Durrell Notes

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On 23 June 1960 Lawrence Durrell took part in the BBC television programme TONIGHT. The interviewer was Derek Hart. This interview appears to be previously unpublished.

HART: Before the first world war, Britain had nine Ambassadors, well now the figure is nearer ninety, hardly a day passes without news of some new appointment, yesterday, for instance, Mr. J.F.A.G. Watson was appointed Ambassador to a country of which many people have not yet heard, the Federation of Mali in West Africa, which came into being the day before yesterday. Presumably, the Federation of Mali will return the compliment by sending one of its distinguished citizens to the Court of St. James. At least, as far as numbers go, diplomats are evidently having a boon period, and so such a rapidly expanding field of action and the people in it, obviously merits examination.

Well, luckily, one accomplished observer of the diplomatic whirligig was in the country on one of his periodic visits. He’s the writer, Lawrence Durrell, former British Diplomat in several cities.

Well, now, when the new Ambassador from Mali arrives in London, he’ll have to call on every single one of his colleagues in the capital, won’t he? Now, apart from transport, each call is going to take, roughly speaking, an hour and each call will have to be returned. Do junior members of Embassies, also, have to go on this particular whirligig of calls?

DURRELL: Oh, well, they have to; they have to sort out their cards. I don’t think they’d have to call on every member of the Corps, but they’d have to send out their cards, and then wait upon the event. If they were lucky, they’d get answers back. You see, the cards would go out to the whole of the other nations, and they might be invited back by an Ambassador, apart from just their opposite number.

HART: It’s important to do this thing, then is it…

DURRELL: It’s generally important. It sounds rather a joke but it is quite genuinely important to make your number with your colleagues and get on to the old boy ‘net’ not simply administratively in your own job, but I think, at every level, your Ambassador who finds that the French have fallen in love with you or that you’re at the Spanish Embassy, because you play the harp, will value your social talents very much more for your invitation and will regard you as a useful member of his mission.

HART: In your experience, do many diplomats shirk the treadmill of these courtesy calls?

DURRELL:Yes. There are lazy diplomats as there are lazy everyone elses. I am afraid, often I had to shirk the [ ] through sheer overwork, most of my posts were crises posts and, often one simply couldn’t keep up.

HART: It’s true, also, isn’t it, that diplomats have to worry themselves to think about each other’s National Days. Is this a particularly burdensome thing?

DURRELL: The National Day – the whole thing marches with the growth of nationalism after the war, you know. Before the war there were all these Legations with Mr. John Smith in charge, the Minister. Then with a desire to compliment these countries or to accede, somehow, to their feeling of nationalism, the simplest way was to bump up their Embassy – bump up the missions to Embassies, and then appoint a much higher powered Diplomat. From that point of view, yes, yes.

HART: Well, diplomats do seem to spend an extraordinarily large amount of time going to parties of one kind or another, don’t they?

DURRELL: The National Days, of course, chime with the question you have just asked me. They are a vice, but there seems to be no way round them.

HART: But do all diplomats enjoy it, do you think?

DURRELL: Oh, no, I think most of them hate it, but it’s a very necessary game. It’s necessary to take soundings of what your colleagues feel, because, sometimes, when you can’t assess a political situation, your French colleague or your Spanish colleague can, over dinner, give you an estimate of it, which will make you send a very swift cable home.

HART: In your experience, were the diplomats that you met from foreign countries – and so on – the people that you worked with, were they more typical of the countries which they represented, or of diplomats in general?

DURRELL: It’s difficult to answer that because, engineers for example, are much the same all the world over when they’re examining an engineering plant or in their workshops. At a cocktail party, their national differences would come out more clearly. I should say, in Embassies, diplomats are pretty much alike. Outside, socially, I imagine, they were rather different.

HART: This is almost invariably true?

DURRELL: It’s invariably true, but they vary just like any other human species. I mean, many of them have an extreme number – extremely interesting secret vices, like fly-fishing, or a desire to write the only monograph on lepidoptera, or an interest in chess problems or something, they develop an intellectual interest, I suspect to defend themselves against the colossal drain on their energies by this high-powered social life, which isn’t fun, I mean it isn’t all the fun that it’s made out to be.

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