Jonathan Fryer

Keep the Flag Flying

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 16th June, 2012

The second half of the 20th century defied expectations that it would not live up to the excitement of the first. True, there was no Third World War, but momentous political and social upheavals kept both journalists and diplomats busy, trying to make sense of the process of decolonisation, the radical and sometimes despotic regimes that came to power in parts of the Middle East, Africa and Asia, and the long freeze of the Cold War followed by the sudden thaw of 1989. Among the British diplomats lucky and astute enough to be around at the right time in some of the most interesting places and to make the most of them, from the time he joined the Foreign Office in 1958 to his retirement in 1995 after serving as Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, was Alan Munro, whose memoirs have now been published: Keep the Flag Flying (Gilgamesh, £17.95). Sir Alan was one of the Camel Corps, bright young minds that were trained in Arabic at MECAS in Shemlan in the hills behind Beirut and who went on to a career spent largely in Arab lands, in all their diversity, from Algeria and Libya to Lebanon, Kuwait and KSA. There were, of course, times posted back home in London, where his responsibilities grew as he rose higher up the Service. The one extraordinary posting, in a sense, was his time in Brazil, at the height of the military dictatorship. There as elsewhere he found plenty to fertilise his anecdotage. There are lots of good stories, many of them worthy of a Lawrence Durrell comic novel. The truly unsavoury nature of various governments and individuals is hinted at rather than spelt out. And when he gets to Saudi Arabia, his writing becomes a labour of love. He clearly retains huge affection for that strange land and some of its extensive royal family, and to an extent he endorses their paradoxical motto of “Progress without Change”. Some of the British politicians and other visitors whom he had to host get shorter shrift, David Mellor and Mark Thatcher, in particular, being slapped down with a minimum of words. There’s a wonderful story of Sir Alan and John Major (while the latter was PM) having to squeeze together in a lavatory cubicle in order to have a private conversation while visiting the Saudi King. But this is only one of various ludicrous and bizarre situations of the kind that make a diplomat’s life bearable, providing they have the right sense of humour, which the author obviously does. History buffs may be disappointed that there is not more “serious” content — though the account of life in Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War definitely counts as that — but this book is essentially an entertainment, perhaps conceived partly for family and friends, but deserving of a much wider readership.

Link: www.gilgamesh-publishing.co.uk

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