Kofi Annan has just been in town for an evening organised by The Spectator. The 800 seats at the Cadogan Hall could have been sold twice over; the former UN Secretary General has a huge following. Having known and admired him since Bosnia in 1993, I was very pleased to be his interlocutor. He has just published a fine memoir, Interventions. This deals with involvements such as the UN’s fight against HIV/AIDS — in which he gives President George W. Bush high marks — as well as the UN’s sometimes controversial military interventions as peacekeepers. He is candid about his own and the UN’s failures, particularly in Bosnia and Rwanda. But he still retains faith in the organisation. Softly spoken, deft and courteous, Annan has dealt for decades with monsters — he has been called ‘the world’s envoy to the dark side’. Most recently he tried — and failed — to resolve the civil war in Syria. The future there looks truly awful: whereas Iraq imploded into Sunni-Shia mass murdering after the fall of Saddam, similar violence in Syria now risks exploding into the region, damaging Lebanon, Jordan and perhaps Israel. In his Nobel Peace Prize speech, given soon after 9/11, Annan said that the world had entered the 21st century ‘through a gate of fire’. That fire, fuelled by Sunni and Shia terrorism, continues to rage in many parts of the world — as the appalling mass murder carried out by Islamist militants in southern Algeria showed yet again. David Cameron is quite right to say that the struggle against this horror will last for decades. Islamist mass murder (in which most of the victims are other Muslims) cannot be contained; it must be fought. That cannot be done by the United Nations — US leadership is essential.
Two great friends have died recently. Chris Robbins fought pancreatic cancer with huge courage before, in the words of his wife Mary Agnes, ‘his life flew from him like a trapped bird that had found an open window’. Chris was a man of infinite wit, style and charm, beloved by his many friends. In the 1980s he wrote two revealing books: Air America, on Indochina, and The Ravens, about the CIA’s secret airlines and their pilots. I met him at one of the pilots’ reunions in Bangkok and have laughed at his jokes ever since. He later wrote, among other things, about misunderstood Soviet satellites such as Chechnya, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Azerbaijan, telling tales of their sad history and resilient people with brilliance. He adored life and lived it as if he were a guest at a banquet, his curiosity always making someone else the guest of honour.
Geoffrey de Bellaigue, a perfect gentle knight, was the former Surveyor of the Queen’s Works of Art and director of the Royal Collection, a scholar whose learning was matched only by his modesty. Geoffrey’s Belgian mother, Toinon, taught French to the young princesses Elizabeth and Margaret and remained their lifelong friend. He knew almost everything that there was to know about the Royal Collection, and in 2009 he published a truly fabulous, learned three-volume catalogue of the Queen’s collection of French porcelain. I got to know him well over the last decade because his wife Sheila, the former royal archivist, gave me the fruits of her learning when I was writing the official biography of the Queen Mother and then editing a collection of her letters, Counting Our Blessings. Without their wisdom and Geoffrey’s cheerful endurance of me invading their kitchen table with papers, year after year, I could never have done it. Geoffrey represented all that is greatest in scholarship. Sheila, his daughters Christina and Diana and his twin brother Eric wrote perfect words for his funeral, thanking God for his deep affection for Britain, for the Crown and for ‘his sense of the privilege and duty bestowed by his work, for his wisdom and kindness … for his modesty, charm, wit and considerable silliness’. He was the cleverest and sweetest of men.
I was recently in one of my favourite countries, Australia, to speak about the struggle with Islamist extremism at the excellent Sydney Institute, created and run by Gerard and Anne Henderson. I said that my only claim to fame is that I am probably the only person who has written books about Murdoch, al-Qa’eda and the Queen Mother. She adored Australia ever since her first visit in 1927. On another trip in the 1950s, she wrote to Princess Margaret, ‘I have been staying on a station called Coochin Coochin with three glorious maiden ladies called the Miss Bells. They were heaven, rather over excited, & never drew breath and they had some very beautiful nephews, all called Bill. The real country Australian is really a knock out. Very tall, with long legs encased in tight trousers, blue eyes, a drawl, & a Stetson — they are too charming for words, & the American cowboy is a mere nothing compared.’ She was a wonderful letter-writer, as well as a wonderful queen.