September 30th, 2010
BBC Radio 4 has just started broadcasting a second season of Parting Shots, in which Matthew Parris delves into the archives of the Foreign Office to reveal the confidential valedictory despatches submitted by senior British diplomats upon leaving their postings.
The first ten minutes or so of the first episode spent a little too much time quoting ambassadors being unimpressed with foreign cuisine and manners and even architecture, but it did include one absolute gem of an anecdote:
Sir Julian Bullard: Bonn, 1998
There are the regional differences, which become more evident as one learns to recognise the surnames, accents and facial characteristics which go with certain attitudes of mind, but I think it is still possible to talk of German national characteristics. One of these is the seriousness, thoroughness, humourlessness, perfectionism and pedantry which have made the German the butt of so many anecdotes.
To quote a true one: the artist Philip Ernst painted the view from his window, leaving out a tree which spoiled the design. That night he was attacked by remorse, got up from bed and cut down the tree.1
The latter part of the episode was considerably better, focusing on the way that until very recently the Foreign Office simply expected diplomats' wives to act as a sort of unpaid hotel manager/hostess/event organiser/auxiliary diplomat2 and the way that modern spouses – having their own careers, and being less willing to pack their children off to boarding school for the duration of a tour of duty overseas – had organised a campaign to at least be paid for doing all that work, or to have a professional event manager paid to take on that side of the embassy's functions instead of everything falling to the ambassador's partner.
Assuming that they don't spend a third of every episode quoting British diplomats being undiplomatic about their hosts – the first season wasn't like that, so I hope this one won't go down that road – Parting Shots is going to be well worth a listen over the next few weeks. The first episode is available on BBC iPlayer3 for another six days.
- For what it's worth, I can completely see where Ernst was coming from. ↩
- One diplomat's wife observed that traditionally one of the jobs of the ambassador's spouse when attending a function was to engage the dullest VIP in conversation, presumably so as to prevent their boring the pants off anyone important. ↩
For UK residents – or, more accurately, for those whose connection to iPlayer is coming from an IP address located in the UK.Correction: it turns out that you can listen to most iPlayer radio content regardless of whether you're in the UK. Thanks to Martin Wisse for the correction. ↩