile, of sorts. His particular passion is late-Seventies and Eighties British punk, new wave and ska: the music that I grew up with. Mariano dislikes “la presidenta” because he loves culture and loathes jingoism.
“It’s ridiculous,” he says. “Argentinians love speaking English, love London and love football, which you gave us. When the English brought the first balls, they were deflated and everyone thought they were hats.”
There’s a football match showing on a TV in the corner. Some fans have strung up a banner screaming “Inglaterra! La concha de tu madre!”, which translates (politely) as “England! Your mother’s private parts!”.
“Look at the name of the team they support,” Mariano says. “It’s Newell’s Old Boys. You can’t get more English than that.”
Claim to fame
For Mariano, music is the only useful tool of diplomacy. “Last week, Morrissey was here. Buenos Aires went crazy. Next week it’s Roger Waters, playing nine gigs at the Monumental [the city’s biggest stadium, seating more than 65,000], and he’s an old fart.”
Towards the end of my trip I stay at an estancia outside the city. Over dinner, Guillermo, the manager of the estate, tells me his brother-in-law is a Malvinas veteran and asks if I’d like to meet him. The next day I have tea with Juan Casanegra, the veteran. “They sent me from a base near the beach in Mar del Plata to the Falklands ten days after I was drafted,” he says. “I didn’t know how to hold a gun, and they put me in a battalion positioning anti-aircraft guns at Stanley Airport. We learned how to lie down when the Vulcan bombers came over.”
In spite of the trauma of this experience, Juan says he feels neither anger nor bitterness. “I’m not saying the islands belong to the British, but we lost the war and we should be better losers. I also think politicians who politicise the conflict are wrong. Because Néstor Kirchner gave veterans a US$2,000-a-month pension, many of those who didn’t get sent to the island are trying to claim it. They never fought in the Falklands; they weren’t there.”
Juan says he can’t give his usual anniversary talks in schools this year because the political atmosphere is too heated. “It wouldn’t be safe to say what I feel right now.”
He is educated, dignified and not nationalistic at all, but he surprises me when he says he wishes another invasion had been won by the British. “You know the English tried to take Buenos Aires in 1806 and 1807? Well, I wish they had. We’d be better off if Argentina was English. We wouldn’t be in the mess we are in.”
For two decades, I’ve been hearing this remark, but it’s the first time I’ve ever heard it from a Malvinas veteran.
Chris Moss is the travel and books editor of Time Out. His “Patagonia: a Cultural History” is published by Signal Books (£12)