The British are an odd lot and virtually everywhere you go you find our footprints. One of our odder hobbies has been nation-building. Well over half the states around the world owe their origins in one way or another to the British.
But in some cases we had an annoying habit of carving off bits of other countries' territory and turning them into independent nations, especially if they bordered on a great river. We made Belgium into a separate nation, to make sure no one could dominate the entrance to the Rhine. We chopped a bit out of Turkey's Middle East empire and turned it into Kuwait thereby safeguarding the outflow of the Tigris and the Euphrates. And we took the northernmost province of Argentina, on the north bank of the River Plate, and made it into this rather charming, self-contained, peaceable country of Uruguay.
What's strange is that in a matter of only six generations, the Uruguayans have developed a completely different national character: sober and careful, where the Argentines are quickly fired up and hot-blooded.
But not even the most chauvinistic Uruguayan would say that this calm, handsome city is exciting, like Buenos Aires is. Montevideo isn't an up-all-night place. It specialises in quiet, unadventurous cafés where you go in the early morning to drink your medio-y-medio (half coffee and half frothy milk), eat your medialuna (morning croissant), read your staid newspaper, and shake your head at some new excess
committed by the Argentines.
Eighty miles or so to the east, on a spit of land sticking out into the Atlantic, is Punta del Este: the liveliest part of Uruguay, but only for a couple of months a year. At the height of summer, half a million people stream through its streets and parade along its beaches, a remarkable show of skinny young beauty and middle-aged flab. For the rest of the year the city's population shrinks to around 7,000. That, of course, is the best time to be there, but it's a bit like living in Rome after Alaric and his Visigoths captured it: there are lots of vast buildings around, but they're all empty.
One of the reasons I like Uruguay is, counter-intuitively, that this is where I was banished to, in 1982, after being sacked as a newsreader. A combination of BBC politicking, a complaint from the government, and (probably most important of all) a distinct lack of talent on my part, ensured that I was hustled out of Television Centre. I was on a plane to cover the Falklands
War from South America before I could
even talk to the newspapers — which was, presumably, the idea.
As I flew out, my plane to Rio banked over the fat London suburb where I lived at the time and I actually caught sight of my house, far below. In my inside pocket I carried a vast wad of money, entrusted to me for paying the huge costs of our television operation in South America. It was much more than the entire amount of my mortgage. And Brazil had no extradition treaty with Britain. Don't think these factors didn't occur to me.
But I settled obediently into Montevideo instead, awaiting my turn to go to Buenos Aires. And before I left, I played a very small walk-on part in Uruguayan history.
We were based at a commercial television channel run by a shrewd character called Oscar — though, because the 's' is silent before a hard consonant in the Southern Cone of South America, it was pronounced 'O'car'. 'I really need an interview with the President, O'car' I said one morning. 'Well,' said O'car, 'he's giving a live televised press conference at the palace in 20 minutes.' I grabbed the cameraman and we jumped into a taxi. 'Wait,' shouted O'car, 'there's something you don't know.' 'Tell me later,' I shouted back.
The President's name was General Gregorio Alvarez, and he was the head of an unpopular military dictatorship. Ever since the coup, some years before, large numbers of left-wingers and students had been 'disappearing'.
Since Uruguayans are rather polite people, no one stopped us as we arrived at the press conference. Not even the other cameramen complained as we forced ourselves through their ranks and ended up right in front of the desk where President Alvarez was sitting, a bank of microphones before him.
I recognised him at once: a weasel-faced character with a pencil moustache and medals all over his chest. Immediately, I barked out a question to him, about relations with the two warring countries, Britain and Argentina. I asked it in English. Everyone in Uruguay speaks English. It's an educated country.
But President General Alvarez did not speak English. He looked helplessly from side to side for one of his officials. No one came for well over a minute — on live television. A minute may not sound a particularly long time, but on live television there is little measurable difference between a minute of embarrassed silence and eternity. Finally, a superbly suited lackey hurried out, whispered to the President, and told us, and the entire country, which was watching, something to the effect that the President had nothing to say.
Now Uruguayans don't like their presidents to seem uneducated or dopey, especially to foreigners. General Alvarez's televised problem caused a sensation. His support, even among the military, began dropping away at once. The following year his National Security Council dumped him.
What O'car had tried to tell me was that the press conference was only for local journalists, and there would be no English translators available.
But you see what I mean about the British getting involved in everyone else's affairs.
John Simpson is the BBC's world affairs editor and can be seen around the globe on BBC World News, available in 200 countries and territories worldwide, and on selected British Airways flights.