How frustrating. Four phone calls and a visit to John Lewis at Kingston upon Thames elicited nothing apart from polite apologies. My quest involved a John Lewis globe with the Falkland Islands accidentally labelled the ‘Islas Malvinas’. I was told, by the branch manager, that the ‘offending’ globes had been recalled by head office and once recalled there was no way John Lewis would sell them to any potential customer. My best bet would be ebay.
The story of the egregious geographical error on a globe (‘made in India’) was covered by British newspapers such as the Daily Mail. Under the headline of ‘Fury over ‘Malvinas’ globe on sale at John Lewis: Department store blunders with Argentine name for the Falklands’, the paper reported that the offending item had been found in the Peter Jones store in central London. It also carried a comment from Falklands veteran Simon Weston that the company should hang its ‘head in shame’. The error apparently crept into a second batch of the £95 globes. ‘Port Stanley’ however remained Anglicised – albeit incorrectly as the main settlement of the Falkland Islands is usually just called Stanley. Port Stanley was a term favoured by the British media during the 1982 South Atlantic conflict but is rarely used in the Islands.
Notwithstanding John Lewis’s embarrassment and public apology, the case of the mistaken globe usefully reminds of what some geographers have termed banal geopolitics. Inspired by Michael Billig’s work on banal nationalism, the point being is that the word ‘banal’ does not mean insignificant rather it meant as a signifier of something that might be barely glanced at or taken for granted.
As Argentine scholars such as Carlos Escude have long noted, geographical representations and objects such as maps and globes remain hugely important in shaping public understandings of Argentina’s territorial sovereignty. In particular, maps and charts were used from the 1940s onwards to cement a geographical imaginary, which understood Argentina as being composed of three elements – continental, insular and polar territories. Geographical education was and remains an important subject in the making of Argentine citizens. The widely distributed signposts declaring ‘Las Malvinas son Argentinos’ play their part as well in everyday reminders of the apparent stakes.
But the timing of the appearance of this mis-named globe (or correctly named depending on your point of view) is interesting – occurring as it did weeks after a high profile referendum in the Falkland Islands. While the result was an overwhelming one in favour of the status quo (i.e. to remain as a British overseas territory), UK-Argentine relations remain bedevilled by the existence of this long running dispute. For the British, there is no sovereignty dispute as successive British governments have argued that the ‘wishes’ of the Falkland Islanders are paramount. For Argentines, the ‘wishes’ of the community should not act as a barrier to sovereignty negotiations.
So why would then a simple ‘labelling error’ generate such interest – well another factor might revolve about war memories and the loss of British service personnel lives during and after the 1982 conflict. And a sense of ‘shock’ that John Lewis, with its royal connections, would sell such an object. Simon Weston’s comments are worth a second glance. He was quoted as saying the following,’ I think it shows shocking ignorance about the courage and heroism involved in rescuing the islands from an illegal invasion. John Lewis ought to hang its head in shame at this appalling insult.’ It is easy to forget that Argentine lives, of course, were lost as well and tragically many young Argentine conscripts knew very little of those islands they thought they were ‘liberating’ rather than ‘invading’.
But that takes us away from what is also a story about the role and power of material objects and it is on this note that I want to end. The globe as an instrument and practice of state power (or as James Bond fans will recall as indicative of megalomania – think of Karl Stromberg and his big yellow globe). The power not only to mark up and project the world but also to exhibit. Globes are not only positioned in private studies and in bedrooms but they also are to be found in more public spaces; in libraries, in museums and in governmental buildings. Who knows, the John Lewis globe might even end up in Argentina possibly in the National Historical Museum – archived, catalogued and or exhibited.
Little wonder perhaps that John Lewis rang me several times to apologise that they were not going to sell me that globe. Next time I visit the store I will have to check the table cloths as well.