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At some stage in my diplomatic career, my late father gave me a paperweight bearing the motto “Diplomacy – the art of letting someone have it your way”.
This brilliantly and succinctly encompasses centuries of relationships between nations and the work of countless men and women employed to advance their countries’ interests. In my 37 years, 6 months in Her Majesty’s Diplomatic
Service, I came across few better definitions.
I joined the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in September 1972, a month after my eighteenth birthday and straight from school – this was still a time when only the very clever or very well-connected went to university, although it was still free. My two A-levels (English and, appropriately for a would-be diplomat, French)
were enough for me to set out on a peripatetic career different in every conceivable way from the life of my father, a professional man who was born, worked and died in one town.
I started out with low, if any, expectations of actually becoming a “diplomat”. I had applied to join the Diplomatic Service before sitting my A levels, having already rejected the idea of working as a journalist (though the love of the written word has never left me); an accountant (I got as far as having an interview for that); a merchant sailor (partial colour-blindness meant that I could not tell a starboard light from port); and a technical draughtsman (my simplistic designs for a “new generation” of heavy goods vehicles having been politely returned by a major truck manufacturer). On 11 September 1972 I joined the Foreign Office at the bottom, as a registry file clerk, having passed an interview following my application in response to an advert in a national paper seeking “Travel-minded teenagers”.
on May 14, 2013 :
After reading Martin Rickerd's partial autobiography right through, and I did, I feel more sympathy with him than I first expected to. He and I are both coping with self appraisal in retirement. We are very different, and our careers and cultural backgrounds and even our experiences of foreign travel have been very different, but I appreciate and respect his attitude and effort.
This is the tale of how a juvenile cigarette-smoking beer drinking incipient rake with A levels in French and English and an unfortunate motoring record rose through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to represent his nation. As far as one can glean from this version, which may be Bowdlerised, only one person was hurt on the way, and this injury was not the author's fault.
The first tenth of the book outlines how his career lept up every two years: junior paper boy, NATO message copier in Brussels, then marriage and junior administrator in New Zealand. For the next third, he continues to rise, but the greatest excitements were occasions when all the arragements for royal visits only just went right. His advance was so smooth that another diplomat called him a bastard; so he applied to go to equatorial Africa where he was shot at and he had to negotiate to prevent a bank robbery by local police. This episode reads a bit more like a late novel by Graham Greene, though without the sex and jealousy and plot.
The last half is mostly about his time running an office in Atlanta, with lots of excuses to drink wine, explore large parts of the USA, and observe a wide range of characters from Jimmy Carter (friendly and doing good) to lots of redneck Republicans (wilfully ignorant of climate change).
When I bought this book, I was perhaps looking for two forms of interest. One was a narrative rather like Arthur Grimble's famous "A Pattern Of Islands". Rickerd's book is not like that. His interest and loyalty lie with the FCO and Britain, whereas Grimble's were to the the inhabitants of the territory he had charge of. The other was some understanding of life in British Government. Here, this book is more revealing. It seems that the FCO, or at least the aspect Rickerd describes in the opening chapters, really was the bureaucratic self-satisfied club it has always appeared to be. At the end, it seems the FCO adopted various disruptive management fads mixed with some tough training courses and assessment schemes. Of course there is no mention of covert work of any sort.
Martin Rickerd wants to do the right thing. He has faith in the institutions he worked for, and he is glad to see evidence that some British effort is helping very poor people, and he writes with fervour about climate change and his frustration with those who refuse to understand it. He shares my pleasure in train journeys through mountains, though he only describes one.
The book is almost all well produced, but there are some curious syntactic slips, as if some edits are incomplete.
It is hard to draw conclusions from this kind of book because it is inevitably only a partial account. The classic image of a diplomat is a razor sharp mind concealed behind a jovial exterior. More of the exterior appears here than of the mind, as is natural. Rickerd's talent seems to be that he can be relied on to say and do the conventional right thing. I am left perhaps with relief that responsibility lay with someone who could be relied on to do that, tinged with anxiety that the obvious decision may sometimes have been wrong, and the proper course of action really demanded more analysis and cunning. There is no way of telling. The nature of the work is such that Martin Rickerd could never tell us everything.
(reviewed within a month of purchase)