Thursday, 20 September 2012

The story of Sir John Major's 'Gift Horse'

It was with these words in an October 1993 despatch that Laura Brady announced the completion of one of the strangest assignments ever taken on by a British diplomat.

The horse in question was Maksat, a pure-bred Akhal-Teke stallion, one of the world's finest breeds. It had arrived in Moscow en route to London, where its owner was waiting.

That was the then Prime Minister, John Major. At a meeting in Downing Street earlier that year Saparmurat Niyazov, President of Turkmenistan, had presented Mr Major with a framed photograph of a horse. The only snag was that the animal was in Turkmenistan, and Britain was expected to collect it.

In an interview for the series, Sir John recalls the scene: "I was wondering exactly what one might say about such a gift. Firstly it was above minimal value so I wouldn't have been able to keep it in any event. But even if I'd been able to do so, I didn't think Norma would have fancied stables in the garden."

Sir John may have had other things on his mind in 1993, when he faced a Commons no-confidence vote
The Household Cavalry agreed to take the horse instead. With Maksat's future seemingly settled, Brady, who was then third secretary at the British Embassy in Moscow, set about arranging for his transportation.

This involved six months of tortuous negotiations with the authorities in Turkmenistan, the Russian Horse Society, the French horse attaché (for Niyazov had also offered a stallion to President Mitterrand) and EU quarantine officials, all the while keeping London informed of progress.

In the end it was decided that the horses would have to travel 500 precarious miles (about 800km) by train to Moscow, along with their grooms, before being sent on to London.

"It was a pretty distressing journey as you can imagine," remembers Sir John. "The horse began to be pretty ill-tempered. Apart from anything else it had toothache. And it manifested this by biting people and generally kicking and misbehaving."

Meanwhile Russia was in the grip of a constitutional crisis. One of Brady's telegrams back to London described how attempts to meet the train supposedly bearing the horses had been interrupted by a fierce gun battle for control of Moscow's parliament and television tower.

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Difficulty in verifying a Bb Clarinet score in a country where none can read music and music itself is regarded by many as sinful”

John Phillips
Former British Consul General in Oman
The Foreign Office forwarded each one of Brady's despatches on to the prime minister's private office, where they proved popular reading. Every day a whole stack of diplomatic telegrams would come in, recalls Sir John, "most of them pretty serious and quite grisly. This was very light-hearted. My private secretaries decided it would lighten my day to read these telegrams - and indeed it did."

Brady wrote a climactic despatch, telling of an attack by bandits in Kazakhstan, which the horses survived only to end up stuck in a railway siding once they finally reached Moscow.

There, Brady had to persuade reluctant Russian bureaucrats to release them, armed only with her own ingenuity and a carriage-load of enormous yellow melons which had also made the journey from Ashgabat. The grooms had packed these for barter in lieu of travel money, Turkmenistan having run out of banknotes the previous year.

Brady's story may be unique but her despatches belong to a proud tradition in British diplomacy. Over many decades writing witty reports has been encouraged among diplomats, and developed by ambassadors into something close to an art form. The result is a whole library of miscellaneous comic gems - "Foreign Office Funnies" as they are known in Whitehall - which are much treasured and passed around.

Their subject matter may have been frivolous, but at the time of sending these reports were nevertheless formal diplomatic traffic. And they were usually classified. Most were assigned "confidential" or "restricted" status - a few rungs below "top secret" - and were therefore forbidden fruit, except to those who had passed security vetting.

Once received back at Foreign Office headquarters in London, the best "funnies" were often given the Rolls-Royce treatment. Sent for printing, hundreds of copies would be circulated throughout Whitehall and to Foreign Office staff posted overseas. Nowadays, diplomats no longer need paper to share their wit with colleagues, and Foreign Office funnies, sent by secure e-mail and then forwarded on, reach an even wider audience around the world.

If you talk to diplomats about Foreign Office funnies, time and again the same despatches come up - above all, a curious tale about a Spanish ambassador, dragging a mysterious and unfeasibly large suitcase through the desert.

Spit-roast sheep
We finally tracked this old despatch down in the National Archives, in an ordinary looking buff-coloured file entitled "Foreign diplomatic representation in Algeria".

The Spanish Ambassador's Suitcase tells of a night's entertainment in the Sahara. In 1971 all of the foreign ambassadors in Algiers were summoned to the airport and flown to an oilfield in the desert. According to the despatches from Ronald Burroughs, the British Ambassador, the Algerian government had a habit of using the diplomatic corp as "wallpaper" at official events, and this was no exception.

At their destination they endured long lectures in Arabic, feasted on spit-roast sheep, and speculated about what was in the suitcase. Part mystery tale, part comic sketch, Burroughs' account has genuine literary merit, according to the author Katie Hickman.

News of President Niyazov of Turkmenistan's musings gained quite a readership
"What great story tellers do is they pull you along by some sort of mystery or event. They make you want to keep reading those words to find out what happened," says the author of Daughters of Britannia, a book which explored the lives of diplomatic families.

"He is telling just such a story. The Spanish Ambassador keeps appearing and then disappearing and each time the speculation builds. Are you going to find out what's in the suitcase? It is just this perfect little vignette."

Almost as famous in diplomatic circles is the Muscat National Anthem, a comic gem sent in 1960 by the British Consul General in Oman. John Phillips was responding to a request from the Admiralty, asking all Foreign Office posts to check they had the correct sheet music for their host country's national anthem, after an embarrassing incident somewhere in the world when a Royal Navy cruiser stopping in at a foreign port played the wrong tune.

The despatch he wrote in reply (summary: "Difficulty in verifying a Bb Clarinet score in a country where none can read music and music itself is regarded by many as sinful") instantly won him his place in Foreign Office folklore.

It helped his career, too, say some who were serving in the Gulf at the same time. Phillips went on to become a three-time ambassador, finishing up in the coveted post of Jordan.

Of course, to get on in the Foreign Office it takes more than a way with words and a gift for comic timing. But humour does seem to play an important part.

In a previous series on BBC Radio 4 called Parting Shots we explored the recently extinguished tradition of the valedictory despatch - the last despatch an ambassador would send before quitting a foreign post. Former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told us about despatches from a British ambassador to "one of the Stans" which were so funny that they made him cry with laughter. Straw said that in the despatches the ambassador had a "ringside seat" to a "very serious pantomime" in which the country's oddball dictator held sway over all.

It didn't take us long to identify their author. We caught up with Paul Brumell in Barbados, where he was posted in 2006 as High Commissioner, having previously served as ambassador in Turkmenistan.

Yes, Turkmenistan again.

'The scribe'
Niyazov, that country's long serving President, styled himself Turmenbashi, the leader of the Turkmen.

"He ruled in a very personalised, very autocratic style," said Brummell, "a golden statue to himself at the heart of every town, and the one in the capital rotating so that it always faced the sun."

In his reporting, Brummell says he knew it was important to avoid the risk of "dismissing the eccentricities of the regime as something humorous, because there were actually a lot of human rights concerns which were far from funny."

Maksat turned out not to have the right stuff for the Household Cavalry
But the ambassador agreed that "in attempts to explain how the president's musings were translated into diktat by a kind of entirely subservient bureaucracy" his despatches had managed to "generate quite a readership".

Jack Straw insisted every one of Brummell's reports from Turkmenistan was put into his red ministerial box. With a bit of wit and style, Brummell made his reports stand out.

In ordinary circumstances despatches from a post of comparatively minor significance like Turkmenistan would never reach the desk of a minister, and their authors would continue to toil in relative obscurity.

Welsh retirement
But diplomats who have literary talent can use it to make a name for themselves and gain the attention of senior politicians. Some find their reports end up being enjoyed by an even more exalted readership beyond Whitehall.

Sir James Craig was ambassador to Syria and Saudi Arabia. After he retired in 1984, he went with several others to take his formal leave of the Queen.

"I was taken up by one of her attendants," says Sir James, "who explained that I was James Craig who'd just come back from Saudi Arabia. And she said to me: 'Oh, the scribe'."

Craig was told that all his despatches were passed around the staff at Buckingham Palace and to Her Majesty - which he says "was quite a kick".

But what became of the prime minister's horse? Well, in the end Maksat did reach Britain. A military career, however, was not to be. After a short trial the Household Cavalry found him unsuitable for ceremonial work.

This worked out quite well for the stallion, who found a home in Wales instead. Under the care of a specialist trainer, Lorna Jane-Winn, Maksat has become a British show champion, raced at national level in endurance, sired 30 offspring - and still holds two speed records on the flat in his homeland.

The Spanish Ambassador's Suitcase begins on Monday 24 September at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4.

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