Flying the flag: Why James Bond island needs to find a new role model
Andrew Marshall ponders the future of Ascension Island
Saturday 31 May 1997
It is one of the most isolated places in the world. And yet, as the last embers of the British Empire flicker, technology, politics and money are changing even Ascension Island, destabilising the fragile equilibrium constructed over a century. "From a cosy place where everyone knew how things were, things are changing," says Roger Huxley, the Administrator.
Ascension is a mere 34 square miles, a dot in the ocean that does not even feature on most maps - in between Africa and Latin America, yet of neither of them. It is more like "Iceland with turtles", as one of the old island cliches has it; or "Hell with the fires put out," as another describes it. The arrival of television and more regular flights has eased the isolation; but staring out from one of the hot, bare hills across the empty wastes of ocean to the distant horizon, it feels like being - nowhere.
The history of Ascension Island has neatly followed the contours of the British Empire up and down over the last century and a half. Its early history was predominantly naval, reflecting Britain's insatiable appetite for strategic islands; it became a Cold War listening post, and then an airstrip for the Falklands War. Now it faces an uncertain future.
The island was taken by the British in 1815, when Napoleon was exiled on "nearby" Saint Helena, as a defensive measure, then used as a stopping- off point for the West Africa squadron of the Royal Navy, a place to find water and food, or to leave the sick and wounded.
It became a natural choice as a relay station for the submarine cables that curled their way up from South Africa. Indeed, Cable and Wireless took over the island, running it from 1922 to 1964.
The Second World War saw the arrival of the Americans, who built Wideawake airfield as a way-station for aircraft on their way to West Africa and the Middle East. After the war this was closed down, though the Americans maintained the lease, and Cable and Wireless resumed their hegemony.
The Cold War brought new uses for a chunk of land in the middle of nowhere. The Americans established it as a tracking station for their Eastern Test Range, a missile range that extends from Florida way down into the Atlantic. Some nights, from the Administrator's formidable residence high on Green Mountain, you can see the rockets splinter and fall, a giant tropical fireworks show. Nasa, too, used it as a tracking station for while.
The British also revived their interest, establishing a BBC relay station for the World Service and a station for monitoring broadcasts and radio signals under the aegis of the Composite Signals Organisation, the overseas arm of GCHQ.
Then came the 1982 Falklands conflict, and suddenly Wideawake was the busiest airport in the world, ferrying supplies and troops down to the South Atlantic. Without the use of the airfield, the war could not have been fought. The Royal Air Force established a base, using the airfield as a permanent stopping-off point for the Tristars which trek from Brize Norton to Mount Pleasant in the Falklands and back twice a week.
So the history of Ascension is a history of functions, primarily, not of people. Perhaps that is why for so long it was known as HMS Ascension, regarded as a ship rather than a chunk of volcanic rock. You can still feel it on the island: everything is functional. All the people are here because they work for someone - the BBC, RAF, CSO, Cable and Wireless (which now runs all the telephones and data circuits), USAF; or they service them; or they are family. There is no indigenous population, though some people have lived here for many years, especially some of the older Saint Helenans.
Yet the island's occupants havemade themselves a good life. It is always hot, since the island lies near the equator, but the climate is mostly pleasant. "You make your own entertainment," says Paul Abernethy, who runs the BBC relay station. "If you don't do it, nobody else will." There is a school, a hospital, clubs, even a golf course. All of this is supported by the wonderfully titled London Users Council, which includes the CSO, BBC and Cable and Wireless. With contributions in kind from the USAF, they have paid for all the niceties that keep the island from being just a barracks.
It is a delicate equilibrium. "Altru-ism is the name of the game," says John Cavana, head of Cable and Wireless on the island. "You have to balance your interests against those of other people on the island. You must co- operate to survive," he says.
But now the equilibrium is breaking down. Technology has always shaped the island's history, and now it is partly responsible for the new problems. Submarine cables are old hat; you can see their twisted and rusty remains on some of the beaches. More to the point, the CSO no longer needs so many people to monitor the ether, and most of their people are going home this year.
Money, too, is reshaping the island. The RAF privatised their less essential operations and removed most of their people, to replace them with contractors. The BBC's transmission operations have also been privatised, leading to a cut in staff.
The net result is numbers on the island have fallen from .1,200 to nearer 900, and there are more private sector companies, with less appetite and less money for propping up the central services, the niceties of life.
There are only three ways to prop up the economy of Ascension. One is to find new cash contributors: the RAF, as from last month, have started paying a sum for Ascension's central services. The second is to cut costs, notably services such as the hospital, school, public works, environmental health and port facilities.
The third is to find a new rationale. Mr Huxley believes he has done just that. Tourism, he thinks, will bring in sufficient income to keep the island's fragile economy on its feet. Discussions are under way between Britain and the US about tourist flights to Wideawake - a delicate question, given the amount of top-secret kit scattered over the island.
There is a lot to see here, notably the wonderful turtles which swim the Atlantic every year to lay their eggs here. "It would give the island a new purpose," says Mr Huxley. With the end of the Empire and the Cold War, it will need one.
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