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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


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)