A jigsaw puzzle of Australia. Perhaps it had come as a Christmas present. Unlike most jigsaw puzzles, it was not square or rectangular, but was the shape of Australia itself. For a primary school-aged boy, the shape made the puzzle more interesting, putting in the pieces that formed the outline of the Australian coast. The puzzle was very visual, there were pictures of Australian wildlife koalas, kangaroos, and other creatures that seemed very exotic to a child in 1960s England, together with important landmarks, like the Sydney Opera House.
The puzzle’s most intriguing place of all was called “Woomera.” The picture beside the placename was of a rocket blasting off and I was told that it was the base for Britain’s space programme. When the news seemed full of stories about the United States’ Apollo missions and when Mission Control Houston and the Cape Canaveral launch site, the thought that Britain might have its own spacecraft caught the imagination of a young boy.
Of course, Britain’s space programme was not the stuff of boyhood speculation, Woomera was more a missile testing range than a rocket base, there would be no British spaceships heading for the Moon.
There had lingered in the thoughts of a schoolboy the idea that his country was still a major power. It had only been a generation before that Winston Churchill has boasted of the country having five million men in the armed forces. It had only been a generation before that a quarter of the map of the world had been coloured pink. It had only been a decade before that Britain had still celebrated an annual Empire Day.
Rather than inspiring a false confidence, Woomera should have been an indicator of the way in which Britain’s place in the world had changed. No longer was there an area shaded pink that might provide the location for a rocket base, instead there was a dependence upon a friendly dominion.
To a schoolboy, it seemed baffling that a country that had won two world wars should have become so weak; no-one explained that it was the winning of the wars that had brought the weakness, draining the country of its reserves. Even if the realities of the post-war word had been explained, such economic niceties would have been lost on the jigsaw maker.
Woomera remains a word that is evocative of Dan Dare and the space travellers of the comics, a place significant in the imagination, of not in the world beyond the living room where the jigsaw was made.