Justin Marozzi

A diplomat with a difference

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Bagpipes in Babylon: A Lifetime in the Arab World and Beyond

Glencairn Balfour Paul

I.B. Tauris, pp. 329, £

Senior diplomats may be a charming bunch, but as a rule they are not known for their modesty. Years of rubbing shoulders with world leaders, however inconsequential, tend to go to their heads. Taking themselves too seriously is an occupational hazard.

When it comes to publishing their memoirs, such arrogance and pomposity are not necessarily a bad thing. A diplomat’s inflated sense of his own importance can be hilariously, unintentionally entertaining. What more wonderful example of the genre than DC Confidential: The Controversial Memoirs of Britain’s Ambassador to the US at the Time of 9/11 and the Iraq War, Sir Christopher Meyer’s gloriously self-regarding tome of last year? A monument to the man’s vanity, it superbly demonstrated what a complete ass he is. My own favourite in this field is Lord Edward Cecil’s brilliantly funny The Leisure of an Egyptian Official, published in 1921.

Glencairn Balfour Paul is more Edward Cecil than Christopher Meyer. Admittedly his father was not foreign secretary and prime minister during his career as a bureaucrat, but we cannot hold that against him. He appears, fundamentally, to be a modest man and betrays few of the delusions of grandeur that made Meyer such a comic figure. Indeed, he is at pains to let the reader know that ‘my aim has been to record my own modest involvement, seldom significant and sometimes ludicrous’ over the past 80 years. That sets the tone for what follows.

He makes light of his wartime record as an infantry officer in Libya. The bravest thing he did, he says, was to address the Long Range Desert Group on the qualities of the Sudanese soldier: ‘They lay around in the dark, bearded, silent and properly scornful even of my jokes — reacting much as a body of Muslim mullahs might react to a talk on the qualities of the Anglican Sunday school.’

After a short career in uniform and then a decade as a district commissioner in the Sudan, Balfour Paul dallied with archaeology before plumping for the diplomatic service, where he rose to become an ambassador in three posts — Iraq, Jordan and Tunisia. Anecdotes are the stuff of memoirs, of course, so it is probably unfair to level the charge of name-dropping. What one can say is that the author is at times uncommonly interested in dukes and duchesses and old school ties.

On first reporting for duty in Whitehall, he recalls meeting the Foreign Office head of personnel who greeted him with ‘unexpected bonhomie’:

‘Would you like to know why we chose you?’ I said I would be more than interested. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘the fact is that at the two interview boards everyone rather liked the tie you were wearing.’

It is perhaps a pity that he does not make more of Suez and the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, which he witnessed at close hand, but one feels the book has been written more for his family and is not, besides, a general history. It is highly anecdotal. He is more interesting, certainly, on the notorious double agent Kim Philby whom he knew as a friend in Beirut.

Ambassadors will always make the most of the famous people they have met in the course of their career smoothing ruffled feathers. One of Balfour Paul’s more remarkable encounters was in 1969 when he met Saddam Hussein, who grabbed the ambassador by his shoulders and marched him along, telling him it was London’s ‘foolish hostility’ that was driving him towards Moscow. It would have been interesting to have learnt more of the author’s views on recent events in Iraq.

One of his more engaging characteristics is his love of art and poetry, not something one could say of many of Her Majesty’s diplomats today. He is forever knocking off stanzas, some of them repeated here. On waking up opposite the marvellous ruins of Baalbek, for example, ‘I drew furiously and of course broke into verse.’ It is a typical reaction and, what- ever one thinks of the poetry, one warms to him greatly for it.

As a literary critic, however, he is not always up to the mark. He admires a letter from a friend’s wife who wrote him a descriptive passage about New York in 1968, concluding with the sentence, ‘It’s all geometric shapes and sharp angles, except for the wonderful arching bridges suspended from the sky, and the curves of niggers in hats leaning against things.’ ‘What wouldn’t I give,’ he asks himself, ‘to be able to write anything as good as that last sentence (though I wouldn’t have used the word “niggers”)?’ It seems a perfectly ordinary sentence.

Justin Marozzi is looking for a bold publisher for Islamistan, a satirical novel about Iraq: jsmarozzi@aol.com