The Expat: James Peck

CV: James Peck
Age: 42
From: Stanley. That’s what I call it.
Profession: Artist
Education: Fine art degree at Chelsea School of Art
Last book: Hold Everything Dear by John Berger
Last film: Fight Club
Gadget: The off button on my cell phone

Where were you born?
I’m fourth-generation from the islands and I’ve been coming to Argentina for 15 years. I have two little boys here although I still have a brother and three sisters on the islands. I guess I’m integrated here now. I was born in Stanley and the islands are still home, although I don’t see myself going back — no one should say “never” — but I won’t return for the foreseeable future.
I’ve got a few really good friends there. I’ve found out who they are these days, who has been offended and who hasn’t, over what has happened [taking Argentine citizenship].

To box you into a nationality, what are you?
Officially, I have citizenship so I’m Argentine, I’m a resident and I have papers to say I’m Argentine. It’s good for me as over the years, after the war, I couldn’t relax properly here and that caused a lot of damage with my Argentine wife. I had so much bitterness, fear, mixed feelings. She suffered due to my hangups from the war, which they keep cementing if you’re in the islands.
But at the same time I started to realize the islands were changing a lot, especially over the past 15 years. I started to think “what does it mean to be an islander now?” For me, it’s different now. Several years ago I started to think maybe I should try and become a resident and leave that identity in the islands, which I didn’t feel was mine anymore.
A few years ago my mother and father died then my marriage broke up, and I thought “I want to leave the war, I want to leave that identity behind.” It’s like the pain of losing your parents — there comes a point when you say, it’s gone. I thought I’d do that with my home as it isn’t the same place anymore.

What’s your history with Argentina?
Although my parents had separated, at the outbreak of the war my mother was living with her Argentine boyfriend while my father was fighting with the British soldiers. I came from that sort of background. But how do I tell people I have a distinct background to explain why I’m doing what I’m doing today? Everyone else sees it as black and white and that I’m betraying my home, my father, but I don’t see it like that.

When did you leave the islands?
In 1989, when I went to art school in London. I’ve had about 15 homes in the past 15 years. I think that has caused a lot of damage, and although I’m not the kind of person to sit still, it’s what I’m trying to do now.

What was your first visit to Argentina like?
I went to hospital in Cómodoro Rivadavia for a week in 1976. I always remember it. And we also had connections with Argentina before the war. It was very natural to know someone from here, eat food, use words. The culture crosses over. We say campo, we say che. People laugh as they think I’ve just started saying it but I’ve always said it — islanders have said che for 100 years. People say: “James, you’re becoming a porteño,” and I say, actually I’ve been saying it for longer than you have!

Tell me about your first time in Buenos Aires as an adult.
That was in 1996. It was very impressive as I had arrived with all my memories of the war. I couldn’t relax walking down the street. I imagined I was going to bump into a soldier. That was the idea I had, because aged 13 in the war you have all these things sitting at the back of your head. It’s still the same, it’s like yesterday, although I’m better now. But in ‘96, it was like flicking a switch and you’re straight back there, still a child, in the sense of trauma.
I came here with paintings to show, and it was traumatic but it opened my eyes to something else, and I started to think about my ancestors, about being South American. And it’s taken 15 years to work through it to arrive at this point.

Is it traumatic due to where you were born, or due to the war?
It’s a combination. I’d think, “am I going to be forever scarred due to the war? Should I be held prisoner of that forever?” I was. It affects everything. But it reaches a point when you think, “that won’t happen anymore,” which happened a few years ago, and is why I’m here now.

How would immigration react?
I’ve had issues at airports over the years as I was born on the islands so there are times when I’ve not got my passport stamped. But I’ve accepted that. People would say I have a problem but I was just another casualty of “the” problem.
What I don’t want is to let it cause damage between me and my children who are five and nine, a crucial age. I used to find I couldn’t relax 100 percent with my sons so I thought “I’ll be an Argentine father and concentrate on them. To heck with all the other things.”
It’s like being a snake — and people have called me that in a bad way because they don’t understand as no one else has a history like mine — but I’ve shed my skin.

What happens when your Argentine-born sons visit the islands?
When the first one visited as a baby he was given a week’s visa in his passport, and my wife and I didn’t know what to do. It was a whole mess. But the immigration guy called me to ask me to go and speak. It is a bit of a no-man’s-land, and I’ve found myself in that situation here several times. Artists have wanted to work with me with British Council money, but the British Council’s attitude is “no, we can’t touch James.” I’ve realized I have to look after myself and that I can’t afford to get bitter.

How was that first BA exhibition?
I’d come back from painting in Cornwall and met a guy who offered me an exhibition. As an artist, you want to exhibit in a big city and it wasn’t easy.
The paintings were images of the war. That wasn’t my intention, it’s just what happened. There was a lot of interest. Nobody was coming here socially or culturally so I was the centre of attention. Although I’m a painter, I just wanted to show paintings, which sounds a bit naïve.

How do you think islanders see Argentina?
A lot of people think Argentines have two horns on their heads to trick you. It’s very deeply ingrained, and it’s tragic. It’s because of the war and what was going on in the ‘70s here, so they haven’t been able to adapt. That’s not the Argentina I know. But how do you change that if there’s no contact?
I have some Argentine friends who were conscripts in the war who go there to see their trench, and they are breaking barriers. There aren’t any bad feelings, they are survivors and they are mixing with islanders. It’s so ironic that after the war that is the best thing that’s happening.

Why did you decide to let the President give you your citizenship?
When Kirchner was elected in 2003, I thought he’d be someone who would do some good for Argentina. Over the past year, I had been thinking about getting papers and I thought I could get them with this government. I couldn’t have done it 15 years ago.
I was on the left of Cristina (Fernández de Kirchner) when she gave me my citizenship on June 14, and my friend Michael Savage, a conscript who was instrumental in giving me the confidence to go through with it, was on her right.
I knew it would be public, so I thought I’d go with my friend the conscript and it will be a message of moving on. People have said I’m being used as I’m unique, but if I can do some good with what I’m doing, so be it. I’d rather take this road.

Will citizenship settle demons?
I have to stress that to be a good father to my children, I have to be an Argentine father. I can’t be the guy from the islands and put my relationship with them second.
Two days after the citizenship ceremony, it was Flag Day. My son had to swear allegiance to the flag at school. As little as one year ago I would have been standing there full of demons, thinking “what is my son doing?” But I stood there and looked at my son, smiling. I couldn’t have done that before.
I’ve always felt caught in the middle, back then, even now, with DNI. But in the past two weeks, I do feel more tranquil being here and I realize it’s put a mark in the sand for other people. I know waves can wash away the mark, but the most important thing for me is the relationship with my children and my ex-wife’s family. I can’t be here as the person that was.

‘Staying bitter has destroyed half of my life’
Although James Peck is not an expatriate, his story — born in Stanley, as he calls it, a father fighting with British soldiers in the war, marrying an Argentine woman, two sons born in Argentina then taking up Argentine citizenship just three weeks ago on June 14 — is so unique it would never fit snugly into any section of any newspaper.
Although the Herald recently reported that Soledad Rende and Alexander Betts, both born on the islands, also have Argentine national identification documentation, Peck’s past differs to theirs, given that he lived through the 1982 war. Rende and Betts left the islands in 1980 and 1982 respectively, Rende aged 10 days while Betts had to leave because he worked for two Argentine firms and was against the war.
Talking about the ceremony he attended when President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner gave him Argentine citizenship, Peck says: “June 14 was a big day for a lot of people as it was the day of surrender in Stanley. I was there, very proud of my history and saying that I’m moving on.
“When Cristina started talking about my father, it was very emotional because she said: ‘His father fought against the Argentine forces.’ I was very proud of my history and what my father had done. But it’s now 30 years on, and I’m moving on, can we please all move on? I see no sense in being bitter — it’s destroyed half of my life, staying bitter. And it destroyed my marriage.”
The timing of Peck receiving those much-coveted papers is up for discussion. Two days after Peck received his DNI, Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron said Argentina’s claim for taking sovereignty “is not negotiable”, with President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner instantly donning boxing-gloves to call Cameron’s comments “mediocre and almost stupid.”
Just six days after the citizenship ceremony, Foreign Minister Hector Timerman officially renewed Argentina’s claim to the islands at the United Nations Decolonization Committee in New York. Requesting a meeting with Britain to discuss sovereignty, Timerman said at the time: “It is Great Britain’s decision to disobey the mandate issued by the United Nations.”
Almost 30 years on, tensions still run high and are still fuelled, given that the UK’s Rockhopper exploration company continues throwing in its three pence about oil discoveries in the region.
Will a decision ever be reached that keeps Argentina, Britain and the Kelpers happy? On July 10, 2011 that seems unlikely, so how about letting a man tortured for half his life because of where he was born and his unique links with Argentina find some happiness, with or without Argentine citizenship.

First published in the Buenos Aires Herald on July 11, 2011 as ‘Leaving no-man’s-land’.
Photo by Diego Kovacic.

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