Having the last word

Two new books give an insider's look at the inner workings of foreign countries -- from the perspectives of an envoy and an international correspondent.

Gaddafi on state TV 311 (photo credit: REUTERS/Libyan TV)
Gaddafi on state TV 311
(photo credit: REUTERS/Libyan TV)
A LONG LUNCHBy Simon HoggartJohn Murray320 pages; £20
Once upon a time – long before WikiLeaks – British envoys leaving a particular post or winding up their careers in the Foreign Service had the last word in the form of what Her Majesty’s Diplomatic Service called a “valedictory despatch.” These were then circulated among various government offices back home. Thanks to Matthew Parris and Andrew Bryson – and to the Freedom of Information Act that enabled them to gather the material – we can now get a look at what these top diplomats really thought of the far-flung places where they served, and often their thoughts on the British Foreign Office that sent them there. The title, Parting Shots: The Undiplomatic Final Words of Our Departing Ambassadors, says it all.
The collection is a witty, occasionally poignant and usually astute look at the world – and Britain’s place in it – in an age before political correctness set the tone.
These “valedictories,” as they became known, were part of a centuries-old tradition – the sort of thing the Brits do so well – which came to an end in 2006 when Sir Ivor Roberts’s comments about the “bullshit bingo” of the new culture under foreign secretary Margaret Beckett were leaked to the press. Parris, a columnist for The Times and a former Conservative MP, was first exposed to these papers as a junior officer at Whitehall, and the book is based on a successful BBC Radio 4 series, also created with journalist Bryson.
Some of these summaries of national character seem to have been written almost as a private joke between the ambassador and his bosses, and in an age when something classified “for your eyes only” can end up on anyone’s Facebook page, it’s easy to see why the government began to see the speeches as parting shots that could be potentially too harmful.
Consider the comments from an attache to Switzerland in 1978 – “[I]n many ways the Swiss are an unattractive lot. They are neither the prettiest of people nor the wittiest” – or a review stemming from Lagos: “Africans as a whole are not only not averse to cutting off their nose to spite their face; they regard such an operation as a triumph of cosmetic surgery.”
Even the radio broadcasts caused a diplomatic incident sparked by a description from Lord Moran, writing from Ottawa in 1984: “[T]he calibre of Canadian politicians is low.... Anyone who is even moderately good at what they do – in literature, the theatre, ski-ing or whatever – tends to become a national figure... and anyone who stands out at all from the crowd tends to be praised to the skies and given the Order of Canada at once.”
Moran did point out that the Canadians were “sensitive.” (He also, by the way, mentioned “a world where we have to deal with the Qadhafis, Khomeinis and indeed the [Yitzhak] Shamirs”).
Bryson notes that out of the nearly 60 valedictories he requested from the Foreign Office, only five were completely withheld because of their sensitivity, including the valedictory by John Robinson from Israel in 1981 and, interestingly, Sir Christopher Meyer’s parting shot from Washington in 2003.
Since we are still banned from knowing the view of (or from) Tel Aviv, it is particularly interesting to read those despatches delivered by what is fondly known as the Camel Corps, those unrepentant Arabists.
As the editors note, “it is an observable fact that many British diplomats have been drawn, by more than the region’s importance, to the Middle East.” Why this should be so “would take a book of its own – and an immersion in the psyche of the British elite deeper than your editors’.”
In the wake of the Arab Spring, some of these essays assume added value. Let it not be said that the British government did not know what was going on in Libya. In 1974, for instance, ambassador Peter Tripp clearly stated: “Three years in post-revolutionary Libya have on the whole been a depressing experience. Qadhafi’s one-man rule, the chaos he has created, his unbalanced character and his ingrained prejudices have frequently produced situations inimical to British interests and obstructive to our work...
“Had his policies at home made Libya a happier place for the Libyans themselves, he might be excused some of his excesses.
But the plain fact is that Qadhafi is indifferent to and contemptuous of Libyans as a whole. He uses them for his own ends and to further his own ambitions.”
The ambassador is also quoted as saying: “Observers in aircraft and ships leaving Tripoli have noted almost hysterical manifestations of relief.”
Sir Willie Morris, outgoing ambassador to Saudi Arabia in 1972, warned of bribery so widespread that it was “politically explosive – a time bomb under the regime.”
Sir Michael Weir, whose final post was Cairo, wrote of president Hosni Mubarak in 1985, “He would prefer to share responsibility, and I believe he sincerely wishes the democratic experiment which he launched with last year’s elections to succeed.
While one must share his hopes, my guess is that the system will defeat him...”
Weir also noted that “when the average Egyptian speaks of Arabs, he does not include himself, rather like the average Englishman speaking of the Europeans.”
Hugh Glencairn Balfour-Paul, who left Jordan in 1975 – having found the “antidote” as he puts it, to the Hashemite Kingdom’s enchanting spell – offers these comments: “But perhaps, on leaving the neighbourhood of Palestine, I ought to end this one with some measured valedictory nostrum for solving the apparently insoluble.
You will be relieved to know that I have none to offer. My only modest suggestion is that, in addressing itself to the Palestine problem, the world would do well to encourage greater precision in the use of language. Arabs are worse than most people at linguistic flatulence, at not bothering to define terms. Ambiguity has of course its uses in this field of diplomacy as in others. But did the Arab/Israeli situation by now enjoy a more precise vocabulary – starting perhaps with an agreed definition of ‘the Palestinians’ whom it is all about – there might be more prospect of handling it productively.”
THIS IS a book to be dipped into and enjoyed, perhaps over gin and tonic. It’s a compelling compilation of essays about a world that is no more and yet strangely the same.
SIMON HOGGART enjoys dining out on his stories, but there is no such thing as a free meal. Hoggart claims A Long Lunch: My Stories and I’m Sticking to Them is “in no way a life of me,” but methinks he doth protest too much. This definitely falls in the category of journalistic memoir, written by someone who spent more than 40 years in the field. Some parts of A Long Lunch are hard to swallow, and much should be taken with a pinch of salt, but there are a few very tasty morsels to be savored, a bit at a time.
Hoggart gives us a peek behind the scenes of parliament; on journeys across Africa, Australia and America, where he was the correspondent for the Observer; in the radio studio, ending up as chairman of BBC Radio 4’s News Quiz; and on the frontlines of the newspaper as a reporter and columnist.
He is currently the political sketch writer of the Guardian and the wine columnist of the Spectator.
You have to be British to appreciate some of the anecdotes, or at least to recognize the characters, who include fellow journalist Alan Coren – a close friend and co-panelist on News Quiz and, apparently, a fund of Jewish jokes.
The language occasionally steps so beyond the borders of good taste that although several stories made me laugh out loud, I cannot reprint them in a family paper.
Perhaps you’ll have to make do with one of his many recollections of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher, “the source of much unwitting humour.” Consider this example from her victory tour of the Falklands: “She was taken to inspect a large field gun, basically a rideon lawnmower with a barrel several feet long... She admired the weapon, and the soldier manning it asked if she would like to fire a round.
“‘But mightn’t it jerk me off?’ she replied.
“Chris Moncrieff of the Press Association, who was covering the visit, recorded the manful struggle of the soldier to keep his face, indeed his whole body, straight.”
Hoggart, by the way, describes making a comment that caused Princess Diana, who had confessed to being nervous at public events, to give him “the kind of look that had caused so many men to feel as if someone had whacked the back of their knees, very hard, with a baseball bat.”
Indeed, he notes that politicians and famous people are usually more nervous about meeting journalists than the other way round.
“The trick, if you’re in a social situation such as a reception or a dinner, is to put the famous person at their ease, much as the Queen does. You can do this by asking them about something that has nothing to do with their professional world. If they like opera, or cooking, or genuinely support a football team rather than merely claim to, you can talk about that. And almost nobody, asked how their children are doing, is going to reply, ‘Mind your own sodding business.’” Despite the Israeli obsession with kids, during my years as a parliamentary reporter, several MKs made it clear their offspring were off-limits, but I have yet to meet the politician – from former Meretz head Yossi Sarid on the Left to Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin on the Right – who didn’t enjoy discussing their pet dogs.
A Long Lunch is not to everyone’s taste, but nonetheless it provides an entertaining social commentary.