This book is dedicated to all those friends and relatives who helped and encouraged us on our sometimes arduous way, to the officers of the greatest of all Services, the Foreign Service, and above all to my devoted wife Henrietta, who put up uncomplainingly with all the hardships and cheerfully sustained me through the more trying hours.
ONE DIPLOMAT’S ODYSSEY
My fate in the post-war diplomatic service was sealed one crisp spring morning in 1946, when the then Head of the Personnel Department summoned me to discuss my next posting, and as I crossed St James Park from the cosy intimacy of the Refugee Department to the sumptuous décor and baronial stairs of Carlton House terrace, where the administration was housed, I could not suppress strong feelings of exhilaration and high purpose at the thought of my first posting into that wide world I had savoured and loved so much during my war service in the Western desert and the Middle East. When the psychologist/examiner at the Foreign Service reconstruction examination had asked me what ambitions I had for a post-war career, I had told him I wanted to play a significant part in crime detection. He had headed me off, demurring that I was not tall enough, too short-sighted, would have to serve the beat, etc, etc, but had added that I would no doubt fit in with a career abroad. Perhaps his assessment was right; both Henrietta and I loved travel and the open air, and have always been drawn to languages and the cultures and ways of life of other peoples.
I entered the room in some awe and trepidation, for the Head’s presence matched the dignity of the imposing high ceiling, the beautifully decorated walls; and the imposing full-length portraits of former Foreign Ministers looking down on us. He received me affably enough, then volunteered that he could actually offer me a choice of posts, a thing unheard of before, and one which certainly did not happen to me ever again. But in 1946 many post had to be filled quickly, as officers recruited before the war moved up into posts vacated by Ambassadors, Ministers and Counsellors who had been frozen in their posts during the war and must now retire because they were well over the age limit for retirement.
The choice was fascinating, between two posts as different as cheese and chalk. Would I like to go as Consul to Denver, Colorado, or would I prefer a political posting to the Chancery in Moscow? With the benefit of hindsight and the rapid growth in the importance of the commercial side of diplomacy since then, I should no doubt have chosen Denver, which would have put us on the North American circuit and perhaps provided us with a more comfortable material existence. I wonder? We might have become fat and effete on steaks and barbecues, and I might have become bored with a surfeit of paper work and long indecisive meetings, for which I had not then the appetite. It is idle to speculate. In 1946 there was no doubt at all about the choice. Moscow in those days was remote, an unknown quantity crying out to be explored, for little information ever filtered back to the general British public, in spite of the wartime alliance, our Embassy and military mission, and contacts established by our seamen facing the ever present deadly perils of the Northern run to Murmansk and Archangel. Soon the spotlight was to be directed on Stalin’s ruthless tyranny, the complete isolation of the Russian people from foreign contacts, the absolute incompatibility of an alien Communist creed with our democracy, and the total absence of any will on the part of the soviet authorities to break out of this mould. But the iron curtain had not yet finally descended, and many people in the West still cherished illusions that a lasting friendship might still grow out of the wartime alliance, forged for the grimmest of all necessities, that of national survival. The first few weeks in Moscow were enough to dispel any such illusions on our part.
The first posting was to decide the pattern of my whole career, for after two years in Moscow I was considered knowledgeable enough on Soviet affairs to be invaluable in the crises and upheavals which were shaking the free world and its most vulnerable part, the developing countries. For however tight the censorship, however complete the segregation of the Soviet people from the foreigner, however plausible the Soviet cover-up of their intentions, one cannot stay two years in their capital without reading between the invariably opaque lines, and making a shrewd guess at their likely moves in any given situation.
Our postings thereafter became more difficult and more distant as our reputation for thriving on them grew. Mob demonstrations against the British in pre-Nasser Egypt, pillaging and sheer insecurity in Indonesia, the unpredictable behaviour of that mediaeval potentate the Imam Ahmed, Communist insurgency in Laos, Army revolt in Togo, and eventually back to the round-the-clock surveillance in Soviet-dominated Mongolia. If this were all I had to tell, I would have backed away from the task of committing it to paper. But all these countries, however remote or unpromising they might sound, have each their own special kind of beauty – the crunch of fresh crisp snow at dawn in Moscow’s Red Square, the eternal rustling of the sand of the Western Desert, the brooding stillness of the midday jungle, the purple cliffs of the Red Sea rift looking North from Taiz to Mecca, the three-dimensional vault of blue sky over Mongolia. All the different races and people we have known have the same longings and desires, whatever regime they live under. They are born, live, love and die in the same way, however diverse their cultures. They are united in their strivings and aspirations, transcending natural and temporal vicissitudes and political differences, and this identity of purpose will, I hope, be a main thread knitting together our varied experiences.