Wednesday, 7 March 2007

Breaking out of the Box

As the daily news report notched more deaths in Iraq, I was reminded of that other, more morally confident conflict in the South Atlantic. I started worrying back then that TV wasn't bringing us closer to reality, but insulating us from it....that it was we who were inside the box, not the news. Feeling that - however peripherally - we should grasp some sense of having 'been there' at a moment in history, I dragged my long-suffering and reluctant girlfriend out at dawn one Sunday morning, and drove the 120 or so miles to Southampton to see the Canberra come home.

When we reached the town we parked and started walking towards Mayflower Park, picked out from a map in a tourist guide. A few people were walking quietly in the same direction, and as we grew closer trickles from other streets merged to become streams, until we were part of a flowing tide of humanity. "Why are all these people here?", my girlfriend asked.

And Mayflower Park was a good choice. It was already filling up. Vendors were selling Union Flags and souvenir supplements from the local paper. We sat on the stone-faced embankment above the water, and soon the crowd had swelled until the park was packed and people were clambering onto the roofs of shelters and clinging to lampposts.

There was morning mist over the water, hiding the approaches to Southampton Sound. But a palpable air of excitement animated the crowd, as helicopters buzzed to and fro overhead.

And then two great, sonorous blasts from the horn of a great ship sounded, deep and long, and you could feel the expectant crowd quicken. Out of the fog appeared two fire ships, their water cannon firing plumes into the air. And then huge and majestic, emerged the Great White Whale. Rust-streaked and hung with handmade banners, her decks lined with crew and soldiers. Overhead helicopters hovered; all around little boats swarmed and scurried. The last of the liners built for the passenger trade to Australia, sleek and graceful, back from her 18,000 mile round trip to the South Atlantic and from San Carlos Water's bomb alley. The crowd began to cheer, and the cheering spread along the shore towards the docks. In acknowledgement, three brisk cheers came echoing back from the ship. I glanced at my girlfriend and her eyes had filled with tears.

The Canberra was scrapped in 1997, and the Falklands War may already be an insignificant footnote to loss of empire, but I reckon I was right about the TV, because for once we were briefly outside it, and I can still hear the note of that foghorn echoing out of the mist....

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