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Obituary: Sir William Harpham

UNPRETENTIOUS, DIFFIDENT, often disarmingly self-deprecating, always with a ready chuckle, William Harpham nevertheless had a countervailing grit, a steadfastness, an incorruptibility which made him a remarkably effective player over a period of more than 50 years on the international scene.

When he was knighted in 1966 - representing in his case genuine recognition of his special achievements over a long career - it was typical of him to be astonished, almost taken aback. Yet neither his diplomatic colleagues, nor the many businessmen he had helped over the years in difficult markets overseas, were in the least surprised. They knew the worth of this quiet, bluff, shrewd, dependable, lovable man.

Bill Harpham was born in 1906, the son of a police inspector, and was an outstanding pupil in the secondary school at Winteringham near Grimsby. In 1926 he won a scholarship to Christ's College, Cambridge, where he took a First in Spanish and went on to take a year of Economics. On leaving Cambridge, he entered the Overseas Trade Department and served in Brussels and Rome before being sent on secondment, in 1937, to the League of Nations in Geneva.

There, apart from producing the first ever international survey of nutrition policies, he met and fell in love with his future wife, the vivacious Isabelle Droz - granddaughter of a former president of the Swiss Confederation. At the outbreak of war Harpham was despatched to Cairo, so their romance from then on had to be conducted by sea-mail and, remarkably in the circumstances, it culminated in their marriage in 1943. From then until the end of her husband's life, Isabelle, with her inexhaustible energy and social flair, provided a perfect foil for his gentle amiability and dry humour.

At the end of the war, Harpham was transferred to Beirut, with responsibility for reviving British trade in the area, and from there, in the late 1940s, to Berne. On returning to London in 1950, he found his department had just been merged with the Foreign Office, of whose mysteriously named but wholly innocent General Department he became Head, dealing with the crucial business of European post-war reconstruction.

This was followed by a three- year spell in Paris as Deputy Permanent Representative to the then Organisation for European European Co-operation (OEEC), helping to implement the Marshall Plan, defending Britain's interests in the 1956 Icelandic Fisheries dispute, and preparing the establishment of the International Atomic Energy Agency, whose task was to lay down the ground rules for the peaceful uses of atomic energy. From Paris, he was posted to Tokyo in 1956, where without the advantage of Japanese language training he bore the brunt of negotiating a difficult commercial treaty with Japan.

On leaving Tokyo he was posted back to Paris as Minister Economic at the British Embassy to France, where he worked on Britain's application for member- ship of the Common Market under such great figures of post-war diplomacy as Lord Gladwyn and Sir Pierson Dixon.

Finally in 1964, to conclude his career in the Diplomatic Service, Harpham was appointed as Minister Plenipotentiary to Sofia. But the Legation was immediately upgraded to an Embassy and he was proud to become Her Majesty's first ambassador to Bulgaria. In that role, he revealed his true strength as a doggedly patient builder of bridges between different cultures. No matter how many obstacles the Communist regime placed in his way, he ploughed on, creating new links where few had existed before - commercial, educational, cultural.

He encouraged the oil companies to come in and explore for oil. He encouraged British tourists to come to the Bulgarian Black Sea coast. He encouraged the Royal Ballet to pay its first ever visit to Sofia. All this and much else besides, based on his own unshakeable belief in the intrinsic value of human contact as the best means of breaking down mistrust and overcoming barriers. It was in recognition of this that, three years after his retirement in 1966, he was offered, and allowed to accept, the unique honour of the Order of the Horseman of Madara by the Communist President of Bulgaria. A decade later, he was further honoured with the Order of Stara Planina (First Class).

Building on success, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office asked him on his retirement to set up a new centre in London for the encouragement and development of links between Britain and countries of Eastern Europe. He threw himself into this new career with characteristic determination. The Great Britain-East Europe Centre - which Harpham devised, nursed into life and ran on a shoestring for its first 15 years, establishing connections, breaking down misunderstanding, building up confidence - made an important but largely unsung contribution to the change in East-West climate that led to the events of 1989 and to the transformation of Britain's relationships with Eastern Europe since then. In that sense, it was the culmination of his life's work.

After leaving the centre he continued through the 1980s to devote himself to helping Bulgaria in many ways, among other things through the promotion of an Anglo-Bulgarian archaeological project on a late Roman town in the north of the country.

Over the last decade, Bill Harpham, who all his life had been an indefatigable reader, became increasingly handicapped by the steady deterioration in his sight, and it was painful to sense the frustration he felt at his growing dependence on others. But his mind, his memory, his gentle good nature, and his strong sense of duty remained with him to the end.

Besides a host of friends all over the world, he leaves behind his wife, Isabelle, their daughter Christine and their son Michael, and a bevy of granddaughters whom he adored.

Derek Thomas

William Harpham, diplomat: born Grimsby, Lincolnshire 3 December 1906; Counsellor (Commercial) at Berne 1947-50; OBE 1948, KBE 1966; Head of General Department, Foreign Office 1950-53; CMG 1953; Deputy to UK Delegate to OEEC 1953-56; Minister, British Embassy, Tokyo 1956-59; Minister (Economic), Paris 1959-63; ambassador to Bulgaria 1964-66; Director, Great Britain- East Europe Centre 1967-80; married 1943 Isabelle Croz (one son, one daughter); died London 5 June 1999.