Review Wednesday: Ever the Diplomat

Ever the Diplomat, former British envoy Sherard Cowper-Coles’ account of his years rising through the slippery ranks of the Foreign Office, fascinated, frustrated and infuriated me in equal measures.

ever the diplomat

First of all, I should state that although I didn’t know Sherard personally, I did work in the FCO at the same time as him and our paths would have crossed occasionally (I was in the press office when he was in Private Office as Robin Cook’s Private Secretary). He was obviously a figure who loomed large in the office at the time, but I was a relatively junior diplomat so he wouldn’t have had a clue who I was. However, his book is peppered with references to people who I knew or knew of – starting with his early years when a couple of the fathers of my classmates at boarding school in the UK are namechecked;  later on are mentions of people my own father worked with; and finally people I knew personally from my time in the office. From a personal viewpoint, this certainly helped make the book an entertaining read.

However, I am not sure how this translates for people who aren’t diplomats, former-diplomats or the children of  diplomats. Is there just too much in-house information to make it interesting?

Hopefully not, although you may need to have a rudimentary knowledge of British foreign affairs to truely enjoy much of the book. But in many other ways I think it’s a really good portrayal of what life is like in the upper rankings of the Foreign Office. It didn’t much resemble what I experienced, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

Sherard’s career was certainly a glittering one: Cairo (he was one of the famous Arabists of the office, otherwise known as the “camel corps”), Paris, Washington. Plum jobs in the UK. Later, ambassadorships in Israel and Saudi Arabia – apparently, the pinnacle of a career for an Arabist. He ended up as the UK’s special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, which is where it all seemed to go wrong for him. Whether because he wasn’t going to get the job at the end of his career he felt he deserved (there are only three or four really top jobs in the FCO and usually quite a few very senior diplomats vying for them) or for personal reasons (he split up from his wife during his time in Kabul, more of which below), he apparently took “extended leave” at the end of his posting and never returned….

Anyway, apart from that, Ever the Diplomat is certainly a well-written and largely entertaining book. Sherard is undoubtedly a very intelligent man and just the sort of person who would do well in the Foreign Office: he had the right background, he was the right gender, he went to the right university. The fact that he barely mentions women in the office until right at the end of the book (as if someone had read it and pointed out he really should mention that women do work in the office too) tells me a lot about him, and resonates with the sort of people I came across while working there. At one point he uses the term “the Private Office girls” to describe some of his female coworkers (see page 207).

As for his poor wife, Bridget, she gets barely more of a mention than his female colleagues. As many of us know, following (accompanying – you chose the terminology!) your partner to another country is no easy task. Upping sticks and doing it every two to four years, as the Cowper-Coles family did, can be downright distressful. Especially when you have five children. And yet, rarely does he talk about his wife positively, never does he discuss her immense role in his success. He may have wanted to leave family life out of his book as he believed he was writing about foreign policy and his career rather than anything personal. But for me, FCO life and family life go hand-in-hand. Personally, by ignoring his wife and what life was like for her and his children, I think he missed a huge trick. He might have left her out because of their subsequent divorce – or perhaps it was the other way round?

I also feel that whilst the account of his career gives us an excellent insight into the workings of the top echelons of the offce, it does rather ignore much of the rest of it: visa work, consular work, trade and investment, management…There is an awful lot more to the work of the FCO and our embassies and high commissions abroad than just the political side of things that Sherard shows us.

Other than this, Ever the Diplomat IS a good read and does contain a fair amount of interesting information and entertaining anecdotes. Sherard seems to have had an excellent window on the world throughout his career – Hong Kong department during the handover, Paris when Princess Diana was killed in the car crash, Saudi Arabia during the appalling Al Qaeda terrorist targeting of Westerners. He shows us this world from his own perspective and in an easy-going style that had me staying up late, turning pages ( in particular, for me, the chapter about Robin Cook – which coincided with my time in the press office, was fascinating). Other parts of the book I skimmed over – I couldn’t get excited about NATO or any of the defence policy sections. But overall, I would say this was a good read. As well as infuriating…

Best for: anyone who wants to understand more about the role of embassies and foreign ministries beyond visa renewal and consular assistance. People who are interested in foreign affairs and recent politics. Not for: Sherard’s wife; anyone who wants to know more about what life is like for the trailing spouse of a diplomatic high-flyer (for that I recommend Brigid Keenan’s Diplomatic Baggage).

Supporting Nepal and thinking of all those who wait for news.

I am sure we have all been watching with huge sadness the events unfolding in Nepal and other parts of Asia. You feel so helpless at times like this – I have donated to the Red Cross but there isn’t much else I can do. I continue to support the Red Cross even when there is no obvious emergency happening in the world because they keep on working all the time, whether under the spotlight of the media or not.

As well as the people of Nepal, India, Tibet and other affected countries, I have been thinking of those families back in the UK, the US and everywhere else in the world who are waiting to hear news of their loved ones. When I worked for the Foreign Office in London, I spent a couple of very intense years as a press officer for consular cases. This could mean answering questions from the press about anything from someone falling off a balcony in Spain to kidnappings in South America. We dealt with hundreds and hundreds of cases involving distressed Brits overseas, some in trouble of their own making (eg smuggling drugs) but many caught up in something totally beyond their control. I was heavily involved after 9/11, and again after the Asian tsnuami of 2004. In both instances, I flew out to the scene shortly after each event.

As a press officer, I rarely spoke to the family members themselves. We had well trained and massively sympathatic consular officers to do this job. However, there were times when  I came into direct contact with people who were highly distressed about missing or otherwise indisposed relatives. After 9/11 I spoke on the phone to a father whose daughter had been in one of the Towers; later, I sat in on an interview with a couple whose only son had been the only Brit killed in one of the planes. In London, I met the families of kidnap vicitms face to face as we discussed the British Government’s strategy for their case, and in Phuket I pitched in where needed and spoke to several family members.

Watching the scenes in Nepal, and the scenes back in the sitting rooms of Bristol and Nottingham and Glasgow, I remember all those people I have come into contact with over the years whose family members have been involved in some sort of shocking event in another country. I realise it’s awful wherever it happens, and grief is grief. Sudden and unexpected death doesn’t distinguish.

But to happen in another country, to be so far away and so out of your control, this is hard in a different way. To need to make arrangements for flights and visas, hotels and taxis. To rely on an anonymous offiical in a far away embassy to be the one who finds the information for you, who will knock on the doors, visit the right people, help with your questions. This is impossible.

So as the news keeps creeping in, as we hear the good stories but also the bad, the news but also the no news, I am thinking of all those people. The mothers, whose only sons went climbing and never came back. The fathers whose daughters were on the trip of a lifetime. The couple in New York who sat so bravely and spoke about their son who they will never see again. The father on the phone in New York who wailed with grief.

Let that never be me.

To donate to the Red Cross click here.