On Her Majesty’s silver service

Food and entertaining feature strongly in diplomatic memoirs. Brigid Keenan, an envoy’s wife for 30 years, shares her experiences as she introduces excerpts from the writings of ambassadors

The World Today Published 7 December 2012 Updated 5 October 2020 4 minute READ

Brigid Keenan

Author, Diplomatic Baggage: The Adventures of a Trailing Spouse

Every diplomat returns to Britain with anecdotes about their foreign postings – often to do with food and entertaining because this is where the clash of civilizations is most visible: each of us trying, against the odds, to recreate an English dining room in some corner of a foreign land, with all the misunderstandings and subsequent hilarity that goes with that – for instance cherries instead of sherry in the beef consommé in Delhi.

I was brought up to believe that it was my duty to keep the conversation flowing at parties, and especially to fill up those embarrassing silences that can descend on a table. My husband says this means that no one else can ever get a word in edgewise, but in the Diplomatic Service where, often, people have no common language and little English, it can be useful training. It can also go wrong.

Once, at a diplomatic dinner, I was at a table with a group of Eastern Europeans who spoke very little English, and for some reason that escapes me – possibly desperation, but I think it made sense at the time – tried to fill up a really long and awkward silence by talking about the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Unfortunately my fellow guests got hold of the wrong end of the stick, believing that I was discussing something that had just happened – that all these children had been abducted by some frightful paedophile in Germany in the past few days. They were horrified: ‘No!’ they cried, ‘Eees terrible …’, ‘Cannot believe….’ ‘What police they do?’ It took me ages to make them understand that I’d just been telling the old Pied Piper story that everyone knows. They must have gone away totally baffled.

At a dinner given by the charming Cypriot Ambassador in Damascus, I was seated at a table that included the Indian Ambassador. No one spoke – the minutes ticked by in deathly silence – so I decided I should introduce the subject of street markets since everyone knows something about them. I chatted about markets in the Middle East, in the Caribbean, Africa, India etc but no one joined in; I continued doggedly – and then I noticed that the Indian Ambassador had actually fallen asleep. In desperation I pretended I hadn’t noticed and droned on. I had just got on to the subject of potatoes – sweet potatoes, new potatoes, big potatoes, small potatoes – when he woke up suddenly, said ‘Fascinating’ in a loud voice and then slumped back into sleep.

For a diplomatic wife it is not only making conversation that can become difficult, there are a million other pitfalls: the dreaded ‘placement’ at table – where on earth does the Patriarch of Antioch and All the East sit in relation to the Korean Ambassador? And then there are the unpronounceable names of colleagues you must remember – Dimirikipoulis, Djangotchian, Wojtaszek. And of course, most challenging of all, there is the actual organizing – and cooking – of ‘representational’ dinners in countries where the only vegetables you can get your hands on might be potatoes and cabbage.

My own worst experience was in Syria: my husband had invited 50 guests to an official dinner in a hotel, but the President’s son had been killed in a car crash and entertaining in public places was forbidden during the mourning period. As a result, and at short notice, I had to cook it at home with a young Filipina, Marcelle, I was training. We struggled for two days, through hours of power cuts during which the stove and kitchen appliances didn’t work. Then, just as we were completing the last dishes, a huge rat appeared in our small kitchen. In a desperate scramble, Marcelle managed to kill it with the broom handle then and there. Rat’s blood was all over the place.

That’s the truth of diplomatic entertaining, but it rarely makes it into the ambassadorial memoir.

Brigid Keenan is the author of Diplomatic Baggage: The Adventures of a Trailing Spouse

Ping-pong v canapés

Tony Crosland, Foreign Secretary 1976-77, hated banquets

Tony Crosland was to attend a European meeting in Luxembourg. He had sent instructions to the ambassador that what he required on arrival was a briefing meeting over sandwiches. Unfortunately, Sir Antony Acland, later a distinguished head of the Foreign Office, had not believed him. He laid on a banquet. To make matters worse, there was a long delay while the food was being prepared. I could see the steam rising from the Foreign Secretary’s head. Finally, he could bear it no longer. ‘David,’ he said, ‘I believe I saw a ping-pong table by the front door as we walked in. Would you care for a game?’ My life flashed before my eyes. If I said ‘Don’t be ridiculous, you rude man’, I should have won lifelong friends in the Foreign Office. However, those friends would not include the man for whom I worked and to whom I owed my allegiance. I rose. We played. He won. Fifteen minutes later, Tony returned, equilibrium restored, and the evening went off without further incident.

Crosland had had particularly bad experiences with ambassadors’ wives. He would tell the story of one who had greeted him on a foreign tour when he was Secretary of State for Education. ‘Now Mr Crosland, you know everything about education,’ she said. ‘Tell me, which would you recommend for Joanna, Roedean or Cheltenham Ladies’?’

In the Corridors of Power: An Autobiography, by David Lipsey

Snot and slime

Sherard Cowper-Coles struggles with Egyptian food while staying with a Cairene family

Although we ate meat only once a week, I found the food surprisingly good. I came to love ful, Egyptian beans. The only dish I could not stand was a greasy glutinous soup called mulookhia. As with everything else though, there was no escape from accepting a plateful and eating it: anything less would have been taken by the family as proof of mortal illness. Saying I did not like the viscous green slime in front of me was never an option.

The other culinary ordeal came on Friday mornings. After Mr Abu Awas had been to the mosque, he and I would go to the market and buy a fish called bolti found in the fresh(ish) waters of the Delta. This was regarded as a great delicacy. As the permanent guest of honour, my standard weekly treat was to be invited, with the whole family watching, to suck the snot-like brain of the fish out of the back of its severed head.

Ever the Diplomat: Confessions of a Foreign Office Mandarin, by Sherard Cowper-Coles

Nuts in May

Daphne Park, Consul-General at Hanoi in 1970, explains how the North Vietnamese kept diplomats at arm’s length

Very few weeks pass in Hanoi without a national day, an army day, or a day to commemorate some socialistic event. On those days, at 7pm precisely, the long line of official cars disgorges diplomats at the International Club. Between March and October, when the temperature in the shade may stand at 110F, and the humidity at an unvarying 98 per cent, shirtsleeves are worn, and like unhappy overheated penguins a long way from water, the socialist Ambassadors line up at the top table on the right of the host and the Dean, flapping their paper fans: on the left stand the Vietnamese. The arc lights burn, the mosquitoes whine, as the speeches are made – in Vietnamese with no translation, in Bulgarian, or Polish, or Russian, with Vietnamese translation only – and the diplomats cautiously clap, with one eye on the Dean. Toasts are offered and a curious Nuts in May ceremony is observed; first the diplomats file past the Vietnamese, clinking glasses, then the Vietnamese ret-urn the compliment.

After that both parties eat, wise diplomats confining themselves to the soup, the rest laying up worms and worse; the tables groan with dishes full of what at best may be sliced dog, or pork rolls, and mudfish from the paddies, and bright yellow ice cream. These rituals last two or three hours. Throughout, the Vietnamese stay on the left, the diplomats on the right of the hall; and crossing over is not en-couraged. These occasions represent, in microcosm, the co-existence without contact which is diplomatic life in Hanoi.

The Socialist diplomats, at first merely baffled by the bland impenetrability of the Vietnamese, soon find it hard to conceal resentment at being taken for granted. Like the large, damp, crumbling crates of mach-inery from Eastern Europe that lie month after month in marshalling yards, they stand about in bulky awkward groups. The Soviet Ambassador, guttering in the heat like tallow, mutters to the Mongolian: ‘Ah, how wonderful it would be to be cold, and see snow.’

The Spanish Ambassador’s Suitcase: Stories from the Diplomatic Bag, by Matthew Parris and Andrew Bryson

Ear, nose and throat

Douglas Hurd learns three uses for a horse’s head

Douglas Hurd, Foreign Secretary 1989-95, was passing through newly independent Kazakhstan in January 1992. He and his party were invited to a very late dinner – about 1am – by the President, Nursultan Nazarbayev. The British party had already eaten and the last thing they wanted was any more food. The event began as expected, with lots of different sorts of vodka. They then were told they were to be treated to a great Kazakh tradition. In came a steaming cauldron out of which Nazarbayev fished a boiled horse’s head. The president asked Hurd to distribute the choice parts to members of his entourage. The ear, the president said, should go to his wife, Judy, ‘so that she shall listen to you’. Mrs Hurd, more used to receiving bouquets of carnations, dutifully gnawed on the titbit. The Foreign Secretary cut off the other ear and gave it to the British Ambassador in Moscow, Sir Rodric Braithwaite, to help him to hear his orders. Warming to the occasion, Mr Hurd gave the tongue to his spokesman, Francis Cornish, and the nose to his bodyguards. ‘I was just about OK with the tongue,’ Cornish recalls, ‘but those who were presented with ear, or worse, had to call up every last reserve of stiff upper lip.’

Daily Telegraph, 20 January 1992

Table talk

In liberated Italy in 1945, Harold Macmillan is exasperated by diplomatic chat

Why do diplomats never discuss anything except houses, furniture, motorcars, food, wine and money?

Harold Macmillan, War Diaries: Politics and War in the Mediterranean, January 1943-May 1945