In a speech he gave last year about revitalising the Foreign Office, William Hague made special reference to Albert, a 20-foot stuffed anaconda – supposedly a gift from a bishop in Guyana a century ago – which has hung along the shelves of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office library for 100 years, in part as testament to the long traditions of the Foreign Office, in part a nod to its cherished eccentricities. Two new books pick up these themes.
The Spanish Ambassador's Suitcase is the enjoyable second volume of diplomatic despatches collected by Matthew Parris and Andrew Bryson, a follow-up to Parting Shots. Its theme is how diplomats, with the polite but double-edged literary style so pervasive in the Foreign Office, have reported back the unofficial business of diplomacy. Among the letters is one from Sir Archibald Clark Kerr to Lord Pembroke about a Turkish colleague bearing the name Mustapha Kunt, copies of which regularly circulate on the internet. (Look it up if you don't already know it.) But there are also letters in which an ambassador, noting an absurdity, hits upon a deeper truth.
One such is from Eric Phipps, our ambassador to Germany in 1934, who provides a vignette of a lunch party at Hermann Goering's country estate and tour of his bison enclosure. The bemused Phipps mentions his white tennis shoes and duck trousers, his attentive blonde "private secretary" (Phipps's own acutely deployed inverted commas) and how "he showed us his toys like a big, fat spoilt child". Goering's toy box would increase to include the entire Luftwaffe.
Sherard Cowper-Coles's first book, Cables From Kabul, was a critical account of how the West lost its grip on Afghanistan – expressing the opinion that had led to his sudden departure from his job as ambassador to Afghanistan. Ever the Diplomat is a gentler stroll through a 35-year career in the service, from an early assignment in Cairo when President Sadat was assassinated; Hong Kong under Chris Patten for the handover to China; and Paris for the death of Princess Diana; to his ascent to the fully fledged ambassadorial class in Israel, Saudi Arabia and finally Afghanistan. It is a modern history from an insider's perspective.
Cowper-Coles is also a teller of anecdotes and translator of customs. When the Queen, on a state visit to Washington, was asked to a baseball game, it fell to Cowper-Coles to write her a brief. "Baseball is not cricket," he wrote. "But, like cricket, it is a form of secular religion."
So Ever the Diplomat has the self-effacing tone and dash of wit that run through the Parris-Bryson collection. But in their scope, these books also bring up a more serious point: that the influence of the Foreign Office is being diluted by the rise of the Department for International Development and the new National Security Council. All the sharp words and expertise imparted by diplomats will count for little if their missives are on the bottom of the pile.