ARTS / The international culture club: The Cold War and Barry Humphries have a lot to answer for. Dalya Alberge tours the embassies to discover the truth about the modern cultural attache

Cultural attache posts can hide a multitude of other things,' said the woman in one of the London embassies. Then, seeming to regret what she had blurted out, she hastily denied that she had said anything of the sort. Ah, what a relief: espionage is still alive and well and living (for the most part) behind the imposing white stucco facades of London, SW7.

The cultural attache has long been a euphemism, in fiction and in fact, for somebody who is anything but a cultural attache, whatever that is. The Russians and the Bulgarians took culture very seriously indeed during the Cold War, when their attaches were drafted in and booted out with a frequency that would make John le Carre's head spin. Our chaps were different from their opposite numbers behind the Iron Curtain, in so far as they reported (and still do) to a body (the British Council) other than a foreign or cultural ministry. All the same, the 1950s saw a number of British attaches expelled from Eastern Europe for

spying.

It's a sign of the times that the cultural attache is now more readily associated in the popular imagination with the drooling, burping, lager- splashed (and, let it be noted for the record, fictional) cultural attache from Australia, Sir Les Patterson. However, the sober fact is that throughout the world the modern cultural attache appears, on the surface at least, to be just that.

Their mission is to spread the word about their country's arts. Few have very long in which to do it - like Cabinet ministers, they are rarely in a posting for much longer than it takes to get to grips with it. The usual term in any country is three or four years. Unlike Cabinet ministers, nearly all these days stay the course.

ED MCBRIDE, cultural attache in the American embassy in London for the past two and a half years, has been packing and unpacking his way round the world for more than 30 years. Britain is maybe his eighth posting ('I've lost count'), on a list that includes France, Spain, the former Yugoslavia and Romania.

He will tell you that with every move, the cultural brief changes along with the scenery. When in Spain, the main focus for him was on the visual and performing arts: the country was then adjusting to life after Franco, and he found the Spanish people hungry for international work. In Britain, by contrast, his emphasis is on educational exchange programmes (at post-university level, through the Fulbright Commission).

A fellow nomad, France's Jean- Paul Roufast, is in his 15th year as an attache and arrived in London two months ago. He sees the differences between postings in a more political way: the brief all depends on the strategic, military or economic importance of a host country to France, and the size of the embassy. Generally, the more important the country, the more specialised his responsibilities. 'In Indonesia,' he explains, 'I was in charge of everything cultural and educational; here, the second biggest embassy after Washington in prestige and importance, I only look after cultural matters. A colleague is in charge of education.' Also, the smaller the embassy, the bigger the social life. 'Here, there are more of us and this is a big city, and I am not so famous; in a smaller place, everyone knows and invites you.'

MY RECEPTION at the Greek Embassy made me wonder just how high a profile some cultural attaches are given by their embassies: a woman at the embassy insisted that they did not have one. Eventually, after reluctantly agreeing to make some calls, she found him (they are hims to a man).

One thing cultural attaches have in common is the absence of any obvious suggestion of culture in their surroundings: Constantine Passalis's office has only a pocket-sized icon and a vase to suggest any Greek or any cultural connection. Of all the offices I visited, only the Italian cultural attache's showed anything like style: shelves lined with books on Italy and its arts, a massive mahogany table with toppling piles of paper, and a real painting - a 19th-century copy of the late 1520s Madonna and Child by Palma Vecchio and Titian that hangs in Venice.

This sparseness reflects the nature of the job - much of it involving routine administrative matters and answering queries from arts organisations or the general public. But that is balanced by receptions to promote visiting artistes, regular trips home to keep abreast of artistic events and meetings with artists.

This, says America's Ed McBride, is why he became a cultural attache - to come into contact with 'writers, painters . . . people at the cutting-edge of society'. He recently completed talks with the Royal College of Art. 'They were interested in getting sponsorship to convert a former postal warehouse into studios,' he says, 'and in learning how to interest the international art community. I talked to them about New York's SoHo art community, and the idea of linking up with one of the art schools in the US.' Part of McBride's job also involves reporting back to Washington on new developments in his host country - he has been liaising with Britain's National Heritage Department, discussing the lottery, to see what lessons on arts funding his own government can learn.

THE ITALIANS' man in London since 1991 has been Francesco Villari, a professor of contemporary history from the University of Rome. His appointment is the result of a new policy to pass over diplomats in favour of prominent figures from the world of the arts, science or academia. As Villari puts it, 'People can be called into the network, given a chance to contribute.'

He has taken a four-year sabbatical to take up his post. His contribution has been to devise a programme of lectures on contemporary Italy by Italian politicians and historians, language courses and, in collaboration with the Warburg Institute, a master's degree course in iconography and iconology, the first of its kind anywhere. Interest in his country's culture, says Villari, is at an all- time high, thanks largely to British media coverage of the Italian corruption scandals.

The cultural attache may once have been a non-job; but all those I talked to seemed to share a genuine belief in culture as a path to peace between nations. To that end, Passalis, the Greek, models himself on Alexander the Great. 'Alexander wanted the world to be united . . .' he says. 'When he set out on his conquests, he was accompanied by scientists, artists, and philosophers. Being a pupil of Aristotle, he wanted to spread the culture and knowledge.' The intentions are the same; only the tactics have changed.

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
The Rolling Stones at the Roundhouse in London in 1971: from the left, Keys, Charlie Watts, Mick Taylor and Mick Jagger

Music ...featuring Eric Clapton no less
Arts and Entertainment
In the dock: Dot Branning (June Brown); Union boss claims EastEnders writers are paid less than minimum wage

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Roger Christian wrote and directed the 1980 Black Angel original, which was lost until 2011

film
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Green (Hand out press photograph provided by Camilla Gould)

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones reviewWarning: Spoilers aplenty
Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Arts and Entertainment
The Clangers: 1969-1974
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly in the film, which was criticised by Monaco’s royal family

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria civil war: Meet the military commander who says his soldiers will not rest until every inch of their war torn country is free of Islamist 'terrorists'

    ‘We won’t stop until Syria is back to normal’

    Near the front lines with Islamist-controlled towns where Assad’s troops were besieged just last month, Robert Fisk meets a commander confidently preparing his soldiers for battle
    The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation may undermine Hillary's chances

    The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation...

    ... and how it may undermine Hillary's chances in 2016
    12 best olive oils

    Extra-virgin, cold-press, early-harvest, ultra-premium: 12 best olive oils

    Choosing an olive oil is a surprising minefield. Save yourself the hassle with our handy guide
    Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

    Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

    Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
    Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
    Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

    The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

    Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
    The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

    The future of songwriting

    How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
    William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

    Recognition at long last

    Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
    Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

    Beating obesity

    The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
    9 best women's festival waterproofs

    Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

    These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
    Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

    Wiggins worried

    Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back