A Selection of New diplomatic memoirs

Harry Brind, Lying Abroad: Diplomatic Memoirs (London/New York: 1999) pp. xi + 260.

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Richard Faber, A Chain of Cities: Diplomacy at the End of Empire (London/ New York: 2000) pp. vii + 224.

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Sally James, Diplomatic Moves: Life in the Foreign Service (London/New York: 1995) pp. xvii + 237. Henry Phillips, From Obscurity to Bright Dawn: How Nyasaland became Malawi – An Insider’s Account (London/New York: 1998) pp. xix + 252.

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Horace Phillips, Envoy Extraordinary: A Most Unlikely Ambassador (London/New York: 1995) pp. xv + 240.

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James Reeve, Cocktails, Crises and Cockroaches: A Diplomatic Trail (London/New York: 1999) pp. xv + 272. All published by The Radcliffe Press at £24.50.

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I have just written a review article on these six books of British diplomatic memoirs for the English Historical Journal, so here I shall just provide some notes on those that I believe to be most valuable to students of diplomacy. To begin with, though, I must register three complaints about this genre. First, I do wish that retired diplomats would in future resist the temptation to provide descriptions of the scenery observed on their travels. As a rule, they do not have the skills of travel writers and by indulging in this sort of thing merely bore the reader and suggest that they have nothing better to write about. Secondly, I urge that they eschew potted geography lessons (‘Malawi is a landlocked country…’) at the beginning of chapters introducing a fresh posting. I fear that this approach is based on the mistaken assumption that their volumes will fall into the hands of the general reader. Thirdly, it would be an impressive gesture of abstinence if we could also have a moratorium on the mind-numbing repetition of Sir Henry Wotton’s famous description of the ambassador as ‘an honest man, sent to lie abroad for the good of his country’. Even the excellent Richard Faber cannot resist plunging into Wotton immediately he enters upon a discussion of the moral qualities required of a professional diplomat (though it is true that his classical training permits him to provide an admirably sharp analysis of the distinction between what Wotton pretended to write and what he actually did write), while Brind actually wheels out Wotton again for the title of his own volume, Lying Abroad.

Faber, A Chain of Cities
As an admirer of Richard Faber’s much earlier book on Sir William Temple (The Brave Courtier, Faber & Faber, 1983), I was not surprised to find this volume standing out for its elegance, acuteness, and unusual honesty. Faber is valuable in providing insight into Foreign Office attitudes on Africa, especially West Africa, during the high period of decolonization. He was at the Paris embassy from 1955 until 1959 and there worked increasingly on African questions. For the next three years he was in the African Department in London, and this was followed by a short tour as head of chancery in the Ivory Coast. From 1967 until 1969 he was head of the Rhodesia Political Department, where he argued – half-heartedly – for complete disengagement.

Faber was the only unmarried diplomat in this sextet, and he observes that although he would have done the job better with a wife ‘whose heart was really in it’, there would have been no guarantee of this. ‘Single diplomats’, he concludes, ‘make better entertainers than wives who are absent, or indifferent or resentful.’ In his ‘Retrospect’, Faber also concludes that the disadvantages of the diplomatic career outweigh the advantages: ‘It was impossible to put down roots anywhere; one became a perpetual peregrine, even in one’s own country. It was extremely difficult to maintain friendships at home. The discipline of the profession – the constant need for tact and discretion – had an inhibiting, as well as a polishing, effect. Social life was so much a part of the job that one began to feel disgusted with it.’ He adds that the work also tends to swing between producing boredom and anxiety; it is weighed down with ‘a load of superiors, official, ministerial, political and public’; and success and failure are far more difficult to judge than in most other jobs. Among other observations, he says rightly that diplomats cannot serve their own states ‘properly in a foreign country unless they feel for that country a kind of loyalty too’; that though better communications are supposed to have reduced the influence of the ambassador by eliminating the frequent need to act without instructions, the same phenomenon also makes it ‘much easier now for ambassadors to advise their governments on what their instructions should be’ (emphasis added); and that British diplomacy should attach more importance to ‘understanding the psychology of foreign peoples’. Key reading : chapter 10 (‘Retrospect’).

Brind, Lying Abroad
Brind was unusually specialized in African postings, and the most interesting chapter in this book is his account of Uganda, where he was Deputy High Commissioner at the time when Amin unleashed his executioners and the expulsion of the Asians commenced. Key reading (on how a mission copes with an emergency affecting its local expatriate community and other passport-holders): chapter 4, Uganda: September 1971 to July 1973.

James, Diplomatic Moves
Sally James was a ‘diplomatic spouse’. Much emphasis here on the difficulty of the diplomatic career: its unpredictability, disruption of family life, and – in some posts – acute discomforts and sheer physical danger. After seven overseas postings between 1963 and 1989, her husband, Michael, left the Diplomatic Service well before retirement age. Having read her descriptions of life in Guyana and especially in Ghana, one is not surprised. Recorded in letters to her parents which are at once revealing and engaging, the flavour of Sally James’s experience is captured in this typical parting shot – ‘Must stop, and go to the airport to give this to a departing businessman to post in London’.

Phillips, Envoy Extraordinary
A particularly cunning way of preventing diplomats from ‘going native’ in Arab states is to send them Jewish ones. A case in point is this Jewish working class boy from Glasgow whose industry, intelligence and aptitude for hard languages enabled him to be an early beneficiary of the Eden-Bevin reforms of entrance procedures for the Foreign Service introduced towards the end of the Second World War. In 1953 he was posted as first secretary and consul in Jedda, the FO, as he tells us, having taken the precaution of deleting his second name, ‘Hyman’, from his entry in the Foreign Office List. Unfortunately for Phillips, his appointment as ambassador to Saudi Arabia fifteen years’ later had to be aborted when the Jewish Chronicle ran a story on it and King Feisal, who had apparently been unaware that Phillips was Jewish, withdrew agrément. Nevertheless, Phillips was head of other important missions (Indonesia, Tanzania, and Turkey at the time of the ‘intervention’ in Cyprus in 1974). Key reading (on role of ambassador generally): chapter 16.