The popular BBC car programme, Top Gear and its presenters Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond, are no strangers to controversy. To be honest that is something of an under-statement. There has been no shortage of complaints about the presenting team and their reflections about particular people, cars and societies. There is even a wikipedia page dedicated to ‘Top Gear controversies’.
The latest row involving the programme and its presenters involves an incident in Argentina whereby it was reported that a car driven by Jeremy Clarkson in southern Argentina was pelted with stones by angry Malvinas veterans. The source of their anger was not Clarkson per se but rather a number plate attached to the car being driven by him. The number plate details were – H982 FKL. While apparently unnoticed for an earlier part of their driving trip, this all changed as the Top Gear driving convoy got closer to the southern city of Ushuaia. Such was the scale of the anger outside a hotel where the film crew and presenters were staying that the Top Gear team actually abandoned their cars and left the country prematurely. It was later noted by BBC representatives that the presence of the disputed number plate in question was simply coincidence.
In Ushuaia, there is a substantial public memorial (with its distinctive outline of the two main islands – East and West Falkland) to those who died in the 1982 Falklands/Malvinas conflict and the city itself is a ‘gateway’ to the Antarctic and South West Atlantic for Argentine and international operators. Significantly, the city is the capital of Tierra del Fuego province which includes the Malvinas Islands. If you ever land at the airport that serves the city you will notice it is called Aeropuerto Internacional de Ushuaia Malvinas Argentinas. In short, if you want to provoke a reaction regarding continued British sovereignty over the Falkland Islands, and you are not in Buenos Aires itself, then anywhere around Ushuaia is a pretty good place to start in Argentina.
The number plate incident is a useful reminder about the banal and mundane aspects of Argentina’s Malvinas-related nationalism. In Argentina, maps, sign-posts, badges, stamps, murals, memorials, school books and the like are an important part of the daily reminders (as Matt Benwell says from the banal to the blatant) regarding the disputed islands. While the war ended in June 1982, Argentina has never forgotten about the Falkland Islands, and the 1994 constitution makes it clear that the recovery of the islands and other disputed territories such as South Georgia is an imperative. While the controversial number plate did not follow the Falkland Islands number plates (which are distinguished by a solitary F), it is not too difficult to imagine why some may have been provoked by the close proximity of 982 and FKL.
More broadly, as geographers and others have noted the apparently humble number plate can be seen as connected to banal and not so banal forms of nationalism. Other have noted how the number plate is an important element in local, regional and national identity politics. Any visitor to the United States will quickly spot the distinct differences between the 50 states and the manner in which the colour and state slogan (e.g. The sunshine state, the last frontier, the golden state and so on) helps to differentiate. But some native American groups also issue number plates as does the federal government. Diplomats and military vehicles have their own number plate systems as well and this can cause interesting controversies with foreign governments, for example, over parking and congestion charges. Enterprising criminals have been known to use fake license plates to facilitate, so they thought, criminal activities. One of my favourite examples was the decision by Italian criminals to smuggle drugs using a stolen Vatican city registered car. Presumably they assumed that no one would stop or check a car originating from the Holy See?
But back to the Falklands number plate incident. A proverbial storm in a tea-cup or reminder that ongoing territorial disputes with associated memories of war and loss are capable of flaring quickly. There is a longer history of both Argentines and Falkland Islanders/British governments accusing one another of provocative behaviour, political stunts and the like – for those interested in the past Operation Condor in 1966 is one place to start as is the flight of a light aircraft to the islands in 1964 (the Cronica incident). Grievances on the British/Falklands side including burning British flags, making ‘Olympic videos’ (as my colleague Al Pinkerton has noted in the past), harassing tourist traffic visiting the Islands via Argentine ports. and standing behind large banners proclaiming that the islands belong to Argentina on the eve of international football games (and there is as football fans know an interesting and disputed history again involving England-Argentina football matches). From the Argentine point, the accusations include sending the Prince of Wales to the Falkland Islands and framing the 2013 Falkland Islands referendum as a ‘publicity stunt’.
For every banal nationalism there is something altogether more visceral and less taken for granted. Maybe the Top Gear crew could have learned a trick from James Bond’s Aston Martin DB5 in Goldfinger (1964) – when in doubt always make sure you have a revolving number plate system. Failing that, as the Buenos Aires Herald noted in its headline, the Top Gear team appeared to enjoy “A license to flee’.