‘Senior British diplomats really knew how to write,’ declares Matthew Parris in his introduction to The Spanish Ambassador’s Suitcase, a collection of ambassadorial despatches about funny foreigners and filthy, far-flung climes. Well, up to a point. The pieces in this collection, a successor to Parting Shots, are often elegantly phrased and colourful, but at the same time there’s a weird sense that they were all written by the same person — someone peering down a very long nose beneath which lies an indulgently curled lip.
In 1962, Sir John Russell, the then ambassador to Brazil, writes that his plane had to make an unscheduled stop in a place called Belem. ‘The usual scruffy Brazilian airport,’ he notes. ‘But delicious hot fried crabs in the buffet, washed down with an appalling white cane-alcohol of a truly industrial proof.’
Twenty years on, Sir Alan Donald, ambassador to Indonesia, addresses the Foreign Secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe, on the general election campaign. It had begun that afternoon, Donald writes,
with the burning of the platform on which the government spokesman was addressing a large crowd. Later on, the Indonesian papers described the campaign as having got off to a ‘good and quiet start’.
Just as in Ira Levin’s thriller, The Boys from Brazil, a mad scientist planned to send hundreds of Hitler-clones goose-stepping across the world, so you get the feeling here that you’ve stumbled on a factory churning out legions of would-be Evelyn Waughs. The trouble is that few of them come anywhere near the grade, partly because they’re seldom as funny as they think, and partly because they tend to be colossal windbags.
The best bits come when the ambassadors aren’t trying to impress their masters with their carefully buffed wit, but are simply recording what they’ve witnessed. In June 1934, Sir Eric Phipps, ambassador to Germany, spent the day with Hermann Goering at a ‘bison enclosure’ outside Berlin. The first thing to make Phipps hoist an ambassadorial eyebrow was Goering’s choice of clothing: ‘He was clad in aviator’s garments of india-rubber with top boots and a large hunting-knife stuck in his belt.’
Later on — but not much later — Goering disappears for a quick costume change, reappearing in a dazzling white ensemble ‘with the large hunting-knife still stuck into his belt’. He proceeds to show Phipps the mausoleum where he, his wife and quite possibly his mistress will lie for eternity. ‘The chief impression was that of the almost pathetic naivete of General Goering, who showed us his toys like a big, fat, spoiled child,’ writes Phipps, before noting presciently:
Then I remembered there were other toys, less innocent, and these might some day be launched on their murderous mission in the same childlike spirit and with the same childlike glee.
Something similar can be seen in the despatch Edward ‘Nick’ Larmour, ambassador to Haiti, sent in 1970 about a meeting with Haiti’s dictator, Papa Doc Duvalier. Having made the obligatory ho-ho remarks about the Presidential band — ‘they made a very creditable stab at God Save the Queen’ — he proceeds to give a terrific pen-portrait of Papa Doc. ‘Apart from a curious sheen on his face like black parchment, which gives him a slightly ghostly appearance, Papa Doc looked exactly like anybody’s family doctor or solicitor or retired diplomat.’ Larmour has to remind himself that ‘I was shaking one of the most bloodstained hands in
But far too often in this wildly overlong anthology you get a sense of ambassadors blithely tossing out generalisations, imbued with a sense of their own superiority, unclouded by any glimmer of self-doubt and confident that everything they write will prompt an approving chuckle back in Whitehall.
‘I find the local Hutu poor, dirty, ill-clad, prone to drink, unreliable, idle and dishonest,’ writes John Bennett, ambassador to Rwanda and Burundi in 1964. ‘The Tutsi, on the other hand, is graceful and dignified and clearly of a superior race.’ Then, clearly pausing for reflection and deciding that some qualification is required, Bennett adds, in brackets, ‘This does not mean that he does not drink and is not lazy.’
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 27 October 2012